Astronomers from around the world have combined radio telescopes on five continents, including Jodrell Bank, to prove the existence of a narrow stream of material, known as a jet, emerging from aftermath of a violent merger of neutron stars.
In August 2017, two neutron stars were observed colliding, producing gravitational waves that were detected by the American LIGO and European VIRGO detectors. This event is the first and only one of this type that has been observed so far, and it happened in a galaxy 130 million light years away from Earth.
Neutron stars are ultra-dense stars, roughly the same mass as the Sun, but similar in size to a city like Manchester.
Astronomers observed the event and the subsequent evolution across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma-rays, X-rays to visible light and radio waves. Two hundred days after the merger, observations combining radio telescopes in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North America proved the existence of a jet emerging from this violent collision.
These findings have been published in the scientific journal Science by an international team of astronomers, led by Giancarlo Ghirlanda from the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF, Italy).
This neutron star merger represents the first case where it was possible to associate a detection of gravitational waves to an object emitting light. The event has confirmed scientific theories that have been under discussion for tens of years, and the association of neutron star mergers with one of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma-ray bursts.
Dr Robert Beswick, co-author from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, said: “This is a really exciting discovery. The team has determined that this event produced a powerful jet able to pierce through the material ejected from the neutron stars as they merged.
These types of observations will allow us to unveil the processes that take place during and after some of the most powerful events in the Universe.”
After the merger, a huge amount of material and energy was ejected into space, forming a shell around the object. Astronomers have been tracing its evolution at different wavelengths. However, there were still some remaining questions concerning this event that could not be clarified by any previous observations.
“We expected part of the material to be ejected through a collimated jet, but it was unclear whether this material could successfully pierce through the surrounding shell.” explains Ghirlanda. “There were two competing scenarios: In one case, the jet cannot break through the shell, instead generating an expanding bubble around the object. In the other, the jet is successful in penetrating the shell and then propagates further into space”, expands Tiziana Venturi (INAF). Only the acquisition of very sensitive radio images with very high resolution would discard one scenario or the other. This required the use of a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) that allows astronomers to combine radio telescopes all around the Earth.
The international team conducted global observations in the direction of the merger last year using 33 radio telescopes from around the world. Observing in tandem with this worldwide array the UK’s e-MERLIN array, which itself comprises 6 large radio telescopes spread across southern half of the UK and operated from Jodrell Bank Observatory, joined in this campaign allowing the team to verify and confirm the interpretation of these results.