Scientists strike gold with discovery of distant source of precious metal

Artist's impression issued by the University of Warwick of two neutron stars colliding. Picture: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick/PA Wire
Artist's impression issued by the University of Warwick of two neutron stars colliding. Picture: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick/PA Wire
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A “gold factory” and a new source of gravitational waves “seen and heard” for the first time have been discovered in a distant galaxy 130 million light years away, scientists have revealed.

In a global conference yesterday scientists announced an array of ground-breaking “firsts”.

Firstly, the first detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars, secondly, the picking up the “sound” and “flash” of the crash and thirdly, coming from that event, the origin of heavy elements including gold, platinum and uranium in the universe.

The discoveries, in which scientists from the University of Glasgow played a role, were hailed as opening a ‘new chapter in astrophysics’.

The collision of the two neutron stars and the ripples created led to the fifth detection of gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by violent events, taking billions of years to reach Earth.

They were picked up by two detectors in Washington and Louisiana in the US, operated by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

Two seconds after the detection, a burst of gamma rays from the collision was captured by Nasa’s Fermi space telescope.

Analysis of the light revealed the manufacture of gold on a cosmic scale, as well as other heavy elements.

Elements, like the gold or platinum in jewellery, are the cinders, forged in the billion degree remnants of a merging neutron star.

Professor Sheila Rowan, director of the university’s institute for gravitational research, said: “The first gravitational wave signals from colliding neutral stars are a key that has allowed us to unlock the door to answer several long-standing mysteries.

“One of these, tackled by working in partnership with colleagues whose telescopes observed the light, radio and other signals,is the puzzle of where some of the gold and other heavy elements in the cosmos have come from. We now believe the violent collision of neutron stars could be a gold factory”.