Multi-messenger Astronomy: A New Era in Space Science

November 2017

Briefing date: November 2, 2017 (3:30pm)


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Ira Thorpe (NASA GSFC)

  • Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge (NASA MSFC)

  • Dr. Lynn Cominsky (Sonoma State)

Slide presentation:

Transcript and audio recording:

Additional resources:

  • NASA Wavelength resources* (PDF file) 1 MB
    *Due to changes in the NASA Wavelength resource database, please use the attached resource PDF in lieu of URLs listed in slides. Original activity URLs should operate as normal.



How does the universe work?  How did we get here?  Until recently, light emanating from cosmic events has been the primary source of information about those events. For example, many of the heavy chemical elements we find on Earth were thought to be created in dynamic high-energy events, such as the collision of high-density stellar remnants called neutron stars. How were the flashes of gamma-rays observed in the universe associated with these events? Does this collision emit light across the entire electromagnetic spectrum? Understanding these phenomena just got a big boost via a new window into the physical processes in the universe.

On October 16, 2017, a joint news release by the LIGO/VIRGO scientific collaboration and NASA provided details on the first ever detection of gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars. In addition, telescopes from around the world and in space were able to detect light from this event – the first time both light and gravitational waves have been observed from the same source. This singular event signifies the beginning of a new era of multi-messenger astronomy, where scientists from around the world can observe cosmic events in both light and gravitational waves. These new studies hold significant promise in providing new insights into some of the most mysterious and dynamic phenomena in our universe.

For this Science Briefing, a presentation of the LIGO/VIRGO gravitational wave detections will be discussed, followed by a presentation of the follow-up observations by NASA space-based observatories. We will also point to additional resources, including hands-on activities, to help you convey the science of neutron stars and gravitational waves to your audiences.


Dr. Ira Thorpe is an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who is working to develop a space-based gravitational wave observatory called the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). Building upon the tremendous successes of ground-based gravitational-wave detectors such as LIGO, LISA will extend our view of the gravitational universe to longer wavelengths where sources are expected to include collisions of supermassive black holes in the distant universe. Dr. Thorpe is the NASA Study Scientist for the LISA mission, which is being pursued as a collaboration with the European Space Agency. Prior to coming to NASA, Ira earned a PhD in Physics from the University of Florida, a MS in Physics from the University of Maryland, and BA in Physics and BS in Mechanical Engineering from Bucknell University. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ira now lives outside Washington, DC with his wife and three children.

Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge has 28 years of experience working in gamma-ray astronomy at NASA. She is currently Principal Investigator of the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM). Her early work focused on timing and spectral properties of accreting pulsars and X-ray transients with BATSE, Chandra, INTEGRAL, Suzaku, RXTE, and continues with Fermi GBM data. This work included the discovery of the black hole transient GRO J1655-40 and the accreting pulsar GRO J2058+42 with BATSE, and extensive studies of the accreting pulsar EXO 2030+375. More recently, especially since she became PI of GBM, her focus has changed, along with the majority of her team, to searches for gamma-ray counterparts to gravitational wave events, following up both high confidence and sub-threshold LIGO/Virgo events. The discovery of GRB170817A with GBM, the first unambiguous gamma-ray burst associated with a gravitational wave, has been an extremely exciting and groundbreaking discovery for the GBM team, setting constraints on the speed of gravity and finally confirming that neutron star mergers are a progenitor of short gamma-ray bursts. She has been a part of the Fermi GBM team since before launch. Before becoming PI, she led the GBM accreting pulsar and GBM Earth occultation teams, with whom she discovered the 7% decline from 2008-2010 in the Crab Nebula hard X-ray flux and continues that work to look for both hard X-ray variability and gamma-ray flares from the Crab in Compton Gamma-ray Observatory data. She also observed the Crab with the HEROES balloon payload where she gained valuable hardware and project scientist experience. Her X-ray timing work continues as a science team member for the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER) and a co-investigator on the awarded NASA Astrophysics Probe Mission Concept Study for the Spectroscopic Time-Resolved Observatory for Broadband Energy X-rays (STROBE-X).  Dr. Wilson-Hodge has been lead author or co-author on more than 125 refereed publications, numerous conference proceedings, and has led more than 25 successful X-ray observing and/or data analysis proposals.

Dr. Lynn Cominsky is the Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Sonoma State University (SSU), where she has been on the faculty for over thirty years. Prof. Cominsky is the founder and director of SSU’s Education and Public Outreach Group, which develops educational materials for NASA, NSF and the US Department of Education. She is a Fellow of the California Council on Science and Technology, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences. Recent awards include the 2014 Aerospace Awareness award from the Women in Aerospace organization, the 2015 Sally Ride Education Award from the American Astronautical Society, the 2016 Education Prize from the American Astronomical Society, the 2016 Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University, and the 2017 Frank. J. Malina Astronautics Medal from the International Astronautical Federation.