Astronomers discover mystery object in space

Visualization of GW190814

If it is a neutron star, then our traditional model of neutron stars must be somewhat wrong.

An global research collaboration has detected a mystery object inside the puzzling area known as the "mass gap" - the range that lies between the heaviest known neutron star and the lightest known black hole, according to a new study published on Tuesday.

"I think of Pac-Man eating a little dot", said Vicky Kalogera, a researcher at the LIGO observatory network and a professor at Northwestern University.

"The mass gap may in fact not exist at all but may have been due to limitations in observational capabilities. Time and more observations will tell". "As the detectors get more and more sensitive, we will observe even more of these signals, and we will be able to pinpoint the populations of neutron stars and black holes in the universe". Both of these objects are created at the end of a massive star's life. With a mass of around 23 times that of our Sun, it was most certainly a gaping maw of a black hole that ran into the smaller object, which was a mere 2.6 solar masses.

GW190814 has now delivered that object. Scientists caught the first-ever detection of such waves, formed by two colliding black holes, in 2015. But Prof Fairhurst's colleague, Prof Fabio Antonioni, has proposed that a solar system with three stars could lead to the formation of light black holes. "The mystery object may be a neutron star merging with a black hole, an exciting possibility expected theoretically but not yet confirmed observationally". And the smaller one was either a black hole or a neutron star, about 2.6 times the mass of our sun.

The reason astronomers aren't sure what resides in the mass gap is that it's really hard to calculate something called the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit (TOV limit). Heavier ones however collapse into black holes, whose mass is so condensed its gravity sucks in dust and gas from surrounding galaxies. It might be a more exotic object known as a quark star. But it was also lighter than the lightest black hole previously observed - of around five solar masses.

So, either the researchers just spotted the smallest black hole (by a long shot) or the heaviest neutron star ever (by a smaller but still significant margin). "Nonetheless, the possibility that the secondary component is a neutron star can not be completely discounted due to the current uncertainty in [the TOV limit]".

That doesn't mean the merger didn't involve a neutron star though. This detection could even herald a new understanding of how massive stellar explosions called supernovas happen.

Artist's rendition of a mystery object in'Mass Gap found by LIGO and Virgo
Artist's rendition of a mystery object in'Mass Gap found by LIGO and Virgo

"This is going to change how scientists talk about neutron stars and black holes", Patrick Brady, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

For decades astronomers have been puzzled by a gap that lies between neutron stars and black holes, but a major new discovery has found a mystery object in this so-called "mass gap".

The other problem is the huge mass discrepancy. The collision of those two objects is a type of gravitational wave event that scientists have eagerly been awaiting, since so far they have only seen mergers of matched pairs. Another recently reported LIGO-Virgo event, called GW190412, occurred between two black holes with a mass ratio of about 4:1.

When the detectors resume work, the scientists expect to see not only more systems like GW190814, but probably other unexpected sources of gravitational waves too.

"All of the common formation channels have some deficiency", astronomer Ryan Foley of the University of California, Santa Cruz told ScienceAlert.

The paper about the detection has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. [And] it's not just that you have masses that are different by a factor of nine. Third, if the object was in fact a neutron star, its 9-fold more massive black-hole partner might have swallowed it whole; a neutron star consumed whole by a black hole would not give off any light.

As for figuring out the latter, that will be a matter of more detections.

The finding has important implications for astrophysics and the understanding of low-mass compact objects, according to the study. "What is really exciting is that this is just the start".



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