From Ethan Siegel: “Ask Ethan: Why Do Gravitational Waves Travel Exactly At The Speed Of Light?”

From Ethan Siegel
July 13, 2019

Ripples in spacetime are what gravitational waves are, and they travel through space at the speed of light in all directions. Although the constants of electromagnetism never appear in the equations for Einstein’s General Relativity, gravitational waves undoubtedly move at the speed of light. Here’s why. (EUROPEAN GRAVITATIONAL OBSERVATORY, LIONEL BRET/EUROLIOS)


General Relativity has nothing to do with light or electromagnetism at all. So how to gravitational waves know to travel at the speed of light?

There are two fundamental classes of theories required to describe the entirety of the Universe. On the one hand, there’s quantum field theory, which describes electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, and accounts for all the particles in the Universe and the quantum interactions that govern them. On the other hand, there’s General Relativity, which explains the relationship between matter/energy and space/time, and describes what we experience as gravitation. Within the context of General Relativity, there’s a new type of radiation that arises: gravitational waves. Yet, despite having nothing to do with light, these gravitational waves must travel at the speed of light. Why is that? Roger Reynolds wants to know, asking:

We know that the speed of electromagnetic radiation can be derived from Maxwell’s equation[s] in a vacuum. What equations (similar to Maxwell’s — perhaps?) offer a mathematical proof that Gravity Waves must travel [at the] speed of light?

It’s a deep, deep question. Let’s dive into the details.

It’s possible to write down a variety of equations, like Maxwell’s equations, to describe some aspect of the Universe. We can write them down in a variety of ways, as they are shown in both differential form (left) and integral form (right). It’s only by comparing their predictions with physical observations can we draw any conclusion about their validity. (EHSAN KAMALINEJAD OF UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO)

It’s not apparent, at first glance, that Maxwell’s equations necessarily predict the existence of radiation that travels at the speed of light. What those equations ⁠ — which govern classical electromagnetism ⁠ — clearly tell us are about the behavior of:

stationary electric charges,
electric charges in motion (electric currents),
static (unchanging) electric and magnetic fields,
and how those fields and charges move, accelerate, and change in response to one another.

Now, using the laws of electromagnetism alone, we can set up a physically relevant system: that of a low-mass, negatively charged particle orbiting a high-mass, positively charged one. This was the original model of the Rutherford atom, and it came along with a big, existential crisis. As the negative charge moves through space, it experiences a changing electric field, and accelerates as a result. But when a charged particle accelerates, it has to radiate power away, and the only way to do so is through electromagnetic radiation: i.e., light.

In the Rutherford model of the atom, electrons orbited the positively charged nucleus, but would emit electromagnetic radiation and see that orbit decay. It required the development of quantum mechanics, and the improvements of the Bohr model, to make sense of this apparent paradox. (JAMES HEDBERG / CCNY / CUNY)

This has two effects that are calculable within the framework of classical electrodynamics. The first effect is that the negative charge will spiral into the nucleus, as if you’re radiating power away, you have to get that energy from somewhere, and the only place to take it from is the kinetic energy of the particle in motion. If you lose that kinetic energy, you inevitably will spiral towards the central, attracting object.

The second effect that you can calculate is what’s going on with the emitted radiation. There are two constants of nature that show up in Maxwell’s equations:

ε_0, the permittivity of free space, which is the fundamental constant describing the electric force between two electric charges in a vacuum.
μ_0, the permeability of free space, which you can think of as the constant that defines the magnetic force produced by two parallel conducting wires in a vacuum with a constant current running through them.

When you calculate the properties of the electromagnetic radiation produced, it behaves as a wave whose propagation speed equals (ε_0 · μ_0)^(-1/2), which just happens to equal the speed of light.

Relativistic electrons and positrons can be accelerated to very high speeds, but will emit synchrotron radiation (blue) at high enough energies, preventing them from moving faster. This synchrotron radiation is the relativistic analog of the radiation predicted by Rutherford so many years ago, and has a gravitational analogy if you replace the electromagnetic fields and charges with gravitational ones.(CHUNG-LI DONG, JINGHUA GUO, YANG-YUAN CHEN, AND CHANG CHING-LIN, ‘SOFT-X-RAY SPECTROSCOPY PROBES NANOMATERIAL-BASED DEVICES’)

In electromagnetism, even if the details are quite the exercise to work out, the overall effect is straightforward. Moving electric charges that experience a changing external electromagnetic field will emit radiation, and that radiation both carries energy away and itself moves at a specific propagation speed: the speed of light. This is a classical effect, which can be derived with no references to quantum physics at all.

Now, General Relativity is also a classical theory of gravity, with no references to quantum effects at all. In fact, we can imagine a system very analogous to the one we set up in electromagnetism: a mass in motion, orbiting around another mass. The moving mass will experience a changing external gravitational field (i.e., it will experience a change in spatial curvature) which causes it to emit radiation that carries energy away. This is the conceptual origin of gravitational radiation, or gravitational waves.

There is, perhaps, no better analogy for the radiation-reaction in electromagnetism than the planets orbiting the Sun in gravitational theories. The Sun is the largest source of mass, and curves space as a result. As a massive planet moves through this space, it accelerates, and by necessity that implies it must emit some type of radiation to conserve energy: gravitational waves. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH, FOR THE CASSINI MISSION)

NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft

But why ⁠ — as one would be inclined to ask ⁠ — do these gravitational waves have to travel at the speed of light? Why does the speed of gravity, which you might imagine could take on any value at all, have to exactly equal the speed of light? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we know?

Imagine what might happen if you were to suddenly pull the ultimate cosmic magic trick, and made the Sun simply disappear. If you did this, you wouldn’t see the skies go dark for 8 minutes and 20 seconds, which is the amount of time it takes light to travel the ~150 million km from the Sun to Earth. But gravitation doesn’t necessarily need to be the same way. It’s possible, as Newton’s theory predicted, that the gravitational force would be an instantaneous phenomenon, felt by all objects with mass in the Universe across the vast cosmic distances all at once.

An accurate model of how the planets orbit the Sun, which then moves through the galaxy in a different direction-of-motion. If the Sun were to simply wink out of existence, Newton’s theory predicts that they would all instantaneously fly off in straight lines, while Einstein’s predicts that the inner planets would continue orbiting for shorter periods of time than the outer planets. (RHYS TAYLOR)

What would happen under this hypothetical scenario? If the Sun were to somehow disappear at one particular instant, would the Earth fly off in a straight line immediately? Or would the Earth continue to move in its elliptical orbit for another 8 minutes and 20 seconds, only deviating once that changing gravitational signal, propagating at the speed of light, reached our world?

If you ask General Relativity, the answer is much closer to the latter, because it isn’t mass that determines gravitation, but rather the curvature of space, which is determined by the sum of all the matter and energy in it. If you were to take the Sun away, space would go from being curved to being flat, but only in the location where the Sun physically was. The effect of that transition would then propagate radially outwards, sending very large ripples — i.e., gravitational waves — propagating through the Universe like ripples in a 3D pond.

Whether through a medium or in vacuum, every ripple that propagates has a propagation speed. In no cases is the propagation speed infinite, and in theory, the speed at which gravitational ripples propagate should be the same as the maximum speed in the Universe: the speed of light. (SERGIU BACIOIU/FLICKR)

In the context of relativity, whether that’s Special Relativity (in flat space) or General Relativity (in any generalized space), the speed of anything in motion is determined by the same things: its energy, momentum, and rest mass. Gravitational waves, like any form of radiation, have zero rest mass and yet have finite energies and momenta, meaning that they have no option: they must always move at the speed of light.

This has a few fascinating consequences.

Any observer in any inertial (non-accelerating) reference frame would see gravitational waves moving at exactly the speed of light.
Different observers would see gravitational waves redshifting and blueshifting due to all the effects — such as source/observer motion, gravitational redshift/blueshift, and the expansion of the Universe — that electromagnetic waves also experience.
The Earth, therefore, is not gravitationally attracted to where the Sun is right now, but rather where the Sun was 8 minutes and 20 seconds ago.

The simple fact that space and time are related by the speed of light means that all of these statements must be true.

Gravitational radiation gets emitted whenever a mass orbits another one, which means that over long enough timescales, orbits will decay. Before the first black hole ever evaporates, the Earth will spiral into whatever’s left of the Sun, assuming nothing else has ejected it previously. Earth is attracted to where the Sun was approximately 8 minutes ago, not to where it is today. (AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY)

This last statement, about the Earth being attracted to the Sun’s position from 8 minutes and 20 seconds ago, was a truly revolutionary difference between Newton’s theory of gravity and Einstein’s General Relativity. The reason it’s revolutionary is for this simple fact: if gravity simply attracted the planets to the Sun’s prior location at the speed of light, the planets’ predicted locations would mismatch severely with where they actually were observed to be.

It’s a stroke of brilliance to realize that Newton’s laws require an instantaneous speed of gravity to such precision that if that were the only constraint, the speed of gravity must have been more than 20 billion times faster than the speed of light! [ScienceDirect] But in General Relativity, there’s another effect: the orbiting planet is in motion as it moves around the Sun. When a planet moves, you can think of it riding over a gravitational ripple, coming down in a different location from where it went up.

When a mass moves through a region of curved space, it will experience an acceleration owing to the curved space it inhabits. It also experiences an additional effect due to its velocity as it moves through a region where the spatial curvature is constantly changing. These two effects, when combined, result in a slight, tiny difference from the predictions of Newton’s gravity. (DAVID CHAMPION, MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR RADIO ASTRONOMY)

Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy Bonn Germany

In General Relativity, as opposed to Newton’s gravity, there are two big differences that are important. Sure, any two objects will exert a gravitational influence on the other, by either curving space or exerting a long-range force. But in General Relativity, these two extra pieces are at play: each object’s velocity affects how it experiences gravity, and so do the changes that occur in gravitational fields.

The finite speed of gravity causes a change in the gravitational field that departs significantly from Newton’s predictions, and so do the effects of velocity-dependent interactions. Amazingly, these two effects cancel almost exactly. It’s the tiny inexactness of this cancellation that allowed us to first test whether Newton’s “infinite speed” or Einstein’s “speed of gravity equals the speed of light” model matched the physics of our Universe.

To test out what the speed of gravity is, observationally, we’d want a system where the curvature of space is large, where gravitational fields are strong, and where there’s lots of acceleration taking place. Ideally, we’d choose a system with a large, massive object moving with a changing velocity through a changing gravitational field. In other words, we’d want a system with a close pair of orbiting, observable, high-mass objects in a tiny region of space.

Nature is cooperative with this, as binary neutron star and binary black hole systems both exist. In fact, any system with a neutron star has the ability to be measured extraordinarily precisely if one serendipitous thing occurs: if our perspective is exactly aligned with the radiation emitted from the pole of a neutron star. If the path of this radiation intersects us, we can observe a pulse every time the neutron star rotates.

The rate of orbital decay of a binary pulsar is highly dependent on the speed of gravity and the orbital parameters of the binary system. We have used binary pulsar data to constrain the speed of gravity to be equal to the speed of light to a precision of 99.8%, and to infer the existence of gravitational waves decades before LIGO and Virgo detected them. However, the direct detection of gravitational waves was a vital part of the scientific process, and the existence of gravitational waves would still be in doubt without it. (NASA (L), MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR RADIO ASTRONOMY / MICHAEL KRAMER (R))

As the neutron stars orbit, the pulsing one — known as a pulsar — carries extraordinary amounts of information about the masses and orbital periods of both components. If you observe this pulsar in a binary system for a long period of time, because it’s such a perfectly regular emitter of pulses, you should be able to detect whether the orbit is decaying or not. If it is, you can even extract a measurement for the emitted radiation: how quickly does it propagate?

The predictions from Einstein’s theory of gravity are incredibly sensitive to the speed of light, so much so that even from the very first binary pulsar system discovered in the 1980s, PSR 1913+16 (or the Hulse-Taylor binary), we have constrained the speed of gravity to be equal to the speed of light with a measurement error of only 0.2%!

The quasar QSO J0842+1835, whose path was gravitationally altered by Jupiter in 2002, allowing an indirect confirmation that the speed of gravity equals the speed of light. (FOMALONT ET AL. (2000), APJS 131, 95–183)


That’s an indirect measurement, of course. We performed a second type of indirect measurement in 2002, when a chance coincidence lined up the Earth, Jupiter, and a very strong radio quasar (QSO J0842+1835) all along the same line-of-sight. As Jupiter moved between Earth and the quasar, the gravitational bending of Jupiter allowed us to indirectly measure the speed of gravity.

The results were definitive: they absolutely ruled out an infinite speed for the propagation of gravitational effects. Through these observations alone, scientists determined that the speed of gravity was between 2.55 × 10⁸ m/s and 3.81 × 10⁸ m/s, completely consistent with Einstein’s predictions of 299,792,458 m/s.

Artist’s now iconic illustration of two merging neutron stars. The rippling spacetime grid represents gravitational waves emitted from the collision, while the narrow beams are the jets of gamma rays that shoot out just seconds after the gravitational waves (detected as a gamma-ray burst by astronomers). The gravitational waves and the radiation must travel at the same speed to a precision of 15 significant digits. (NSF / LIGO / SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY / A. SIMONNET)

But the greatest confirmation that the speed of gravity equals the speed of light comes from the 2017 observation of a kilonova: the inspiral and merger of two neutron stars. A spectacular example of multi-messenger astronomy, a gravitational wave signal arrived first, recorded in both the LIGO and Virgo detectors. Then, 1.7 seconds later, the first electromagnetic (light) signal arrived: the high-energy gamma rays from the explosive cataclysm.

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz

UCSC All the Gold in the Universe

A UC Santa Cruz special report

Tim Stephens

Astronomer Ryan Foley says “observing the explosion of two colliding neutron stars” –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

Prompt telescope CTIO Chile

NASA NuSTAR X-ray telescope

See the full article here

Because this event took place some 130 million light-years away, and the gravitational and light signals arrived with less than a two second difference between them, we can constrain the possible departure of the speed of gravity from the speed of light. We now know, based on this, that they differ by less than 1 part in 10¹⁵, or less than one quadrillionth of the actual speed of light.

Illustration of a fast gamma-ray burst, long thought to occur from the merger of neutron stars. The gas-rich environment surrounding them could delay the arrival of the signal, explaining the observed 1.7 second difference between the arrivals of the gravitational and electromagnetic signatures. (ESO)

Of course, we think that these two speeds are exactly identical. The speed of gravity should equal the speed of light so long as both gravitational waves and photons have no rest mass associated with them. The 1.7 second delay is very likely explained by the fact that gravitational waves pass through matter unperturbed, while light interacts electromagnetically, potentially slowing it down as it passes through the medium of space by just the smallest amount.

The speed of gravity really does equal the speed of light, although we don’t derive it in the same fashion. Whereas Maxwell brought together electricity and magnetism — two phenomena that were previously independent and distinct — Einstein simply extended his theory of Special Relativity to apply to all spacetimes in general. While the theoretical motivation for the speed of gravity equaling the speed of light was there from the start, it’s only with observational confirmation that we could know for certain. Gravitational waves really do travel at the speed of light!

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“Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible,” says Ethan