Belfast Telegraph

Belfast scientists make discovery that beckons 'new dawn in physics'

Scientists from Queen's University have taken part in a project that could show the origin of gold and platinum in the Universe and which beckons in a "new dawn in physics".

The discovery was made as part of research focused on trying to establish the origin of gravitational waves - first predicted by Einstein a century ago but only proven for the first time in 2015.

The scattering of the precious metals came about after the occurrence of what is known as a 'kilonovae' - created by the collision between the neutron stars - and solves a decades-old mystery about the origins of gold and platinum.

Carried out as part of an international collaboration, a team led by Professor Stephen Smartt from the School of Maths and Physics at Queen's University Belfast, was able to prove for the first time that a collision between neutron stars was the origin of the gravitational waves.

Neutron stars are the densest stars known to man, and according to the Guardian, a teaspoon of neutron star material has a mass of about one billion tons.

Speaking about the discovery, Professor Smart said it "opens up a whole new dawn in physics and astrophysics".

"Einstein predicted 100 years ago that gravitational waves exist – not only have we now proved this, we have also detected the exact object that caused them – the merger of two neutron stars," he said.

The discovery

In August this year, telescopes in Chile detected a new flash of light from the same region of sky as a gravitational wave.

'Ripples in spacetime' - also known as gravitational waves - are created by only the most intense moving masses as they change speed rapidly.

Professor Stephen Smartt led an international team based in Chile in scanning the sky for data. Within 24 hours he and his team were able to prove for the very first time that the source of gravitational waves was the merger of two neutron stars.

From the data collected, scientists now know that the gravitational wave was about 130 million light-years from earth, making the source both the closest gravitational wave event detected so far and also one of the closest gamma-ray burst sources ever seen.

'I had never seen anything like it'

Speaking about the discovery, Professor Smartt said: "Since the initial discovery of gravitational waves in 2016, our team at Queen’s, along with many others, have been hunting for a flash or glow in the sky that would pinpoint the exact position of gravitational waves. My team specialises in finding exploding stars and studying the highest energy events in the Universe and we were stationed at the ESO New Technology Telescope on the night that this discovery was made."

"We immediately took a spectrum at the first opportunity - a measurement that splits light up into its different components. When the spectrum appeared on our screens I realised that this was the most unusual flash in the sky that we’ve ever seen. I thought at that point that the merger of two neutron stars was almost certainly the source of the gravitational waves and all of our data confirmed that it was indeed the source.”

He added: “I had never seen anything like it. Our data, along with that from other groups, proved to everyone that this was not a supernova or a foreground variable star, but was something quite remarkable.”

Dr Kate Maguire, also from the School of Maths and Physics at Queen’s University Belfast, said: "The discovery of gravitational waves and a corresponding burst of light from the merger of two neutron stars is one of the most exciting astrophysical discoveries in recent times."

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