Stars align UVic as student gets glimpse of cosmic collision

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The celestial observation in August of two neutron stars colliding and merging the first such event ever seen and recorded on Earth, has left one UVic astronomer thrilled and another one envious. 


Clare Higgs, a PhD student in the department of astronomy and physics at the University of Victoria, just happened to be at the Los Campanas Observatory in Chile on Aug. 17 when word went out of something unusual appearing in sky.


“There was a whole bunch of people milling about, a lot of confusion and hasty Skype conversations going on with people all around the world,” Higgs said.


Eventually, the consensus emerged it was actually the collision and merging of two neutron stars about 130 million light years away. The delighted Higgs was pressed into service to assist with the recording of observations.


The event offered about 20 nights of observations for about 70 telescopes around the world and in space. But the whole happy coincidence for Higgs has left her colleague and fellow PhD student, Ondrea Clarkson, a tad envious.


Cataclysmic events like the neutron-star merger have little to do with Higgs’ area of interest. She studies dwarf galaxies of the Milky Way.


But neutron star collisions are precisely Clarkson’s area — the formation of elements in the universe.


“I was definitely jealous,” Clarkson said. “She just happened to be at the right place at the right time.


“Unfortunately, I’m a theorist, so odds are I’m never even going to sit at a telescope, anyway.”


One of the astro-physical theories of special interest to Clarkson has long held that heavy elements, such as gold, platinum and uranium, are created during the collision of neutron stars.


These neutron stars are the remnants of larger stars after they have collapsed in on themselves. They are made of material so dense one teaspoon would weigh as much as Mount Everest.


The Aug. 17 event offered new technical observations to confirm that neutron stars really did litter the galaxies, including our own, with heavier elements.


Also of excitement to astronomers, the event marked the first time telescopes have detected gravitational waves and light waves at the same time from the same source.


This occurrence has been likened to both hearing and seeing dynamite explode, observing the sudden release of energy with two types of sensory input.


Detecting two energy manifestations, gravity and light, from the same source, the collision of the neutron stars, provides astronomers with a new observational tool to examine the universe.


Meanwhile, Higgs’ work focusing on dwarf galaxies was not overshadowed by the neutron stars.


She had applied for and been allotted two nights of observations at the powerful Los Campanas telescope to look at dwarf galaxies.


Lucky for her, the neutron star collision appeared above the horizon for only the first few hours of the evenings. This left Higgs lots of time to complete her own observations.


She had to keep quiet about the whole experience until Monday. Academic protocol decreed all observations be kept confidential until they could be published.


On Monday, 81 scientific papers were released around the world based on the observations, giving Higgs a green light to talk.


“It’s really nice to be able to talk about it now because it was such a cool thing to be even a very small part of,” she said.


In another small piece of irony, not only are neutron stars not part of her area of interest, but Higgs wasn’t even booked for observations on Aug. 17.


She was supposed to be on the telescope two days later.


But it was going to be her first time on such a powerful instrument so Higgs showed up two nights early to learn how to operate it before she began her real work.


“I was just planning on a quiet night learning how to use the  telescope when there was this very dramatic event,” Higgs said. 


“It was quite the start.


“I have since been told not to expect this sort of thing every time I go observing.”


rwatts@timescolonist.com

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