Excellence in Science

Discovery of the first Kilonova

Kilonova discovery

The kilonova became red and faded by a factor of over 20 in just a few days. This rapid change was captured by Las Cumbres Observatory telescopes as night time moved around the globe. Credit:  Sarah Wilkinson / LCO

Las Cumbres Observatory astronomers were part of an international group of scientists who discovered and made some of the first observations of a kilonova, a new type of explosion in space. The discovery in August of 2017 marked the first time in history that an astronomical phenomenon has been first sensed through gravitational waves and then seen with optical telescopes.

Astronomers at LCO received an alert of a neutron star merger from the LIGO gravitational wave observatory and activated our robotic network of telescopes around the world. They searched the region of the sky around the constellation Hydra and were one of six groups to discover a new source of light. The LCO telescopes in Chile first saw the kilonova, and as the Earth rotated and night moved around the globe, it was picked up again with LCO telescopes in Australia, and then again in South Africa. The Las Cumbres Observatory global network was the only facility to observe it every few hours for five consecutive days.

With the unique global network of telescopes, LCO was the only observatory to capture the increase in brightness over the first day after discovering the kilonova. Over the next few days, the light from the explosion dimmed by a factor of more than 20, fading at an unprecedented rate for something so luminous.

The discovery of the first kilonova in 2017 has opened new areas of research in astrophysics and has validated the vital role that the LCO network plays in astronomy.