From Symmetry: “At LIGO, three’s a trend”

Symmetry Mag

Kathryn Jepsen

The third detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes provides a new test of the theory of general relativity.

Aurore Simonnet, LIGO/Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State
For the third time, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations have announced directly detecting the merger of black holes many times the mass of our sun. In the process, they put general relativity to the test.

On January 4, the twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory stretched and squeezed ever so slightly, breaking the symmetry between the motions of two sets of laser beams.

This barely perceptible shiver, lasting a fraction of a second, was the consequence of a catastrophic event: About 3 billion light-years away, a pair of spinning black holes with a combined mass about 49 times that of our sun sank together into a single entity.

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz


A UC Santa Cruz special report

Tim Stephens

Astronomer Ryan Foley says “observing the explosion of two colliding neutron stars” [see ]–the first visible event ever linked to gravitational waves–is probably the biggest discovery he’ll make in his lifetime. That’s saying a lot for a young assistant professor who presumably has a long career still ahead of him.

The first optical image of a gravitational wave source was taken by a team led by Ryan Foley of UC Santa Cruz using the Swope Telescope at the Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. 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 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

A neutron star forms when a massive star runs out of fuel and explodes as a supernova, throwing off its outer layers and leaving behind a collapsed core composed almost entirely of neutrons. Neutrons are the uncharged particles in the nucleus of an atom, where they are bound together with positively charged protons. In a neutron star, they are packed together just as densely as in the nucleus of an atom, resulting in an object with one to three times the mass of our sun but only about 12 miles wide.

“Basically, a neutron star is a gigantic atom with the mass of the sun and the size of a city like San Francisco or Manhattan,” said Foley, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

These objects are so dense, a cup of neutron star material would weigh as much as Mount Everest, and a teaspoon would weigh a billion tons. It’s as dense as matter can get without collapsing into a black hole.


Like other stars, neutron stars sometimes occur in pairs, orbiting each other and gradually spiraling inward. Eventually, they come together in a catastrophic merger that distorts space and time (creating gravitational waves) and emits a brilliant flare of electromagnetic radiation, including visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light, x-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves. Merging black holes also create gravitational waves, but there’s nothing to be seen because no light can escape from a black hole.

Foley’s team was the first to observe the light from a neutron star merger that took place on August 17, 2017, and was detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

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)

Now, for the first time, scientists can study both the gravitational waves (ripples in the fabric of space-time), and the radiation emitted from the violent merger of the densest objects in the universe.

The UC Santa Cruz 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). The arrows indicate where SSS17a was absent from the Hubble image and visible in the new image from the Swope Telescope. (Image credits: Left, Hubble/STScI; Right, 1M2H Team/UC Santa Cruz & Carnegie Observatories/Ryan Foley)

It’s that combination of data, and all that can be learned from it, that has astronomers and physicists so excited. The observations of this one event are keeping hundreds of scientists busy exploring its implications for everything from fundamental physics and cosmology to the origins of gold and other heavy elements.

A small team of UC Santa Cruz astronomers were the first team to observe light from two neutron stars merging in August. The implications are huge.


It turns out that the origins of the heaviest elements, such as gold, platinum, uranium—pretty much everything heavier than iron—has been an enduring conundrum. All the lighter elements have well-explained origins in the nuclear fusion reactions that make stars shine or in the explosions of stars (supernovae). Initially, astrophysicists thought supernovae could account for the heavy elements, too, but there have always been problems with that theory, says Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

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. (Image credit: Murguia-Berthier et al., Science)

A theoretical astrophysicist, Ramirez-Ruiz has been a leading proponent of the idea that neutron star mergers are the source of the heavy elements. Building a heavy atomic nucleus means adding a lot of neutrons to it. This process is called rapid neutron capture, or the r-process, and it requires some of the most extreme conditions in the universe: extreme temperatures, extreme densities, and a massive flow of neutrons. A neutron star merger fits the bill.

Ramirez-Ruiz and other theoretical astrophysicists use supercomputers to simulate the physics of extreme events like supernovae and neutron star mergers. This work always goes hand in hand with observational astronomy. Theoretical predictions tell observers what signatures to look for to identify these events, and observations tell theorists if they got the physics right or if they need to tweak their models. The observations by Foley and others of the neutron star merger now known as SSS17a are giving theorists, for the first time, a full set of observational data to compare with their theoretical models.

According to Ramirez-Ruiz, the observations support the theory that neutron star mergers can account for all the gold in the universe, as well as about half of all the other elements heavier than iron.


Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916 in his general theory of relativity, but until recently they were impossible to observe. LIGO’s extraordinarily sensitive detectors achieved the first direct detection of gravitational waves, from the collision of two black holes, in 2015. Gravitational waves are created by any massive accelerating object, but the strongest waves (and the only ones we have any chance of detecting) are produced by the most extreme phenomena.

Two massive compact objects—such as black holes, neutron stars, or white dwarfs—orbiting around each other faster and faster as they draw closer together are just the kind of system that should radiate strong gravitational waves. Like ripples spreading in a pond, the waves get smaller as they spread outward from the source. By the time they reached Earth, the ripples detected by LIGO caused distortions of space-time thousands of times smaller than the nucleus of an atom.

The rarefied signals recorded by LIGO’s detectors not only prove the existence of gravitational waves, they also provide crucial information about the events that produced them. Combined with the telescope observations of the neutron star merger, it’s an incredibly rich set of data.

LIGO can tell scientists the masses of the merging objects and the mass of the new object created in the merger, which reveals whether the merger produced another neutron star or a more massive object that collapsed into a black hole. To calculate how much mass was ejected in the explosion, and how much mass was converted to energy, scientists also need the optical observations from telescopes. That’s especially important for quantifying the nucleosynthesis of heavy elements during the merger.

LIGO can also provide a measure of the distance to the merging neutron stars, which can now be compared with the distance measurement based on the light from the merger. That’s important to cosmologists studying the expansion of the universe, because the two measurements are based on different fundamental forces (gravity and electromagnetism), giving completely independent results.

“This is a huge step forward in astronomy,” Foley said. “Having done it once, we now know we can do it again, and it opens up a whole new world of what we call ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy, viewing the universe through different fundamental forces.”


Neutron stars
A team from UC Santa Cruz was the first to observe the light from a neutron star merger that took place on August 17, 2017 and was detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)

Graduate students and post-doctoral scholars at UC Santa Cruz played key roles in the dramatic discovery and analysis of colliding neutron stars.Astronomer Ryan Foley leads a team of young graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who have pulled off an extraordinary coup. Following up on the detection of gravitational waves from the violent merger of two neutron stars, Foley’s team was the first to find the source with a telescope and take images of the light from this cataclysmic event. In so doing, they beat much larger and more senior teams with much more powerful telescopes at their disposal.

“We’re sort of the scrappy young upstarts who worked hard and got the job done,” said Foley, an untenured assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

David Coulter, graduate student

The discovery on August 17, 2017, has been a scientific bonanza, yielding over 100 scientific papers from numerous teams investigating the new observations. Foley’s team is publishing seven papers, each of which has a graduate student or postdoc as the first author.

“I think it speaks to Ryan’s generosity and how seriously he takes his role as a mentor that he is not putting himself front and center, but has gone out of his way to highlight the roles played by his students and postdocs,” said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and the most senior member of Foley’s team.

“Our team is by far the youngest and most diverse of all of the teams involved in the follow-up observations of this neutron star merger,” Ramirez-Ruiz added.

Charles Kilpatrick, postdoctoral scholar

Charles Kilpatrick, a 29-year-old postdoctoral scholar, was the first person in the world to see an image of the light from colliding neutron stars. He was sitting in an office at UC Santa Cruz, working with first-year graduate student Cesar Rojas-Bravo to process image data as it came in from the Swope Telescope in Chile. To see if the Swope images showed anything new, he had also downloaded “template” images taken in the past of the same galaxies the team was searching.

Ariadna Murguia-Berthier, graduate student

“In one image I saw something there that was not in the template image,” Kilpatrick said. “It took me a while to realize the ramifications of what I was seeing. This opens up so much new science, it really marks the beginning of something that will continue to be studied for years down the road.”

At the time, Foley and most of the others in his team were at a meeting in Copenhagen. When they found out about the gravitational wave detection, they quickly got together to plan their search strategy. From Copenhagen, the team sent instructions to the telescope operators in Chile telling them where to point the telescope. Graduate student David Coulter played a key role in prioritizing the galaxies they would search to find the source, and he is the first author of the discovery paper published in Science.

Matthew Siebert, graduate student

“It’s still a little unreal when I think about what we’ve accomplished,” Coulter said. “For me, despite the euphoria of recognizing what we were seeing at the moment, we were all incredibly focused on the task at hand. Only afterward did the significance really sink in.”

Just as Coulter finished writing his paper about the discovery, his wife went into labor, giving birth to a baby girl on September 30. “I was doing revisions to the paper at the hospital,” he said.

It’s been a wild ride for the whole team, first in the rush to find the source, and then under pressure to quickly analyze the data and write up their findings for publication. “It was really an all-hands-on-deck moment when we all had to pull together and work quickly to exploit this opportunity,” said Kilpatrick, who is first author of a paper comparing the observations with theoretical models.

César Rojas Bravo, graduate student

Graduate student Matthew Siebert led a paper analyzing the unusual properties of the light emitted by the merger. Astronomers have observed thousands of supernovae (exploding stars) and other “transients” that appear suddenly in the sky and then fade away, but never before have they observed anything that looks like this neutron star merger. Siebert’s paper concluded that there is only a one in 100,000 chance that the transient they observed is not related to the gravitational waves.

Ariadna Murguia-Berthier, a graduate student working with Ramirez-Ruiz, is first author of a paper synthesizing data from a range of sources to provide a coherent theoretical framework for understanding the observations.

Another aspect of the discovery of great interest to astronomers is the nature of the galaxy and the galactic environment in which the merger occurred. Postdoctoral scholar Yen-Chen Pan led a paper analyzing the properties of the host galaxy. Enia Xhakaj, a new graduate student who had just joined the group in August, got the opportunity to help with the analysis and be a coauthor on the paper.

Yen-Chen Pan, postdoctoral scholar

“There are so many interesting things to learn from this,” Foley said. “It’s a great experience for all of us to be part of such an important discovery.”

Enia Xhakaj, graduate student


Scientific Papers from the 1M2H Collaboration

Coulter et al., Science, Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a), the Optical Counterpart to a Gravitational Wave Source

Drout et al., Science, Light Curves of the Neutron Star Merger GW170817/SSS17a: Implications for R-Process Nucleosynthesis

Shappee et al., Science, Early Spectra of the Gravitational Wave Source GW170817: Evolution of a Neutron Star Merger

Kilpatrick et al., Science, Electromagnetic Evidence that SSS17a is the Result of a Binary Neutron Star Merger

Siebert et al., ApJL, The Unprecedented Properties of the First Electromagnetic Counterpart to a Gravitational-wave Source

Pan et al., ApJL, The Old Host-galaxy Environment of SSS17a, the First Electromagnetic Counterpart to a Gravitational-wave Source

Murguia-Berthier et al., ApJL, A Neutron Star Binary Merger Model for GW170817/GRB170817a/SSS17a

Kasen et al., Nature, Origin of the heavy elements in binary neutron star mergers from a gravitational wave event

Abbott et al., Nature, A gravitational-wave standard siren measurement of the Hubble constant (The LIGO Scientific Collaboration and The Virgo Collaboration, The 1M2H Collaboration, The Dark Energy Camera GW-EM Collaboration and the DES Collaboration, The DLT40 Collaboration, The Las Cumbres Observatory Collaboration, The VINROUGE Collaboration & The MASTER Collaboration)

Abbott et al., ApJL, Multi-messenger Observations of a Binary Neutron Star Merger


Watch Ryan Foley tell the story of how his team found the neutron star merger in the video below. 2.5 HOURS.

Press releases:

UC Santa Cruz Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Carnegie Institution of Science Press Release

LIGO Collaboration Press Release

National Science Foundation Press Release

Media coverage:

The Atlantic – The Slack Chat That Changed Astronomy

Washington Post – Scientists detect gravitational waves from a new kind of nova, sparking a new era in astronomy

New York Times – LIGO Detects Fierce Collision of Neutron Stars for the First Time

Science – Merging neutron stars generate gravitational waves and a celestial light show

CBS News – Gravitational waves – and light – seen in neutron star collision

CBC News – Astronomers see source of gravitational waves for 1st time

San Jose Mercury News – A bright light seen across the universe, proving Einstein right

Popular Science – Gravitational waves just showed us something even cooler than black holes

Scientific American – Gravitational Wave Astronomers Hit Mother Lode

Nature – Colliding stars spark rush to solve cosmic mysteries

National Geographic – In a First, Gravitational Waves Linked to Neutron Star Crash

Associated Press – Astronomers witness huge cosmic crash, find origins of gold

Science News – Neutron star collision showers the universe with a wealth of discoveries

UCSC press release
First observations of merging neutron stars mark a new era in astronomy


Writing: Tim Stephens
Video: Nick Gonzales
Photos: Carolyn Lagattuta
Header image: Illustration by Robin Dienel courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science
Design and development: Rob Knight
Project managers: Sherry Main, Scott Hernandez-Jason, Tim Stephens

Dark Energy Survey

Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL

NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 7200 feet

Noted in the video but not in the article:

NASA/Chandra Telescope

NASA/SWIFT Telescope

NRAO/Karl V Jansky VLA, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA

CTIO PROMPT telescope telescope built by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chilein the Chilean Andes.

PROMPT The six domes at CTIO in Chile.

NASA NuSTAR X-ray telescope

See the full UCSC article here .

The merger produced more power than is radiated as light by the entire contents of the universe at any given time. “These are the most powerful astronomical events witnessed by human beings,” says Caltech scientist Mike Landry, head of the LIGO Hanford Observatory.

When the black holes merged, about two times the mass of the sun converted into energy and released in the form of ripples in the fabric of existence. These were gravitational waves, predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity a century ago and first detected by LIGO in 2015.

“Gravitational waves are distortions in the medium that we live in,” Landry says. “Normally we don’t think of the nothing of space as having any properties of all. It’s counterintuitive to think it could expand or contract or vibrate.”

It was not a given that LIGO would be listening when the signal from the black holes arrived. “The machines don’t run 24-7,” says LIGO research engineer Brian Lantz of Stanford University. The list of distractions that can sabotage the stillness the detectors need includes earthquakes, wind, technical trouble, moving nitrogen tanks, mowing grass, harvesting trees and fires.

When the gravitational waves from the colliding black holes reached Earth in January, the LIGO detectors happened to be coming back online after a holiday break. The system that alerts scientists to possible detections wasn’t even fully back in service yet, but a scientist in Germany was poring over the data anyway.

“He woke us up in the middle of the night,” says MIT scientist David Shoemaker, newly elected spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a body of more than 1000 scientists who perform LIGO research together with the European-based Virgo Collaboration.

The signal turned out to be worth getting out of bed for. “This clearly establishes a new population of black holes not known before LIGO discovered them,” says LIGO scientist Bangalore Sathyaprakash of Penn State and Cardiff University.

The merging black holes were more than twice as distant as the two pairs that LIGO previously detected, which were located 1.3 and 1.4 billion light-years away. This provided the best test yet of a second prediction of general relativity: gravitons without any mass.

Gravitons are hypothetical particles that would mediate the force of gravity, just as photons mediate the force of electromagnetism. Photons are quanta of light; gravitons would be quanta of gravitational waves.

General relativity predicts that, like photons, gravitons should have no mass, which means they should travel at the speed of light. However, if gravitons did have mass, they would travel at different speeds, depending on their energy.

As merging black holes spiral closer and closer together, they move at a faster and faster pace. If gravitons had no mass, this change would not faze them; they would uniformly obey the same speed limit as they traveled away from the event. But if gravitons did have mass, some of the gravitons produced would travel faster than others. The gravitational waves that arrived at the LIGO detectors would be distorted.

“That would mean general relativity is wrong,” says Stanford University Professor Emeritus Bob Wagoner. “Any one observation can kill a theory.”

LIGO scientists’ observations matched the first scenario, putting a new upper limit on the mass of the graviton—and letting general relativity live another day. “I wouldn’t bet against it, frankly,” Wagoner says.

Like a pair of circling black holes, research at LIGO seems to be picking up speed. Collaboration members continue to make improvements to their detectors. Soon the complementary Virgo detector is expected to come online in Italy, and in 2024 another LIGO detector is scheduled to start up in India. Scientists hope to eventually see new events as often as once per day, accumulating a pool of data with which to make new discoveries about the goings-on of our universe.

See the full Symmetry article here .

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Symmetry is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication.