Student observes unprecedented neutron star collision

Science, Graduate Studies

- Vimala Jeevanandam

UVic doctoral student Clare Higgs visited the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile in August.

UVic doctoral student now knows what it feels like to be in the right place at the right time.

While visiting the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, Clare Higgs was involved in the observation of the first recorded gravitational wave signature caused by a neutron star collision.

The Aug. 16 observation by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational- Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo detector, and over 70 ground and space-based telescopes, is transformational to our understanding of the universe.

This is the first time that both light and gravitational waves have been observed simultaneously, providing astronomers with a new way to observe the universe. It proves that the collision of neutron stars is the source of heavy elements such as gold and platinum.

Higgs happened to be at the Chile observatory, having arrived earlier that day to survey dwarf galaxies. But when the observatory was alerted by LIGO regarding an unusual “target of opportunity,” Magellan telescopes housed at the facility refocused on the region of sky where LIGO suspected the activity was coming from. “It was totally unexpected and chaotic,” says Higgs. “At first, it wasn’t even clear that we were looking at the right galaxy.”

Higgs was at one of the first telescopes in the world to focus on the collision, which visibly changed in brightness and colour in a matter of hours. Over the course of that night and several more that followed, Higgs assisted the team by taking observations of the quality and colours of light created by the neutron star collision, which were used in two Science papers.

“Astronomers will be studying these observations for years,” says Higgs. “It was a thrilling and fortuitous opportunity to observe something that has never been seen by humankind before. I feel incredibly lucky to have been present and to have played a very small role in this unique and groundbreaking detection.”


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Keywords: astronomy, student life, graduate research

People: Clare Higgs

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