New Gravitational Waves Detected From Four More Black Hole Mergers. Total Detections up to 11 Now

On February 11th, 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves (GWs). Since that time, multiple detections have taken place and scientific collaborations between observatories  – like Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo – are allowing for unprecedented levels of sensitivity and data sharing.

Previously, seven such events had been confirmed, six of which were caused by the mergers of binary black holes (BBH) and one by the merger of a binary neutron star. But on Saturday, Dec. 1st, a team of scientists the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and Virgo Collaboration presented new results that indicated the discovery of four more gravitational wave events. This brings the total number of GW events detected in the last three years to eleven.

Continue reading “New Gravitational Waves Detected From Four More Black Hole Mergers. Total Detections up to 11 Now”

Gravitational waves were only recently observed, and now astronomers are already thinking of ways to use them: like accurately measuring the expansion rate of the Universe

Neutron stars scream in waves of spacetime when they die, and astronomers have outlined a plan to use their gravitational  agony to trace the history of the universe. Join us as we explore how to turn their pain into our cosmological profit.

Continue reading “Gravitational waves were only recently observed, and now astronomers are already thinking of ways to use them: like accurately measuring the expansion rate of the Universe”

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

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

Weekly Space Hangout – Nov. 15, 2017: Dr. John Whelan of RIT

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
This week we are honored to welcome two (of the numerous) Rochester Institute of Technology faculty members who are part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. RIT researchers played a significant role in the recently announced detection of both gravitational waves and light, dubbed Multimessenger Astronomy, that resulted from the merger of two distant neutron stars. Joining us today is Dr. John Whelan, Principal Investigator of RIT’s group in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC).

Announcements:
The WSH Crew is doing another book giveaway – this time in conjunction with Dean Regas‘ joining us again on November 29th in a pre-recorded interview. Dean’s new book, “100 Things to See in the Night Sky” hits the stores on November 28th, but we are giving our viewers a chance to win one of two copies of Dean’s book! (Note: telescope not included!)

To enter for a chance to win, send an email to [email protected] with the Subject ‘100 Things’. Be sure to include your name and email address in the body of your message so that we can contact our winners afterward.

To be eligible, your entry must be postmarked no later than 11:59:59 PM EST on Monday, November 27, 2017. Two winners will be selected at random from all eligible entries live on the show, by Fraser, on Wednesday, November 29th. No purchase is necessary. You do not need to be watching the show live to win. Contest is open to all viewers worldwide. Limit: One entry per person – duplicate entries will be ignored.

On a side note, THIS awesomeness based on Dean’s FIRST book is now also available:
» 365 Facts from Space! 2018 Daily Calendar

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

GW170817 Update: Surprises From First Gravitational Wave Observed Independently

“This is quite literally a physics gold mine!” said Masao Sako, with the University of Pennsylvania.

For over a week now, the astronomy and astrophysics communities have been buzzing with the news of the latest gravitational wave discovery. And this discovery has been big.

Four days before the Great American Solar Eclipse on August 21, a newly discovered gravitational wave caused more astronomers (8,223+), using more telescopes (70), to publish more papers (100 — see the list below) in less time than for any other astronomical event in history. The sixth gravitational wave (GW) to be discovered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo GW observatories, which occurred on August 17, 2017 at 12:41:04 UTC, was surprising in two ways already reported.

GW event six, designated GW170817, did not result from the collision and subsequent explosion of two black holes. All previous GW events, including the first ever discovered in 2015, had involved the collision of black holes with typically 40 times the mass of the Sun between them. Here however, the GW was evidently triggered by the collision and explosion of two neutron stars, having only 3 times the Sun’s mass in total.

Afterglow of GW170817 is shown in close-ups captured by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, showing it dimming in brightness over days and weeks. CREDIT: NASA and ESA: A. Levan (U. Warwick), N. Tanvir (U. Leicester), and A. Fruchter and O. Fox (STScI)

Crucially, GW170817 occurred ten times closer to Earth than all earlier GW events. Earlier GWs involved black hole collisions at more than 1.3 billion light-years (400 million parsecs or Mpc). GW170817, in comparison, was known within hours of its discovery to lie within only 130 million light-years (40 Mpc). That vastly improved astronomer’s odds of detecting the event independently, because in cosmological terms, it occurred within less than 1% of the universe’s Hubble length of 14 billion light-years (4,300 Mpc).

Not widely reported is that our current astronomical theory regarding GW170817 still depends significantly on observations yet to be made. In brief, astronomers currently believe that GW170817 was triggered by the merger of two neutron stars, which triggered the explosion of a Short Gamma-Ray Burst (SGRB), which emitted only a fraction of the gamma-ray energy in our direction normally associated with SGRBs, because it was the first SGRB observed at such a large angle away from the direction of its focused jets of gamma-rays. The SGRB associated with GW170817 emitted its jet at roughly 30 degrees away from our line-of-sight. All other SGRBs have been observed at only a few degrees from alignment with their jets. The exact angle of the newly discovered SGRB’s jet is important in understanding how its afterglow compares with other SGRB afterglows. Significant properties reported for the GW, including its distance, depend on the angle at which the two neutron stars collided relative to Earth.

The collision angle determined roughly based on the GW itself is probably OK. Only radio maps of the SGRB region at 100 days however, will provide astronomers with the most precise measurements of the resulting explosion’s velocities and directions over time to date. Only then will astronomers learn more about the exact angle of the SGRB’s jet, providing potentially a more accurate estimate of the angle at which the neutron stars collided. More surprises could be in store as a result, including refinements of the properties reported.

ANIMATION (you may have to click image for animation in some browsers): This time-lapse image of the afterglow of GW170817 shows it continuing to increase in radio wavelength brightness over the first month, and was provided by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array radio telescope. CREDIT: NRAO/VLA

Unlike previous events, GW170817 was close enough that within 1.74 seconds of its initial detection by LIGO, it’s gamma radiation was detected by the Fermi Gamma-Ray space telescope. The INTEGRAL Gamma-Ray space observatory detected it too, and it was later designated SGRB 170817A. As an SGRB alone, the event would have triggered alerts to observatories worldwide and aloft, each aiming to detect the explosion’s faint optical afterglow. SGRB optical afterglows have been used to pinpoint the exact positions of SGRBs, not only on the sky, but also in terms of their distance from Earth.

Astronomers in this case had the first GW ever to coincide with, and be independently corroborated by, any observable counterpart, and alerts became a call to astronomical arms. Even though its exact position on the sky was uncertain by many degrees, GW170817 was so close that astronomers were able to quickly narrow down its exact location.

“With a previously-compiled list of nearby galaxies having positions and distances culled from the massive on-line archive of the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED), our team rapidly zeroed in on the host galaxy of the event,” said Barry Madore, of Carnegie Observatories.

Precisely because GW170817 occurred at only 130 million light-years, the number of candidate galaxies to observe was only several dozen. In contrast, for previous GW discoveries occurring at billions of light-years, thousands of galaxies would have to be observed. Within 11 hours of the explosion, its afterglow was discovered in the lenticular galaxy NGC 4993, by the Swope 1-m telescope in Chile. They obtained the first-ever visual image of an event associated with a GW.

“Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind,” added Madore, quoting Louis Pasteur from 150 years ago. Madore is also a researcher with the Swope team and a co-author on six papers reporting Swope’s discovery of the afterglow and some of its implications. “When alerts were sent out to the LIGO/VIRGO gravity wave detection consortium on the night of August 17, 2017, our team of astronomers was indeed prepared.”

New images of the afterglow of GW170817, aka SGRB 170817A, initially designated as Swope Supernova Survey SSS17a, revealed a bright blue astronomical transient, later designated as AT2017gfo by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

“There will be more such events, no doubt; but this image taken at the Henrietta Swope 1m telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile was the first in history, and it truly ushered in the Era of Multi-Messenger Astronomy,” said Madore.

Radio observatories joined the hunt, including the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT). So did the Swift ultraviolet and Chandra X-ray space observatory satellites. By day one after the explosion, all frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum were being observed in the direction of NGC 4993. On multiple wavelengths, multiple “messengers” of GW170817’s existence began to reveal more than the sum of their parts.

Change in brightness of GW170817’s afterglow over time since explosion (merger), is shown in these light-curves. Brightness in 14 different optical wavelengths is shown, including invisible ultraviolet, and visible blue, green, and yellow, and invisible infrared wavelengths in orange and red. Afterglow fades quickly in all wavelengths, except infrared. In infrared, afterglow continues to brighten until ~3 days after explosion, before beginning to fade. CREDIT: Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution of Washington (Swope + Magellan)

AT2017gfo brightened over the next few days after explosion, in near infrared observations continued by Swope. Their light-curves show the changes in the afterglow’s brightness over time. At three days post explosion, the near-infrared afterglow stops brightening and begins to fade. As with other SGRB afterglows, AT2017gfo faded completely from visual observation over the course of days to weeks, but observations in X-rays and radio continue. Radio observations at 100 days post explosion, which will not occur until November 25, are crucial as said. Although a month away, planned radio observations will determine more than just the long-term evolution of the afterglow over 3 months. Indeed, our astronomical theory accounting for the event’s first three weeks, as already observed, analyzed, and reported, still depends to a surprising degree on an exact number of degrees. The number of degrees relative to Earth for this SGRB based on radio data however, will not be known for at least a month.

“With GW170817 we have for the first time truly independent verification of a gravitational wave source,” said Robert Quimby, of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo, and coauthor of a paper regarding the event’s implications. “The electromagnetic signature of this event can be uniquely matched to the predictions of binary neutron star mergers, and it is actually quite amazing how well the theory matches the data considering how few observational constraints were available to guide the model.”

“With GW170817, we can learn about nuclear physics, relativity, stellar evolution, and cosmology all in one shot,” added Sako, who is also a co-author on ten papers regarding the event. “Plus we now know how all of the heaviest elements in the Universe are created.”

Afterglow faded from optical observations over days to weeks. Here, however, as observed at radio frequencies by the Very Large Array radio telescope, the electromagnetic counterpart to GW170817 is seen brightening over the first month since explosion. CREDIT: Courtesy of Gregg Hallinan, California Institute of Technology, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array radio telescope

EVENT CHRONOLOGY

T = 0 sec.: GW170817 detected by LIGO/VIRGO [1, 82]
T = 1.74 sec.: SGRB 170817A detected by Fermi Gamma-Ray Burst Monitor satellite immediately after GW170817 [52]
T = 28 min.: Gamma-ray Coordinates Network (GCN) Notice [53]
T = 40 min.: GCN Circular [53]
T = 5.63 hr.: First sky map locating GW170817 to within several degrees [53]
T = 10.9 hr.: Swope 1-m observatory discovers explosion’s afterglow, AT 2017gfo, in galaxy NGC 4993 [18, 24, 64, 75, 77]
T = 11.09 hr.: PROMPT 0.4m observatory detects AT 2017gfo [88]
T = 11.3 hr.: Hubble Space Telescope images AT 2017gfo [20]
T = 12-24 hr.: Magellan; Las Campanas Observatory; W. M. Keck Observatory; Blanco 4-m Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory; Gemini South; European Southern Observatory VISTA; Subaru among 6 Japanese telescopes; Pan-STARRS1; Very Large Telescope; 14 Australian telescopes; and Antarctic Survey Telescope optical observatories, and VLA, VLITE, ATCA, GMRT, and ALMA radio observatories, as well as Swift and NuSTAR ultraviolet satellite observatories

PROPERTIES

Position: Right Ascension 13h09m48.085s ± 0.018s; Declination -23d22m53.343s ± 0.218s (J2000 equinox); 10.6s or 7,000 light-years (2.0 kiloparsecs or kpc) from the nucleus of lenticular galaxy NGC 4993 [18]
Distance: 140 ± 40 million light-years (41 ± 13 Mpc), with 30% scatter based on 3 GW-based estimates [1, 25, 82], and 131 ± 9 million light-years (39.3 ± 2.7 Mpc), with 7% scatter based on 3 distance indicators, including GW-based as well as new Fundamental Plane relation-based distances for NGC 4993 [41, 43], and Tully-Fisher relation-based distances for galaxies in the group of galaxies including NGC 4993 from the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED)
Mass: Neutron stars total 2.82 +0.47 -0.09 Sun’s mass [82]; mass ejected in elements heavier than iron is 0.03 ± 0.01 Sun’s mass or 10,000 Earth masses, based on 4 estimates [24, 59, 82, 93], including gold amounting to 150 ± 50 Earth masses [60]
Luminosity: Peaks at 0.5 days after explosion, at ~1042 erg/s, equivalent to 260 million Suns [24]
SGRB jet angle: 31 ± 3 degrees away from line-of-sight to Earth, based on 9 estimates [2, 25, 34, 35, 36, 44, 58, 62, 82]
SGRB jet speed: 30% speed of light, based on 4 estimates [20, 42, 59, 75]
Names: GW170817, SGRB 170817A, AT 2017gfo = IAU designation for SGRB afterglow, aka SSS17a, DLT17ck, J-GEM17btc, and MASTER OTJ130948.10-232253.3

IMPLICATIONS

Astronomy (1): Confirms binary neutron star collisions as a source for GW and SGRB events [1, 82]
Astronomy (2): GWs provide a new way of measuring neutron star diameters [8]
Astronomy (3): Gives universal expansion rate, or Hubble constant, as H0 = 71 ± 10 km -1 Mpc-1, with 14% accuracy, based on 6 GW-based estimates for GW170817 ranging from 69 to 74 km -1 Mpc-1, bridging current estimates [1, 22, 36, 60, 74, 82]; accuracy will improve to 4% with future similar events [74]
General Relativity (1): Confirms GW velocity equals speed of light to within 1 part per 1,000,000,000,000,000 or 1/1015 [7, 21, 70, 91]
General Relativity (2): Confirms equivalence of gravitational energy and inertial energy, or Weak Equivalence Principle, to within 1 part per 1,000,000,000 or 1/109 [7, 11, 91, 92]
Physics: Confirms binary neutron star collisions are significant production sites for elements heavier than iron, including gold, platinum, and uranium [17, 69]
Life on Earth: Indicates a higher deadly rate of gamma-rays for extraterrestrial life [15]
GW170817 (1): Predicted one binary neutron star collision per year similar to GW170817 within a distance from Earth of 130 million light-years [40 Mpc] [24]
GW170817 (2): Predicted to produce a 10 Giga-Hertz afterglow that peaks at ~100 days with a radio magnitude of ~10 milli-Janskys [24]
GW170817 (3): Predicted to remain visible in radio for 5-10 years, and for decades with next-generation radio observatories [2]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

96 papers on GW170817 released on arXiv during week of October 16-20

1. Abbott, B. P. et al., A gravitational-wave standard siren measurement of the Hubble constant, Nature, arXiv:1710.05835
2. Alexander, K. D. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. VI. Radio Constraints on a Relativistic Jet and Predictions for Late-Time Emission from the Kilonova Ejecta, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05457
3. Andreoni, I. et al., Follow up of GW170817 and its electromagnetic counterpart by Australian-led observing programs, PASA, arXiv:1710.05846
4. ANTARES, IceCube, Pierre Auger, LIGO Scientific, Virgo Collaborations, Search for High-energy Neutrinos from Binary Neutron Star Merger GW170817 with ANTARES, IceCube, and the Pierre Auger Observatory, na, arXiv:1710.05839
5. Arcavi, I. et al., Optical emission from a kilonova following a gravitational-wave-detected neutron-star merger, Nature, arXiv:1710.05843
6. Arcavi, I. et al., Optical Follow-up of Gravitational-wave Events with Las Cumbres Observatory, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05842
7. Baker, T. et al., Strong constraints on cosmological gravity from GW170817 and GRB 170817A, na, arXiv:1710.06394
8. Bauswein, A. et al., Neutron-star radius constraints from GW170817 and future detections, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.06843
9. Belczynski, K. et al., GW170104 and the origin of heavy, low-spin binary black holes via classical isolated binary evolution, A&A, arXiv:1706.07053
10. Blanchard, P. K. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. VII. Properties of the Host Galaxy and Constraints on the Merger Timescale, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05458
11. Boran, S. et al., GW170817 Falsifies Dark Matter Emulators, na, arXiv:1710.06168
12. Brocato, E. et al., GRAWITA: VLT Survey Telescope observations of the gravitational wave sources GW150914 and GW151226, MNRAS, submitted, arXiv:1710.05915
13. Bromberg, O. et al., The gamma-rays that accompanied GW170817 and the observational signature of a magnetic jet breaking out of NS merger ejecta, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.05897
14. Buckley, D. A. H. et al., A comparison between SALT/SAAO observations and kilonova models for AT 2017gfo: the first electromagnetic counterpart of a gravitational wave transient – GW170817, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.05855
15. Burgess, J. M. et al., Viewing short Gamma-ray Bursts from a different angle, na, arXiv:1710.05823
16. Chang, P.; & Murray, N., GW170817: A Neutron Star Merger in a Mass-Transferring Triple System, MNRAS Letters, arXiv:1710.05939
17. Chornock, R. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. IV. Detection of Near-infrared Signatures of r-process Nucleosynthesis with Gemini-South, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05454
18. Coulter, D. A. et al., Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a), the Optical Counterpart to a Gravitational Wave Source, Science, arXiv:1710.05452
19. Covino, S. et al., The unpolarized macronova associated with the gravitational wave event GW170817, Nature Astronomy, arXiv:1710.05849
20. Cowperthwaite, P. S. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. II. UV, Optical, and Near-IR Light Curves and Comparison to Kilonova Models, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05840
21. Creminelli, P.; & Vernizzi, F., Dark Energy after GW170817, na, arXiv:1710.05877
22. Di Valentino, E.; & Melchiorri, A., Cosmological constraints combining Planck with the recent gravitational-wave standard siren measurement of the Hubble constant, na, arXiv:1710.06370
23. Diaz, M.C. et al., Observations of the first electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave source by the TOROS collaboration, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05844
24. Drout, M. R. et al., Light Curves of the Neutron Star Merger GW170817/SSS17a: Implications for R-Process Nucleosynthesis, Science, arXiv:1710.05443
25. Evans, P.A. et al., Swift and NuSTAR observations of GW170817: detection of a blue kilonova, Science, arXiv:1710.05437
26. Ezquiaga, J. M.; & Zumalacarregui, M., Dark Energy after GW170817, na, arXiv:1710.05901
27. Fargion, D.; Khlopov, M.; & Oliva, P., Could GRB170817A be really correlated to a NS-NS merging?, Research in Astron. Astrophys. , arXiv:1710.05909
28. Fermi-LAT Collaboration, Fermi-LAT observations of the LIGO/Virgo event GW170817, na, arXiv:1710.05450
29. Fong, W. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. VIII. A Comparison to Cosmological Short-duration Gamma-ray Bursts, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05438
30. Gall, C. et al., Lanthanides or dust in kilonovae: lessons learned from GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05863
31. Goldstein, A. et al., An Ordinary Short Gamma-Ray Burst with Extraordinary Implications: Fermi-GBM Detection of GRB 170817A, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05446
32. Gompertz, B. P. et al., The Diversity of Kilonova Emission in Short Gamma-Ray Bursts, ApJ, submitted, arXiv:1710.05442
33. Gottlieb, O. et al., A cocoon shock breakout as the origin of the ?-ray emission in GW170817, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.05896
34. Granot, J.; Guetta, D.; & Gill, R., Lessons from the short GRB170817A — the First Gravitational Wave Detection of a Binary Neutron Star Merger, na, arXiv:1710.06407
35. Granot, J. et al., Off-Axis Emission of Short GRB Jets from Double Neutron St.r Mergers and GRB 170817A, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.06421
36. Guidorzi, C. et al., Improved Constraints on H0 from a combined analysis of gravitational-wave and electromagnetic emission from GW170817, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.06426
37. H.E.S.S. Collaboration et al., TeV gamma-ray observations of the binary neutron star merger GW170817 with H.E.S.S, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.05862
38. Haggard, D. et al., A Deep Chandra X-ray Study of Neutron Star Coalescence GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05852
39. Hallinan, G. et al., A Radio Counterpart to a Neutron Star Merger, Science, arXiv:1710.05435
40. He, X.-B.; Tam, P-H. T.; & Shen, R. F.), GRB 170817A: a short GRB seen off-axis, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.05869
41. Hjorth, J. et al., The Distance to NGC 4993: The Host Galaxy of the Gravitational-wave Event GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05856
42. Hu, L. et al., Optical Observations of LIGO Source GW 170817 by the Antarctic Survey Telescopes at Dome A, Antarctica, Science Direct, arXiv:1710.05462
43. Im, M. et al., Distance and properties of NGC 4993 as the host galaxy of a gravitational wave source, GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05861
44. Ioka, K.; & Nakamura, T., Can an Off-axis Gamma-Ray Burst Jet in GW170817 Explain All the Electromagnetic Counterparts?, Prog. Theor. Exp. Phys. , arXiv:1710.05905
45. Kasen, D. et al., Origin of the heavy elements in binary neutron-star mergers from a gravitational wave event, Nature, arXiv:1710.05463
46. Kasliwal, M. M. et al., Illuminating Gravitational Waves: A Concordant Picture of Photons from a Neutron Star Merger, Science, arXiv:1710.05436
47. Kilpatrick, C. D. et al., Electromagnetic Evidence that SSS17a is the Result of a Binary Neutron Star Merger, Science, arXiv:1710.05434
48. Kim, S. et al., ALMA and GMRT constraints on the off-axis gamma-ray burst 170817A from the binary neutron star merger GW170817, na, arXiv:1710.05847
49. Lamb, G. P.; & Shiho Kobayashi, GRB 170817A as a jet counterpart to gravitational wave trigger GW 170817, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.05857
50. Levan, A. J. et al., The environment of the binary neutron star merger GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05444
51. Li, T.-P. et al., Insight-HXMT observations of the first binary neutron star merger GW170817, Sci. China-Phys. Mech. Astron. , arXiv:1710.06065
52. LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Virgo Collaboration, Fermi Gamma-Ray Burst Monitor, INTEGRAL, Gravitational Waves and Gamma-rays from a Binary Neutron Star Merger: GW170817 and GRB 170817A, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05834
53. LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Virgo Collaboration, et al., Multi-messenger Observations of a Binary Neutron Star Merger, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05833
54. Lipunov, V. M. et al., MASTER optical detection of the first LIGO/Virgo neutron stars merging GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05461
55. Lipunov, V. et al., Discovery of the neutron stars merger GW170817/GRB170817A and Binary Stellar Evolution, New Astronomy Review, arXiv:1710.05911
56. Lu, R.-J. et al., {\em Fermi}/GBM Short Gamma-ray Burst Catalog and Case Study for GRB 170817A/GW 170817, na, arXiv:1710.06979
57. Margalit, B.; & Metzger, B., Constraining the Maximum Mass of Neutron Stars From Multi-Messenger Observations of GW170817, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.05938
58. Margutti, R. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. V. Rising X-ray Emission from an Off-Axis Jet, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05431
59. McCully, C. et al., The Rapid Reddening and Featureless Optical Spectra of the optical counterpart of GW170817, AT 2017gfo, During the First Four Days, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05853
60. Metzger, B. D. , Welcome to the Multi-Messenger Era! Lessons from a Neutron Star Merger and the Landscape Ahead, na, arXiv:1710.05931
61. Murguia-Berthier, A. et al., A Neutron Star Binary Merger Model for GW170817/GRB170817a/SSS17a, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05453
62. Nicholl, M. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/VIRGO GW170817. III. Optical and UV Spectra of a Blue Kilonova From Fast Polar Ejecta, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05456
63. Palmese, A. et al., DECam and DES perspective of the GW170817 host, NGC 4993: indication for dynamically-driven formation of binary neutron star in early type galaxies, na, arXiv:1710.06748
64. Pan, Y.-C. et al., The Old Host-Galaxy Environment of SSS17a, the First Electromagnetic Counterpart to a Gravitational Wave Source, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05439
65. Paul, D., Binary neutron star merger rate via the luminosity function of short gamma-ray bursts, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.05620
66. Pian, E. et al., Spectroscopic identification of r-process nucleosynthesis in a double neutron star merger, Nature, arXiv:1710.05858
67. Piro, A. L.; & Kollmeier, J. A., Evidence for Cocoon Emission from the Early Light Curve of SSS17a, na, arXiv:1710.05822
68. Pozanenko, A. et al., GRB170817A associated with GW170817: multifrequency observations and modeling of prompt gamma-ray emission, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.05448
69. Rosswog, S. et al., The first direct double neutron star merger detection: implications for cosmic nucleosynthesis, A&A, accepted?, arXiv:1710.05445
70. Sakstein, J.; & Jain, B., Implications of the Neutron Star Merger GW170817 for Cosmological Scalar-Tensor Theories, na, arXiv:1710.05893
71. Salafia, O. S.; Ghisellini, G.; & Ghirlanda, G., Jet-driven and jet-less fireballs from compact binary mergers, MNRAS Letters, arXiv:1710.05859
72. Savchenko, V. et al., INTEGRAL Detection of the First Prompt Gamma-Ray Signal Coincident with the Gravitational Wave Event GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05449
73. Scolnic, D. et al., How Many Kilonovae Can Be Found in Past, Present, and Future Survey Datasets?, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.05845
74. Seto, N.; & Kyutoku, K., Prospects of the local Hubble parameter measurement using gravitational waves from double neutron stars, MNRAS, arXiv:1710.06424
75. Shappee, B. J. et al., Early Spectra of the Gravitational Wave Source GW170817: Evolution of a Neutron Star Merger, Science, arXiv:1710.05432
76. Shoemaker, I. M.; & Murase, K., Constraints from the Time Lag between Gravitational Waves and Gamma Rays: Implications of GW 170817 and GRB 170817A, na, arXiv:1710.06427
77. Siebert, M. R. et al., The Unprecedented Properties of the First Electromagnetic Counterpart to a Gravitational Wave Source, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05440
78. Smartt, S. J. et al., A kilonova as the electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational-wave source, Nature, arXiv:1710.05841
79. Soares-Santos, M. et al., The Electromagnetic Counterpart of the Binary Neutron Star Merger LIGO/Virgo GW170817. I. Dark Energy Camera Discovery of the Optical Counterpart, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05459
80. Tanaka, M. et al., Kilonova from post-merger ejecta as an optical and near-infrared counterpart of GW170817, PASJ, arXiv:1710.05850
81. Tanvir, N. R. et al., The Emergence of a Lanthanide-Rich Kilonova Following the Merger of Two Neutron Stars, na, arXiv:1710.05455
82. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration, The Virgo Collaboration, GW170817: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Neutron Star Inspiral, Phys. Rev. Lett., arXiv:1710.05832
83. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the Virgo Collaboration, Estimating the Contribution of Dynamical Ejecta in the Kilonova Associated with GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05836
84. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the Virgo Collaboration, On the Progenitor of Binary Neutron Star Merger GW170817, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05838
85. Tominaga, N. et al., Subaru Hyper Suprime-Cam Survey for An Optical Counterpart of GW170817, PASJ, submitted, arXiv:1710.05865
86. Troja, E. et al., The X-ray counterpart to the gravitational wave event GW 170817, Nature, arXiv:1710.05433
87. Utsumi, Y. et al., J-GEM observations of an electromagnetic counterpart to the neutron star merger GW170817, PASJ, arXiv:1710.05848
88. Valenti, S. et al., The discovery of the electromagnetic counterpart of GW170817: kilonova AT 2017gfo/DLT17ck, ApJL, arXiv:1710.05854
89. Verrecchia, F. et al., AGILE Observations of the Gravitational Wave Source GW 170817: Constraining Gamma-Ray Emission from a NS-NS Coalescence, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.05460
90. Wang, F. Y.; & Zou, Y. C., Measuring peculiar velocities from gravitational waves and electromagnetic counterparts, na, arXiv:1710.06113
91. Wang, H. et al., GW170817/GRB 170817A/AT2017gfo association: some implications for physics and astrophysics, na, arXiv:1710.05805
92. Wei, J.-J. et al., Multimessenger tests of the weak equivalence principle from GW170817 and its electromagnetic counterparts, na, arXiv:1710.05860
93. Xiao, D. et al., Afterglows and Macronovae Associated with Nearby Low-Luminosity Short-Duration Gamma-Ray Bursts: Application to GW170817/GRB170817A, na, arXiv:1710.05910
94. Yang, S. et al., An empirical limit on the kilonova rate from the DLT40 one day cadence Supernova Survey, ApJL, submitted, arXiv:1710.05864
95. Yue, C. et al., Is GRB 170817A Alone?, na, arXiv:1710.05942
96. Zhang, B.-B. et al., A peculiar low-luminosity short gamma-ray burst from a double neutron star merger progenitor, na, arXiv:1710.05851

Scientist Find Treasure Trove of Giant Black Hole Pairs

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.

For decades, astronomers have known that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of most massive galaxies. These black holes, which range from being hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, exert a powerful influence on surrounding matter and are believed to be the cause of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). For as long as astronomers have known about them, they have sought to understand how SMBHs form and evolve.

In two recently published studies, two international teams of researchers report on the discovery of five newly-discovered black hole pairs at the centers of distant galaxies. This discovery could help astronomers shed new light on how SMBHs form and grow over time, not to mention how black hole mergers produce the strongest gravitational waves in the Universe.

The first four dual black hole candidates were reported in a study titled “Buried AGNs in Advanced Mergers: Mid-Infrared Color Selection as a Dual AGN Finder“, which was led by Shobita Satyapal, a professor of astrophysics at George Mason University. This study was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and recently appeared online.

Optical and x-ray data on two of the new black hole pairs discovered. Credit: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Victoria/S.Ellison et al./George Mason Univ./S.Satyapal et al./SDSS

The second study, which reported the fifth dual black hole candidate, was led by Sarah Ellison – an astrophysics professor at the University of Victoria. It was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “Discovery of a Dual Active Galactic Nucleus with ~8 kpc Separation. The discovery of these five black hole pairs was very fortuitous, given that pairs are a very rare find.

As Shobita Satyapal explained in a Chandra press statement:

“Astronomers find single supermassive black holes all over the universe. But even though we’ve predicted they grow rapidly when they are interacting, growing dual supermassive black holes have been difficult to find.

The black hole pairs were discovered by combining data from a number of different ground-based and space-based instruments. This included optical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona with near-infrared data from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and x-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

For the sake of their studies, Satyapal, Ellison, and their respective teams sought to detect dual AGNs, which are believed to be a consequence of galactic mergers. They began by consulting optical data from the SDSS to identify galaxies that appeared to be in the process of merging. Data from the all-sky WISE survey was then used to identify those galaxies that displayed the most powerful AGNs.

Illustration of a pair of black holes. Credit: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

They then consulted data from the Chandra’s Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) and the LBT to identify seven galaxies that appeared to be in an advanced stage of merger. The study led by Ellison also relied on optical data provided by the Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey to pinpoint one of the new black hole pairs.

From the combined data, they found that five out of the seven merging galaxies hosted possible dual AGNs, which were separated by less than 10 kiloparsecs (over 30,000 light years). This was evidenced by the infrared data provided by WISE, which was consistent with what is predicated of rapidly growing supermassive black holes.

In addition, the Chandra data showed closely-separated pairs of x-ray sources, which is also consistent with black holes that have matter slowly being accreted onto them. This infrared and x-ray data also suggested that the supermassive black holes are buried in large amounts of dust and gas. As Ellison indicated, these findings were the result of painstaking work that consisted of sorting through multiple wavelengths of data:

“Our work shows that combining the infrared selection with X-ray follow-up is a very effective way to find these black hole pairs. X-rays and infrared radiation are able to penetrate the obscuring clouds of gas and dust surrounding these black hole pairs, and Chandra’s sharp vision is needed to separate them”.

Artist’s impression of binary black hole system in the process of merging. Credit: Bohn et al.

Before this study, less than ten pairs of growing black holes had been confirmed based on X-ray studies, and these were mostly by chance. This latest work, which detected five black hole pairs using combined data, was therefore both fortunate and significant. Aside from bolstering the hypothesis that supermassive black holes form from the merger of smaller black holes, these studies also have serious implications for gravitational wave research.

“It is important to understand how common supermassive black hole pairs are, to help in predicting the signals for gravitational wave observatories,” said Satyapa. “With experiments already in place and future ones coming online, this is an exciting time to be researching merging black holes. We are in the early stages of a new era in exploring the universe.”

Since 2016, a total of four instances of gravitational waves have been detected by instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the VIRGO Observatory. However, these detections were the result of black hole mergers where the black holes were all smaller and less massive  – between eight and 36 Solar masses.

Supermassive Black Holes, on the other hand, are much more massive and will likely produce a much larger gravitational wave signature as they continue to draw closer together. And in a few hundred million years, when these pairs eventually do merge, the resulting energy produced by mass being converted into gravitational waves will be incredible.

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

At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are not able to detect the gravitational waves created by Supermassive Black Hole pairs. This work is being done by arrays like the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which relies on high-precision millisecond pulsars to measure the influence of gravitational waves on space-time.

The proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will be the first dedicated space-based gravitational wave detector, is also expected to help in the search. In the meantime, gravitational wave research has already benefited immensely from collaborative efforts like the one that exists between Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo.

In the future, scientists also anticipate that they will be able to study the interiors of supernovae through gravitational wave research. This is likely to reveal a great deal about the mechanisms behind black hole formation. Between all of these ongoing efforts and future developments, we can expect to “hear” a great deal more of the Universe and the most powerful forces at work within it.

Be sure to check out this animation that shows what the eventual merger of two of these black hole pairs will look like, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra HarvardarXiv, MNRAS

LIGO Scientists who Detected Gravitational Waves Awarded Nobel Prize in Physics

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. Since that time, multiple detections have taken place and scientific collaborations between observatories  – like Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo – are allowing for unprecedented levels of sensitivity and data sharing.

Not only was the first-time detection of gravity waves an historic accomplishment, it ushered in a new era of astrophysics. It is little wonder then why the three researchers who were central to the first detection have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize was awarded jointly to Caltech professors emeritus Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish, along with MIT professor emeritus Rainer Weiss.

To put it simply, gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that are formed by major astronomical events – such as the merger of a binary black hole pair. They were first predicted over a century ago by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which indicated that massive perturbations would alter the structure of space-time. However, it was not until recent years that evidence of these waves was observed for the first time.

The first signal was detected by LIGO’s twin observatories – in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, respectively – and traced to a black mole merger 1.3 billion light-years away. To date, four detections have been, all of which were due to the mergers of black-hole pairs. These took place on December 26, 2015, January 4, 2017, and August 14, 2017, the last being detected by LIGO and the European Virgo gravitational-wave detector.

For the role they played in this accomplishment, one half of the prize was awarded jointly to Caltech’s Barry C. Barish – the Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus – and Kip S. Thorne, the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus. The other half was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum – the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics – said in a recent Caltech press statement:

“I am delighted and honored to congratulate Kip and Barry, as well as Rai Weiss of MIT, on the award this morning of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. The first direct observation of gravitational waves by LIGO is an extraordinary demonstration of scientific vision and persistence. Through four decades of development of exquisitely sensitive instrumentation—pushing the capacity of our imaginations—we are now able to glimpse cosmic processes that were previously undetectable. It is truly the start of a new era in astrophysics.”

This accomplishment was all the more impressive considering that Albert Einstein, who first predicted their existence, believed gravitational waves would be too weak to study. However, by the 1960s, advances in laser technology and new insights into possible astrophysical sources led scientists to conclude that these waves might actually be detectable.

The first gravity wave detectors were built by Joseph Weber, an astrophysics from the University of Maryland. His detectors, which were built in the 1960s, consisted of large aluminum cylinders  that would be driven to vibrate by passing gravitational waves. Other attempts followed, but all proved unsuccessful; prompting a shift towards a new type of detector involving interferometry.

One such instrument was developed by Weiss at MIT, which relied on the technique known as laser interferometry. In this kind of instrument, gravitational waves are measured using widely spaced and separated mirrors that reflect lasers over long distances. When gravitational waves cause space to stretch and squeeze by infinitesimal amounts, it causes the reflected light inside the detector to shift minutely.

At the same time, Thorne – along with his students and postdocs at Caltech – began working to improve the theory of gravitational waves. This included new estimates on the strength and frequency of waves produced by objects like black holes, neutron stars and supernovae. This culminated in a 1972 paper which Throne co-published with his student, Bill Press, which summarized their vision of how gravitational waves could be studied.

That same year, Weiss also published a detailed analysis of interferometers and their potential for astrophysical research. In this paper, he stated that larger-scale operations – measuring several km or more in size – might have a shot at detecting gravitational waves. He also identified the major challenges to detection (such as vibrations from the Earth) and proposed possible solutions for countering them.

Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne, two of three recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Credit: Caltech

In 1975, Weiss invited Thorne to speak at a NASA committee meeting in Washington, D.C., and the two spent an entire night talking about gravitational experiments. As a result of their conversation, Thorne went back to Calteh and proposed creating a experimental gravity group, which would work on interferometers in parallel with researchers at MIT, the University of Glasgow and the University of Garching (where similar experiments were being conducted).

Development on the first interferometer began shortly thereafter at Caltech, which led to the creation of a 40-meter (130-foot) prototype to test Weiss’ theories about gravitational waves. In 1984, all of the work being conducted by these respective institutions came together. Caltech and MIT, with the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF) formed the LIGO collaboration and began work on its two interferometers in Hanford and Livingston.

The construction of LIGO was a major challenge, both logistically and technically. However, things were helped immensely when Barry Barish (then a Caltech particle physicist) became the Principal Investigator (PI) of LIGO in 1994. After a decade of stalled attempts, he was also made the director of LIGO and put its construction back on track. He also expanded the research team and developed a detailed work plan for the NSF.

As Barish indicated, the work he did with LIGO was something of a dream come true:

“I always wanted to be an experimental physicist and was attracted to the idea of using continuing advances in technology to carry out fundamental science experiments that could not be done otherwise. LIGO is a prime example of what couldn’t be done before. Although it was a very large-scale project, the challenges were very different from the way we build a bridge or carry out other large engineering projects. For LIGO, the challenge was and is how to develop and design advanced instrumentation on a large scale, even as the project evolves.”

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

By 1999, construction had wrapped up on the LIGO observatories and by 2002, LIGO began to obtain data. In 2008, work began on improving its original detectors, known as the Advanced LIGO Project. The process of converting the 40-m prototype to LIGO’s current 4-km (2.5 mi) interferometers was a massive undertaking, and therefore needed to be broken down into steps.

The first step took place between 2002 and 2010, when the team built and tested the initial interferometers. While this did not result in any detections, it did demonstrate the observatory’s basic concepts and solved many of the technical obstacles. The next phase – called Advanced LIGO, which took placed between 2010 and 2015 – allowed the detectors to achieve new levels of sensitivity.

These upgrades, which also happened under Barish’s leadership, allowed for the development of several key technologies which ultimately made the first detection possible. As Barish explained:

“In the initial phase of LIGO, in order to isolate the detectors from the earth’s motion, we used a suspension system that consisted of test-mass mirrors hung by piano wire and used a multiple-stage set of passive shock absorbers, similar to those in your car. We knew this probably would not be good enough to detect gravitational waves, so we, in the LIGO Laboratory, developed an ambitious program for Advanced LIGO that incorporated a new suspension system to stabilize the mirrors and an active seismic isolation system to sense and correct for ground motions.”

Rainer Weiss, famed MIT physicist and partial winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Credit: MIT/Bryce Vickmark

Given how central Thorne, Weiss and Barish were to the study of gravitational waves, all three were rightly-recognized as this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Both Thorne and Barish were notified that they had won in the early morning hours on October 3rd, 2017. In response to the news, both scientists were sure to acknowledge the ongoing efforts of LIGO, the science teams that have contributed to it, and the efforts of Caltech and MIT in creating and maintaining the observatories.

“The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO’s noisy data and extracted the waves’ information,” said Thorne. “It is unfortunate that, due to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the prize has to go to no more than three people, when our marvelous discovery is the work of more than a thousand.”

“I am humbled and honored to receive this award,” said Barish. “The detection of gravitational waves is truly a triumph of modern large-scale experimental physics. Over several decades, our teams at Caltech and MIT developed LIGO into the incredibly sensitive device that made the discovery. When the signal reached LIGO from a collision of two stellar black holes that occurred 1.3 billion years ago, the 1,000-scientist-strong LIGO Scientific Collaboration was able to both identify the candidate event within minutes and perform the detailed analysis that convincingly demonstrated that gravitational waves exist.”

Looking ahead, it is also pretty clear that Advanved LIGO, Advanced Virgo and other gravitational wave observatories around the world are just getting started. In addition to having detected four separate events, recent studies have indicated that gravitational wave detection could also open up new frontiers for astronomical and cosmological research.

For instance, a recent study by a team of researchers from the Monash Center for Astrophysics proposed a theoretical concept known as ‘orphan memory’. According to their research, gravitational waves not only cause waves in space-time, but leave permanent ripples in its structure. By studying the “orphans” of past events, gravitational waves can be studied both as they reach Earth and long after they pass.

In addition, a study was released in August by a team of astronomers from the Center of Cosmology at the University of California Irvine that indicated that black hole mergers are far more common than we thought. After conducting a survey of the cosmos intended to calculate and categorize black holes, the UCI team determined that there could be as many as 100 million black holes in the galaxy.

Another recent study indicated that the Advanced LIGO, GEO 600, and Virgo gravitational-wave detector network could also be used to detect the gravitational waves created by supernovae. By detecting the waves created by star that explode near the end of their lifespans, astronomers could be able to see inside the hearts of collapsing stars for the first time and probe the mechanics of black hole formation.

The Nobel Prize in Physics is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a scientist. But even greater than that is the knowledge that great things resulted from one’s own work. Decades after Thorne, Weiss and Barish began proposing gravitational wave studies and working towards the creation of detectors, scientists from all over the world are making profound discoveries that are revolutionizing the way we think of the Universe.

And as these scientists will surely attest, what we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. One can imagine that somewhere, Einstein is also beaming with pride. As with other research pertaining to his theory of General Relativity, the study of gravitational waves is demonstrating that even after a century, his predictions were still bang on!

And be sure to check out this video of the Caltech Press Conference where Barish and Thorn were honored for their accomplishments:

Further Reading: NASA, Caltech

Cosmic Census Says There Could be 100 Million Black Holes in our Galaxy Alone

In January of 2016, researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Caltech and MIT, LIGO is dedicated to studying the waves predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and caused by black hole mergers.

According to a new study by a team of astronomers from the Center of Cosmology at the University of California Irvine, such mergers are far more common than we thought. After conducting a survey of the cosmos intended to calculate and categorize black holes, the UCI team determined that there could be as many as 100 million black holes in the galaxy, a finding which has significant implications for the study of gravitational waves.

The study which details their findings, titled “Counting Black Holes: The Cosmic Stellar Remnant Population and Implications for LIGO“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Oliver D. Elbert, a postdoc student with the department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine, the team conducted an analysis of gravitational wave signals that have been detected by LIGO.

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

Their study began roughly a year and a half ago, shortly after LIGO announced the first detection of gravitational waves. These waves were created by the merger of two distant black holes, each of which was equivalent in mass to about 30 Suns. As James Bullock, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine and a co-author on the paper, explained in a UCI press release:

“Fundamentally, the detection of gravitational waves was a huge deal, as it was a confirmation of a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But then we looked closer at the astrophysics of the actual result, a merger of two 30-solar-mass black holes. That was simply astounding and had us asking, ‘How common are black holes of this size, and how often do they merge?’”

Traditionally, astronomers have been of the opinion that black holes would typically be about the same mass as our Sun. As such, they sought to interpret the multiple gravitational wave detections made by LIGO in terms of what is known about galaxy formation. Beyond this, they also sought to create a framework for predicting future black hole mergers.

From this, they concluded that the Milky Way Galaxy would be home to up to 100 million black holes, 10 millions of which would have an estimated mass of about 30 Solar masses – i.e. similar to those that merged and created the first gravitational waves detected by LIGO in 2016. Meanwhile, dwarf galaxies – like the Draco Dwarf, which orbits at a distance of about 250,000 ly from the center of our galaxy – would host about 100 black holes.

They further determined that today, most low-mass black holes (~10 Solar masses) reside within galaxies of 1 trillion Solar masses (massive galaxies) while massive black holes (~50 Solar masses) reside within galaxies that have about 10 billion Solar masses (i.e. dwarf galaxies). After considering the relationship between galaxy mass and stellar metallicity, they interpreted a galaxy’s black hole count as a function of its stellar mass.

In addition, they also sought to determine how often black holes occur in pairs, how often they merge and how long this would take. Their analysis indicated that only a tiny fraction of black holes would need to be involved in mergers to accommodate what LIGO observed. It also offered predictions that showed how even larger black holes could be merging within the next decade.

As Manoj Kaplinghat, also a UCI professor of physics and astronomy and the second co-author on the study, explained:

“We show that only 0.1 to 1 percent of the black holes formed have to merge to explain what LIGO saw. Of course, the black holes have to get close enough to merge in a reasonable time, which is an open problem… If the current ideas about stellar evolution are right, then our calculations indicate that mergers of even 50-solar-mass black holes will be detected in a few years.”

In other words, our galaxy could be teeming with black holes, and mergers could be happening in a regular basis (relative to cosmological timescales). As such, we can expect that many more gravity wave detections will be possible in the coming years. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how LIGO has made two additional detections since the winter of 2016.

With many more expected to come, astronomers will have many opportunities to study black holes mergers, not to mention the physics that drive them!

Further Reading: UCI, MNRAS

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.