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Researchers observe gravitational waves from neutron star crash over 100 million years ago

By Lawrence Goodman

Some 130 million years ago, in a nearby galaxy, two neutron stars collided. The cataclysmic crash produced gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that traveled across the universe. On Aug. 17, along with hundreds of other collaborators around the globe, Brandeis assistant professor of physics Marcelle Soares-Santos finally got to see them.

The finding remained under wraps until today when it was officially announced by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo, the umbrella organizations overseeing the worldwide search for gravitational waves. Researchers are heralding the discovery as the dawn of a new era of scientific discovery, when analyzing gravitational waves will offer answers to some of the biggest mysteries in cosmology.

In the short term, we will gain new insights into neutron stars, which occur when giant stars 10 to 30 times as big as the sun collapse into objects about the size of the greater Boston metropolitan area. But over a longer period, gravitational waves may explain the universe’s continued expansion and the composition of dark energy, an elusive, mysterious substance that makes up roughly 70 percent of the universe.

“This is a whole new window into the universe,” Soares-Santos said. “This is beyond my wildest dreams.”

Soares-Santos arrived at Brandeis this year after working for more than a decade at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. Every winter, she has journeyed to a mountaintop in northern Chile to peer at the stars through the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory’s telescope, one of the most powerful in the world.

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Categories: Campus News, Faculty
Date: October 30, 2017