Darkness descends across the Andes Mountains while Texas A&M astronomer Jennifer Marshall works at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. As her eyes roam the night sky, she has no idea that she’s standing at the intersection of cosmic history.
The event she’s about to witness began 11 billion years ago when two neutron stars—the super dense, collapsed remains of ancient stars—start to spin around each other. The orbiting pair come closer and closer, almost touching, dancing to their own astronomical tune.
On Aug. 17, she and researchers at observatories worldwide detect the stars’ movement in the form of gravitational waves in space—ripples that are created when massive objects circle one another. Scientists around the world zero in on the galaxy (NGC 4993), located relatively near our own Milky Way. In Antarctica, a robotic telescope moves into position, remote-controlled by Texas A&M University astronomers Lifan Wang and Nicholas Suntzeff.
Then, an explosion: a kilonova. As the stars slam into each other, basic elements such as gold, platinum and lead emerge. Marshall witnesses firsthand the fiery aftermath of the explosion and records some of the initial images using the most powerful digital camera in the world: the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera.
Later, papers will be published and research conclusions made. But for a moment, she and thousands of other astronomers pause, to stare at the sky in wonder.
Although the merger of these neutron stars, depicted here, happened 130 million years ago, scientists witnessed it from Earth in August 2017 because of the galaxy’s distance in light-years. The event marked the first time that scientists caught two neutron stars collide and confirms that these strange smashups are the source of heavy elements. Texas A&M astronomers are proud to have played a role in the discovery.