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updated 12:00 PM UTC, Nov 17, 2017
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World First; Nanjing Astronomers Among those to “See” Gravity

China’s Kunlun Station located Antartica Observatory, in which Nanjing’s Purple Mountain Observatory plays a key role, has unlocked more secrets of the universe by, for the first time, being able to “see” gravity.

Wang Lifan, director of the Chinese Centre for Antarctic Astronomy, speaking at Nanjing Purple Mountain Observatory Monday, confirmed their observation of the "optical counterpart" of gravitational waves that was the result of a merger of two binary neutron stars.

The observation was made on 17 August, 1 day after it was announced that a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) led project had made the first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars.

The American LIGO facility's two gravitational wave detector sites are located in Livingston in the state of Louisiana, and at the Hanford Site in the state of Washington, which is a largely decommissioned nuclear production facility that produced the plutonium used in the atomic weapon that was detonated over Nagasaki in August, 1945.

“This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy” said Caltech’s David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory. “It’s the first time that we’ve observed a cataclysmic astrophysical event in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves; our cosmic messengers. Gravitational-wave astronomy offers new opportunities to understand the properties of neutron stars in ways that just can’t be achieved with electromagnetic astronomy alone”.

While the science behind the observations is mesmerisingly complex, what it breaks down to is that LIGO works by mapping data collected at two different locations on top of each other that effectively cancel each other out, leaving behind tell-tale signals of interference.

It is also very very precise, capable of measuring a variation of one human hair’s width in the distance from Earth to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.25 light years away.

Wang Lifan went on to say that data exclusively collected by the Chinese detector has led to a preliminary estimate of the ejecta parameters. Such are crucial to research into the origins of heavy elements such as platinum and gold.




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