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Inexplicable cosmic event leaves astronomers puzzled

A mysterious astrophysical object that could potentially break all theoretical understanding of matter under extreme densities has been detected by a large international team of astronomers including researchers at The University of Western Australia.

The unknown astrophysical object, about 2.5 times the mass of the sun, was uncovered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory located in Washington and Louisiana, and the Virgo observatory in Italy.

The discovery was made following the detection of gravitational waves caused by the collision of a black hole with the object in a cosmic event which has been named GW190814.

Dr Eric Howell, from UWA’s School of Physics and ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), said the object was part of an in-spiralling system that could either be a neutron star or a black hole.

“If the astrophysical object turns out to be a dense neutron star it would be the heaviest scientists have ever detected, however if it is a black hole it would be the lightest in known existence,” Dr Howell said.

A neutron star is a cosmic body that is left behind following the explosion of an incredibly large star about 20 times the mass of the sun. A thimble-full of neutron star matter weighs as much as a mountain on Earth.

Black holes are also formed following such an explosion however they are more extreme objects than neutron stars. With three times the mass of the sun packed into a significantly small space, the gravitational pull of a black hole is so strong that not even light can escape if it encounters it.

Despite the cosmic event occurring on 14 August 2019, the team of researchers is only now able to understand the significance.

Research collaborator and astronomer Dr Rory Smith from Monash University said piecing together the origin of gravitational waves required operating thousands of computers for several months to churn through the data collected.

“Gravitational wave astronomy is at the bleeding edge of supercomputing, and Australia is a world leader in our field,” Dr Smith said.

The finding was verified by the Summed Parallel Infinite Impulse Response (SPIIR) gravitational wave detection pipeline at The University of Western Australia.

According to Dr Howell, the discovery marks another giant step in the mission to discover more about the Universe in which we live.

Astronomers and researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery hope that similar gravitational wave observations in the near future could shed some light on the mystery.