On 14 August 2017 a gravitational wave signal (GW170814), originating from the coalescence of a binary black hole system, was observed by the global gravitational-wave observatory network of the two Advanced LIGO detectors and Advanced Virgo. That’s right, Virgo is in the game!
Advanced Virgo joined O2, the second observing run of the advanced detector era, on 1 August. This was a huge achievement. It has not been an easy route commissioning the new detector—it never ceases to amaze me how sensitive these machines are. Together, Advanced Virgo (near Pisa) and the two Advanced LIGO detectors (in Livingston and Hanford in the US) would take data until the end of O2 on 25 August.
On 14 August, we found a signal. A signal that was observable in all three detectors [bonus note]. Virgo is less sensitive than the LIGO instruments, so there is no impressive plot that shows something clearly popping out, but the Virgo data do complement the LIGO observations, indicating a consistent signal in all three detectors [bonus note].
GW170814 most closely resembles GW150914 and GW170104 (perhaps there’s something about ending with a 4). If we compare the masses of the two component black holes of the binary ( and ), and the black hole they merge to form (), they are all quite similar
- GW150914: , , ;
- GW170104: , , ;
- GW170814: , , .
GW170814’s source is another high-mass black hole system. It’s not too surprising (now we know that these systems exist) that we observe lots of these, as more massive black holes produce louder gravitational wave signals.
GW170814 is also comparable in terms of black holes spins. Spins are more difficult to measure than masses, so we’ll just look at the effective inspiral spin , a particular combination of the two component spins that influences how they inspiral together, and the spin of the final black hole
- GW150914: , ;
- GW170104:, ;
- GW170814:, .
There’s some spread, but the effective inspiral spins are all consistent with being close to zero. Small values occur when the individual spins are small, if the spins are misaligned with each other, or some combination of the two. I’m starting to ponder if high-mass black holes might have small spins. We don’t have enough information to tease these apart yet, but this new system is consistent with the story so far.
One of the things Virgo helps a lot with is localizing the source on the sky. Most of the information about the source location comes from the difference in arrival times at the detectors (since we know that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light). With two detectors, the time delay constrains the source to a ring on the sky; with three detectors, time delays can narrow the possible locations down to a couple of blobs. Folding in the amplitude of the signal as measured by the different detectors adds extra information, since detectors are not equally sensitive to all points on the sky (they are most sensitive to sources over head or underneath). This can even help when you don’t observe the signal in all detectors, as you know the source must be in a direction that detector isn’t too sensitive too. GW170814 arrived at LIGO Livingston first (although it’s not a competition), then ~8 ms later at LIGO Hanford, and finally ~14 ms later at Virgo. If we only had the two LIGO detectors, we’d have an uncertainty on the source’s sky position of over 1000 square degrees, but adding in Virgo, we get this down to 60 square degrees. That’s still pretty large by astronomical standards (the full Moon is about a quarter of a square degree), but a fantastic improvement!
Having additional detectors can help improve gravitational wave measurements in other ways too. One of the predictions of general relativity is that gravitational waves come in two polarizations. These polarizations describe the pattern of stretching and squashing as the wave passes, and are illustrated below.
These two polarizations are the two tensor polarizations, but other patterns of squeezing could be present in modified theories of gravity. If we could detect any of these we would immediately know that general relativity is wrong. The two LIGO detectors are almost exactly aligned, so its difficult to get any information on other polarizations. (We tried with GW150914 and couldn’t say anything either way). With Virgo, we get a little more information. As a first illustration of what we may be able to do, we compared how well the observed pattern of radiation at the detectors matched different polarizations, to see how general relativity’s tensor polarizations compared to a signal of entirely vector or scalar radiation. The tensor polarizations are clearly preferred, so general relativity lives another day. This isn’t too surprising, as most modified theories of gravity with other polarizations predict mixtures of the different polarizations (rather than all of one). To be able to constrain all the mixtures with these short signals we really need a network of five detectors, so we’ll have to wait for KAGRA and LIGO-India to come on-line.
We’ll be presenting a more detailed analysis of GW170814 later, in papers summarising our O2 results, so stay tuned for more.
Title: GW170814: A three-detector observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole coalescence
arXiv: 1709.09660 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 119(14):141101(16) [bonus note]
Data release: LIGO Open Science Center
Science summary: GW170814: A three-detector observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole coalescence
Signs of paranoia
Those of you who have been following the story of gravitational waves for a while may remember the case of the Big Dog. This was a blind injection of a signal during the initial detector era. One of the things that made it an interesting signal to analyse, was that it had been injected with an inconsistent sign in Virgo compared to the two LIGO instruments (basically it was upside down). Making this type of sign error is easy, and we were a little worried that we might make this sort of mistake when analysing the real data. The Virgo calibration team were extremely careful about this, and confident in their results. Of course, we’re quite paranoid, so during the preliminary analysis of GW170814, we tried some parameter estimation runs with the data from Virgo flipped. This was clearly disfavoured compared to the right sign, so we all breathed easily.
I am starting to believe that God may be a detector commissioner. At the start of O1, we didn’t have the hardware injection systems operational, but GW150914 showed that things were working properly. Now, with a third detector on-line, GW170814 shows that the network is functioning properly. Astrophysical injections are definitely the best way to confirm things are working!
Our usual way to search for binary black hole signals is compare the data to a bank of waveform templates. Since Virgo is less sensitive the the two LIGO detectors, and would only be running for a short amount of time, these main searches weren’t extended to use data from all three detectors. This seemed like a sensible plan, we were confident that this wouldn’t cause us to miss anything, and we can detect GW170814 with high significance using just data from Livingston and Hanford—the false alarm rate is estimated to be less than 1 in 27000 years (meaning that if the detectors were left running in the same state, we’d expect random noise to make something this signal-like less than once every 27000 years). However, we realised that we wanted to be able to show that Virgo had indeed seen something, and the search wasn’t set up for this.
Therefore, for the paper, we list three different checks to show that Virgo did indeed see the signal.
- In a similar spirit to the main searches, we took the best fitting template (it doesn’t matter in terms of results if this is the best matching template found by the search algorithms, or the maximum likelihood waveform from parameter estimation), and compared this to a stretch of data. We then calculated the probability of seeing a peak in the signal-to-noise ratio (as shown in the top row of Figure 1) at least as large as identified for GW170814, within the time window expected for a real signal. Little blips of noise can cause peaks in the signal-to-noise ratio, for example, there’s a glitch about 50 ms after GW170814 which shows up. We find that there’s a 0.3% probability of getting a signal-to-ratio peak as large as GW170814. That’s pretty solid evidence for Virgo having seen the signal, but perhaps not overwhelming.
- Binary black hole coalescences can also be detected (if the signals are short) by our searches for unmodelled signals. This was the case for GW170814. These searches were using data from all three detectors, so we can compare results with and without Virgo. Using just the two LIGO detectors, we calculate a false alarm rate of 1 per 300 years. This is good enough to claim a detection. Adding in Virgo, the false alarm rate drops to 1 per 5900 years! We see adding in Virgo improves the significance by almost a factor of 20.
- Using our parameter estimation analysis, we calculate the evidence (marginal likelihood) for (i) there being a coherent signal in Livingston and Hanford, and Gaussian noise in Virgo, and (ii) there being a coherent signal in all three detectors. We then take the ratio to calculate the Bayes factor. We find that a coherent signal in all three detectors is preferred by a factor of over 1600. This is a variant of a test proposed in Veitch & Vecchio (2010); it could be fooled if the noise in Virgo is non-Gaussian (if there is a glitch), but together with the above we think that the simplest explanation for Virgo’s data is that there is a signal.
In conclusion: Virgo works. Probably.
This is the first observation we’ve announced before being published. The draft made public at time at announcement was accepted, pending fixing up some minor points raised by the referees (who were fantastically quick in reporting back). I guess that binary black holes are now familiar enough that we are on solid ground claiming them. I’d be interested to know if people think that it would be good if we didn’t always wait for the rubber stamp of peer review, or whether they would prefer to for detections to be externally vetted? Sharing papers before publication would mean that we get more chance for feedback from the community, which is would be good, but perhaps the Collaboration should be seen to do things properly?
One reason that the draft paper is being shared early is because of an opportunity to present to the G7 Science Ministers Meeting in Italy. I think any excuse to remind politicians that international collaboration is a good thing™ is worth taking. Although I would have liked the paper to be a little more polished [bonus advice]. The opportunity to present here only popped up recently, which is one reason why things aren’t as perfect as usual.
I also suspect that Virgo were keen to demonstrate that they had detected something prior to any Nobel Prize announcement. There’s a big difference between stories being written about LIGO and Virgo’s discoveries, and having as an afterthought that Virgo also ran in August.
The main reason, however, was to get this paper out before the announcement of GW170817. The identification of GW170817’s counterpart relied on us being able to localize the source. In that case, there wasn’t a clear signal in Virgo (the lack of a signal tells us the source wan’t in a direction wasn’t particularly sensitive to). People agreed that we really need to demonstrate that Virgo can detect gravitational waves in order to be convincing that not seeing a signal is useful information. We needed to demonstrate that Virgo does work so that our case for GW170817 was watertight and bulletproof (it’s important to be prepared).
Some useful advice I was given when a PhD student was that done is better than perfect. Having something finished is often more valuable than having lots of really polished bits that don’t fit together to make a cohesive whole, and having everything absolutely perfect takes forever. This is useful to remember when writing up a thesis. I think it might apply here too: the Paper Writing Team have done a truly heroic job in getting something this advanced in little over a month. There’s always one more thing to do… [one more bonus note]
One more thing
One point I was hoping that the Paper Writing Team would clarify is our choice of prior probability distribution for the black hole spins. We don’t get a lot of information about the spins from the signal, so our choice of prior has an impact on the results.
The paper says that we assume “no restrictions on the spin orientations”, which doesn’t make much sense, as one of the two waveforms we use to analyse the signal only includes spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum! What the paper meant was that we assume a prior distribution which has an isotopic distribution of spins, and for the aligned spin (no precession) waveform, we assume a prior probability distribution on the aligned components of the spins which matches what you would have for an isotropic distribution of spins (in effect, assuming that we can only measure the aligned components of the spins, which is a good approximation).