On July 20th, 2019, exactly 50 years will have passed since human beings first set foot on the Moon. To mark this anniversary, NASA will be hosting a number of events and exhibits and people from all around the world will be united in celebration and remembrance. Given that crewed lunar missions are scheduled to take place again soon, this anniversary also serves as a time to reflect on the lessons learned from the last “Moonshot”.
For one, the Moon Landing was the result of years of government-directed research and development that led to what is arguably the greatest achievement in human history. This achievement and the lessons it taught were underscored in a recent essay by two Harvard astrophysicists. In it, they recommend that the federal government continue to provide active leadership in the field of space research and exploration.
About a year ago, LIGO’s two facilities were taken offline so its detectors could undergo a series of hardware upgrades. With these upgrades now complete, LIGO recently announced that the observatory will be going back online on April 1st. At that point, its scientists are expecting that its increased sensitivity will allow for “almost daily” detections to take place.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
And now, a little over a year later, a team of researchers from the Monash Center for Astrophysics has announced another potential revelation. Based on their ongoing studies of gravitational waves, the team recently proposed a theoretical concept known as ‘orphan memory’. If true, this concept could revolutionize the way we think about gravitational waves and spacetime.
Researchers from Monash Center for Astrophysics are part of what is known as the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) – a group of scientists dedicated to developing the hardware and software needed to study gravitational waves. In addition to creating a system for vetting detections, the team played a key role in data analysis – observing and interpreting the data that was gathered – and were also instrumental in the design of the LIGO mirrors.
Looking beyond what LIGO and other experiments (like the Virgo Interferometer) observed, the research team sought to address how these detectors capabilities could be extended further by finding the “memory” of gravitational waves. The study that describes this theory was recently published in the Physical Review Letters under the title “Detecting Gravitational Wave Memory without Parent Signals“.
According to their new theory, spacetime does not return to its normal state after a cataclysmic event generates gravitational waves that cause it to stretch out. Instead, it remains stretched, which they refer to as “orphan memory” – the word “orphan” alluding to the fact the “parent wave” is not directly detectable. While this effect has yet to be observed, it could open up some very interesting opportunities for gravitational wave research.
At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are only able to discern the presence of gravitational waves at certain frequencies. As such, researchers are only able to study waves generated by specific types of events and trace them back to their source. As Lucy McNeill, a researchers from the Monash Center for Astrophysics and the lead author on the paper, said in a recent University press statement:
“If there are exotic sources of gravitational waves out there, for example, from micro black holes, LIGO would not hear them because they are too high-frequency. But this study shows LIGO can be used to probe the universe for gravitational waves that were once thought to be invisible to it.”
As they indicate in their study, high-frequency gravitational-wave bursts (i.e. ones that are in or below the kilohertz range) would produce orphan memory that the LIGO and Virgo detectors would be able to pick up. This would not only increase the bandwidth of these detectors exponentially, but open up the possibility of finding evidence of gravity wave bursts in previous searches that went unnoticed.
Dr Eric Thrane, a lecturer at the Monash School of Physics and Astronomy and another a member of the LSC team, was also one of the co-authors of the new study. As he stated, “These waves could open the way for studying physics currently inaccessible to our technology.”
But as they admit in their study, such sources might not even exist and more research is needed to confirm that “orphan memory” is in fact real. Nevertheless, they maintain that searching for high-frequency sources is a useful way to probe for new physics, and it just might reveal things we weren’t expecting to find.
“A dedicated gravitational-wave memory search is desirable. It will have enhanced sensitivity compared to current burst searches,” they state. “Further, a dedicated search can be used to determine whether a detection candidate is consistent with a memory burst by checking to see if the residuals (following signal subtraction) are consistent with Gaussian noise.”
Alas, such searches may have to wait upon the proposed successors to the Advanced LIGO experiment. These include the Einstein Telescope and Cosmic Explorer, two proposed third-generation gravitational wave detectors. Depending on what future surveys find, we may discover that spacetime not only stretches from the creation of gravitational waves, but also bears the “stretch marks” to prove it!
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.”