Stars collide, and scientists — for the first time — could see and ‘hear’ it

An artist's impression of two tiny but very dense neutron stars at the point at which they merge and explode as a kilonova. –ESO/L. Calcada/M. Kornmesser via EPA/Shutterstock

For the first time, scientists studying the universe have detected gravitational waves and observed visible evidence from the same cataclysmic collision — a neutron-star merger — providing rich new detail for understanding the cosmos and marking the beginning of a new era of coordinated astronomy.

The discovery, published Monday in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made possible by the massive, laser-based gravitational wave detectors first envisioned by MIT physicist Rainer Weiss half a century ago and by an international network of partner observatories that responded by quickly aiming telescopes and scanning the night sky in search of the light and other electromagnetic radiation that shot across space from the same collision that emitted the gravitational waves.


The twin, Weiss-inspired detectors in Louisiana and Washington, known together as LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), first made a splash in early 2016 with the announcement that they had recorded evidence of gravitational waves, the faint, fast-moving ripples in space-time that Einstein first predicted a century ago and that are cast off by any accelerating bodies with mass.