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

Last September, scientists at a special observatory announced that they detected a gravitational wave for the first time. The detection took place in September, 2015, but wasn’t announced until last year. The observatory is known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). It registered ripples in space-time formed from the collision of two black holes. Apparently, the fabric of the universe ripples just as water does.

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A black hole devouring a neutron star. By Dana Berry/NASA.

The twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is a collaborative effort. It’s basically a group of scientists who use specialized equipment to study gravitational waves. There are currently two such observatories in the US, one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. They use an interferometer, or a laser-based instrument, to detect even the minutest ripples in space-time as it relates to gravitational waves. The instrument is so delicate, it can pick up distortions one proton in width.  

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