Neutron star collision named biggest scientific breakthrough of 2017

Key Points
  • The merger of two neutron stars has been named the top scientific breakthrough of 2017 by the journal Science.
  • Among the findings were a confirmation of an Einstein prediction, and where gold and platinum come from.
Artist’s concept of the explosive collision of two neutron stars.
Source: The Carnegie Institution for Science

The discovery of two neutron stars violently colliding has been named the top scientific breakthrough of 2017 by the journal Science.

Scientists from several institutions around the world detected the event happen 130 million light years away by detecting the gravitational waves the stars gave off before merging. Neutron stars are dense stars made purely of neutrons and produced by the explosion of supernovae. They have more mass than the sun but are only about as big as a medium-sized city.

The event yielded a bonanza of scientific discoveries and new tools. Fully 3674 researchers 953 institutions, contributed to one paper summarizing the findings.

Some of the researchers were from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, where gravitational waves were first detected in 2015. One scientist involved with the research said at the time that the discovery was a "cosmic-scale atom smasher of energies far beyond what humans will ever be capable of building."

Scientists said the event would give them a new method for measuring the rate at which the universe expanded.

The discovery also confirmed suspicions that neutron star collisions are responsible for creating neutron-rich heavy elements, such as platinum, gold and uranium. It also confirmed Albert Einstein's century-old prediction that the gravitational waves travel at the speed of light.

More questions remain of course, and scientists would like to see more mergers of these stars to better understand some findings that surprised them. They also would like to see a neutron star merge with a black hole, and detect gravitational waves from supernova explosions of individual stars in our Milky Way galaxy, according to Science.