07:12 GMT15 May 2021
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    The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) network of sensors designed specifically to detect gravitational waves has already detected at least two collisions of ultra-dense neutron stars, but has never picked up a phenomenon known as burst gravitational waves, until now.

    The LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors reported an unanticipated “burst” of gravitational waves on January 14, possibly for the first time ever, the GraceDB Gravitational-Wave Candidate Event Database has confirmed.

    The event, categorized as ‘S200114f’, produced a small, barely observable ‘pop’ upon detection some hundreds of light years from Earth.

    Unlike traditional gravitational waves, which can be observed upon the collision of two black holes, or the merger of neutron stars, burst gravitational waves are thought to be related to supernova events and gamma ray bursts, the latter taking place when the collision of distant neutron stars shoots beams of concentrated energy far up and away from the stars’ cores, becoming visible as “giant, brief searchlights racing away from the collision.”

    Reacting to the news, excited science nerds began speculating about the source of the signal, with many wondering whether it was coming from Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star in the Orion constellation about 700 light years away which is one of the brightest visible stars in the night sky.
    A plume on Betelgeuse (artist’s impression)
    A plume on Betelgeuse (artist’s impression)

    Users were divided about what the burst meant, with some reporting that Betelgeuse was now “visibly brighter” than Bellatrix, another bright star in the Orion constellation. Others even speculated that this means Betelgeuse may have gone supernova. “If and when it does, your evening sky is going to become very interesting for a while,” one user noted.

    Others let their imaginations run wild, wondering aloud whether the burst was a sign of “attack ships on fire” in a distant solar system. LIGO graciously responded, saying that scenario was “unlikely, unless they were very big and exploded,” but admitted that “we don’t have exact models for what that should look like.”

    Other astronomers poured cold water on the Betelgeuse supernova theory, offering a number of scientific reasons why Betelgeuse wasn’t really blowing up.

    Ultimately, most astronomers remain cautious, indicating that the event may even have been a false alarm, with measurement errors of this kind said to take place once every quarter century or so. In any event, although LIGO did urge caution about jumping to conclusions about the event, they also noted that what’s been discovered could be “something completely new.”


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