It’s the hot new field in modern astronomy. The recent announcement of the direct detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) ushers in a new era of observational astronomy that is completely off the electromagnetic spectrum. This detection occurred on September 14th, 2015 and later earned itself the name GW150914. This occurred shortly after Advanced LIGO turned on in early September, a great sign concerning the veracity of the equipment. Continue reading “The Future of Gravitational Wave Astronomy: Pulsar Webs, Space Interferometers and Everything”
Soon, very soon, Thursday, February 11, at 10:30 Eastern time, we are likely to learn at any one of several press conferences – at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in Hannover, Germany, near Pisa in Italy and elswhere – that gravitational waves have been measured directly, for the first time. This would mean the first direct detection of minute distortions of spacetime, travelling at the speed of light, first postulated by Albert Einstein almost exactly 100 years ago.
Time to brush up on your gravitational wave basics: In Gravitational waves and how they distort space, we had a look at what gravitational waves do. In Gravitational wave detectors: How they work we saw how you can measure gravitational waves. Third and final step: What are typical gravitational wave sources? How are these waves produced?
Objects in orbit
The simplest situation that produces gravitational waves in the cosmos is almost ubiquitous: two or more objects orbiting around each other under their own gravity. The waves they generate are reminiscent to a very slow mixer in the middle of a pool of water: This is not something you would see, of course. The wave that is pictured here represents the strength of the minute changes in distance that would be caused by the gravitational wave, just as we’ve seen in Gravitational waves and how they distort space. The animation is courtesy of Sascha Husa of the Universitat de les Illes Balears.
Gravitational waves emitted by orbiting objects carry away energy. Elementary physics tells you that if you remove energy from an orbiting system, the distance between the orbiting objects will shrink, and they will orbit each other faster than before.
In fact, gravitational waves making a binary system of neutron stars speed up was the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves. The binary neutron star was discovered by Hulse and Taylor in 1974, and the speed-up caused by gravitational waves published by Taylor and Weisberg in 1984, after a careful analysis of seven years’ worth of data. Hulse and Taylor were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1993 for their discovery.
Here, in an image from an article by Weisberg 2010, is the match between general relativistic prediction and observation in all its glory (or at least in all its glory up to 2005): As the two neutron stars speed up, they will reach the point of closest approach within their orbit earlier and earlier. How much earlier, in seconds, is plotted on the vertical axis, year of measurement on the horizontal axis.
A matter of frequency
Today’s ground-based detectors cannot detect gravitational waves from all kinds of bodies in mutual orbit. The bodies need to be massive, compact and, crucially, orbit each other quickly enough. For bodies orbiting each other less than a few times per second (very quick, if you are talking about astronomical bodies!), the frequency of the resulting gravitational wave will be too low for ground-based detectors to measure reliably. In the low-frequency regime, below 10–100 Hertz, disturbances caused by undulating motions of the Earth’s surface (“seismic noise”) are dominant, and drown out the minute effects of gravitational waves.
When it comes to gravitational waves from supermassive black holes, or from white dwarfs, we will have to wait for future space-based gravitational wave detectors.
The most promising gravitational wave sources go “chirp”
When an orbiting system emits gravitational waves, orbital motion speeds up. And when orbital motion speeds up, the system emits even more energy in form of gravitational wave. This runaway process ends only when the orbiting objects collide and merge.
The final phase is marked by a quick increase in orbital speed, corresponding to ever higher gravitational wave frequency, and ever higher intensity. Here’s what such a signal looks like (image and audio from “Chirping Neutron Stars” on Einstein Online): You can see how the frequency and intensity increase right up to time 0, when the two neutron stars collide and merge.
For stellar black holes (with masses between a few and a few dozen solar masses) and neutron stars, in any combination, the frequencies of these gravitational waves are the same as the frequencies of audible sound waves. One can actually represent these changes in frequency as an audible tone, as in this example of two neutron stars merging (Audio © B. Owen, Penn State University):
Here is the same kind of audible representation for the merger of a black hole and a neutron star (© AEI/GEO600):
Sadly, what a gravitational wave detector registers is the combination of this sound plus assorted noise, which sounds like this (© AEI/GEO600):
Colleagues at Cardiff University have made this into a nice online game: Black Hole Hunter. Head over there and see if you can hear the signal beneath the noise!
(And you can hear live chirps by various astrophysicists (and others) under the hashtag #chirpForLIGO on Twitter.)
This kind of signal, from merging stellar black holes or neutron stars (in any combination) is the most promising candidate signal for today’s detectors – and going by the rumors, that is indeed what LIGO appears to have found.
The final part of the signal is interesting for a particular reason: It doesn’t follow from any simple formulae, and can only be modelled with complex computer simulations of such situations known as numerical relativity. If the detectors get a good detection of this very last bit, that will be a good test for current numerical simulations of general relativity!
Other gravitational wave sources
Chirps are comparatively simple, and likely the first signals to be found.
Another kind of signal that could be found is periodic (or nearly so), and would be produced e.g. if rapidly rotating neutron stars are less than perfectly smooth. No such luck as of yet, though.
Next would come the gravitational wave sources that are somewhat less understood, such as the processes in the interior of supernova explosions. And finally, once numerous signals have been detected, showing the scientists that their detectors are indeed working as they should, there might be the detection of completely unexpected signals. Whenever astronomers have opened a new window to the cosmos – the radio window, infrared window, x-ray window – they have found something new and unexpected. Who can tell what opening the Einstein window, the window of gravitational waves, will teach us about the universe?
Update: Gravitational Waves Discovered
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It’s official: on February 11, 10:30 EST, there will be a big press conference about gravitational waves by the people running the gravitational wave detector LIGO. It’s a fair bet that they will announce the first direct detection of gravitational waves, predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. If all goes as the scientists hope, this will be the kick-off for an era of gravitational wave astronomy: for learning about some of the most extreme and violent events in the cosmos by measuring the tiny ripples of space distortions that emanate from them.
Time to brush up on your gravitational wave knowledge, if you haven’t already done so! Here’s a visualization to help you – and we’ll go step by step to see what it means:
Einstein’s distorted spacetime
In the words of the eminent relativist John Wheeler, Einstein’s theory of general relativity can be summarized in two statements: Matter tells space and time how to curve. And (curved) space and time tell matter how to move. (Here is a slightly longer version on Einstein Online.)
Einstein published the final form of his theory in November 1915. By spring 1916, he had realized another consequence of distorting space and time: general relativity allows for gravitational waves, rhythmic distortions which propagate through space at the speed of light.
For quite some time, physicists weren’t sure whether these gravitational waves were real or a mathematical artifact within Einstein’s theory. (For more about this controversy, see Daniel Kennefick’s book “Traveling at the Speed of Thought and this article.) But since the 1980s, there has been indirect evidence for these waves (which earned its discoverers a Nobel prize, no less, in 1993).
Gravitational waves are emitted by orbiting bodies and certain other accelerated masses. Right now, major international efforts are underway to detect gravitational waves directly. Once detection is possible, the scientists hope to use gravitational waves to “listen” to some of the most violent processes in the universe: merging black holes and/or neutron stars, or the core region of supernova explosions.
Just as regular astronomy uses light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation to learn about distant objects, gravitational wave astronomy will decipher the information contained within gravitational waves. And if you go by recent rumors, gravitational wave astronomy might already have kicked off in mid-September 2015.
What do gravitational waves do?
But what do gravitational waves do? For that, let us look at a simplified, entirely hypothetical situation. (The following are variations on images and animations originally published here on Einstein Online.) Consider particles drifting in space, far from any sources of gravity. Imagine that the particles (red) are arranged in a circle around a center (marked in black):
If a simple gravitational wave were to pass through this image, coming directly at the reader, distances between these particles would change rhythmically as follows:
Note the distinctive pattern: When the circle is stretched in the vertical direction, it is compressed in the horizontal direction, and vice versa. That’s typical for gravitational waves (“quadrupole distortion”).
It’s important to keep in mind that this animation, and the ones that will follow, exaggerate the gravitational wave’s effect quite considerably. The gravitational waves detectors such as aLIGO hope to measure are much, much weaker. If our hypothetical circle of particles were as large as the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, a realistic gravitational wave would distort it by less than the diameter of a hydrogen atom.
Gravitational waves moving through space
The animation above shows what could be called a “gravitational oscillation.” To see the whole wave, we need to consider the third dimension.
We talk about a wave when oscillations propagate through space. Consider a water wave: At each point of the surface, we have an oscillation, with the surface rising and falling rhythmically. But it’s only the fact that this oscillation propagates, and that we can see a crest moving over the surface, that makes this into a wave.
It’s the same with gravitational waves. To see that, we will look not at a single circle of freely floating particles, but at many such circles, stacked one behind the other, forming the surface of a cylinder:
In this image, it’s hard to see which points are in front and which in the back. Let us join each particle to its nearest neighbors with a blue line, and let us also fill out the area between those lines. That way, the geometry is much more obvious:
Just remember that neither the lines nor the whitish surface is physical. On the contrary, if we want the particles to be maximally susceptible to the effect of the gravitational wave, we should make sure they are truly floating freely, and certainly they shouldn’t be linked in any way!
Now, let us see what the same gravitational wave we saw before does to this assembly of particles. From this perspective, the wave is passing from the right-hand side in the back towards the left-hand side on the front: As you can see, the wave is propagating through space. For instance, the point where the vertical distances within the circle of particles is maximal is moving towards the observer. The wave nature can be seen even more clearly if we look at this cylinder directly from the side:
What the animations show is just one kind of simple gravitational wave (“linearly polarized”). Here is another kind (“circularly polarized”):
This, then, is what the gravitational wave hunters are looking for. Except that they do not have particles floating in free space. Instead, their detectors contain test masses (notably large mirrors) elaborately suspended here on Earth, with laser light to detect the minute distance changes caused by gravitational waves.
More realistic gravitational wave signals, which contain information about merging black holes or the bulk motion of matter inside a supernova explosion, are more complicated still. They combine many simple waves of different frequencies, and the strength of such waves (their amplitude) will change over time in a characteristic fashion.
In these animations, gravitational waves look a bit like wriggling space worms. But these space worms could become the astronomers’ best friends, carrying information about the cosmos that is hard or even impossible to obtain in any other way.
[Don’t miss the sequel: Gravitational wave detectors: how they work]
Update: Gravitational Waves Detected