How Gold Came From Stars: What New Gravitational Waves Tell Us
The collision of two neutron stars 130 million light years away has led to new discoveries on the origins of gold.
All that glitters is
not gold. Yes, in this case, the recent discovery of gravitational waves from two distance neutron stars has revealed how rare elements like gold and uranium are formed in the universe. Is this getting complicated? Let's just try and simplify it.
First, what are gravitational waves? They are like ripples in a puddle, when you drop a pebble in it. Gravitational waves are formed when two neutron stars (the burnt-out cores of two giant stars that exploded millions of years ago) are drawn to each other in a concentric spiral and then collide.
The collision of the two neutron stars gives rise to a 'kilonova' explosion, which sends gravitational waves hurtling through space. In this case, it has taken 130 million light years for the waves to reach us on planet Earth. The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, and the light from the explosion took 130 million years to reach us.
The arrival of the gravitational waves on planet Earth has the scientific community excited. The waves were studied by three observatories – one in Europe and two in the US – to pinpoint the exact location and nature of collision of the neutron stars.
Observations of the explosion, which could be pinpointed because of the gravitational waves, show that the debris is likely rich in elements like gold.
Better still, the LIGO-Virgo astronomers say the collision has likely created about 10 times the Earth's mass worth of gold and uranium. Bounty hunters of the future (if we ever figure out how to travel faster than light) would be a happy lot.
While for the layperson a celestial event such as the collision of two neutron stars doesn't mean much, for astronomers, this event on 16 October has opened up a floodgate of information about the origins of the universe and how rare elements are formed.
Watch the live press conference from the event:
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