Something big recently happened in space, but astronomers have no idea what it was. Whatever happened, it was powerful enough to stretch the fabric of reality itself, sending a brief instance of gravitational waves rippling through space-time, and picked up here on Earth. The burst of gravitational waves was unusually brief and lacked other qualities astronomers usually see in gravitational waves.
On January 14, astronomers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo interferometer detected a burst of gravitational waves lasting 14 milliseconds. Scientists have attempted to locate the source of the waves, but so far they have no idea what caused them.
Gravitational waves tend to stick around a little longer than the recently observed burst. Most detected gravitational waves are the result of two massive objects colliding with each other. As the two bodies of mass get closer and closer on their collision course, the gravitational waves change in frequency. On January 6, researchers published their observations of a collision between two neutron stars that occurred in 2017.
It’s possible this burst of gravitational waves resulted from a quicker, more immediate event like a collapsing star. However, researchers have never observed the gravitational waves from a collapsing star. Andy Howell, a staff scientist at Los Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network told Live Science:
“[The burst] seems a little too short for what we expect from the collapse of a massive star. On the other hand, we’ve never seen a star blowing up in gravitational waves before, so we don’t really know what it would look like.”
What’s more, a supernova would produce neutrinos—subatomic particles with no charge—and researchers detected no neutrinos alongside the gravitational waves. Some speculated that the waves may have been a signal from the star Betelgeuse which has recently been acting strange and is nearing the end of its life. However, as Live Science points out, Betelgeuse is still there.
esultedIt’s possible the burst of waves may have been the result of an immediate black hole collision, an event that LIGO was specifically looking for. However, it is believed that while an immediate black hole collision would be shorter than that of a neutron star collision, it would still be possible to see the changing frequencies of the gravitational waves as the collision happened.
Yet another possibility is that it was a supernova that immediately turned into a black hole without producing any neutrinos, but that is highly speculative and with the possibility-realm of “what-if-it’s-a-thing-we-know-that-doesn’t-do-what-we-know-it-should.”
Astronomers are now pointing telescopes at that region of the sky to try and ascertain what caused the burst of gravitational waves. They say it could be an entirely new type of astronomical event.
It seems the more telescopes and gadgets we have up in the sky, the more anomalous events seem to occur. It’s a good reminder that we don’t know all that much about what happens outside our pale blue dot.