WMU Grad Watches Neutron Stars Collide

Nov 22, 2017

A 2012 file photo of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile
Credit Jorge Saenz / AP Photo

A Western Michigan University graduate is helping astronomers record what happens when two neutron stars collide. Scientists have long believed that when two neutron stars crash into each other in a “kilonova,” they create gravity waves.

In October 2017, astronomers announced they had observed a kilonova for the first time. Ian Brown, who graduated from Western with an bachelor’s degree in physics last year, is working remotely from Milwaukee with a group of astronomers observing the kilonova from a radio telescope in Western Australia.

“We didn’t actually see anything with that. We weren’t expecting to. It’s a very weak signal at that level. But we were able to set some limits on what could’ve been, and because of that that helps us to rule out certain models for what’s happening.”

Brown is now pursuing a master’s degree in physics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He says the timing of the event was just right.

“Here at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee we have a large group of people that work with LIGO, which is the gravitational wave detector. It’s a pretty natural synergy that when they find a detection, they announce it to the astronomical community. And because I’m already here working with people that are working on it, it just made sense for me to help.”

The event helps confirm theories that colliding neutron stars also create gold, silver, uranium, and other heavy elements.

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