This event marked the first-ever detection of gravitational waves and opens a new scientific window on how the universe works.
Less than half a second later, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope picked up a brief, weak burst of high-energy light consistent with the same part of the sky. Analysis of this burst suggests just a 0.2-percent chance of simply being random coincidence. Gamma-rays arising from a black hole merger would be a landmark finding because black holes are expected to merge “cleanly,” without producing any sort of light.
“This is a tantalizing discovery with a low chance of being a false alarm, but before we can start rewriting the textbooks we’ll need to see more bursts associated with gravitational waves from black hole mergers,” said Valerie Connaughton, a GBM team member at the National Space, Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and lead author of a paper on the burst now under review by The Astrophysical Journal.
Detecting light from a gravitational wave source will enable a much deeper understanding of the event. Fermi’s GBM sees the entire sky not blocked by Earth and is sensitive to X-rays and gamma rays with energies between 8,000 and 40 million electron volts (eV). For comparison, the energy of visible light ranges between about 2 and 3 eV.
With its wide energy range and large field of view, the GBM is the premier instrument for detecting light from short gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which last less than two seconds. They are widely thought to occur when orbiting compact objects, like neutron stars and black holes, spiral inward and crash together. These same systems also are suspected to be prime producers of gravitational waves.