Comprehensive all-sky search for periodic gravitational waves in the sixth science run LIGO data

The most recent, and most sensitive, all-sky search for continuous gravitational waves shows no signs of a detection. These signals from rotating neutron stars remain elusive. New data from the advanced detectors may change this, but we will have to wait a while to find out. This at least gives us time to try to figure out what to do with a detection, should one be made.

New years and new limits

The start of the new academic year is a good time to make resolutions—much better than wet and windy January. I’m trying to be tidier and neater in my organisation. Amid cleaning up my desk, which is covered in about an inch of papers, I uncovered this recent Collaboration paper, which I had lost track of.

The paper is the latest in the continuous stream of non-detections of continuous gravitational waves. These signals could come from rotating neutron stars which are deformed or excited in some way, and the hope that from such an observation we could learn something about the structure of neutron stars.

The search uses old data from initial LIGO’s sixth science run. Searches for continuous waves require lots of computational power, so they can take longer than even our analyses of binary neutron star coalescences. This is a semi-coherent search, like the recent search of the Orion spur—somewhere between an incoherent search, which looks for signal power of any form in the detectors, and a fully coherent search, which looks for signals which exactly match the way a template wave evolves [bonus note]. The big difference compared to the Orion spur search, is that this one looks at the entire sky. This makes it less sensitive in those narrow directions, but means we are not excluding the possibility of sources from other locations.

Part of the Galaxy searched

Artist’s impression of the local part of the Milky Way. The yellow cones mark the extent of the Orion Spur spotlight search, and the pink circle shows the equivalent sensitivity of this all-sky search. Green stars indicate known pulsars. Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. Hurt.

The search identified 16 outliers, but an examination of all of these showed they could be explained either as an injected signal or as detector noise. Since no signals were found, we can instead place some upper limits on the strength of signals.

The plot below translates the calculated upper limits (above which there would have been a ~75%–95% chance of us detected the signal) into the size of neutron star deformations. Each curve shows the limits on detectable signals at different distance, depending upon their frequency and the rate of change of their frequency. The dotted lines show limits on ellipticity \varepsilon, a measure of how bumpy the neutron star is. Larger deformations mean quicker changes of frequency and produce louder signals, therefore they can can be detected further away.

Limits on detectable signals and ellipticities

Range of the PowerFlux search for rotating neutron stars assuming that spin-down is entirely due to gravitational waves. The solid lines show the upper limits as a function of the gravitational-wave frequency and its rate of change; the dashed lines are the corresponding limits on ellipticity, and the dotted line marks the maximum searched spin-down. Figure 6 of Abbott et al. (2016).

Neutron stars are something like giant atomic nuclei. Figuring the properties of the strange matter that makes up neutron stars is an extremely difficult problem. We’ll never be able to recreate such exotic matter in the laboratory. Gravitational waves give us a rare means of gathering experimental data on how this matter behaves. However, exactly how we convert a measurement of a signal into constraints on the behaviour of the matter is still uncertain. I think that making a detection might only be the first step in understanding the sources of continuous gravitational waves.

arXiv: 1605.03233 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 94(4):042002(14); 2016
Other new academic year resolution:
 To attempt to grow a beard. Beard stroking helps you think, right?

Bonus note

The semi-coherent search

As the first step of this search, the PowerFlux algorithm looks for power that changes in frequency as expected for a rotating neutron star: it factors in Doppler shifting due to the motion of the Earth and a plausible spin down (slowing of the rotation) of the neutron star. As a follow up, the Loosely Coherent algorithm is used, which checks for signals which match short stretches of similar templates. Any candidates to make it through all stages of refinement are then examined in more detail. This search strategy is described in detail for the S5 all-sky search.

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