Inside the Crust of Neutron Stars, There’s Nuclear Pasta; the Hardest Known Substance in the Universe

Ever since they were first discovered in the 1930s, scientists have puzzled over the mystery that is neutron stars. These stars, which are the result of a supernova explosion, are the smallest and densest stars in the Universe. While they typically have a radius of about 10 km (6.2 mi) – about 1.437 x 10-5 times that of the Sun – they also average between 1.4 and 2.16 Solar masses.

At this density, which is the same as that of atomic nuclei, a single teaspoon of neutron star material would weigh about as much as 90 million metric tons (100 million US tons). And now, a  team of scientists has conducted a study that indicates that the strongest known material in the Universe – what they refer to as “nuclear pasta” – exists deep inside the crust of neutron stars.

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Last Year’s Gravitational Wave Detections Failed to Provide a Hint of Any Extra Spatial Dimensions

In August of 2017, astronomers made another major breakthrough when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the merger of two neutron stars. Since that time, scientists at multiple facilities around the world have conducted follow-up observations to determine the aftermath this merger, as even to test various cosmological theories.

For instance, in the past, some scientists have suggested that the inconsistencies between Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the nature of the Universe over large-scales could be explained by the presence of extra dimensions. However, according to a new study by a team of American astrophysicists, last year’s kilonova event effectively rules out this hypothesis.

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Superfast Jet of Material Blasted Out From Last Year’s Neutron Star Merger

In August of 2017, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. This “kilonova” event, known as GW170817, was the first astronomical event to be detected in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves – including visible light, gamma rays, X-rays, and radio waves.

In the months that followed the merger, orbiting and ground-based telescopes around the world have observed GW170817 to see what has resulted from it. According to a new study by an international team of astronomers, the merger produced a narrow jet of material that made its way into interstellar space at velocities approaching the speed of light.

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Okay, Last Year’s Kilonova Did Probably Create a Black Hole

In August of 2017, another major breakthrough occurred when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. Shortly thereafter, scientists at LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to determine where in the sky this event (known as a kilonova) occurred.

This source, known as GW170817/GRB, has been the target of many follow-up surveys since it was believed that the merge could have led to the formation of a black hole. According to a new study by a team that analyzed data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since the event, scientists can now say with greater confidence that the merger created a new black hole in our galaxy.

The study, titled “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by David Pooley, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy at Trinity University, San Antonio, and included members from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley, and Nazarbayev University’s Energetic Cosmos Laboratory in Kazakhstan.

Illustration of the kilonova merger (top), and the resulting object (left and right) over time. Credit: NASA/CXC/Trinity University/D. Pooley et al. Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

For the sake of their study, the team analyzed X-ray data from Chandra taken in the days, weeks, and months after the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO and gamma rays by NASA’s Fermi mission. While nearly every telescope in the world had observed the source, X-ray data was critical to understanding what happened after the two neutron stars collided.

While a Chandra observation two to three days after the event failed to detect an X-ray source, subsequent observations taken 9, 15, and 16 days after the event resulted in detections. The source disappeared for a time as GW170817 passed behind the Sun, but additional observations were made about 110 and 160 days after the event, both of which showed significant brightening.

While the LIGO data provided astronomers with a good estimate of the resulting object’s mass after the neutron stars merged (2.7 Solar Masses), this was not enough to determine what it had become. Essentially, this amount of mass meant that it was either the most massive neutron star ever found or the lowest-mass black hole ever found (the previous record holders being four or five Solar Masses). As Dave Pooley explained in a NASA/Chandra press release:

“While neutron stars and black holes are mysterious, we have studied many of them throughout the Universe using telescopes like Chandra. That means we have both data and theories on how we expect such objects to behave in X-rays.”

Illustration of the resulting black hole caused by GW170817. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

If the neutron stars merged to form a heavier neutron star, then astronomers would expect it to spin rapidly and generate and very strong magnetic field. This would have also created an expanded bubble of high-energy particles that would result in bright X-ray emissions. However, the Chandra data revealed X-ray emissions that were several hundred times lower than expected from a massive, rapidly-spinning neutron star.

By comparing the Chandra observations with those by the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), Pooley and his team were also able to deduce that the X-ray emission were due entirely to the shock wave caused by the merger smashing into surrounding gas. In short, there was no sign of X-rays resulting from a neutron star.

This strongly implies that the resulting object was in fact a black hole. If confirmed, these results would indicate that the formation process of a blackhole can sometimes be complicated. Essentially, GW170817 would have been the result of two stars undergoing a supernova explosion that left behind two neutron stars in a sufficiently tight orbit that they eventually came together. As Pawan Kumar explained:

“We may have answered one of the most basic questions about this dazzling event: what did it make? Astronomers have long suspected that neutron star mergers would form a black hole and produce bursts of radiation, but we lacked a strong case for it until now.”

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

Looking ahead, the claims put forward by Pooley and his colleagues could be tested by future X-ray and radio observations. Next-generation instruments – like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) currently under construction in South Africa and Australia, and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (Athena+) – would be especially helpful in this regard.

If the remnant turns out to be a massive neutron star with a strong magnetic field after all, then the source should get much brighter in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the coming years as the high-energy bubble catches up with the decelerating shock wave. As the shock wave weakens, astronomers expect that it will continue to become fainter than it was when recently observed.

Regardless, future observations of GW170817 are bound to provide a wealth of information, according to J. Craig Wheeler, a co-author on the study also from the University of Texas. “GW170817 is the astronomical event that keeps on giving,” he said. “We are learning so much about the astrophysics of the densest known objects from this one event.”

If these follow-up observations find that a heavy neutron star is what resulted from the merger, this discovery would challenge theories about the structure of neutron stars and how massive they can get. On the other hand, if they find that it formed a tiny black hole, then it will challenge astronomers notions about the lower mass limits of black holes. For astrophysicists, it’s basically a win-win scenario.

As co-author Bruce Grossan of the University of California at Berkeley added:

“At the beginning of my career, astronomers could only observe neutron stars and black holes in our own galaxy, and now we are observing these exotic stars across the cosmos. What an exciting time to be alive, to see instruments like LIGO and Chandra showing us so many thrilling things nature has to offer.”

Indeed, looking farther out into the cosmos and deeper back in time has revealed much about the Universe that was previously unknown. And with improved instruments being developed for the sole purpose of studying astronomical phenomena in greater detail and at even greater distances, there seems to be no limit to what we might learn. And be sure to check out this video of the GW170817 merger, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

How to Listen to the Background Hum of Gravitational Waves From all the Black Holes Colliding into Each Other

The first-ever detection of gravitational waves (which took place in September of 2015) triggered a revolution in astronomy. Not only did this event confirm a theory predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity a century before, it also ushered in a new era where the mergers of distant black holes, supernovae, and neutron stars could be studied by examining their resulting waves.

In addition, scientists have theorized that black hole mergers could actually be a lot more common than previously thought. According to a new study conducted by pair of researchers from Monash University, these mergers happen once every few minutes. By listening to the background noise of the Universe, they claim, we could find evidence of thousands of previously undetected events.

Their study, titled “Optimal Search for an Astrophysical Gravitational-Wave Background“, recently appeared in the journal Physical Review X. The study was conducted by Rory Smith and Eric Thrane, a senior lecturer and a research fellow at Monash University, respectively. Both researchers are also members of the ARC Center of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).

Drs. Eric Thrane and Rory Smith. Credit: Monash University

As they state in their study, every 2 to 10 minutes, a pair of stellar-mass black holes merge somewhere in the Universe. A small fraction of these are large enough that the resulting gravitational wave event can be detected by advanced instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and Virgo observatory. The rest, however, contribute to a sort of stochastic background noise.

By measuring this noise, scientists may be able to study much more in the way of events and learn a great deal more about gravitational waves. As Dr Thrane explained in a Monash University press statement:

“Measuring the gravitational-wave background will allow us to study populations of black holes at vast distances. Someday, the technique may enable us to see gravitational waves from the Big Bang, hidden behind gravitational waves from black holes and neutron stars.”

Drs Smith and Thrane are no amateurs when it comes to the study of gravitational waves. Last year, they were both involved in a major breakthrough, where researchers from LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the Virgo Collaboration measured gravitational waves from a pair of merging neutron stars. This was the first time that a neutron star merger (aka. a kilonova) was observed in both gravitational waves and visible light.

The pair were also part of the Advanced LIGO team that made the first detection of gravitational waves in September 2015. To date, six confirmed gravitational wave events have been confirmed by the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. But according to Drs Thrane and Smith, there could be as many as 100,000 events happening every year that these detectors simply aren’t equipped to handle.

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

These waves are what come together to create a gravitational wave background; and while the individual events are too subtle to be detected, researchers have been attempting to develop a method for detecting the general noise for years. Relying on a combination of computer simulations of faint black hole signals and masses of data from known events, Drs. Thrane and Smith claim to have done just that.

From this, the pair were able to produce a signal within the simulated data that they believe is evidence of faint black hole mergers. Looking ahead, Drs Thrane and Smith hope to apply their new method to real data, and are optimistic it will yield results. The researchers will also have access to the new OzSTAR supercomputer, which was installed last month at the Swinburne University of Technology to help scientists to look for gravitational waves in LIGO data.

This computer is different from those used by the LIGO community, which includes the supercomputers at CalTech and MIT. Rather than relying on more traditional central processing units (CPUs), OzGrav uses graphical processor units – which can be hundreds of times faster for some applications. According to Professor Matthew Bailes, the Director of the OzGRav supercomputer:

“It is 125,000 times more powerful than the first supercomputer I built at the institution in 1998… By harnessing the power of GPUs, OzStar has the potential to make big discoveries in gravitational-wave astronomy.”

What has been especially impressive about the study of gravitational waves is how it has progressed so quickly. From the initial detection in 2015, scientists from Advanced LIGO and Virgo have now confirmed six different events and anticipate detecting many more. On top of that, astrophysicists are even coming up with ways to use gravitational waves to learn more about the astronomical phenomena that cause them.

All of this was made possible thanks to improvements in instrumentation and growing collaboration between observatories. And with more sophisticated methods designed to sift through archival data for additional signals and background noise, we stand to learn a great deal more about this mysterious cosmic force.

Further Reading: Monash, Physical Review X

Dense Star Clusters Could be the Places Where Black Hole Mergers are Common

In February of 2016, scientists working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Not only did this discovery confirm a century-old prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it also confirmed the existence of stellar binary black holes – which merged to produce the signal in the first place.

And now, an international team led by MIT astrophysicist Carl Rodriguez has produced a study that suggests that  black holes may merge multiple times. According to their study, these “second-generation mergers” likely occur within globular clusters, the large and compact star clusters that typically orbit at the edges of galaxies – and which are densely-packed with hundreds of thousands to millions of stars.

The study, titled “Post-Newtonian Dynamics in Dense Star Clusters: Highly Eccentric, Highly Spinning, and Repeated Binary Black Hole Mergers“, recently appeared in the Physical Review Letters. The study was led by Carl Rodriguez, a Pappalardo fellow in MIT’s Department of Physics and the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and included members from the Institute of Space Sciences and the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

As Carl Rodriguez explained in a recent MIT press release:

“We think these clusters formed with hundreds to thousands of black holes that rapidly sank down in the center. These kinds of clusters are essentially factories for black hole binaries, where you’ve got so many black holes hanging out in a small region of space that two black holes could merge and produce a more massive black hole. Then that new black hole can find another companion and merge again.”

Globular clusters have been a source of fascination ever since astronomers first observed them in the 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stars in the Universe, and can be found in most galaxies. Depending on the size and type of galaxy they orbit, the number of clusters varies, with elliptical galaxies hosting tens of thousands while galaxies like the Milky Way have over 150.

For years, Rodriguez has been investigating the behavior of black holes within globular clusters to see if they interact with their stars differently from black holes that occupy less densely-populated regions in space. To test this hypothesis, Rodriguez and his colleagues used the Quest supercomputer at Northwestern University to conduct simulations on 24 stellar clusters.

These clusters ranged in size from 200,000 to 2 million stars and covered a range of different densities and metallic compositions. The simulations modeled the evolution of individual stars within these clusters over the course of 12 billion years. This span of time was enough to follow these stars as they interacted with each other, and eventually formed black holes.

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist’s impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

The simulations also modeled the evolution and trajectories of black holes once they formed. As Rodriguez explained:

“The neat thing is, because black holes are the most massive objects in these clusters, they sink to the center, where you get a high enough density of black holes to form binaries. Binary black holes are basically like giant targets hanging out in the cluster, and as you throw other black holes or stars at them, they undergo these crazy chaotic encounters.”

Whereas previous simulations were based on Newton’s physics, the team decided to add Einstein’s relativistic effects into their simulations of globular clusters. This was due to the fact that gravitational waves were not predicted by Newton’s theories, but by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. As Rodriguez indicated, this allowed for them to see how gravitational waves played a role:

“What people had done in the past was to treat this as a purely Newtonian problem. Newton’s theory of gravity works in 99.9 percent of all cases. The few cases in which it doesn’t work might be when you have two black holes whizzing by each other very closely, which normally doesn’t happen in most galaxies… In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, where I can emit gravitational waves, then when one black hole passes near another, it can actually emit a tiny pulse of gravitational waves. This can subtract enough energy from the system that the two black holes actually become bound, and then they will rapidly merge.”

Artist’s conception shows two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. Credit: LIGO/Caltech

What they observed was that inside the stellar clusters, black holes merge with each other to create new black holes. In previous simulations, Newtonian gravity predicted that most binary black holes would be kicked out of the cluster before they could merge. But by taking relativistic effects into account, Rodriguez and his team found that nearly half of the binary black holes merged to form more massive ones.

As Rodriguez explained, the difference between those that merged and those that were kicked out came down to spin:

“If the two black holes are spinning when they merge, the black hole they create will emit gravitational waves in a single preferred direction, like a rocket, creating a new black hole that can shoot out as fast as 5,000 kilometers per second — so, insanely fast. It only takes a kick of maybe a few tens to a hundred kilometers per second to escape one of these clusters.”

This raised another interesting fact about previous simulations, where astronomers believed that the product of any black hole merger would be kicked out of the cluster since most black holes are assumed to be rapidly spinning. However, the gravity wave measurements recently obtained from LIGO appear to contradict this, which has only detected the mergers of binary black holes with low spins.

Artist’s impression of two merging black holes. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

This assumption, however, seems to contradict the measurements from LIGO, which has so far only detected binary black holes with low spins. To test the implications of this, Rodriguez and his colleagues reduced the spin rates of the black holes in their simulations. What they found was that nearly 20% of the binary black holes from clusters had at least one black hole that ranged from being 50 to 130 solar masses.

Essentially, this indicated that these were “second generation” black holes, since scientists believe that this mass cannot be achieved by a black hole that formed from a single star. Looking ahead, Rodriguez and his team anticipate that if LIGO detects an object with a mass within this range, it is likely the result of black holes merging within dense stellar cluster, rather than from a single star.

“If we wait long enough, then eventually LIGO will see something that could only have come from these star clusters, because it would be bigger than anything you could get from a single star,” Rodriguez says. “My co-authors and I have a bet against a couple people studying binary star formation that within the first 100 LIGO detections, LIGO will detect something within this upper mass gap. I get a nice bottle of wine if that happens to be true.”

The detection of gravitational waves was a historic accomplishment, and one that has enabled astronomers to conduct new and exciting research. Already, scientists are gaining new insight into black holes by studying the byproduct of their mergers. In the coming years, we can expect to learn a great deal more thanks to improve methods and increased cooperation between observatories.

Further Reading: MIT, Physical Review Letters

Here’s Something Strange, the Afterglow From Last Year’s Kilonova is Continuing to Brighten

In August of 2017, a major breakthrough occurred when scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the collision of two neutron stars. This source, known as GW170817/GRB, was the first gravitational wave (GW) event that was not caused by the merger of two black holes, and was even believed to have led to the formation of one.

As such, scientists from all over the world have been studying this event ever since to learn what they can from it. For example, according to a new study led by the McGill Space Institute and Department of Physics, GW170817/GRB has shown some rather strange behavior since the two neutron stars colliding last August. Instead of dimming, as was expected, it has been gradually growing brighter.

The study that describes the team’s findings, titled “Brightening X-Ray Emission from GW170817/GRB 170817A: Further Evidence for an Outflow“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by John Ruan of McGill University’s Space Institute and included members from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Northwestern University, and the Leicester Institute for Space and Earth Observation.

Chandra images showing the X-ray afterglow of the GW170817/GRB event. Credit: NASA/CXC/McGill University/J. Ruan et al.

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data obtained by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which showed that the remnant has been brightening in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the months since the collision took place. As Daryl Haggard, an astrophysicist with McGill University whose research group led the new study, said in a recent Chandra press release:

“Usually when we see a short gamma-ray burst, the jet emission generated gets bright for a short time as it smashes into the surrounding medium – then fades as the system stops injecting energy into the outflow. This one is different; it’s definitely not a simple, plain-Jane narrow jet.”

What’s more, these X-ray observations are consistent with radiowave data reported last month by another team of scientists, who also indicated that it was continuing to brighten during the three months since the collision. During this same period, X-ray and optical observatories were unable to monitor GW170817/GRB because it was too close to the Sun at the time.

However, once this period ended, Chandra was able to gather data again, which was consistent with these other observations. As John Ruan explained:

“When the source emerged from that blind spot in the sky in early December, our Chandra team jumped at the chance to see what was going on. Sure enough, the afterglow turned out to be brighter in the X-ray wavelengths, just as it was in the radio.”

Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold (Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.)

This unexpected behavior has led to a serious buzz in the scientific community, with astronomers trying to come up with explanations as to what type of physics could be driving these emissions. One theory is a complex model for neutron star mergers known as “cocoon theory”. In accordance with this theory, the merger of two neutron stars could trigger the release of a jet that shock-heats the surrounding gaseous debris.

This hot “cocoon” around the jet would glow brightly, which would explain the increase in X-ray and radiowave emissions. In the coming months, additional observations are sure to be made for the sake of confirming or denying this explanation. Regardless of whether or not the “cocoon theory” holds up, any and all future studies are sure to reveal a great deal more about this mysterious remnant and its strange behavior.

As Melania Nynka, another McGill postdoctoral researcher and a co-author on the paper indicated, GW170817/GRB presents some truly unique opportunities for astrophysical research. “This neutron-star merger is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” she said. “For astrophysicists, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving.”

It is no exaggeration to say that the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, which took place in February of 2016, has led to a new era in astronomy. But the detection of two neutron stars colliding was also a revolutionary accomplishment. For the first time, astronomers were able to observe such an event in both light waves and gravitational waves.

In the end, the combination of improved technology, improved methodology, and closer cooperation between institutions and observatories is allowing scientists to study cosmic phenomena that was once merely theoretical. Looking ahead, the possibilities seem almost limitless!

Further Reading: Chandra X-Ray Observatory, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Astronomers Set the Limit for Just How Massive Neutron Stars Can Be

In February of 2016, scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Since that time, the study of gravitational waves has advanced considerably and opened new possibilities into the study of the Universe and the laws which govern it.

For example, a team from the University of Frankurt am Main recently showed how gravitational waves could be used to determine how massive neutron stars can get before collapsing into black holes. This has remained a mystery since neutron stars were first discovered in the 1960s. And with an upper mass limit now established, scientists will be able to develop a better understanding of how matter behaves under extreme conditions.

The study which describes their findings recently appeared in the scientific journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters under the title “Using Gravitational-wave Observations and Quasi-universal Relations to Constrain the Maximum Mass of Neutron Stars“. The study was led by Luciano Rezzolla, the Chair of Theoretical Astrophysics and the Director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Frankfurt, with assistance provided by his students, Elias Most and Lukas Wei.

Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

For the sake of their study, the team considered recent observations made of the gravitational wave event known as  GW170817. This event, which took place on August 17th, 2017, was the sixth gravitational wave to be discovered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo Observatory. Unlike previous events, this one was unique in that it appeared to be caused by the collision and explosion of two neutron stars.

And whereas other events occurred at distances of about a billion light years, GW170817 took place only 130 million light years from Earth, which allowed for rapid detection and research. In addition, based on modeling that was conducted months after the event (and using data obtained by the Chandra X-ray Observatory) the collision appeared to have left behind a black hole as a remnant.

The team also adopted a “universal relations” approach for their study, which was developed by researchers at Frankfurt University a few years ago. This approach implies that all neutron stars have similar properties which can be expressed in terms of dimensionless quantities. Combined with the GW data, they concluded that the maximum mass of non-rotating neutron stars cannot exceed 2.16 solar masses.

 

Artist’s impression of gravitational-wave emissions from a collapsing star. Credit: aktuelles.uni-frankfurt.de

As Professor Rezzolla explained in a University of Frankfurt press release:

“The beauty of theoretical research is that it can make predictions. Theory, however, desperately needs experiments to narrow down some of its uncertainties. It’s therefore quite remarkable that the observation of a single binary neutron star merger that occurred millions of light years away combined with the universal relations discovered through our theoretical work have allowed us to solve a riddle that has seen so much speculation in the past.”

This study is a good example of how theoretical and experimental research can coincide to produce better models ad predictions. A few days after the publication of their study, research groups from the USA and Japan independently confirmed the findings. Just as significantly, these research teams confirmed the studies findings using different approaches and techniques.

In the future, gravitational-wave astronomy is expected to observe many more events. And with improved methods and more accurate models at their disposal, astronomers are likely to learn even more about the most mysterious and powerful forces at work in our Universe.

Further Reading: Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

The Gaia Mission Could Moonlight as a Gravitational Wave Detector

The ESA's Gaia mission is currently on a five-year mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. Gaia has found evidence for a galactic collision that occurred between 300 million and 900 million years ago. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier.

In February of 2016, scientists working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Since that time, multiple detections have taken place, thanks in large to part to improvements in instruments and greater levels of collaboration between observatories. Looking ahead, its possible that missions not designed for this purpose could also “moonlight” as gravitational wave detectors.

For example, the Gaia spacecraft – which is busy creating the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way – could also be instrumental when it comes to gravitational wave research. That’s what a team of astronomers from the University of Cambridge recently claimed. According to their study, the Gaia satellite has the necessary sensitivity to study ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that are produced by supermassive black hole mergers.

The study, titled “Astrometric Search Method for Individually Resolvable Gravitational Wave Sources with Gaia“, recently appeared in the Physical Review Letters. Led by Christopher J. Moore, a theoretical physicist from the Center for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, the team included members from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, Cavendish Laboratory, and Kavli Institute for Cosmology.

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars, which are a source of gravitational waves. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

To recap, gravitational waves (GWs) are ripples in space-time that are created by violent events, such as black hole mergers, collisions between neutron stars, and even the Big Bang. Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, observatories like LIGO and Advanced Virgo detect these waves by measuring the way space-time flexes and squeezes in response to GWs passing through Earth.

However, passing GWs would also cause the Earth to oscillate in its location with respect to the stars. As a result, an orbiting space telescope (such as Gaia), would be able to pick up on this by noting a temporary shift in the position of distant stars. Launched in 2013, the Gaia observatory has spent the past few years conducting high-precision observations of the positions of stars in our Galaxy (aka. astrometry).

In this respect, Gaia would look for small displacements in the massive field of stars it is monitoring to determine if gravitational waves have passed through the Earth’s neighborhood. To investigate whether or not Gaia was up to the task, Moore and his colleagues performed calculations to determine if the Gaia space telescope had the necessary sensitivity to detect ultra-low frequency GWs.

To this end, Moore and his colleagues simulated gravitational waves produced by a binary supermassive black hole – i.e. two SMBHs orbiting one another. What they found was that by compressing the data sets by a factor of more than 106 (measuring 100,000 stars instead of a billion at a time), GWs could be recovered from Gaia data with an only 1% loss of sensitivity.

Figure showing a Gaia star field, with red and black lines indicating induced apparent motions of the stars within a hemisphere. Credit: Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge

This method would be similar to that used in Pulsar Timing Arrays, where a set of millisecond pulsars are examined to determine if gravitational waves modify the frequency of their pulses. However, in this case, stars are being monitored to see if they are oscillating with a characteristic pattern, rather than pulsing. By looking at a field of 100,000 stars at a time, researchers would be able to detect induced apparent motions (see figure above).

Because of this, the full release of Gaia data (scheduled for the early 2020s) is likely to be a major opportunity for those hunting for GW signals. As Moore explained in a APS Physics press release:

“Gaia will make measuring this effect a realistic prospect for the first time. Many factors contribute to the feasibility of the approach, including the precision and long duration of the astrometric measurements. Gaia will observe about a billion stars over 5–10 years, locating each one of them at least 80 times during that period. Observing so many stars is the major advance provided by Gaia.”

It is also interesting to note that the potential for GW detection was something that researchers recognized when Gaia was still being designed. One such individual was Sergei A. Klioner, a researcher from the Lorhrmann Observatory and the leader of the Gaia group at TU Dresden. As he indicated in his 2017 study, “Gaia-like astrometry and gravitational waves“, Gaia could detect GWs caused by merging SMBHs years after the event:

“It is clear that the most promising sources of gravitational waves for astrometric detection are supermassive binary black holes in the centers of galaxies… It is believed that binary supermassive black holes are a relatively common product of interaction and merging of galaxies in the typical course of their evolution. This sort of objects can give gravitational waves with both frequencies and amplitudes potentially within the reach of space astrometry. Moreover, the gravitational waves from those objects can often be considered to have virtually constant frequency and amplitude during the whole period of observations of several years.”
Artist’s impression of two merging black holes, which has been theorized to be a source of gravitational waves. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

But of course, there’s no guarantees that sifting through the Gaia data will reveal additional GW signals. For one thing, Moore and his colleagues acknowledge that waves at these ultra-low frequencies could be too weak for even Gaia to detect. In addition, researchers will have to be able to distinguish between GWs and conflicting signals that result from changes in the spacecraft’s orientation – which is no easy challenge!

Still, there is hope that missions like Gaia will be able to reveal GWs that are not easily visible to ground-based interferometric detectors like LIGO and Advanced Virgo. Such detectors are subject to atmospheric effects (like refraction) which prevent them from seeing extremely low frequency waves – for instance, the primordial waves produced during the inflationary epoch of the Big Bang.

In this sense, gravitational wave research is not unlike exoplanet research and many other branches of astronomy. In order to find the hidden gems, observatories may need to take to space to eliminate atmospheric interference and increase their sensitivity. It is possible then that other space telescopes will be retooled for GW research, and that next-generation GW detectors will be mounted aboard spacecraft.

In the past few years, scientists have gone from making the first detection of gravitational waves to developing new and better ways to detecting them. At this rate, it won’t be long before astronomers and cosmologists are able to include gravitational waves into our cosmological models. In other words, they will be able to show what influence these waves played in the history and evolution of the Universe.

Further Reading: Kavli Institute for Cosmology, APS Physics, Physical Review Letters

Kilonova Neutron Star Collision Probably Left Behind a Black Hole

In February of 2016, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. A little over a century after they were first predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, we finally had proof that this phenomenon existed. In August of 2017, another major breakthrough occurred when LIGO detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger.

Shortly thereafter, scientists at LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to determine where in the sky the neutron star merger occurred. While many studies have focused on the by-products of this merger, a new study by researchers from Trinity University, the University of Texas at Austin and Eureka Scientific, has chosen to focus on the remnant, which they claim is likely a black hole.

For the sake of their study, which recently appeared online under the title “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, the team consulted data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to examine what resulted of the supernova merger. This data was obtained during Director’s Discretionary Time observations that were made on December 3rd and 6th, 2017, some 108 days after the merger.

This data showed a light-curve increase in the X-ray band which was compatible to the radio flux increase that was reported by a previous study conducted by the same team. These combined results suggest that radio and X-ray emissions were being produced at the same source, and that the rising light-curve that followed the merger was likely due to an increase in accelerated charged particles in the external shock – the region where an outflow of gas interacts with the interstellar medium.

As they indicate in their study, this could either be explained as the result of a more massive neutron star being formed from the merger, or a black hole:

“The merger of two neutron stars with mass 1.48 ± 0.12 M and 1.26 ± 0.1 M — where the merged object has a mass of 2.74 +0.04-0.01 M… could result in either a neutron star or a black hole. There might also be a debris disk that gets accreted onto the central object over a period of time, and which could be source of keV X-rays.”

The team also ruled out various possibilities of what could account for this rise in X-ray luminosity. Basically, they concluded that the X-ray photons were not coming from a debris disk, which would have been left over from the merger of the two neutron stars. They also deduced that they would not be produced by a relativistic jet spewing from the remnant, since the flux would be much lower after 102 days.

 

Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

All of this indicated that the remnant was more likely to be a black hole than a hyper-massive neutron star. As they explained:

“We show next that if the merged object were a hyper-massive neutron star endowed with a strong magnetic field, then the X-ray luminosity associated with the dipole radiation would be larger than the observed luminosity 10 days after the event, but much smaller than the observed flux at t ~ 100 days. This argues against the formation of a hyper-massive neutron star in this merger.”

Last, but not least, they considered the X-ray and radio emissions that were present roughly 100 days after the merger. These, they claim, are best explained by continued emissions coming from the merger-induced shock (and the not remnant itself) since these emissions would continue to propagate in the interstellar medium around the remnant. Combined with early X-ray data, this all points towards GW170817 now being a black hole.

The first-ever detection of gravitational waves signaled the dawn of a new era in astronomical research. Since that time, observatories like LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and GEO 600 have also benefited from information-sharing and new studies that have indicated that mergers are more common than previously thought, and that gravity waves could be used to probe the interior of supernovae.

With this latest study, scientists have learned that they are not only able to detect the waves caused by black hole mergers, but even the creation thereof. At the same time, it shows how the study of the Universe is growing. Not only is astronomy advancing to the point where we are able to study more and more of the visible Universe, but the invisible Universe as well.

Further Reading: LIGO, arXiv