Gravitational Astronomy? How Detecting Gravitational Waves Changes Everything

Is This The Future?


Just a couple of weeks ago, astronomers from Caltech announced their third detection of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO.

As with the previous two detections, astronomers have determined that the waves were generated when two intermediate-mass black holes slammed into each other, sending out ripples of distorted spacetime.

One black hole had 31.2 times the mass of the Sun, while the other had 19.4 solar masses. The two spiraled inward towards each other, until they merged into a single black hole with 48.7 solar masses. And if you do the math, twice the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves as the black holes merged.

On January 4th, 2017, LIGO detected two black holes merging into one. Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

These gravitational waves traveled outward from the colossal collision at the speed of light, stretching and compressing spacetime like a tsunami wave crossing the ocean until they reached Earth, located about 2.9 billion light-years away.

The waves swept past each of the two LIGO facilities, located in different parts of the United States, stretching the length of carefully calibrated laser measurements. And from this, researchers were able to detect the direction, distance and strength of the original merger.

Seriously, if this isn’t one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard, I’m clearly easily impressed.

Now that the third detection has been made, I think it’s safe to say we’re entering a brand new field of gravitational astronomy. In the coming decades, astronomers will use gravitational waves to peer into regions they could never see before.

Being able to perceive gravitational waves is like getting a whole new sense. It’s like having eyes and then suddenly getting the ability to perceive sound.

This whole new science will take decades to unlock, and we’re just getting started.

As Einstein predicted, any mass moving through space generates ripples in spacetime. When you’re just walking along, you’re actually generating tiny ripples. If you can detect these ripples, you can work backwards to figure out what size of mass made the ripples, what direction it was moving, etc.

Even in places that you couldn’t see in any other way. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Black holes, obviously, are the low hanging fruit. When they’re not actively feeding, they’re completely invisible, only detectable by how they gravitational attract objects or bend light from objects passing behind them.

But seen in gravitational waves, they’re like ships moving across the ocean, leaving ripples of distorted spacetime behind them.

With our current capabilities through LIGO, astronomers can only detect the most massive objects moving at a significant portion of the speed of light. A regular black hole merger doesn’t do the trick – there’s not enough mass. Even a supermassive black hole merger isn’t detectable yet because these mergers seem to happen too slowly.

LIGO has already significantly increased the number of black holes with known masses. The observatory has definitively detected two sets of black hole mergers (bright blue). For each event, LIGO determined the individual masses of the black holes before they merged, as well as the mass of the black hole produced by the merger. The black holes shown with a dotted border represent a LIGO candidate event that was too weak to be conclusively claimed as a detection. Credit: LIGO/Caltech/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)

This is why all the detections so far have been intermediate-mass black holes with dozens of times the mass of our Sun. And we can only detect them at the moment that they’re merging together, when they’re generating the most intense gravitational waves.

If we can boost the sensitivity of our gravitational wave detectors, we should be able to spot mergers of less and more massive black holes.

But merging isn’t the only thing they do. Black holes are born when stars with many more times the mass of our Sun collapse in on themselves and explode as supernovae. Some stars, we’ve now learned just implode as black holes, never generating the supernovae, so this process happens entirely hidden from us.

Is there a singularity at the center of a black hole event horizon, or is there something there, some kind of object smaller than a neutron star, but bigger than an infinitely small point? As black holes merge together, we could see beyond the event horizon with gravitational waves, mapping out the invisible region within to get a sense of what’s going on down there.

This illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. In reality, the area near the black holes would appear highly warped, and the gravitational waves would be difficult to see directly. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

We want to know about even less massive objects like neutron stars, which can also form from a supernova explosion. These neutron stars can orbit one another and merge generating some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma ray bursts. But do neutron stars have surface features? Different densities? Could we detect a wobble in the gravitational waves in the last moments before a merger?

And not everything needs to merge. Sensitive gravitational wave detectors could sense binary objects with a large imbalance, like a black hole or neutron star orbiting around a main sequence star. We could detect future mergers by their gravitational waves.

Are gravitational waves a momentary distortion of spacetime, or do they leave some kind of permanent dent on the Universe that we could trace back? Will we see echoes of gravity from gravitational waves reflecting and refracting through the fabric of the cosmos?

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be using gravitational waves to see beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This region shows us the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when everything was cool enough for light to move freely through the Universe.

But there was mass there, before that moment. Moving, merging mass that would have generated gravitational waves. As we explained in a previous article, astronomers are working to find the imprint of these gravitational waves on the Cosmic Microwave Background, like an echo, or a shadow. Perhaps there’s a deeper Cosmic Gravitational Background Radiation out there, one which will let us see right to the beginning of time, just moments after the Big Bang.

And as always, there will be the surprises. The discoveries in this new field that nobody ever saw coming. The “that’s funny” moments that take researchers down into whole new fields of discovery, and new insights into how the Universe works.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Image: LIGO
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Image: LIGO

The LIGO project was begun back in 1994, and the first iteration operated from 2002 to 2012 without a single gravitational wave detection. It was clear that the facility wasn’t sensitive enough, so researchers went back and made massive improvements.

In 2008, they started improving the facility, and in 2015, Advanced LIGO came online with much more sensitivity. With the increased capabilities, Advanced LIGO made its first discovery in 2016, and now two more discoveries have been added.

LIGO can currently only detect the general hemisphere of the sky where a gravitational wave was emitted. And so, LIGO’s next improvement will be to add another facility in India, called INDIGO. In addition to improving the sensitivity of LIGO, this will give astronomers three observations of each event, to precisely detect the origin of the gravitational waves. Then visual astronomers could do follow up observations, to map the event to anything in other wavelengths.

Current operating facilities in the global network include the twin LIGO detectors—in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana—and GEO600 in Germany. The Virgo detector in Italy and the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) in Japan are undergoing upgrades and are expected to begin operations in 2016 and 2018, respectively. A sixth observatory is being planned in India. Having more gravitational-wave observatories around the globe helps scientists pin down the locations and sources of gravitational waves coming from space. Image made in February 2016. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

A European experiment known as Virgo has been operating for a few years as well, agreeing to collaborate with the LIGO team if any detections are made. So far, the Virgo experiment hasn’t found anything, but it’s being upgraded with 10 times the sensitivity, which should be fully operational by 2018.

A Japanese experiment called the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector, or KAGRA, will come online in 2018 as well, and be able to contribute to the observations. It should be capable of detecting binary neutron star mergers out to nearly a billion light-years away.

Just with visual astronomy, there are a set of next generation supergravitational wave telescopes in the works, which should come online in the next few decades.

The Europeans are building the Einstein Telescope, which will have detection arms 10 km long, compared to 4 km for LIGO. That’s like, 6 more km.

There’s the European Space Agency’s space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which could launch in 2030. This will consist of a fleet of 3 spacecraft which will maintain a precise distance of 2.5 million km from each other. Compare that to the Earth-based detection distances, and you can see why the future of observations will come from space.

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) consists of three spacecraft orbiting the sun in a triangular configuration. Credit: NASA

And that last idea, looking right back to the beginning of time could be a possibility with the Big Bang Observer mission, which will have a fleet of 12 spacecraft flying in formation. This is still all in the proposal stage, so no concrete date for if or when they’ll actually fly.

Gravitational wave astronomy is one of the most exciting fields of astronomy. This entirely new sense is pushing out our understanding of the cosmos in entirely new directions, allowing us to see regions we could never even imagine exploring before. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

What Happens When Black Holes Collide?

The sign of a truly great scientific theory is by the outcomes it predicts when you run experiments or perform observations. And one of the greatest theories ever proposed was the concept of Relativity, described by Albert Einstein in the beginning of the 20th century.

In addition to helping us understand that light is the ultimate speed limit of the Universe, Einstein described gravity itself as a warping of spacetime.

He did more than just provide a bunch of elaborate new explanations for the Universe, he proposed a series of tests that could be done to find out if his theories were correct.

One test, for example, completely explained why Mercury’s orbit didn’t match the predictions made by Newton. Other predictions could be tested with the scientific instruments of the day, like measuring time dilation with fast moving clocks.

Since gravity is actually a distortion of spacetime, Einstein predicted that massive objects moving through spacetime should generate ripples, like waves moving through the ocean.

The more massive the object, the more it distorts spacetime. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle
The more massive the object, the more it distorts spacetime. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

Just by walking around, you leave a wake of gravitational waves that compress and expand space around you. However, these waves are incredibly tiny. Only the most energetic events in the entire Universe can produce waves we can detect.

It took over 100 years to finally be proven true, the direct detection of gravitational waves. In February, 2016, physicists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO announced the collision of two massive black holes more than a billion light-years away.

Any size of black hole can collide. Plain old stellar mass black holes or supermassive black holes. Same process, just on a completely different scale.

Colliding black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet
Colliding black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet

Let’s start with the stellar mass black holes. These, of course, form when a star with many times the mass of our Sun dies in a supernova. Just like regular stars, these massive stars can be in binary systems.

Imagine a stellar nebula where a pair of binary stars form. But unlike the Sun, each of these are monsters with many times the mass of the Sun, putting out thousands of times as much energy. The two stars will orbit one another for just a few million years, and then one will detonate as a supernova. Now you’ll have a massive star orbiting a black hole.  And then the second star explodes, and now you have two black holes orbiting around each other.

As the black holes zip around one another, they radiate gravitational waves which causes their orbit to decay. This is kind of mind-bending, actually. The black holes convert their momentum into gravitational waves.

As their angular momentum decreases, they spiral inward until they actually collide.  What should be one of the most energetic explosions in the known Universe is completely dark and silent, because nothing can escape a black hole. No radiation, no light, no particles, no screams, nothing. And if you mash two black holes together, you just get a more massive black hole.

The gravitational waves ripple out from this momentous collision like waves through the ocean, and it’s detectable across more than a billion light-years.

Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).
Arial view of LIGO Livingston. Credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration

This is exactly what happened earlier this year with the announcement from LIGO. This sensitive instrument detected the gravitational waves generated when two black holes with 30 solar masses collided about 1.3 billion light-years away.

This wasn’t a one-time event either, they detected another collision with two other stellar mass black holes.

Regular stellar mass black holes aren’t the only ones that can collide. Supermassive black holes can collide too.

From what we can tell, there’s a supermassive black hole at the heart of pretty much every galaxy in the Universe. The one in the Milky Way is more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, and the one at the heart of Andromeda is thought to be 110 to 230 million times the mass of the Sun.

In a few billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda are going to collide, and begin the process of merging together. Unless the Milky Way’s black hole gets kicked off into deep space, the two black holes are going to end up orbiting one another.

Just with the stellar mass black holes, they’re going to radiate away angular momentum in the form of gravitational waves, and spiral closer and closer together. Some point, in the distant future, the two black holes will merge into an even more supermassive black hole.

View of Milkdromeda from Earth "shortly" after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger
View of Milkdromeda from Earth “shortly” after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now. Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

The Milky Way and Andromeda will merge into Milkdromeda, and over the future billions of years, will continue to gather up new galaxies, extract their black holes and mashing them into the collective.

Black holes can absolutely collide. Einstein predicted the gravitational waves this would generate, and now LIGO has observed them for the first time. As better tools are developed, we should learn more and more about these extreme events.

The 2016 Nobel Prize In Physics: It’s Complicated

Update: This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to David J. Thouless (University of Washington), F. Duncan M. Haldane (Princeton University), and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”. One half of the prize was awarded to Thouless while the other half was jointly awarded to Haldane and Kosterlitz.

The Nobel Prize in physics is a coveted award. Every year, the prize is bestowed upon the individual who is deemed to have made the greatest contribution to the field of physics during the preceding year. And this year, the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves is anticipated to be the main focus.

This discovery, which was announced on February 11th, 2016, was made possible thanks to the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). As such, it is expected that the three scientists that are most responsible for the invention of the technology will receive the Nobel Prize for their work. However, there are those in the scientific community who feel that another scientist – Barry Barish – should also be recognized.

But first, some background is needed to help put all this into perspective. For starers, gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime that are generated by certain gravitational interactions and which propagate at the speed of light. The existence of such waves has been postulated since the late 19th century.

LIGO's two facilities, located in . Credit: ligo.caltech.edu
LIGO’s two observatories, the located in Livingston, Louisiana; and Hanford, Washington. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu

However, it was not until the late 20th century, thanks in large part to Einstein and his theory of General Relativity, that gravitational-wave research began to emerge as a branch of astronomy. Since the 1960s, various gravitational-wave detectors have been built, which includes the LIGO observatory.

Founded as a Caltech/MIT project, LIGO was officially approved by the National Science Board (NSF) in 1984. A decade later, construction began on the facility’s two locations – in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. By 2002, it began to obtain data, and work began on improving its original detectors in 2008 (known as the Advanced LIGO Project).

The credit for the creation of LIGO goes to three scientists, which includes Rainer Weiss, a professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Ronald Drever, an experimental physics who was professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology and a professor at Glasgow University; and Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

In 1967 and 68, Weiss and Thorne initiated efforts to construct prototype detectors, and produced theoretical work to prove that gravitational waves could be successfully analyzed. By the 1970s, using different methods, Weiss and Denver both succeeded in building detectors. In the coming years, all three men remained pivotal and influential, helping to make gravitational astronomy a legitimate field of research.

 A bird's eye view of LIGO Hanford's laser and vacuum equipment area (LVEA). The LVEA houses the pre-stabilized laser, beam splitter, input test masses, and other equipment. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu
LIGO Hanford’s laser and vacuum equipment area (LVEA), which houses the pre-stabilized laser, beam splitter, input test masses, and other equipment. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu

However, it has been argued that without Barish – a particle physicist at Caltech – the discovery would never have been made. Having become the Principal Investigator of LIGO in 1994, he inherited the project at a very crucial time. It had begun funding a decade prior, but coordinating the work of Wiess, Thorne and Drever (from MIT, Caltech and the University of Glasgow, respectively) proved difficult.

As such, it was decided that a single director was needed. Between 1987 and 1994, Rochus Vogt – a professor emeritus of Physics at Caltech – was appointed by the NSF to fill this role. While Vogt brought the initial team together and helped to get the construction of the project approved, he proved difficult when it came to dealing with bureaucracy and documenting his researchers progress.

As such, between 1989 through 1994, LIGO failed to progress technically and organizationally, and had trouble acquiring funding as well. By 1994, Caltech eased Vogt out of his position and appointed Barish to the position of director. Barish got to work quickly, making significant changes to the way LIGO was administered, expanding the research team, and developing a detailed work plan for the NSF.

Barish was also responsible for expanding LIGO beyond its Caltech and MIT constraints. This he did through the creation of the independent LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), which gave access to outside researchers and institutions. This was instrumental in creating crucial partnerships, which included the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Max Planck Society of Germany, and the Australian Research Council.

Artist's impression of how massive bodies (like our Sun) distort space time. Credit: T. Pyle/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab
Artist’s impression of how massive bodies (like our Sun) distort space time. Such bodies also create gravity waves when they accelerate through space and time. Credit: T. Pyle/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

By 1999, construction had wrapped up on the LIGO observatories, and by 2002, they began taking their first bits of data. By 2004, the funding and groundwork was laid for the next phase of LIGO development, which involved a multi-year shut-down while the detectors were replaced with improved “Advanced LIGO” versions.

All of this was made possible by Barish, who retired in 2005 to head up other projects. Thanks to his sweeping reforms, LIGO got to work after an abortive start, began to produce data, procured funding, crucial partnerships, and now has more than 1000 collaborators worldwide, thanks to the LSC program he established.

Little wonder then why some scientists think the Nobel Prize should be split four-ways, awarding the three scientists who conceived of LIGO and the one scientist who made it happen. And as Barish himself was quoted as saying by Science:

“I think there’s a bit of truth that LIGO wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do it, so I don’t think I’m undeserving. If they wait a year and give it to these three guys, at least I’ll feel that they thought about it,” he says. “If they decide [to give it to them] this October, I’ll have more bad feelings because they won’t have done their homework.”

The approximate locations of the two gravitational-wave events detected so far by LIGO are shown on this sky map of the southern hemisphere. . Credit: LIGO/Axel Mellinger
The approximate locations of the two gravitational-wave events detected so far by LIGO are shown on this sky map of the southern hemisphere. . Credit: LIGO/Axel Mellinger

However, there is good reason to believe that the award will ultimately be split three ways, leaving Barish out. For instance, Weiss, Drever, and Thorne have been honored three times already this year for their work on LIGO. This has included the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and Kavli Prize in Astrophysics.

What’s more, in the past, the Nobel Prize in physics has tended to be awarded to those responsible for the intellectual contributions leading to a major breakthrough, rather than to those who did the leg work. Out of the last six Prizes issued (between 2010 and 2015), five have been awarded for the development of experimental methods, observational studies, and theoretical discoveries.

Only one award was given for a technical development. This was the case in 2014 where the award was given jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.

Basically, the Nobel Prize is a complicated matter. Every year, it is awarded to those who made a considerable contribution to science, or were responsible for a major breakthrough. But contributions and breakthroughs are perhaps a bit relative. Whom we choose to honor, and for what, can also be seen as an indication of what is valued most in the scientific community.

In the end, this year’s award may serve to highlight how significant contributions do not just entail the development of new ideas and methods, but also in bringing them to fruition.

Further Reading: Science, LIGO, Nobelprize.org

Second Gravitational Wave Source Found By LIGO

Lightning has struck twice – maybe three times – and scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, hope this is just the beginning of a new era of understanding our Universe. This “lightning” came in the form of the elusive, hard-to-detect gravitational waves, produced by gigantic events, such as a pair of black holes colliding. The energy released from such an event disturbs the very fabric of space and time, much like ripples in a pond. Today’s announcement is the second set of gravitational wave ripples detected by LIGO, following the historic first detection announced in February of this year.

“This collision happened 1.5 billion years ago,” said Gabriela Gonzalez of Louisiana State University at a press conference to announce the new detection, “and with this we can tell you the era of gravitational wave astronomy has begun.”

LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes occurred Sept. 14, 2015 and it confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. The second detection occurred on Dec. 25, 2015, and was recorded by both of the twin LIGO detectors.

While the first detection of the gravitational waves released by the violent black hole merger was just a little “chirp” that lasted only one-fifth of a second, this second detection was more of a “whoop” that was visible for an entire second in the data. Listen in this video:

“This is what we call gravity’s music,” said González as she played the video at today’s press conference.

While gravitational waves are not sound waves, the researchers converted the gravitational wave’s oscillation and frequency to a sound wave with the same frequency. Why were the two events so different?

From the data, the researchers concluded the second set of gravitational waves were produced during the final moments of the merger of two black holes that were 14 and 8 times the mass of the Sun, and the collision produced a single, more massive spinning black hole 21 times the mass of the Sun. In comparison, the black holes detected in September 2015 were 36 and 29 times the Sun’s mass, merging into a black hole of 62 solar masses.

The scientists said the higher-frequency gravitational waves from the lower-mass black holes hit the LIGO detectors’ “sweet spot” of sensitivity.

“It is very significant that these black holes were much less massive than those observed in the first detection,” said Gonzalez. “Because of their lighter masses compared to the first detection, they spent more time—about one second—in the sensitive band of the detectors. It is a promising start to mapping the populations of black holes in our universe.”

An aerial view of LIGO Hanford. (Credit:  Gary White/Mark Coles/California Institue of Technology/LIGO/NSF).
An aerial view of LIGO Hanford. (Credit: Gary White/Mark Coles/California Institue of Technology/LIGO/NSF).

LIGO allows scientists to study the Universe in a new way, using gravity instead of light. LIGO uses lasers to precisely measure the position of mirrors separated from each other by 4 kilometers, about 2.5 miles, at two locations that are over 3,000 km apart, in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. So, LIGO doesn’t detect the black hole collision event directly, it detects the stretching and compressing of space itself. The detections so far are the result of LIGO’s ability to measure the perturbation of space with an accuracy of 1 part in a thousand billion billion. The signal from the lastest event, named GW151226, was produced by matter being converted into energy, which literally shook spacetime like Jello.

LIGO team member Fulvio Ricci, a physicist at the University of Rome La Sapienzaa said there was a third “candidate” detection of an event in October, which Ricci said he prefers to call a “trigger,” but it was much less significant and the signal to noise not large enough to officially count as a detection.

But still, the team said, the two confirmed detections point to black holes being much more common in the Universe than previously believed, and they might frequently come in pairs.

“The second discovery “has truly put the ‘O’ for Observatory in LIGO,” said Albert Lazzarini, deputy director of the LIGO Laboratory at Caltech. “With detections of two strong events in the four months of our first observing run, we can begin to make predictions about how often we might be hearing gravitational waves in the future. LIGO is bringing us a new way to observe some of the darkest yet most energetic events in our universe.”

LIGO is now offline for improvements. Its next data-taking run will begin this fall and the improvements in detector sensitivity could allow LIGO to reach as much as 1.5 to two times more of the volume of the universe compared with the first run. A third site, the Virgo detector located near Pisa, Italy, with a design similar to the twin LIGO detectors, is expected to come online during the latter half of LIGO’s upcoming observation run. Virgo will improve physicists’ ability to locate the source of each new event, by comparing millisecond-scale differences in the arrival time of incoming gravitational wave signals.

In the meantime, you can help the LIGO team with the Gravity Spy citizen science project through Zooniverse.

Sources for further reading:
Press releases:
University of Maryland
Northwestern University
West Virginia University
Pennsylvania State University
Physical Review Letters: GW151226: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a 22-Solar-Mass Binary Black Hole Coalescence
LIGO facts page, Caltech

For an excellent overview of gravitational waves, their sources, and their detection, check out Markus Possel’s excellent series of articles we featured on UT in February:

Gravitational Waves and How They Distort Space

Gravitational Wave Detectors and How They Work

Sources of Gravitational Waves: The Most Violent Events in the Universe

New ‘Einstein Ring’ Discovered By Dark Energy Camera

The "Canarias Einstein Ring." The green-blue ring is the source galaxy, the red one in the middle is the lens galaxy. The lens galaxy has such strong gravity, that it distorts the light from the source galaxy into a ring. Because the two galaxies are aligned, the source galaxy appears almost circular. Image: This composite image is made up from several images taken with the DECam camera on the Blanco 4m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.

A rare object called an Einstein Ring has been discovered by a team in the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. An Einstein Ring is a specific type of gravitational lensing.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted the phenomena of gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing tells us that instead of travelling in a straight line, light from a source can be bent by a massive object, like a black hole or a galaxy, which itself bends space time.

Einstein’s General Relativity was published in 1915, but a few years before that, in 1912, Einstein predicted the bending of light. Russian physicist Orest Chwolson was the first to mention the ring effect in scientific literature in 1924, which is why the rings are also called Einstein-Chwolson rings.

Gravitational lensing is fairly well-known, and many gravitational lenses have been observed. Einstein rings are rarer, because the observer, source, and lens all have to be aligned. Einstein himself thought that one would never be observed at all. “Of course, there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly,” Einstein wrote in 1936.

The team behind the recent discovery was led by PhD student Margherita Bettinelli at the University of La Laguna, and Antonio Aparicio and Sebastian Hidalgo of the Stellar Populations group at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. Because of the rarity of these objects, and the strong scientific interest in them, this one was given a name: The Canarias Einstein Ring.

There are three components to an Einstein Ring. The first is the observer, which in this case means telescopes here on Earth. The second is the lens galaxy, a massive galaxy with enormous gravity. This gravity warps space-time so that not only are objects drawn to it, but light itself is forced to travel along a curved path. The lens lies between Earth and the third component, the source galaxy. The light from the source galaxy is bent into a ring form by the power of the lens galaxy.

When all three components are aligned precisely, which is very rare, the light from the source galaxy is formed into a circle with the lens galaxy right in the centre. The circle won’t be perfect; it will have irregularities that reflect irregularities in the gravitational force of the lens galaxy.

Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA
Another Einstein Ring. This one is named LRG 3-757. This one was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but this image was captured by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Image: NASA/Hubble/ESA

The objects are more than just pretty artifacts of nature. They can tell scientists things about the nature of the lens galaxy. Antonio Aparicio, one of the IAC astrophysicists involved in the research said, “Studying these phenomena gives us especially relevant information about the composition of the source galaxy, and also about the structure of the gravitational field and of the dark matter in the lens galaxy.”

Looking at these objects is like looking back in time, too. The source galaxy is 10 billion light years from Earth. Expansion of the Universe means that the light has taken 8.5 billion light years to reach us. That’s why the ring is blue; that long ago, the source galaxy was young, full of hot blue stars.

The lens itself is much closer to us, but still very distant. It’s 6 billion light years away. Star formation in that galaxy likely came to a halt, and its stellar population is now old.

The discovery of the Canarias Einstein Ring was a happy accident. Bettinelli was pouring over data from what’s known as the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) of the 4m Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Observatory, in Chile. She was studying the stellar population of the Sculptor dwarf galaxy for her PhD when the Einstein Ring caught her attention. Other members of the Stellar Population Group then used OSIRIS spectrograph on the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) to observe and analyze it further.

What Shape is the Universe?

It’s a reasonable question to wonder what the shape of the Universe is. Is it a sphere? A torus? Is it open or closed, or flat? And what does that all mean anyway?

The Universe. It’s the only home we’ve ever known. Thanks to its intrinsic physical laws, the known constants of nature, and the heavy-metal-spewing fireballs known as supernovae we are little tiny beings held fast to a spinning ball of rock in a distant corner of space and time.

Doesn’t it seem a little rude not to know much about the Universe itself? For instance, if we could look at it from outside, what would we see? A vast blackness? A sea of bubbles? Snow globe? Rat maze? A marble in the hands of a larger-dimensional aliens or some other prog rock album cover?

As it turns out, the answer is both simpler and weirder than all those options. What does the Universe look like is a question we love to guess at as a species and make up all kinds of nonsense.

Hindu texts describe the Universe as a cosmic egg, the Jains believed it was human-shaped. The Greek Stoics saw the Universe as a single island floating in an otherwise infinite void, while Aristotle believed it was made up of a finite series of concentric spheres, or perhaps it’s simply “turtles all the way down”.

Thanks to the mathematical genius of Einstein, cosmologists can actually test out the validity of various models that describe the Universe’s shape, turtles, mazes, and otherwise.

There are three main flavors that scientists consider: positively-curved, negatively-curved, and flat. We know it exists in at least four dimensions, so any of the shapes we are about to describe are bordering on Lovecraftian madness geometry, so fire up your madness abacus. Ya! Ya! Cthulhu ftagen.

A positively-curved Universe would look somewhat like a four-dimensional sphere. This type of Universe would be finite in space, but with no discernible edge. In fact, two distant particles travelling in two straight lines would actually intersect before ending up back where they started.

You can try this at home. Grab a balloon and draw a straight line with a sharpie. Your line eventually meets its starting point. A second line starting on the opposite side of the balloon will do the same thing, and it will cross your first line before meeting itself again.

This type of Universe, conveniently easy to imagine in three dimensions – would only arise if the cosmos contained a certain, large amount of energy.

To be positively-curved, or closed, the Universe would first have to stop expanding – something that would only happen if the cosmos housed enough energy to give gravity the leading edge. Present cosmological observations suggest that the Universe should expand forever. So, for now, we’re tossing out the easy to imagine scenario.

A negatively-curved Universe would look like a four-dimensional saddle. Open, without boundaries in space or time. It would contain too little energy to ever stop expanding.

Here two particles traveling on straight paths would never meet. In fact, they would continuously diverge, getting farther and farther away from each other as infinite time spiraled on.

If the Universe is found to contain a Goldilocks-specific, critical amount of energy, teetering perilously between the extremes, its expansion will halt after an infinite amount of time,

This type of Universe is called a flat Universe. Particles in a flat cosmos continue on their merry way in parallel straight paths, never to meet, but never to diverge either.

Sphere, saddle, flat plane. Those are pretty easily to picture. There are other options too – like a soccer ball, a doughnut, or a trumpet.

A soccer ball would look much like a spherical Universe, but one with a very particular signature – a sort of hall of mirrors imprinted on the cosmic microwave background.

The doughnut is technically a flat Universe, but one that is connected in multiple places. Some scientists believe that large warm and cool spots in the CMB could actually be evidence for this kind of tasty topology.

Lastly, we come to the trumpet. This is another way to visualize a negatively-curved cosmos: like a saddle curled into a long tube, with one very flared end and one very narrow end. Someone in the narrow end would find their cosmos to be so cramped, it only had two dimensions. Meanwhile, someone else in the flared end could only travel so far before they found themselves inexplicably turned around and flying the other way.

So which is it? Is our Universe an orange or a bagel? Is it Pringles? A cheese slice? Brass or woodwind? Scientists have not yet ruled out the more wacky, negatively-curved suggestions, such as the saddle or the trumpet.

WMAP data of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Credit: NASA
WMAP data of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Credit: NASA

Haters are going to argue that we will never know what the true shape of our Universe is. Those people are no fun, and are just obstructionists. Seriously, let us help you get better friends.

Based on the most recent Planck data, released in February 2015, our Universe is most likely… Flat. Infinitely finite, not curved even a little bit, with an exact, critical amount of energy supplied by dark matter and dark energy.

I know this gets a little confusing, and meanders right up to the border of nap time, but here’s what I’m hoping you’ll take away from all this.

It’s amazing that not only can we make guesses at what our incredible universe looks like, but that there’s clever people working tirelessly to help us figure that out. It’s one of the things that makes me happiest about talking every week about space and astronomy. I just can’t wait to see what’s next.

So what do you think? Is a flat Universe too boring for your taste? What shape would you like the Universe to be, given the wide array of options?

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Astronomy Cast Ep. 371: The Eddington Eclipse Experiment

At the turn of the 20th Century, Einstein’s theory of relativity stunned the physics world, but the experimental evidence needed to be found. And so, in 1919, another respected astronomer, Arthur Eddington, observed the deflection of stars by the gravity of the Sun during a solar eclipse. Here’s the story of that famous experiment.
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Astronomy Cast Ep. 370: The Kaufmann–Bucherer–Neumann Experiments

One of the most amazing implications of Einstein’s relativity is the fact that the inertial mass of an object depends on its velocity. That sounds like a difficult thing to test, but that’s exactly what happened through a series of experiments performed by Kaufmann, Bucherer, Neumann and others.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 370: The Kaufmann–Bucherer–Neumann Experiments”

How Do We Know Dark Energy Exists?

We have no idea what it dark energy is, so how are we pretty sure it exists?

I’ve talked about how astronomers know that dark matter exists. Even though they can’t see it, they detect it through the effect its gravity has on light. Dark matter accounts for 27% of the Universe, dark energy accounts for 68% of the Universe. And again, astronomers really have no idea what what it is, only that they’re pretty sure it does exist. 95% of the nature of the Universe is a complete and total mystery. We just have no idea what this stuff is.

So this time around, lets focus on dark energy. Back in the late 90s, astronomers wanted to calculate once and for all if the Universe was open or closed. In other words, they wanted to calculate the rate of expansion of the Universe now and then compare this rate to its expansion in the past. In order to answer this question, they searched the skies for a special type of supernova known as a Type 1a.

While most supernovae are just massive stars, Type 1a are white dwarf stars that exist in a binary system. The white dwarf siphons material off of its binary partner, and when it reaches 1.6 times the mass of the Sun, it explodes. The trick is that these always explode with roughly the same amount of energy. So if you measure the brightness of a Type 1a supernova, you know roughly how far away it is.

Astronomers assumed the expansion was slowing down. But the question was, how fast was it slowing down? Would it slow to a halt and maybe even reverse direction? So, what did they discover?

In the immortal words of Isaac Asimov, “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’, but ‘That’s Funny’” Instead of finding that the expansion of the Universe was slowing down, they discovered that it’s speeding up. That’s like trying to calculate how quickly apples fall from trees and finding that they actually fly off into the sky, faster and faster.

Since this amazing, Nobel prize winning discovery, astronomers have used several other methods to verify this mind-bending reality of the Universe. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe studied the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation of the Universe for 7 years, and put the amount of dark energy at 72.8% of the Universe. ESA’s Planck spacecraft performed an even more careful analysis and pegged that number at 68.3% of the Universe.

Einstein Lecturing
Einstein Lecturing. (Ferdinand Schmutzer, Public Domain)

Astronomers know that dark energy exists. There are multiple lines of evidence. But as with dark matter, they have absolutely no clue what it is. Einstein described an idea he called the cosmological constant. It was a way to explain a static Universe that really should be expanding or contracting. Once astronomers figured out the Universe was actually expanding, he threw the idea out.

Hey, not so fast there “Einstein”. Maybe just one of the features of space itself is that it pushes stuff away. And the more space there is, the more outward pressure you get. Perhaps from virtual particles popping in and out of existence in the vacuum of space.

Another possibility is a phenomenon called Quintessence, a negative energy field that pervades the entire Universe. Yes, that sounds totally woo-woo, thanks Universe, Deepak Chopra crazy talk, but it might explain the repulsive force that makes up most of the Universe. And there are other theories, which are even more exotic. But mostly likely it’s something that physicists haven’t even thought of yet.

So, how do we know dark energy exists? Distant supernovae are a lot further away from each other than they should be if the expansion of the Universe was slowing down. Nobody has any idea what it is, it’s a mystery, and there’s nothing wrong with a mystery. In fact, for me, it’s one of the most exciting ideas in space and astronomy.

What do you think dark energy is?