Advanced LIGO: O1 is here!

The LIGO sites

Aerial views of LIGO Hanford (left) and LIGO Livingston (right). Both have 4 km long arms (arranged in an L shape) which house the interferometer beams. Credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT.

The first observing run (O1) of Advanced LIGO began just over a week ago. We officially started at 4 pm British Summer Time, Friday 18 September. It was a little low key: you don’t want lots of fireworks and popping champagne corks next to instruments incredibly sensitive to vibrations. It was a smooth transition from our last engineering run (ER8), so I don’t even think there were any giant switches to throw. Of course, I’m not an instrumentalist, so I’m not qualified to say. In any case, it is an exciting time, and it is good to see some media attention for the Collaboration (with stories from Nature, the BBC and Science).

I would love to keep everyone up to date with the latest happenings from LIGO. However, like everyone in the Collaboration, I am bound by a confidentiality agreement. (You don’t want to cross people with giant lasers). We can’t have someone saying that we have detected a binary black hole (or that we haven’t) before we’ve properly analysed all the data, finalised calibration, reviewed all the code, double checked our results, and agreed amongst ourselves that we know what’s going on. When we are ready, announcements will come from the LIGO Spokespreson Gabriela González and the Virgo Spokesperson Fulvio Ricci. Event rates are uncertain and we’re not yet at final sensitivity, so don’t expect too much of O1.

There are a couple of things that I can share about our status. Whereas normally everything I write is completely unofficial, these are suggested replies to likely questions.

Have you started taking data?
We began collecting science quality data at the beginning of September, in preparation of the first Observing Run that started on Friday, September 18, and are planning on collecting data for about 4 months

We certainly do have data, but there’s nothing new about that (other than the improved sensitivity). Data from the fifth and sixth science runs of initial LIGO are now publicly available from the LIGO Open Science Center. You can go through it and try to find anything we missed (which is pretty cool).

Have you seen anything in the data yet?
We analyse the data “online” in an effort to provide fast information to astronomers for possible follow up of triggers using a relatively low statistical significance (a false alarm rate of ~1/month). We have been tuning the details of the communication procedures, and we have not yet automated all the steps that can be, but we will send alerts to astronomers above the threshold agreed as soon as we can after those triggers are identified. Since analysis to validate and candidate in gravitational-wave data can take months, we will not be able to say anything about results in the data on short time scales. We will share any and all results when ready, though probably not before the end of the Observing Run. 

Analysing the data is tricky, and requires lots of computing time, as well as carefully calibration of the instruments (including how many glitches they produce which could look like a gravitational-wave trigger). It takes a while to get everything done. If you would like to help out, you can sign up for Einstein@Home, which will use your computer’s idle time to crunch through data. It doesn’t just analyse LIGO data, but has also discovered pulsars in radio and gamma-ray data. You can find out more about Einstein@Home in the LIGO Magazine.

We heard that you sent a gravitational-wave trigger to astronomers already—is that true?
During O1, we will send alerts to astronomers above a relatively low significance threshold; we have been practising communication with astronomers in ER8. We are following this policy with partners who have signed agreement with us and have observational capabilities ready to follow up triggers. Because we cannot validate gravitational-wave events until we have enough statistics and diagnostics, we have confidentiality agreements about any triggers that hare shared, and we hope all involved abide by those rules.

I expect this is a pre-emptive question and answer. It would be amazing if we could see an electromagnetic (optical, gamma-ray, radio, etc.) counterpart to a gravitational wave. (I’ve done some work on how well we can localise gravitational-wave sources on the sky). It’s likely that any explosion or afterglow that is visible will fade quickly, so we want astronomers to be able to start looking straight-away. This means candidate events are sent out before they’re fully vetted: they could just be noise, they could be real, or they could be a blind injection. A blind injection is when a fake signal is introduced to the data secretly; this is done to keep us honest and check that our analysis does work as expected (since we know what results we should get for the signal that was injected). There was a famous blind injection during the run of initial LIGO called Big Dog. (We take gravitational-wave detection seriously). We’ve learnt a lot from injections, even if they are disappointing. Alerts will be sent out for events with false alarm rates of about one per month, so we expect a few across O1 just because of random noise.

While I can’t write more about the science from O1, I will still be posting about astrophysics, theory and how we analyse data. Those who are impatient can be reassured that gravitational waves have been detected, just indirectly, from observations of binary pulsars.

Periastron shift of binary pulsar

The orbital decay of the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar (PSR B1913+16). The points are measured values, while the curve is the theoretical prediction for gravitational waves. I love this plot. Credit: Weisberg & Taylor (2005).

LIGO Magazine: Issue 7

It is an exciting time time in LIGO. The start of the first observing run (O1) is imminent. I think they just need to sort out a button that is big enough and red enough (or maybe gather a little more calibration data… ), and then it’s all systems go. Making the first direct detection of gravitational waves with LIGO would be an enormous accomplishment, but that’s not all we can hope to achieve: what I’m really interested in is what we can learn from these gravitational waves.

The LIGO Magazine gives a glimpse inside the workings of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, covering everything from the science of the detector to what collaboration members like to get up to in their spare time. The most recent issue was themed around how gravitational-wave science links in with the rest of astronomy. I enjoyed it, as I’ve been recently working on how to help astronomers look for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational-wave signals. It also features a great interview with Joseph Taylor Jr., one of the discoverers of the famous Hulse–Taylor binary pulsar. The back cover features an article I wrote about parameter estimation: an expanded version is below.

How does parameter estimation work?

Detecting gravitational waves is one of the great challenges in experimental physics. A detection would be hugely exciting, but it is not the end of the story. Having observed a signal, we need to work out where it came from. This is a job for parameter estimation!

How we analyse the data depends upon the type of signal and what information we want to extract. I’ll use the example of a compact binary coalescence, that is the inspiral (and merger) of two compact objects—neutron stars or black holes (not marshmallows). Parameters that we are interested in measuring are things like the mass and spin of the binary’s components, its orientation, and its position.

For a particular set of parameters, we can calculate what the waveform should look like. This is actually rather tricky; including all the relevant physics, like precession of the binary, can make for some complicated and expensive-to-calculate waveforms. The first part of the video below shows a simulation of the coalescence of a black-hole binary, you can see the gravitational waveform (with characteristic chirp) at the bottom.

We can compare our calculated waveform with what we measured to work out how well they fit together. If we take away the wave from what we measured with the interferometer, we should be left with just noise. We understand how our detectors work, so we can model how the noise should behave; this allows us to work out how likely it would be to get the precise noise we need to make everything match up.

To work out the probability that the system has a given parameter, we take the likelihood for our left-over noise and fold in what we already knew about the values of the parameters—for example, that any location on the sky is equally possible, that neutron-star masses are around 1.4 solar masses, or that the total mass must be larger than that of a marshmallow. For those who like details, this is done using Bayes’ theorem.

We now want to map out this probability distribution, to find the peaks of the distribution corresponding to the most probable parameter values and also chart how broad these peaks are (to indicate our uncertainty). Since we can have many parameters, the space is too big to cover with a grid: we can’t just systematically chart parameter space. Instead, we randomly sample the space and construct a map of its valleys, ridges and peaks. Doing this efficiently requires cunning tricks for picking how to jump between spots: exploring the landscape can take some time, we may need to calculate millions of different waveforms!

Having computed the probability distribution for our parameters, we can now tell an astronomer how much of the sky they need to observe to have a 90% chance of looking at the source, give the best estimate for the mass (plus uncertainty), or even figure something out about what neutron stars are made of (probably not marshmallow). This is the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy!

Monty and Carla map parameter space

Monty, Carla and the other samplers explore the probability landscape. Nutsinee Kijbunchoo drew the version for the LIGO Magazine.