If you’re looking for something that deserves to be blamed for all of the bad news lately, scientists have for the first time ever witnessed a black hole consuming a neutron star with a satisfied belch and a lip-smacking smile. OK, they couldn’t quite see those last two and it happened 900 million years ago, but it’s definitive proof of a long-held theory and that means it could happen again … and again and again. Is this how it will all end? Did it really cause ripples in space and time? Is the grass greener on the other side of the black hole?
“This is a huge milestone—if it stands up.”
The “milestone” astrophysicist Patrick Brady, spokesperson for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is referring to in the announcement in Science is the discovery of gravitational waves (so the answer to the “ripples in time and space” question is ‘yes’) which have been traced to the collision of a black hole and a neutron star 900 million light-years away – a collision which left only the black hole standing. The discovery was made by LIGO – which gets credit for the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015 – and Virgo, a gravitational wave detector near Pisa, Italy, and involved close to 1700 scientists between the two organizations.
“We’ve never detected a neutron star and a black hole together. If it turns out to be right, then we’ve confirmed a new type of star system. It’s that fundamental.”
Ryan Foley, an astronomer at UC Santa Cruz, told Vice that the discovery last week of a gravitational wave called S190814bv set off a wave of excitement and the search for its source, the so-called “optical counterpart” that is the bright light caused by a neutron star crashing into something. Those somethings are normally other neutron stars … but not this time. A small optical counterpart would confirm that the black hole swallowed the neutron star rather than shredding it to pieces — an event that Foley, Brady and other scientists are cautiously optimistic about.
“The neutron star/black hole system is particularly exciting because we haven’t seen any case of that before, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff we could learn if we did detect it.”
The “interesting stuff” includes how atoms are built and other secrets of subatomic physics and the expansion rate of the universe. Proving most astronomers are big kids at heart (and well behind the rest of the world in their video games), Simon Stevenson, an astronomer with Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, described to CBS what all of this will look like.
“We will either see a neutron star being ripped apart by a black hole, or getting swallowed whole like Pac-Man swallowing a ghost. Either way, we are in for a show!”
Sounds like they will be too busy to play a game of Fortnite and pick up some new analogies.