Amazing astronomy: How neutron stars create ripples in space-time

What can cause a ripple in both space and time? Neutron stars colliding. And what can observe that phenomenon? A two-mile-long laser.

Michell Thaller, the Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA, wanted to talk to us about a heavy subject matter. Specifically, super-dense neutron stars that are so dense that they're only the size of New York City but carry the weight of the sun. And when they circle each other in orbit for long enough, they collide with enough force to send ripples in both space and time. Those ripples alone are strong enough to alter the course of light. In fact, just a few years ago a rare astronomical event occurred where you'd have seen a star "blink" for a few minutes on and off before disappearing for good. Scientists are able to detect these gravitational ripples thanks to a LIGO, or a Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which measures the refraction of light based on gravity waves. Oh, and one more thing: Albert Einstein correctly deduced that this phenomenon years before it was ever recorded. If you'd like to know more, visit NASA.

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Artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital

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Alex Filippenko is a Hertz Foundation Fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. When the discovery of gravitational waves was announced in February 2016, Filippenko was awed. The researchers at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) managed to prove a key prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity: his theory of gravity. Here, Filippenko explains the mind-boggling way they did it, and the scope of discoveries that this hyper-precise technology will reveal to us over the next decade. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, Filippenko pursued a PhD in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

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