From UCSC: “First observations of merging neutron stars mark a new era in astronomy”

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz

October 16, 2017
Tim Stephens

UC Santa Cruz team made the first ever observations of a visible event linked to the detection of gravitational waves, using the small Swope Telescope in Chile.

Carnegie Institution Swope telescope at Las Campanas, Chile, 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena. near the north end of a 7 km (4.3 mi) long mountain ridge. Cerro Las Campanas, near the southern end and over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high, at Las Campanas, Chile


The merger of two neutron stars generated a bright kilonova observed by UC Santa Cruz astronomers, as depicted in this artist’s illustration. (Credit: Illustration by Robin Dienel courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)

Two months ago, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) notified astronomers around the world of the possible detection of gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars.

VIRGO Gravitational Wave interferometer, near Pisa, Italy

Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation

Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

Cornell SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

ESA/eLISA the future of gravitational wave research

Skymap showing how adding Virgo to LIGO helps in reducing the size of the source-likely region in the sky. (Credit: Giuseppe Greco (Virgo Urbino group)

From that moment on August 17, the race was on to detect a visible counterpart, because unlike the colliding black holes responsible for LIGO’s four previous detections of gravitational waves, this event was expected to produce a brilliant explosion of visible light and other types of radiation.

A small team led by Ryan Foley, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, was the first to find the source of the gravitational waves, located in a galaxy 130 million light-years away called NGC 4993. Foley’s team captured the first images of the event with the 1-meter Swope Telescope at the Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

“This is a huge discovery,” Foley said. “We’re finally connecting these two different ways of looking at the universe, observing the same thing in light and gravitational waves, and for that alone this is a landmark event. It’s like being able to see and hear something at the same time.”

The first optical image of a gravitational wave source was taken by a team led by UCSC astronomer Ryan Foley. This image of Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a, indicated by arrow) shows the light emitted from the cataclysmic merger of two neutron stars. (Image credit: 1M2H Team/UC Santa Cruz & Carnegie Observatories/Ryan Foley)

Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory in the southern Atacama,Desert of Chile in the Atacama Region approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena,near the southern end and over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high,

The first optical image of a gravitational wave source was taken by a team led by UCSC astronomer Ryan Foley. This image of Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a, indicated by arrow) shows the light emitted from the cataclysmic merger of two neutron stars. (Image credit: 1M2H Team/UC Santa Cruz & Carnegie Observatories/Ryan Foley)

The UCSC team found SSS17a by comparing a new image of the galaxy N4993 (right) with images taken four months earlier by the Hubble Space Telescope (left). (Image credits: Left, Hubble/STScI; Right, 1M2H Team/UC Santa Cruz & Carnegie Observatories/Ryan Foley)

The violent merger of two neutron stars is thought to involve three main energy-transfer processes, shown in this diagram, that give rise to the different types of radiation seen by astronomers, including a gamma-ray burst and a kilonova explosion seen in visible light. As the two stars spiral toward one another and merge to form a “hyper-massive” neutron star, a small fraction of the matter is ejected in a tidal tail (labeled “red component” in the diagram). The merger generates a short gamma-ray burst resulting from twin jets of material moving out from the rotational poles of the merger at close to the speed of light, likely triggered after the collapse of the remnant onto a black hole. In addition, an intense outflow of neutrinos from the hyper-massive neutron star drives a wind of material moving at about one-tenth the speed of light (labeled “blue component” in the diagram). The blue and red wavelengths that dominate the light from the kilonova at different stages result from different elements in the ejected material, which is heated by radioactive decay processes. (Image credit: Murguia-Berthier et al., Science)

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Theoretical astrophysicist Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and a member of Foley’s team, said the observations have opened a new window into understanding the physics of neutron star mergers. Among other things, the results could resolve a hotly debated question about the origins of gold and other heavy elements in the universe, which Ramirez-Ruiz has been studying for years.

“I think this can prove our idea that most of these elements are made in neutron star mergers,” he said. “We are seeing the heavy elements like gold and platinum being made in real time.”

Foley’s team is publishing four papers October 16 in Science based on their observations and analysis, as well as three papers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, and they are coauthors of several more papers in Nature and other journals, including two major papers led by the LIGO collaboration.

For science papers, see ]

The key Science papers include one presenting the discovery of the first optical counterpart to a gravitational wave source, led by UCSC graduate student David Coulter, and another, led by postdoctoral fellow Charles Kilpatrick, presenting a state-of-the-art comparison of the observations with theoretical models to confirm that it was a neutron-star merger. Two other Science papers were led by Foley’s collaborators at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

By coincidence, the LIGO detection came on the final day of a scientific workshop on “Astrophysics with gravitational wave detections,” which Ramirez-Ruiz had organized at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and where Foley had just given a talk. “I wish we had filmed Ryan’s talk, because he was so gloomy about our chances to observe a neutron star merger,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “But then he went on to outline his strategy, and it was that strategy that enabled his team to find it before anyone else.”


Foley’s strategy involved prioritizing the galaxies within the search field indicated by the LIGO team, targeting those most likely to harbor binary pairs of neutron stars, and getting as many of those galaxies as possible into each field of view. Other teams covered the search field more methodically, “like mowing the lawn,” Foley said. His team found the source in the ninth field they observed, after waiting 10 hours for the sun to set in Chile.

“As soon as the sun went down, we started looking,” Foley said. “By finding it as quickly as we did, we were able to build up a really nice data set.”

He noted that the source was bright enough to have been seen by amateur astronomers, and it likely would have been visible from Africa hours before it was visible in Chile. Gamma rays emitted by the neutron star merger were detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope at nearly the same time as the gravitational waves, but the Fermi data gave no better information about the location of the source than LIGO did.

Foley’s team took the first image of the optical source 11 hours after the LIGO detection and, after confirming their discovery, announced it to the astronomy community an hour later. Dozens of other teams quickly followed up with observations from other telescopes. Foley’s team also obtained the first spectra of the source with the Magellan Telescopes at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory.

Rich data set

The gravitational wave source was named GW170817, and the optical source was named Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a). By about seven days later, the source had faded and could no longer be detected in visible light. While it was visible, however, astronomers were able to gather a treasure trove of data on this extraordinary astrophysical phenomenon.

“It’s such a rich data set, the amount of science to come from this one thing is incredible,” Ramirez-Ruiz said.

Neutron stars are among the most exotic forms of matter in the universe, consisting almost entirely of neutrons and so dense that a sugar cube of neutron star material would weigh about a billion tons. The violent merger of two neutron stars ejects a huge amount of this neutron-rich material, powering the synthesis of heavy elements in a process called rapid neutron capture, or the “r-process.”

The radiation this emits looks nothing like an ordinary supernova or exploding star. Astrophysicists like Ramirez-Ruiz have developed numerical models to predict what such an event, called a kilonova, would look like, but this is the first time one has actually been observed in such detail. Kilpatrick said the data fit remarkably well with the predictions of theoretical models.

“It doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It got very bright very quickly, then started fading rapidly, changing from blue to red as it cooled down. It’s completely unprecedented.”

A theoretical synthesis of data from across the spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays, was led by Ariadna Murguia-Berthier, a graduate student working with Ramirez-Ruiz, and published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, providing a coherent theoretical framework for understanding the full range of observations. Their analysis indicates, for example, that the merger triggered a relativistic jet (material moving at near the speed of light) that generated the gamma-ray burst, while matter torn from the merger system and ejected at lower speeds drove the r-process and the kilonova emissions at ultraviolet, optical, and infrared wavelengths.

Ramirez-Ruiz has calculated that a single neutron-star merger can generate an amount of gold equal to the mass of Jupiter. The team’s calculations of heavy element production by SSS17a suggest that neutron star mergers can account for about half of all the elements heavier than iron in the universe.

Not a joke

The detection came just one week before the end of LIGO’s second observing run, which had begun in November 2016. Foley was in Copenhagen, taking advantage of his one afternoon off to visit Tivoli Gardens with his partner, when he got a text from Coulter alerting him to the LIGO detection. At first, he thought it was a joke, but soon he was pedaling his bicycle madly back to the University of Copenhagen to begin working with his team on a detailed search plan.

“It was crazy. We barely got it done, but our team was incredible and it all came together,” Foley said. “We got lucky, but luck favors the prepared, and we were ready.”

Foley’s team at UC Santa Cruz includes Ramirez-Ruiz, Coulter, Kilpatrick, Murguia-Berthier, professor of astronomy and astrophysics J. Xavier Prochaska, postdoctoral researcher Yen-Chen Pan, and graduate students Matthew Siebert, Cesar Rojas-Bravo, and Enia Xhakaj. Other team members include Maria Drout, Ben Shappee, and Tony Piro at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science; UC Berkeley astronomer Daniel Kasen; and Armin Rest at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Their team is called the One-Meter, Two-Hemisphere (1M2H) Collaboration because they use two one-meter telescopes, one in each hemisphere: the Nickel Telescope at UC’s Lick Observatory and Carnegie’s Swope Telescope in Chile. The UCSC group is supported in part by the National Science Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, and Kavli Foundation; fellowships for Foley and Ramirez-Ruiz from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and for Foley from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; a Niels Bohr Professorship for Ramirez-Ruiz from the Danish National Research Foundation; and the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS).

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UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

UC Santa Cruz campus
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory's Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building
Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow
The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch) UCSC Lick Nickel telescope

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.

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UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.