GW170817—The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo have detected their first binary neutron star inspiral. Remarkably, this event was observed not just with gravitational waves, but also across the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma-rays to radio. This discovery confirms the theory that binary neutron star mergers are the progenitors of short gamma-ray bursts and kilonovae, and may be the primary source of heavy elements like gold.

In this post, I’ll go through some of the story of GW170817. As for GW150914, I’ll write another post on the more technical details of our papers, once I’ve had time to catch up on sleep.


The second observing run (O2) of the advanced gravitational-wave detectors started on 30 November 2016. The first detection came in January—GW170104. I was heavily involved in the analysis and paper writing for this. We finally finished up in June, at which point I was thoroughly exhausted. I took some time off in July [bonus note], and was back at work for August. With just one month left in the observing run, it would all be downhill from here, right?

August turned out to be the lava-filled, super-difficult final level of O2. As we have now announced, on August 14, we detected a binary black hole coalescence—GW170814. This was the first clear detection including Virgo, giving us superb sky localization. This is fantastic for astronomers searching for electromagnetic counterparts to our gravitational-wave signals. There was a flurry of excitement, and we thought that this was a fantastic conclusion to O2. We were wrong, this was just the save point before the final opponent. On August 17, we met the final, fire-ball throwing boss.

At 1:58 pm BST my phone buzzed with a text message, an automated alert of a gravitational-wave trigger. I was obviously excited—I recall that my exact thoughts were “What fresh hell is this?” I checked our online event database and saw that it was a single-detector trigger, it was only seen by our Hanford instrument. I started to relax, this was probably going to turn out to be a glitch. The template masses, were low, in the neutron star range, not like the black holes we’ve been finding. Then I saw the false alarm rate was better than one in 9000 years. Perhaps it wasn’t just some noise after all—even though it’s difficult to estimate false alarm rates accurately online, as especially for single-detector triggers, this was significant! I kept reading. Scrolling down the page there was an external coincident trigger, a gamma-ray burst (GRB 170817A) within a couple of seconds…


We’re gonna need a bigger author list. Credit: Zanuck/Brown Productions

Short gamma-ray bursts are some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe. I’ve always found it mildly disturbing that we didn’t know what causes them. The leading theory has been that they are the result of two neutron stars smashing together. Here seemed to be the proof.

The rapid response call was under way by the time I joined. There was a clear chirp in Hanford, you could be see it by eye! We also had data from Livingston and Virgo too. It was bad luck that they weren’t folded into the online alert. There had been a drop out in the data transfer from Italy to the US, breaking the flow for Virgo. In Livingston, there was a glitch at the time of the signal which meant the data wasn’t automatically included in the search. My heart sank. Glitches are common—check out Gravity Spy for some examples—so it was only a matter of time until one overlapped with a signal [bonus note], and with GW170817 being such a long signal, it wasn’t that surprising. However, this would complicate the analysis. Fortunately, the glitch is short and the signal is long (if this had been a high-mass binary black hole, things might not have been so smooth). We were able to exorcise the glitch. A preliminary sky map using all three detectors was sent out at 12:54 am BST. Not only did we defeat the final boss, we did a speed run on the hard difficulty setting first time [bonus note].

Signal and glitch

Spectrogram of Livingston data showing part of GW170817’s chirp (which sweeps upward in frequncy) as well as the glitch (the big blip at about -0.6~\mathrm{s}). The lower panel shows how we removed the glitch: the grey line shows gating window that was applied for preliminary results, to zero the affected times, the blue shows a fitted model of the glitch that was subtracted for final results. You can clearly see the chirp well before the glitch, so there’s no danger of it being an artefect of the glitch. Figure 2 of the GW170817 Discovery Paper

The three-detector sky map provided a great localization for the source—this preliminary map had a 90% area of ~30 square degrees. It was just in time for that night’s observations. The plot below shows our gravitational-wave localizations in green—the long band is without Virgo, and the smaller is with all three detectors—as with GW170814, Virgo makes a big difference. The blue areas are the localizations from Fermi and INTEGRAL, the gamma-ray observatories which measured the gamma-ray burst. The inset is something new…

Overlapping localizations for GW170817's source

Localization of the gravitational-wave, gamma-ray, and optical signals. The main panel shows initial gravitational-wave 90% areas in green (with and without Virgo) and gamma-rays in blue (the IPN triangulation from the time delay between Fermi and INTEGRAL, and the Fermi GBM localization). The inset shows the location of the optical counterpart (the top panel was taken 10.9 hours after merger, the lower panel is a pre-merger reference without the transient). Figure 1 of the Multimessenger Astronomy Paper.

That night, the discoveries continued. Following up on our sky location, an optical counterpart (AT 2017gfo) was found. The source is just on the outskirts of galaxy NGC 4993, which is right in the middle of the distance range we inferred from the gravitational wave signal. At around 40 Mpc, this is the closest gravitational wave source.

After this source was reported, I think about every single telescope possible was pointed at this source. I think it may well be the most studied transient in the history of astronomy. I think there are ~250 circulars about follow-up. Not only did we find an optical counterpart, but there was emission in X-ray and radio. There was a delay in these appearing, I remember there being excitement at our Collaboration meeting as the X-ray emission was reported (there was a lack of cake though).

The figure below tries to summarise all the observations. As you can see, it’s a mess because there is too much going on!

Gravitational-wave, gamma-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio observations

The timeline of observations of GW170817’s source. Shaded dashes indicate times when information was reported in a Circular. Solid lines show when the source was observable in a band: the circles show a comparison of brightnesses for representative observations. Figure 2 of the Multimessenger Astronomy Paper.

The observations paint a compelling story. Two neutron stars insprialled together and merged. Colliding two balls of nuclear density material at around a third of the speed of light causes a big explosion. We get a jet blasted outwards and a gamma-ray burst. The ejected, neutron-rich material decays to heavy elements, and we see this hot material as a kilonova [bonus material]. The X-ray and radio may then be the afterglow formed by the bubble of ejected material pushing into the surrounding interstellar material.


What have we learnt from our results? Here are some gravitational wave highlights.

We measure several thousand cycles from the inspiral. It is the most beautiful chirp! This is the loudest gravitational wave signal yet found, beating even GW150914. GW170817 has a signal-to-noise ratio of 32, while for GW150914 it is just 24.

Normalised spectrograms for GW170817

Time–frequency plots for GW170104 as measured by Hanford, Livingston and Virgo. The signal is clearly visible in the two LIGO detectors as the upward sweeping chirp. It is not visible in Virgo because of its lower sensitivity and the source’s position in the sky. The Livingston data have the glitch removed. Figure 1 of the GW170817 Discovery Paper.

The signal-to-noise ratios in the Hanford, Livingston and Virgo were 19, 26 and 2 respectively. The signal is quiet in Virgo, which is why you can’t spot it by eye in the plots above. The lack of a clear signal is really useful information, as it restricts where on the sky the source could be, as beautifully illustrated in the video below.

While we measure the inspiral nicely, we don’t detect the merger: we can’t tell if a hypermassive neutron star is formed or if there is immediate collapse to a black hole. This isn’t too surprising at current sensitivity, the system would basically need to convert all of its energy into gravitational waves for us to see it.

From measuring all those gravitational wave cycles, we can measure the chirp mass stupidly well. Unfortunately, converting the chirp mass into the component masses is not easy. The ratio of the two masses is degenerate with the spins of the neutron stars, and we don’t measure these well. In the plot below, you can see the probability distributions for the two masses trace out bananas of roughly constant chirp mass. How far along the banana you go depends on what spins you allow. We show results for two ranges: one with spins (aligned with the orbital angular momentum) up to 0.89, the other with spins up to 0.05. There’s nothing physical about 0.89 (it was just convenient for our analysis), but it is designed to be agnostic, and above the limit you’d plausibly expect for neutron stars (they should rip themselves apart at spins of ~0.7); the lower limit of 0.05 should safely encompass the spins of the binary neutron stars (which are close enough to merge in the age of the Universe) we have estimated from pulsar observations. The masses roughly match what we have measured for the neutron stars in our Galaxy. (The combinations at the tip of the banana for the high spins would be a bit odd).

Binary neutron star masses

Estimated masses for the two neutron stars in the binary. We show results for two different spin limits, \chi_z is the component of the spin aligned with the orbital angular momentum. The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour, which follows a line of constant chirp mass. The one-dimensional plot shows individual masses; the dotted lines mark 90% bounds away from equal mass. Figure 4 of the GW170817 Discovery Paper.

If we were dealing with black holes, we’d be done: they are only described by mass and spin. Neutron stars are more complicated. Black holes are just made of warped spacetime, neutron stars are made of delicious nuclear material. This can get distorted during the inspiral—tides are raised on one by the gravity of the other. These extract energy from the orbit and accelerate the inspiral. The tidal deformability depends on the properties of the neutron star matter (described by its equation of state). The fluffier a neutron star is, the bigger the impact of tides; the more compact, the smaller the impact. We don’t know enough about neutron star material to predict this with certainty—by measuring the tidal deformation we can learn about the allowed range. Unfortunately, we also don’t yet have good model waveforms including tides, so for now we’ve just done a preliminary analysis. We find that some of the stiffer equations of state (the ones which predict larger neutron stars and bigger tides) are disfavoured; however, we cannot rule out zero tides. This means we can’t rule out the possibility that we have found two low-mass black holes from the gravitational waves alone. This would be an interesting discovery; however, the electromagnetic observations mean that the more obvious explanation of neutron stars is more likely.

From the gravitational wave signal, we can infer the source distance. Combining this with the electromagnetic observations we can do some cool things.

First, the gamma ray burst arrived at Earth 1.7 seconds after the merger. 1.7 seconds is not a lot of difference after travelling something like 85–160 million years (that’s roughly the time since the Cretaceous or Late Jurassic periods). Of course, we don’t expect the gamma-rays to be emitted at exactly the moment of merger, but allowing for a sensible range of emission times, we can bound the difference between the speed of gravity and the speed of light. In general relativity they should be the same, and we find that the difference should be no more than three parts in 10^{15}.

Second, we can combine the gravitational wave distance with the redshift of the galaxy to measure the Hubble constant, the rate of expansion of the Universe. Our best estimates for the Hubble constant, from the cosmic microwave background and from supernova observations, are inconsistent with each other. Which is awkward. Gravitational wave observations should have different sources of error and help to resolve the difference. Unfortunately, with only one event our uncertainties are rather large, which leads to a diplomatic outcome.

GW170817 Hubble constant

Posterior probability distribution for the Hubble constant H_0 inferred from GW170817. The lines mark 68% and 95% intervals. The coloured bands are measurements from the cosmic microwave background (Planck) and supernovae (SHoES). Figure 1 of the Hubble Constant Paper.

Finally, we can now change from estimating upper limits on binary neutron star merger rates to estimating the rates! We estimate the merger rate density is in the range 1540^{+3200}_{-1220}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} (assuming a uniform of neutron star masses between one and two solar masses). This is surprisingly close to what the Collaboration expected back in 2010: a rate of between 10~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} and 10000~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, with a realistic rate of 1000~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. This means that we are on track to see many more binary neutron stars—perhaps one a week at design sensitivity!


Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo observed a binary neutron star insprial. The rest of the astronomical community has observed what happened next (sadly there are no neutrinos). This is the first time we have such complementary observations—hopefully there will be many more to come. There’ll be a huge number of results coming out over the following days and weeks. From these, we’ll start to piece together more information on what neutron stars are made of, and what happens when you smash them together (take that particle physicists).

Also: I’m exhausted, my inbox is overflowing, and I will have far too many papers to read tomorrow.

GW170817 Discovery Paper: GW170817: Observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star inspiral
Multimessenger Astronomy Paper: Multi-messenger observations of a binary neutron star merger
Data release:
 LIGO Open Science Center

Bonus notes

Inbox zero

Over my vacation I cleaned up my email. I had a backlog starting around September 2015.  I think there were over 6000 which I sorted or deleted. I had about 20 left to deal with when I got back to work. GW170817 undid that. Despite doing my best to keep up, there are over a 1000 emails in my inbox…

Worst case scenario

Around the start of O2, I was asked when I expected our results to be public. I said it would depend upon what we found. If it was only high-mass black holes, those are quick to analyse and we know what to do with them, so results shouldn’t take long, now we have the first few out of the way. In this case, perhaps a couple months as we would have been generating results as we went along. However, the worst case scenario would be a binary neutron star overlapping with non-Gaussian noise. Binary neutron stars are more difficult to analyse (they are longer signals, and there are matter effects to worry about), and it would be complicated to get everyone to be happy with our results because we were doing lots of things for the first time. Obviously, if one of these happened at the end of the run, there’d be quite a delay…

I think I got that half-right. We’re done amazingly well analysing GW170817 to get results out in just two months, but I think it will be a while before we get the full O2 set of results out, as we’ve been neglecting otherthings (you’ll notice we’ve not updated our binary black hole merger rate estimate since GW170104, nor given detailed results for testing general relativity with the more recent detections).

At the time of the GW170817 alert, I was working on writing a research proposal. As part of this, I was explaining why it was important to continue working on gravitational-wave parameter estimation, in particular how to deal with non-Gaussian or non-stationary noise. I think I may be a bit of a jinx. For GW170817, the glitch wasn’t a big problem, these type of blips can be removed. I’m more concerned about the longer duration ones, which are less easy to separate out from background noise. Don’t say I didn’t warn you in O3.

Parameter estimation rota

The duty of analysing signals to infer their source properties was divided up into shifts for O2. On January 4, the time of GW170104, I was on shift with my partner Aaron Zimmerman. It was his first day. Having survived that madness, Aaron signed back up for the rota. Can you guess who was on shift for the week which contained GW170814 and GW170817? Yep, Aaron (this time partnered with the excellent Carl-Johan Haster). Obviously, we’ll need to have Aaron on rota for the entirety of O3. In preparation, he has already started on paper drafting

Methods Section: Chained ROTA member to a terminal, ignored his cries for help. Detections followed swiftly.

Especially made

The lightest elements (hydrogen, helium and lithium) we made during the Big Bang. Stars burn these to make heavier elements. Energy can be released up to around iron. Therefore, heavier elements need to be made elsewhere, for example in the material ejected from supernova or (as we have now seen) neutron star mergers, where there are lots of neutrons flying around to be absorbed. Elements (like gold and platinum) formed by this rapid neutron capture are known as r-process elements, I think because they are beloved by pirates.

A couple of weeks ago, the Nobel Prize in Physics was announced for the observation of gravitational waves. In December, the laureates will be presented with a gold (not chocolate) medal. I love the idea that this gold may have come from merging neutron stars.

Nobel medal

Here’s one we made earlier. Credit: Associated Press/F. Vergara