The European Space Agency successfully launched the LISA Pathfinder, a spacecraft designed to demonstrate technology for observing gravitational waves in space. The launch took place at Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on a Vega rocket, at 4:04 GMT on December 3, (10:04 pm EST Dec 2), 2015.
Last March, international researchers from the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole claimed that they detected primordial “B-mode” polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. If confirmed, this would have been an incredibly important discovery for astrophysics, as it would constitute evidence of gravitational waves due to cosmic inflation in the first moments of the universe. Nevertheless, as often happens in science, the situation turns out to be more complicated than it initially appeared.
In a joint analysis of data from BICEP2/Keck Array in the South Pole and the space-based Planck telescope, scientists from both collaborations now have a more complete picture and argue that the interpretation of the evidence is muddier than they had previously thought. Their paper will appear in the arXiv pre-print server in a few days and is submitted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. [Update: the paper is now available on the arXiv.] The European Space Agency issued a press release about the paper on Friday after a summary of it was leaked and briefly posted on a French website.
According to inflationary theory, the universe expanded for a brief period at an exponential rate 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang. As a result, models of inflation predict that this rapid acceleration would create ripples in space, generating gravitational waves that would remain energetic enough to leave an imprint on the last-scattered photons, the CMB radiation, approximately 380,000 years later. The CMB spectrum, the “afterglow of the hot Big Bang,” has rich structure in it and has been measured to a “ridiculous level of precision,” according to Professor Martin White (University of California, Berkeley), who gave a plenary talk on cosmology results from Planck at the recent American Astronomical Society meeting.
The twists in the polarization signal of the CMB, known as B-modes (shown below) and quantified by a nonzero tensor-to-scalar ratio r, would be evidence in favor of inflation but they are much more difficult to detect. Scientists are trying to decipher a signal on the level of parts per trillion of ambient temperature, mere fractions of a nano-degree! Since inflation would explain why the universe appears to have no overall curvature, why it approximately appears the same in all directions, and why it has structures of galaxies in it, BICEP2’s result last year—the first claimed detection of cosmic inflation—excited physicists around the world. But last summer, Planck scientists presented a map of polarized light from interstellar dust grains and argued that the polarization signal BICEP2 detected could be due to “foreground” dust in our own Milky Way galaxy rather than due to primordial gravitational waves in the distant universe. The hotly debated controversy remained unresolved and led to the new joint analysis by scientists from both teams.
BICEP2 is sensitive to low frequencies (150 GHz) while Planck is more sensitive to higher ones (353 GHz). As Professor Brian Keating (University of California, San Diego), a member of the BICEP2 collaboration, puts it, “it’s as if you’re listening to an opera, but BICEP2 could only hear the tenors and Planck could only hear the sopranos.” Unfortunately, the joint analysis produced only an upper limit to the value of r, meaning that the evidence for B-mode polarization due to inflation remains elusive for now. “It’s probably at best an admixture of Milky Way dust and gravitational waves,” says Keating. [Full disclosure: until last year, Ramin Skibba was a research scientist in the same department but in a different field as Keating at UC San Diego.]
This result must seem disappointing to BICEP2 scientists, but science often works this way, especially for such a difficult phenomenon to study. The signal is strong, but the interpretation is more complicated than it first appeared. On a positive note, the analysis shows that CMB researchers are faced with a foreground challenge rather than one due to the Earth’s atmosphere or to their detectors.
Although Planck will have additional polarization measurements and more assessments of systematic uncertainties in a later data release, they will not be able to settle this debate for now. But new experiments will come online soon, including a BICEP3, and they will produce more precise measurements that could effectively remove the contribution from dust. The signal is tractable, and scientists are looking forward to the day when they can declare with strong statistical significance that they have finally discovered evidence of inflation.
Thanks to our powerful telescopes, there are so many places in the Universe we can see. But there are places hidden from us, and places that we’ll never be able to see.
We’re really lucky to live in our Universe with our particular laws of physics. At least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves. The laws of physics can be cruel and unforgiving, and should you try and cross them, they will crush you like a bug.
Here at Universe Today, we embrace our Physics overlords and prefer to focus on the positive, the fact that light travels at the speed of light is really helpful. This allows us to look backwards in time as we look further out. Billions of light-years away, we can see what the Universe looked like billions of years ago. Physics is good. Physics knows what’s best. Thanks physics. And where the hand of physics gives, it can also take away.
There are some parts of the Universe that we’ll never, ever be able to see. No matter what we do. They’ll always remain just out of reach. No matter how much we plead, in some sort of Kafka-esque nightmare, these rules do not appear to have conscience or room for appeal.
As we look outward in the cosmos, we look backwards in time and at the very edge of our vision is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. The point after the Big Bang where everything had cooled down enough so it was no longer opaque. Light could finally escape and travel through a transparent Universe. This happened about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. What happened before that is a mystery. We can calculate what the Universe was like, but we can’t actually look at it. Possibly, we just don’t have the right clearance levels.
On the other end of the timeline, in the distant distant future. Assuming humans, or our Terry Gilliam inspired robot bodies are still around to observe the Universe, there will be a lot less to see. Distance is also out to rain on our sightseeing safari. The expansion of the Universe is accelerating, and galaxies are speeding away from each other faster and faster. Eventually, they’ll be moving away from us faster than the speed of light.
When that happens, we’ll see the last few photons from those distant galaxies, redshifted into oblivion. And then, we won’t see any galaxies at all. Their light will never reach us and our skies will be eerily empty. Just don’t let physics hear a sad tone in your voice, we don’t want to spend another night in the “joy re-education camps”
Currently, we can see a sphere of the Universe that measures 92 billion light-years across. Outside that sphere is more Universe, a hidden, censored Universe. Universe that we can’t see because the light hasn’t reached us yet. Fortunately, every year that goes by, a little less Universe is redacted from the record, and the sphere we can observe gets bigger by one light-year. We can see a little more in all directions.
Finally, let’s consider what’s inside the event horizon of a black hole. A place that you can’t look at, because the gravity is so strong that light itself can never escape it. So by definition, you can’t see what absorbs all its own light. Astronomers don’t know if black holes crunch down to a physical sphere and stop shrinking, or continue shrinking forever, getting smaller and smaller into infinity. Clearly, we can’t look there because we shouldn’t be looking there. They’re terrible places. The possibility of shrinking forever gives me the heebies.
And so, good news! The chocolate ration has been increased from 40 grams to 25 grams, and our physics overlords are good, can only do good, and always know what’s best for us. In fact, so good that gravity might actually provide us with a tool to “see” these hidden places, but only because “they” want us to.
When black holes form, or massive objects smash into each other, or there are “Big Bangs”, these generate distortions in spacetime called gravitational waves. Like gravity itself, these propagate across the Universe and could be detected.It’s possible we could use gravitational waves to “see” beyond the event horizon of a black hole, or past the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.
The problem is that gravitational waves are so faint, we haven’t even detected a single one yet. But that’s probably just a technology problem. In the end, we need a more sensitive observatory. We’ll get there. Alternately we could apply to the laws of physics board of appeals and fill in one of their 2500 page application forms in triplicate and see if we can be granted a rules exception, and maybe just get a tiny little peek behind that veil.
We live an amazing Universe, most of which we’ll never be able to see. But that’s okay, there’s enough we can see to keep us busy until infinity. What law of physics would you like to be granted a special exception to ignore. Tell us in the comments below.
When it comes to the many mysteries of the Universe, a special category is reserved for black holes. Since they are invisible to the naked eye, they remain visibly undetected, and scientists are forced to rely on “seeing” the effects their intense gravity has on nearby stars and gas clouds in order to study them.
That may be about to change, thanks to a team from Cardiff University. Here, researchers have achieved a breakthrough that could help scientists discover hundreds of black holes throughout the Universe.
Led by Dr. Mark Hannam from the School of Physics and Astronomy, the researchers have built a theoretical model which aims to predict all potential gravitational-wave signals that might be found by scientists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors.
These detectors, which act like microphones, are designed to search out remnants of black hole collisions. When they are switched on, the Cardiff team hope their research will act as a sort of “spotters guide” and help scientists pick up the faint ripples of collisions – known as gravitational waves – that took place millions of years ago.
Made up of postdoctoral researchers, PhD students, and collaborators from universities in Europe and the United States, the Cardiff team will work with scientists across the world as they attempt to unravel the origins of the Universe.
“The rapid spinning of black holes will cause the orbits to wobble, just like the last wobbles of a spinning top before it falls over,” Hannam said. “These wobbles can make the black holes trace out wild paths around each other, leading to extremely complicated gravitational-wave signals. Our model aims to predict this behavior and help scientists find the signals in the detector data.”
Already, the new model has been programmed into the computer codes that LIGO scientists all over the world are preparing to use to search for black-hole mergers when the detectors switch on.
Dr Hannam added: “Sometimes the orbits of these spinning black holes look completely tangled up, like a ball of string. But if you imagine whirling around with the black holes, then it all looks much clearer, and we can write down equations to describe what is happening. It’s like watching a kid on a high-speed spinning amusement park ride, apparently waving their hands around. From the side lines, it’s impossible to tell what they’re doing. But if you sit next to them, they might be sitting perfectly still, just giving you the thumbs up.”
But of course, there’s still work to do: “So far we’ve only included these precession effects while the black holes spiral towards each other,” said Dr. Hannam. “We still need to work our exactly what the spins do when the black holes collide.”
For that they need to perform large computer simulations to solve Einstein’s equations for the moments before and after the collision. They’ll also need to produce many simulations to capture enough combinations of black-hole masses and spin directions to understand the overall behavior of these complicated systems.
In addition, time is somewhat limited for the Cardiff team. Once the detectors are switched on, it will only be a matter of time before the first gravitational wave-detections are made. The calculations that Dr. Hannam and his colleagues are producing will have to ready in time if they hope to make the most of them.
But Dr. Hannam is optimistic. “For years we were stumped on how to untangle the black-hole motion,” he said. “Now that we’ve solved that, we know what to do next.”
In a galaxy four billion light-years away, three supermassive black holes are locked in a whirling embrace. It’s the tightest trio of black holes known to date and even suggests that these closely packed systems are more common than previously thought.
“What remains extraordinary to me is that these black holes, which are at the very extreme of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, are orbiting one another at 300 times the speed of sound on Earth,” said lead author Roger Deane from the University of Cape Town in a press release.
“Not only that, but using the combined signals from radio telescopes on four continents we are able to observe this exotic system one third of the way across the Universe. It gives me great excitement as this is just scratching the surface of a long list of discoveries that will be made possible with the Square Kilometer Array.”
The system, dubbed SDSS J150243.091111557.3, was first identified as a quasar — a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, which is rapidly accreting material and shining brightly — four years ago. But its spectrum was slightly wacky with its doubly ionized oxygen emission line [OIII] split into two peaks instead of one.
A favorable explanation suggested there were two active supermassive black holes hiding in the galaxy’s core.
An active galaxy typically shows single-peaked narrow emission lines, which stem from a surrounding region of ionized gas, Deane told Universe Today. The fact that this active galaxy shows double-peaked emission lines, suggests there are two surrounding regions of ionized gas and therefore two active supermassive black holes.
But one of the supermassive black holes was enshrouded in dust. So Deane and colleagues dug a little further. They used a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which is a means of linking telescopes together, combining signals separated by up to 10,000 km to see detail 50 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Observations from the European VLBI network — an array of European, Chinese, Russian, and South American antennas — revealed that the dust-covered supermassive black hole was once again two instead of one, making the system three supermassive black holes in total.
“This is what was so surprising,” Deane told Universe Today. “Our aim was to confirm the two suspected black holes. We did not expect one of these was in fact two, which could only be revealed by the European VLBI Network due [to the] very fine detail it is able to discern.”
Deane and colleagues looked through six similar galaxies before finding their first trio. The fact that they found one so quickly suggests that they’re more common than previously thought.
Before today, only four triple black hole systems were known, with the closest pair being 2.4 kiloparsecs apart — roughly 2,000 times the distance from Earth to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. But the closest pair in this trio is separated by only 140 parsecs — roughly 10 times that same distance.
Although Deane and colleagues relied on the phenomenal resolution of the VLBI technique in order to spatially separate the two close-in black holes, they also showed that their presence could be inferred from larger-scale features. The orbital motion of the black hole, for instance, is imprinted on its large jets, twisting them into a helical-like shape. This may provide smaller telescopes with a tool to find them with much greater efficiency.
“If the result holds up, it’ll be very cool,” binary supermassive black hole expert Jessie Runnoe from Pennsylvania State University told Universe Today. This research has multiple implications for understanding further phenomena.
The first sheds light on galaxy evolution. Two or three supermassive black holes are the smoking gun that the galaxy has merged with another. So by looking at these galaxies in detail, astronomers can understand how galaxies have evolved into their present-day shapes and sizes.
The second sheds light on a phenomenon known as gravitational radiation. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicts that when one of the two or three supermassive black holes spirals inward, gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time itself — propagate out into space.
Future radio telescopes should be able to measure gravitational waves from such systems as their orbits decay.
“Further in the future, the Square Kilometer Array will allow us to find and study these systems in exquisite detail, and really allow us [to] gain a much better understanding of how black holes shape galaxies over the history of the Universe,” said coauthor Matt Jarvis from the Universities of Oxford and Western Cape.
The research was published today in the journal Nature.
What happens when stars or black holes collide? Scientists have theorized that the energy released would disturb the very fabric of the space-time continuum, much like ripples in a pond. These ripples are called gravitational waves, and while proving the existence of these waves has been difficult, their detection would open a brand new window on our understanding of the Universe.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO) have been searching for these elusive waves. A new documentary about LIGO will be available soon here on Universe Today, and it documents the science and people behind the unprecedented astronomical tool designed to catch sight of violent cosmic events trillions of miles from our planet.
The new documentary titled, “LIGO, A Passion for Understanding,” follows scientists working with LIGO. It is produced by filmmaker Kai Staats, and this will actually be the first installment to a multi-video series, in fact. Watch the trailer, above.
“A Passion for Understanding” brings to life one of the most important astronomical tools of our time while telling the human story of creativity, passion, and drive to understand the very fabric of the Universe in which we live.
Operated by teams from the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, LIGO’s observatories use 4 km laser beams to hunt for gravitational waves. The LIGO scientific collaboration consists of hundreds of scientists from around the world.
LIGO’s enhanced run ended in 2010, but the Advanced LIGO project featuring newly upgraded instruments is set to begin its run in late 2015. Advanced LIGO will probe deeper into the universe in search of gravitational waves.
It feels like you just can’t get away from clingy gravity. Even separated by distances of hundreds of millions of light years, gravity is reaching out to all of us. Is there a place you could go to get away from gravity entirely?
Fortunately for our space intolerant tissues and terrible oxygen dependency withdrawal symptoms, gravity binds us to our sweet, cozy home with breathable air, the Earth. Its collective mass is trying to accelerate you towards its center, that way, at 9.8 meters per second squared. But the Earth isn’t the only one looking to cuddle.
You’re also being pulled at by the Moon, and if it weren’t for the Earth here, that pull could hurl you far off into deep space, or crash you into its cold dusty surface. In fact, as the Moon passes overhead, you’re being imperceptibly tugged upwards. This possessive tug o war isn’t just between the moon, and the earth fighting over you like an older brother keeping a small doll out of reach a younger sibling.
The Sun is also in on this shenanigan. Gravity from there is pulling at you from a distance of 150 million km. Well, aren’t we popular. So how far would you have to go to escape this gravitational custody battle completely?
Even At 2.5 million light years distance, gravity is still reaching out and being a clingy creeper. The Milky Way and Andromeda are pulling towards each other. The gravity between these two bodies is strong enough to overcome the expansion of the universe. Which will result in a galactic smash-up derby a few billion years from now.
There’s no end to it. Gravity appears to be madly greedy and long armed. Members of the Virgo Super cluster are connected to each other, and they’re dozens of millions of light-years apart. Objects in the Pisces-Cetus Super cluster complex are even connected to each other by our invisible and obnoxiously possessive friend. And they are hundreds of millions of light years apart…
In fact, you’re so popular that you are gravitationally pulled towards even most distant object in the observable Universe. And they, in turn, are linked to you. As a result, without the outward expansion and acceleration of the Universe, everything would fall inward to a common center of gravity. Newton thought that gravity was instantaneous and if the Sun disappeared, the Earth would immediately fly away. Einstein realized that gravity is distortions of spacetime caused by mass. And as it turns out, gravity moves at the speed of light.
If the Sun disappeared, Earth would continue to follow the curved spacetime distortion for 8 whole minutes. Interactions between massive objects, like when black holes collide, cause ripples in spacetime called gravitational waves. As a gravitational wave passes through, you get warped in spacetime, like a wave in the water. The amount is so slight we’ve never seen them directly. However, the decay of pulsar orbits have shown them indirectly.
The ground-based LIGO experiment might someday detect a gravitational wave, but there’s been no luck so far. The Space-based LISA experiment should detect gravitational waves with more precision. The first version will launch in 2015, but the real experiment probably won’t be operational until 2030.
Everybody wants a piece, and I don’t know about you, I just want to be left alone. Gravity’s is reach is amazingly far. It’s everywhere, all the time, and it’s having none of that. What do you think? If you had the power to remove yourself from Gravity’s pull, what would you do? Tell us in the comments below.
It was just a week ago that the news blew through the scientific world like a storm: researchers from the BICEP2 project at the South Pole Telescope had detected unambiguous evidence of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background, the residual rippling of space and time created by the sudden inflation of the Universe less than a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. With whispers of Nobel nominations quickly rising in the science news wings, the team’s findings were hailed as the best direct evidence yet of cosmic inflation, possibly even supporting the existence of a multitude of other universes besides our own.
That is, if they really do indicate what they appear to. Some theorists are advising that we “put the champagne back in the fridge”… at least for now.
Theoretical physicists and cosmologists James Dent, Lawrence Krauss, and Harsh Mathur have submitted a brief paper (arXiv:1403.5166 [astro-ph.CO]) stating that, while groundbreaking, the BICEP2 Collaboration findings have yet to rule out all possible non-inflation sources of the observed B-mode polarization patterns and the “surprisingly large value of r, the ratio of power in tensor modes to scalar density perturbations.”
“However, while there is little doubt that inflation at the Grand Unified Scale is the best motivated source of such primordial waves, it is important to demonstrate that other possible sources cannot account for the current BICEP2 data before definitely claiming Inflation has been proved. “
Inflation may very well be the cause — and Dent and company state right off the bat that “there is little doubt that inflation at the Grand Unified Scale is the best motivated source of such primordial waves” — but there’s also a possibility, however remote, that some other, later cosmic event is responsible for at least some if not all of the BICEP2 measurements. (Hence the name of the paper: “Killing the Straw Man: Does BICEP Prove Inflation?”)
Not intending to entirely rain out the celebration, Dent, Krauss, and Mathur do laud the BICEP2 findings as invaluable to physics, stating that they “will be very important for constraining physics beyond the standard model, whether or not inflation is responsible for the entire BICEP2 signal, even though existing data from cosmology is strongly suggestive that it does.”
Now I’m no physicist, cosmologist, or astronomer. Actually I barely passed high school algebra (and I have the transcripts to prove it) so if you want to get into the finer details of this particular argument I invite you to read the team’s paper for yourself here and check out a complementary article on The Physics arXiv Blog.
And so, for better or worse (just kidding — it’s definitely better) this is how science works and how science is supposed to work. A claim is presented, and, regardless of how attractive its implications may be, it must stand up to any other possibilities before deemed the decisive winner. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s not a beauty contest, and it’s not up for vote. What it is up for is scrutiny, and this is just an example of scientists behaving as they should.