EDITORIAL: LIGO (and UTRGV) help scientists with historic space discovery

We applaud news Monday that a scientific device that detects gravitational waves in space and was first unveiled to the world in 2016, brought more historic discoveries that had scientists worldwide giddy over the future of physics, astrophysics and space, overall. We are particularly proud that the device that triggered the discoveries is one that UTRGV is affiliated with.

The announcement Monday involved the documented collision and merging of two neutron stars, which was discovered due to data detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The founders of LIGO this year won the Nobel Prize in Physics for being the first to detect in 2015 gravitational waves from merging black holes. But this time the device documented stars colliding and detected gamma-ray bursts and X-ray signals that generated such force and gave off matter, like gold and heavy metals, that had previously been theorized but never before known to actually exist in space.

The discoveries begat more discoveries and are so thrilling and “mind blowing,” as Dr. Eleonor Troja, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at the University of Maryland described, that scientists say it will take years to fully understand.

In fact, scientists on Monday said it has given birth to a whole new field of study called multi-messenger astronomy.

“In this fantastic event, gravitational waves and lights from all wave have given us an amazing multi-sensory learning,” said Dr. Alessandra Corsi, a physics professor at Texas Tech University who worked on the project. “Welcome to the era of multimessenger astronomy.”

Welcome, indeed. It’s further proof of the job opportunities in STEM (science, technology,

engineering and math) fields.

We’re happy that students and staff from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Brownsville campus are among 1,000 participating organizations that have helped to study and test the LIGO, which contains lasers built specifically to observe gravitational wave length fluctuations the diameter of an atom. UTRGV personnel have worked on the LIGO, at its facility near Livingston, Louisiana.

The collision of the city-sized neutron stars that was discovered in August (which happend 130 million years ago), could have gone unnoticed had it not been for the gravitational wave force detected by LIGO, which gathered data from its lasers worldwide to help detect where it was coming from. Scientists were then able to find the galaxy where the occurrence took place, which they said was relatively nearby — within 250 million light-years from Earth.

“Not only did we see the first X-ray signal from a gravitational source but we proved a theory in the waiting for two decades,” said Dr. Troja, who was among several scientists on a National Science Foundation livestream panel discussion Monday morning. “We think we have seen these before but we did not know it was a near star merger because we did not have LIGO to tell us what was happening.”

Dr. Marcelle Soares-Santos, an assistant professor at Brandeis University and a panelist Monday, summed it up best when she said: “The most exciting part for me is this is the first event but it is not the last.”

We look forward to learning much more about space and for LIGO to help lead the way.

Letters to the Editor are written by concerned citizens just like you. To submit your own letter to the Editor email to letters@themonitor.com. Limit letters to 300 words. We will not publish anonymous letters, personal attacks or consumer complaints. Include your full name, address and a phone number for verification. All letters are subject to editing.