The first detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event

Full AAO Media Release, published at 01:00am Sydney time, 17 October 2017, that I coordinated.

For the first time, astronomers have observed the afterglow of an event that was also detected in gravitational waves. The object, dubbed AT2017gfo, was a pair of in-spiralling neutron stars in a galaxy 130 million light years away. The death spiral was detected in gravitational waves, and the resulting explosion was followed by over 50 observatories world wide, including the AAO and other observatories here in Australia.

On August 17, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), based in the United States, detected a new gravitational wave event, called GW170817.

GW170817 is the fifth source of gravitational waves ever recorded. The first one was discovered in September 2015, for which three founding members of the LIGO collaboration were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The GW170817 data are consistent with the merging of two neutron stars and are unlike the four previous events, which were merging black holes.

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The narrow beams represent the gamma-ray burst while the rippling space-time grid indicates the gravitational waves that characterize the merger. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars are a possible source of the light that was seen at lower energies. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet.

The Advanced-Virgo interferometer, based in Italy, was online at the time of the discovery and contributed to the localization of the new gravitational wave burst.

Based on information from LIGO and VIRGO, numerous telescopes immediately sprang into action to determine if an electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational waves could be detected.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Fermi satellite independently reported a short burst of gamma-rays within 2 seconds of the merger event associated with GW170817, consistent with the area of sky from which LIGO and VIRGO detected their gravitational waves.

This gamma-ray detection at the same time and place triggered even greater interest from the astronomical community and resulted in more intense follow up observations in optical, infrared and radio wavelengths.

A team of scientists within the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration, which includes researchers from the Australian Astronomical Observatory and other Australian institutions, working with astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in the U.S., were among the first astronomers to observe the electromagnetic counterpart of GW170817 in optical wavelengths.

Using the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam) mounted at the 4m Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, DES identified the kilonova AT2017gfo in the nearby galaxy NGC 4993, located only 130 million light years from us, as the optical counterpart of GW170817.

Composite of detection images, including the discovery z image taken on August 18th and the g and r images taken 1 day later. Right: The same area two weeks later. Credit: Soares-Santos et al. and DES Collaboration.

“Because of its large field of view, the Dark Energy Camera was able to search almost the entire region where LIGO/VIRGO expected the gravitational wave source to be, and its exquisite sensitivity allowed us to make detailed measurements of the kilonova – the extremely energetic outburst created by the merging neutron stars,” AAO Instrument Scientist and DES Collaboration member Dr Kyler Kuehn stated.

A kilonova is similar to a supernova in some aspects, but it is different in others. It occurs when two neutron stars crash into each other. These events are thought to be the mechanism by which many of the elements heavier than iron, such as gold, are formed.

“But as impressive as it is, the Dark Energy Camera is only one of many instruments with a front row seat to this celestial spectacle. A lot of effort has gone into preparing dozens of telescopes around the world to search for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves”, Dr Kuehn added.

Simultaneously to the DES study, a large group of Australian astronomers obtained follow up observations of the kilonova AT2017gfo at optical, infrared and radio wavelengths, using 14 Australian telescopes as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) and other Australian programs.

Their data are consistent with the expected outburst and subsequent merger of two neutron stars, in agreement with the results derived for GW170817 by the LIGO/Virgo collaboration.

“Before this event, it was like we were sitting in an IMAX theatre with blindfolds on. The gravitational wave detectors let us ‘hear’ the movies of black hole collisions, but we couldn’t see anything. This event lifted the blindfolds and, wow, what an amazing show!!”, A/Professor Jeff Cooke, astronomer at Swinburne University who led many of the observations said.

The Australia team also conducted observations at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), that is managed by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). Additional archive data from the 6dF survey obtained at the AAO’s 1.2m UK Schmidt Telescope were also used.

“The observations undertaken at the AAT place important constraints on the nature of the environment in which the kilonova occurred”, AAO astronomer Dr Chris Lidman said.

The follow up observations were not scheduled, but the excitement that this event generated in the astronomical community was so large that regular programs were placed on hold.

“Many astronomers dropped any other planned observation and used all the available resources to study this rare event”, said PhD candidate Igor Andreoni (Swinburne University and Australian Astronomical Observatory), first author of the scientific paper that will be published in the science journal “Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia” (PASA).

The study also reveals that the host galaxy has not experienced significant star-formation during the last billion years. However, there is some evidence that indicates that NGC 4993 experienced a collision with a smaller galaxy not long time ago.

The position of the kilonova AT2017gfo, found in the external parts of NGC 4993, may suggest that the binary neutron star could have been part of the smaller galaxy.

Australian astronomers were thrilled to contribute to both the detection and the ongoing observations of the kilonova AT2017gfo, the electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational wave event GW170817.

“We have been waiting and preparing for an event like this, but didn’t think it would happen so soon and in a galaxy that is so near to us. Once we were alerted of the gravitational wave detection, we immediately contacted a dozen telescopes and joined the worldwide effort to study this historic event. It didn’t let us down!”, A/Professor Jeff Cooke said.

“It was crucial to have telescopes placed in every continent, including Australia, to keep this rare event continuously monitored”, PhD candidate Igor Andreoni said.

“To me, this gravitational + electromagnetic wave combined detection is even more important than the initial detection that resulted in the Nobel Prize. This has changed the way the entire astronomical community operates”, AAO Instrument Scientist Dr Kyler Kuehn stated.

The first identification of the electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event is a milestone in the history of modern Astronomy, and opens a new era of multi-messenger astronomy.

More information:

AAO Media Release

AAO Media Release in Spanish / Nota de prensa del AAO en español

LIGO Media Release

DES Media Release

OzGrav Media Release

ESO Media Release

NASA Media Release

Article in The Conversation: “After the alert: radio ‘eyes’ hunt the source of the gravitational waves”, by Tara Murphy and David Kaplan

Article in The Conversation: “At last, we’ve found gravitational waves from a collapsing pair of neutron stars”, by David Blair

Multimedia, videos and animations:

Although there are many videos around there talking about this huge announcement, I particularly like this one by Derek Muller (Veritasium):


2 responses to “The first detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event

  1. Pingback: The first detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event – MeasurementDataBases for Industry & Science

  2. Thanks for this very comprehensive article about this exciting event, Ángel.
    Congratulations on being part of the team that participated in the discovery!

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