Tag Archives: Jennifer Sobeck

Merging neutron stars and cool galaxies at Astronomy on Tap Seattle

One of the cool things about the Astronomy on Tap Seattle series of talks in pubs is access to scientists who are working on headline news. It happened at their October gathering at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Jennifer Sobeck, a stellar astrophysicist in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, was all set to give a talk titled, “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Bumming Around the Milky Way.” But a few days before the talk the news hit that LIGO and others had detected gravitational waves generated by merging neutron stars. Neutron stars are Sobeck’s thing, so the script went out the window and we learned about what happened.

Sobeck noted that neutron stars are what’s left behind when high-mass stars—around four to eight times the mass of the Sun—blow up in a supernova. Neutron stars are incredibly dense; the mass of the Sun packed into something 12 miles across. They have a crust, though light still gets through.

“Inside is just basically a soup,” Sobeck said. “It’s a hot mess.”

Everything inside is so compressed that scientists call it “degenerate.”

“There are no more atoms, there are no more molecules, those are all blown apart,” Sobeck explained. “It’s just like a soup of neutrons; there are just tons of neutrons, and the really cool thing is down in the center, they think the pressures are so high that you actually might get quarks.”

Neutron star merger animation by ESO/L. Calçada. Music: Johan B. Monell

August discovery

Scientists knew they had detected a neutron star merger rather than the sort of black-hole mergers previously spotted by LIGO because the signals are different. The interesting thing about the detection of two neutron stars merging is that we could see it visually because the event created a kilonova, like a supernova, but smaller.

“It’s a little bit less on the explosion scale,” Sobeck said. “Kilonova means that you’re able to have electromagnetic radiation across the spectrum that a whole bunch of facilites were able to monitor.”

So when LIGO and VIRGO detected the gravitational wave, with the help of the Fermi gamma ray space telescope and the ESA’s Integral gamma-ray observatory they they were able to narrow down the location of the event and tell others to look there. When the optical observations came in, the kilanova was spotted in the galaxy NGC 4993.

“This has never been done before,” Sobeck noted. The detection occurred in mid-August of this year, and by the end of the month the visual was gone.

“This kilonova explostion lasted only for a period of only 15 days,” Sobeck said.

Observations were made not just in the visual, but across the spectrum from gamma rays to radio, and more than a dozen observatories were involved in the analysis.

“You’re getting a different piece of information from all of these parts of the spectrum,” Sobeck noted. “They all helped fill in that puzzle.”

The story in the media

Where stuff comes from

Periodic table showing origin of elements in the Solar System, by CMGLee on Wikimedia Commons based on data by Jennifer Johnson, Ohio State University.

Sobeck said the press went a little overboard with headlines such as collision “creates gold” (CNN)  and “Universe-shaking announcement” (New York Times), yet it’s true that the kilonova made some gold. Sobeck showed the periodic table of elements at left (click to see it bigger), modified to show where all of the elements came from. She noted that hydrogen, helium, and a bit of lithium came from the Big Bang, the rest were made in stars. But stars can only fuse elements as heavy as iron. To get the really heavy stuff called lanthanides you need a kilanova. The emitted light tells you what’s there. If you see blue light after a kilonova, that means there’s a high concentration of silver, cadmium, and tin. If the light is more red, then platinum, gold, mercury, or lead is present.

“This particular event went from blue very, very, quickly to red, and it stayed red most of the time,” Sobeck said. “Hence, we’ve got a bunch of gold on our hands.”

“We found out that neutron-star mergers do make elements,” she said. “We were right, so huzzah!”

All kinds of galaxies

Grace Telford, a graduate student studying astronomy and data science at the UW, stuck with her original topic of “A Whirlwind Tour of Galaxies: the Tiny, the Gigantic, and Everything in Between” for the October Astronomy on Tap. She noted that there are several ways to classify galaxies:

  • Stellar mass or brightness
  • Shape
  • Star formation rate
  • Nuclear activity

Stellar mass or brightness

This is pretty straightforward.

“Basically the more stars a galaxy has, the brighter it is,” Telford noted. There’s quite a range of sizes. The Milky Way is a pretty common-sized galaxy, and it’s hard to make them bigger. The largest are around 10 times the size of the Milky Way.” Smaller galaxies are plentiful.

“A dwarf galaxy is something that is at least a hundred times less massive than our Milky Way,” Telford said, and they can go a lot smaller.

Way out at the small end of the chart are ultra faint dwarf galaxies, which can’t really be seen because they’re too faint. They can’t be detected at long distances.

A recently discovered type is called an ultra diffuse galaxy. This may be the same size as the Milky Way but have 100 times fewer stars, all held together by dark matter.

“This is an open area of research,” Telford said. “It’s hard to explain how to form these wierdo galaxies that are not very massive at all, but huge.”


The three main shapes of galaxies are elliptical, spiral, and irregular. Spirals may come with a large central bulge or a bar. Irregular galaxies tend to be small.

Star formation rate

It’s in star formation rate that galaxies really differentiate themselves, Telford said. Galaxies that emit a lot of blue light have lots of young stars and new star formation. Galaxies that look red are “quenched.” Their stars are older, and there’s little new star formation.

In between red and blue is the “green valley” of galaxies. They don’t actually emit green light, but they’re in transition from blue to red.

An interesting type is the “starburst” galaxy. These are galaxies that somehow stumble into a source of gas that wasn’t available to them before.

“They have the ability to form stars at a very high rate relative to the normal amount of star formation for a galaxy of its size,” Telford explained. “As a result, you have a lot of these massive young stars that are dying and exploding as supernovae and injecting a lot of energy into the gas.”

These objects are short-lived, they exhaust their gas in a hurry, at least in astronomical terms—in between 100 million years and a billion years.

Nuclear activity

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, which can create jets of energy.

“Sometimes these black holes eat a lot of gas really quickly and then they blow out a whole bunch of energy,” Telford explained. These jets are nuclear activity. Galaxies with active galactic nuclei are most typically found in the green valley, though they’re in other types as well.

Telford gave a plug for Galaxy Zoo, where you can go looking for these differing types of galaxies and actually participate in citizen science.


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