Texas A&M University astronomer Jennifer Marshall was one of a handful of scientists across the planet to witness the gravitational waves produced from two colliding neutron stars for the first time. The experience came during her visit to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile in August.
The observation of the event -- and the data scientists are hoping to glean from it -- is being hailed as a major step forward for the field, thanks in large part to the contributions of the Advanced Virgo gravitational wave detector in Italy and the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory's abilities to detect gravitational waves.
Marshall, an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy, was visiting the Chilean observatory as part of the international Dark Energy Survey initiative to create a detailed map of one-eighth of the sky.
She said participating in the historic observation of the event was amazing -- especially given how lucky she was to have been the person there when it occurred.
"I feel incredibly fortunate I was in the right place at the right time," Marshall said. "I just happened to be the astronomer at the telescope that night."
Marshall said the discovery particularly is important to her as it ties in directly to the work she has been doing for the past decade, measuring the chemical abundance patterns in stars to attempt to explain the source of where the elements on the periodic table were formed in the universe.
"Most of the elements heavier than iron, we believe theoretically, were formed in binary neutron star mergers, but we've never made a direct observation of that," she said. "This time, every telescope in the word was pointed at the event, because it was so exciting to make those direct observations. For the first time, we have direct, observational confirmation of where every element on the periodic table was made."
Looking ahead for her own research, Marshall said she expects over the next few years, as theorists "refine their theoretical models in light of these first observations," she will be able to further test her own models to make them even more accurate than before.
"It's really going to improve my science," she said.
Peter McIntyre, professor and head of the department of physics and astronomy, said Texas A&M's involvement through Marshall is an exciting step forward into a new area of study for the program.
"It is a toehold in that very exciting new arena of astronomy and astrophysics for our faculty in astronomy," McIntyre said. "It opens that as a pathway for our students to be involved in and for us to be a player in the next wave of discoveries that are to come. It's a really exciting thing for us."
To give the community a chance to learn more about the event and its significance, the department is hosting a special lecture Tuesday afternoon featuring Marshall and professor Wolfgang Schleich of Ulm University in Germany.
Marshall said she plans to recount the experience of observing the collision and to provide context for the significance of the event and her own research. Schleich is expected to speak on the history, and possible future, of using technology to observe gravitational waves.
The free public lecture is set to begin at 4 p.m. in the Hawking Auditorium, located inside the Mitchell Institute building on the north side of the Texas A&M campus.