It took 130 million years for astronomers to see the light. On August 17, scientists observed through telescopes a small, glowing orb, the remnants of a collision between two neutron stars in another galaxy that triggered universe-bending gravitational waves. They watched as the sphere changed from royal blue to crimson red, as lighter chemical elements in the cloud of radioactive debris gave way to heavier ones, like gold, platinum, and silver. About a week later, it faded.
The light show may be over in the night sky, but it can be found on the internet and replayed, over and over, as a dreamy short video:
Luís Calçada created the video for the European Southern Observatory, whose fleet of telescopes in Chile tracked the aftermath of the collision. Calçada is a member of ESO’s education and public-outreach department, a team of astronomers and science-communication specialists in Munich.
“We wanted to have something striking, but we wanted it to be correct,” Calçada said.
The clip is another addition to a rapidly growing volume of illustrations and animations of wondrous astronomical objects and phenomena. As the rate of discovery of exoplanets has picked up in the last several years, so has the production of visualizations of these worlds. Often, scientists and illustrators have only a few pieces of the puzzle, like the mass, temperature, and orbit. They look carefully at how these factors have shaped the celestial bodies that we can see, and use it as inspiration to create a full picture of those we can’t. When astronomers discovered the presence of seven Earth-sized planets in a star system 39 light-years away, illustrators turned tiny blips in data into colorful alien worlds.