Scientists detect a black hole swallowing a neutron star 'like Pac-man'

Pablo Tucker
August 21, 2019

Last Wednesday, gravitational-wave discovery machines detected ripples from an event, called S190814bv, that occurred about 900 million years ago, 8,550 million trillion kilometres from Earth.

The team has an automated system that instantly classifies gravitational wave events.

The facilities found ripples in the fabric of the universe and therefore concluded that those resulted from a collision between a black hole and a compact, dense star commonly known as a "neutron star".

Over the past week, physicists have been buzzing over an August 14 detection made by the twin LIGO detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La., as well as by the European Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy.

Astronomers are confident that they've just detected the first black hole gobbling up a neutron star, with one slight but intriguing possibility that the swallowed object was a very light black hole-"much lighter than any other black hole we know about in the Universe". Scientists observed the event at both the advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and Virgo, LIGO's Italian counterpart. A veteran science journalist with more than 15 years experience, Fergus has published content for Huff Post and Buzz Feed.

Neutron stars are small yet incredibly dense stellar objects and are the collapsed remains of imploded stars.

While black holes are invisible by nature, the ultra-hot material swirling in their midst forms a ring of light around the perimeter that reveals the mouth of the object itself based on its silhouette.

According to Scott, the ANU SkyMapper Telescope was not able to find any visual confirmation when they responded to the detection alert and scanned the entire likely region of space. But, while this growth in gravitational-wave astronomy is an incredible achievement, it is still very hard and time-consuming for researchers to determine what binary merger causes the "chirp" signal that LIGO and Virgo detect.

Subsequently, scientists have made further gravitational wave observations-most of which have originated from colliding black holes. Black holes are also collapsed stars with gravity so strong that even light can not escape their grasp. In this case, the smaller object in S190814bv is estimated to be less than three solar masses. For example, the collision could have been two merging black holes - still an exciting discovery of a black hole lighter than any seen before.

Black holes are one of the most extreme entities in the universe. Weeks of study and the observation of the subtle features of the gravitational waves could indicate the true nature of the speculated neutron star.

"My immediate reaction was this could be something in between the two, which we've never seen before, and it may still be", he said. It's possible that this bigger neutron star would be short-lived, but any detection from it could inform the astronomers about the collision process for neutron stars and their structure.

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