Extreme-Gravity Stars

The lives of massive stars are characterized by companionship: these stars are almost always found in gravitationally bound pairs. As such massive binaries evolve further, their cores run out of nuclear fuel and the stars can explode as supernovae, leaving behind in their centers either a neutron star or a black hole. In most cases such an explosion would be fatal for the binary, and disrupt it. In some cases, however, the final phases of binary stellar evolution can produce two compact objects -either white dwarfs, neutron stars or black holes– in tight binary systems.

Compact objects in binary pairs are driven closer and closer together as their system loses energy through interactions and gravitational radiation. The resulting merger of these types of objects is thought to be responsible for some of the most energetic events in the Universe including Type Ia supernovae and short duration gamma ray bursts.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has made it possible to observe the gravitational waves emitted during mergers of compact objects. Since the beginning of data collection with the advanced instrument the LIGO observatory has detected gravitational waves from three different mergers of black hole pairs. Each of these detections was surprising because they involved a population of black holes that had not been observed before : black holes with masses of a few tens of solar masses. Scientists are also anticipating that LIGO will detect merging neutron stars.

A photo of Stephan Rosswog
Stephan Rosswog, Oskar Klein Centre, Stockholm University

Compact binary systems are really a cornerstone of modern astrophysics. Once the merger of a neutron star binary is detected in gravitational waves and electromagnetically, this will tell us about General Relativity, give us hints on how and where such binary systems form and —maybe most surprisingly— it may answer questions about nuclear physics that cannot be answered otherwise. This is maybe the most fascinating part of this rich story. — Stephan Rosswog

Connecting the sources of gravitational waves with phenomena that scientists are already familiar with, like supernovae and gamma ray bursts, requires that we observe the electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational wave event. This is a challenging task with LIGO in its current state because the detector isn’t able to localize an event very precisely so follow-up searches with optical (and other wavelength) telescopes must search large areas of the sky for a new transient source.

A conference on The Physics of Extreme-Gravity Stars took place in Stockholm in June 2017.

Header image is from a simulation of two neutron stars merging, credit to Stephan Rosswog.

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