The Universe is full of awesome things. These posts will hopefully explain a few of these while pointing out some mysteries still to be solved. There’s probably a bias towards black holes because they’re especially awesome.
The space-based observatory LISA will detect gravitational waves from massive black holes (giant black holes residing in the centres of galaxies). One particularly interesting signal will come from the inspiral of a regular stellar-mass black hole into a massive black hole. These are called extreme mass-ratio inspirals (or EMRIs, pronounced emries, to their friends) [bonus note]. We have never observed such a system. This means that there’s a lot we have to learn about them. In this work, we systematically investigated the prospects for observing EMRIs. We found that even though there’s a wide range in predictions for what EMRIs we will detect, they should be a safe bet for the LISA mission.
Artistic impression of the spacetime for an extreme-mass-ratio inspiral, with a smaller stellar-mass black hole orbiting a massive black hole. This image is mandatory when talking about extreme-mass-ratio inspirals. Credit: NASA
LISA & EMRIs
My previous post discussed some of the interesting features of EMRIs. Because of the extreme difference in masses of the two black holes, it takes a long time for them to complete their inspiral. We can measure tens of thousands of orbits, which allows us to make wonderfully precise measurements of the source properties (if we can accurately pick out the signal from the data). Here, we’ll examine exactly what we could learn with LISA from EMRIs [bonus note].
First we build a model to investigate how many EMRIs there could be. There is a lot of astrophysics which we are currently uncertain about, which leads to a large spread in estimates for the number of EMRIs. Second, we look at how precisely we could measure properties from the EMRI signals. The astrophysical uncertainties are less important here—we could get a revolutionary insight into the lives of massive black holes.
The number of EMRIs
To build a model of how many EMRIs there are, we need a few different inputs:
The population of massive black holes
The distribution of stellar clusters around massive black holes
The range of orbits of EMRIs
We examine each of these in turn, building a more detailed model than has previously been constructed for EMRIs.
We currently know little about the population of massive black holes. This means we’ll discover lots when we start measuring signals (yay), but it’s rather inconvenient now, when we’re trying to predict how many EMRIs there are (boo). We take two different models for the mass distribution of massive black holes. One is based upon a semi-analytic model of massive black hole formation, the other is at the pessimistic end allowed by current observations. The semi-analytic model predicts massive black hole spins around 0.98, but we also consider spins being uniformly distributed between 0 and 1, and spins of 0. This gives us a picture of the bigger black hole, now we need the smaller.
Observations show that the masses of massive black holes are correlated with their surrounding cluster of stars—bigger black holes have bigger clusters. We consider four different versions of this trend: Gültekin et al. (2009); Kormendy & Ho (2013); Graham & Scott (2013), and Shankar et al. (2016). The stars and black holes about a massive black hole should form a cusp, with the density of objects increasing towards the massive black hole. This is great for EMRI formation. However, the cusp is disrupted if two galaxies (and their massive black holes) merge. This tends to happen—it’s how we get bigger galaxies (and black holes). It then takes some time for the cusp to reform, during which time, we don’t expect as many EMRIs. Therefore, we factor in the amount of time for which there is a cusp for massive black holes of different masses and spins.
Given a cusp about a massive black hole, we then need to know how often an EMRI forms. Simulations give us a starting point. However, these only consider a snap-shot, and we need to consider how things evolve with time. As stellar-mass black holes inspiral, the massive black hole will grow in mass and the surrounding cluster will become depleted. Both these effects are amplified because for each inspiral, there’ll be many more stars or stellar-mass black holes which will just plunge directly into the massive black hole. We therefore need to limit the number of EMRIs so that we don’t have an unrealistically high rate. We do this by adding in a couple of feedback factors, one to cap the rate so that we don’t deplete the cusp quicker than new objects will be added to it, and one to limit the maximum amount of mass the massive black hole can grow from inspirals and plunges. This gives us an idea for the total number of inspirals.
Finally, we calculate the orbits that EMRIs will be on. We again base this upon simulations, and factor in how the spin of the massive black hole effects the distribution of orbital inclinations.
Putting all the pieces together, we can calculate the population of EMRIs. We now need to work out how many LISA would be able to detect. This means we need models for the gravitational-wave signal. Since we are simulating a large number, we use a computationally inexpensive analytic model. We know that this isn’t too accurate, but we consider two different options for setting the end of the inspiral (where the smaller black hole finally plunges) which should bound the true range of results.
Number of EMRIs for different size massive black holes in different astrophysical models. M1 is our best estimate, the others explore variations on this. M11 and M12 are designed to be cover the extremes, being the most pessimistic and optimistic combinations. The solid and dashed lines are for two different signal models (AKK and AKS), which are designed to give an indication of potential variation. They agree where the massive black hole is not spinning (M10 and M11). The range of masses is similar for all models, as it is set by the sensitivity of LISA. We can detect higher mass systems assuming the AKK signal model as it includes extra inspiral close to highly spinning black holes: for the heaviest black holes, this is the only part of the signal at high enough frequency to be detectable. Figure 8 of Babak et al. (2017).
Allowing for all the different uncertainties, we find that there should be somewhere between 1 and 4200 EMRIs detected per year. (The model we used when studying transient resonances predicted about 250 per year, albeit with a slightly different detector configuration, which is fairly typical of all the models we consider here). This range is encouraging. The lower end means that EMRIs are a pretty safe bet, we’d be unlucky not to get at least one over the course of a multi-year mission (LISA should have at least four years observing). The upper end means there could be lots—we might actually need to worry about them forming a background source of noise if we can’t individually distinguish them!
Having shown that EMRIs are a good LISA source, we now need to consider what we could learn by measuring them?
We estimate the precision we will be able to measure parameters using the Fisher information matrix. The Fisher matrix measures how sensitive our observations are to changes in the parameters (the more sensitive we are, the better we should be able to measure that parameter). It should be a lower bound on actual measurement precision, and well approximate the uncertainty in the high signal-to-noise (loud signal) limit. The combination of our use of the Fisher matrix and our approximate signal models means our results will not be perfect estimates of real performance, but they should give an indication of the typical size of measurement uncertainties.
Given that we measure a huge number of cycles from the EMRI signal, we can make really precise measurements of the the mass and spin of the massive black hole, as these parameters control the orbital frequencies. Below are plots for the typical measurement precision from our Fisher matrix analysis. The orbital eccentricity is measured to similar accuracy, as it influences the range of orbital frequencies too. We also get pretty good measurements of the the mass of the smaller black hole, as this sets how quickly the inspiral proceeds (how quickly the orbital frequencies change). EMRIs will allow us to do precision astronomy!
Distribution of (one standard deviation) fractional uncertainties for measurements of the massive black hole (redshifted) mass . Results are shown for the different astrophysical models, and for the different signal models. The astrophysical model has little impact on the uncertainties. M4 shows a slight difference as it assumes heavier stellar-mass black holes. The results with the two signal models agree when the massive black hole is not spinning (M10 and M11). Otherwise, measurements are more precise with the AKK signal model, as this includes extra signal from the end of the inspiral. Part of Figure 11 of Babak et al. (2017).
Distribution of (one standard deviation) uncertainties for measurements of the massive black hole spin . The results mirror those for the masses above. Part of Figure 11 of Babak et al. (2017).
Now, before you get too excited that we’re going to learn everything about massive black holes, there is one confession I should make. In the plot above I show the measurement accuracy for the redshifted mass of the massive black hole. The cosmological expansion of the Universe causes gravitational waves to become stretched to lower frequencies in the same way light is (this makes visible light more red, hence the name). The measured frequency is where is the frequency emitted, and is the redshift ( for a nearby source, and is larger for further away sources). Lower frequency gravitational waves correspond to higher mass systems, so it is often convenient to work with the redshifted mass, the mass corresponding to the signal you measure if you ignore redshifting. The redshifted mass of the massive black hole is where is the true mass. To work out the true mass, we need the redshift, which means we need to measure the distance to the source.
Distribution of (one standard deviation) fractional uncertainties for measurements of the luminosity distance . The signal model is not as important here, as the uncertainty only depends on how loud the signal is. Part of Figure 12 of Babak et al. (2017).
The plot above shows the fractional uncertainty on the distance. We don’t measure this too well, as it is determined from the amplitude of the signal, rather than its frequency components. The situation is much as for LIGO. The larger uncertainties on the distance will dominate the overall uncertainty on the black hole masses. We won’t be getting all these to fractions of a percent. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still figure out what the distribution of masses looks like!
One of the really exciting things we can do with EMRIs is check that the signal matches our expectations for a black hole in general relativity. Since we get such an excellent map of the spacetime of the massive black hole, it is easy to check for deviations. In general relativity, everything about the black hole is fixed by its mass and spin (often referred to as the no-hair theorem). Using the measured EMRI signal, we can check if this is the case. One convenient way of doing this is to describe the spacetime of the massive object in terms of a multipole expansion. The first (most important) terms gives the mass, and the next term the spin. The third term (the quadrupole) is set by the first two, so if we can measure it, we can check if it is consistent with the expected relation. We estimated how precisely we could measure a deviation in the quadrupole. Fortunately, for this consistency test, all factors from redshifting cancel out, so we can get really detailed results, as shown below. Using EMRIs, we’ll be able to check for really small differences from general relativity!
Distribution of (one standard deviation) of uncertainties for deviations in the quadrupole moment of the massive object spacetime . Results are similar to the mass and spin measurements. Figure 13 of Babak et al. (2017).
In summary: EMRIS are awesome. We’re not sure how many we’ll detect with LISA, but we’re confident there will be some, perhaps a couple of hundred per year. From the signals we’ll get new insights into the masses and spins of black holes. This should tell us something about how they, and their surrounding galaxies, evolved. We’ll also be able to do some stringent tests of whether the massive objects are black holes as described by general relativity. It’s all pretty exciting, for when LISA launches, which is currently planned about 2034…
One of the most valuable traits a student or soldier can have: patience. Credit: Sony/Marvel
Is it “extreme-mass-ratio inspiral”, “extreme mass-ratio inspiral” or “extreme mass ratio inspiral”? All are used in the literature. This is one of the advantage of using “EMRI”. The important thing is that we’re talking about inspirals that have a mass ratio which is extreme. For this paper, we used “extreme mass-ratio inspiral”, but when I first started my PhD, I was first introduced to “extreme-mass-ratio inspirals”, so they are always stuck that way in my mind.
I think hyphenation is a bit of an art, and there’s no definitive answer here, just like there isn’t for superhero names, where you can have Iron Man, Spider-Man or Iceman.
Science with LISA
This paper is part of a series looking at what LISA could tells us about different gravitational wave sources. So far, this series covers
You’ll notice there’s a change in the name of the mission from eLISA to LISA part-way through, as things have evolved. (Or devolved?) I think the main take-away so far is that the cosmology group is the most enthusiastic.
After three months (and one binary black hole detection announcement), I finally have time to write about the suite of LIGO–Virgo papers put together to accompany GW170817.
There are currently 9 papers in the GW170817 family. Further papers, for example looking at parameter estimation in detail, are in progress. Papers are listed below in order of arXiv posting. My favourite is the GW170817 Discovery Paper. Many of the highlights, especially from the Discovery and Multimessenger Astronomy Papers, are described in my GW170817 announcement post.
Keeping up with all the accompanying observational results is a task not even Sisyphus would envy. I’m sure that the details of these will be debated for a long time to come. I’ve included references to a few below (mostly as [citation notes]), but these are not guaranteed to be complete (I’ll continue to expand these in the future).
This is the paper announcing the gravitational-wave detection. It gives an overview of the properties of the signal, initial estimates of the parameters of the source (see the GW170817 Properties Paper for updates) and the binary neutron star merger rate, as well as an overview of results from the other companion papers.
I was disappointed that “the era of gravitational-wave multi-messenger astronomy has opened with a bang” didn’t make the conclusion of the final draft.
I’ve numbered this paper as −1 as it gives an overview of all the observations—gravitational wave, electromagnetic and neutrino—accompanying GW170817. I feel a little sorry for the neutrino observers, as they’re the only ones not to make a detection. Drawing together the gravitational wave and electromagnetic observations, we can confirm that binary neutron star mergers are the progenitors of (at least some) short gamma-ray bursts and kilonovae.
Do not print this paper, the author list stretches across 23 pages.
Here we bring together the LIGO–Virgo observations of GW170817 and the Fermi and INTEGRAL observations of GRB 170817A. From the spatial and temporal coincidence of the gravitational waves and gamma rays, we establish that the two are associated with each other. There is a 1.7 s time delay between the merger time estimated from gravitational waves and the arrival of the gamma-rays. From this, we make some inferences about the structure of the jet which is the source of the gamma rays. We can also use this to constrain deviations from general relativity, which is cool. Finally, we estimate that there be 0.3–1.7 joint gamma ray–gravitational wave detections per year once our gravitational-wave detectors reach design sensitivity!
The Hubble constant quantifies the current rate of expansion of the Universe. If you know how far away an object is, and how fast it is moving away (due to the expansion of the Universe, not because it’s on a bus or something, that is important), you can estimate the Hubble constant. Gravitational waves give us an estimate of the distance to the source of GW170817. The observations of the optical transient AT 2017gfo allow us to identify the galaxy NGC 4993 as the host of GW170817’s source. We know the redshift of the galaxy (which indicates how fast its moving). Therefore, putting the two together we can infer the Hubble constant in a completely new way.
During the coalescence of two neutron stars, lots of neutron-rich matter gets ejected. This undergoes rapid radioactive decay, which powers a kilonova, an optical transient. The observed signal depends upon the material ejected. Here, we try to use our gravitational-wave measurements to predict the properties of the ejecta ahead of the flurry of observational papers.
We can detect signals if they are loud enough, but there will be many quieter ones that we cannot pick out from the noise. These add together to form an overlapping background of signals, a background rumbling in our detectors. We use the inferred rate of binary neutron star mergers to estimate their background. This is smaller than the background from binary black hole mergers (black holes are more massive, so they’re intrinsically louder), but they all add up. It’ll still be a few years before we could detect a background signal.
We know that GW170817 came from the coalescence of two neutron stars, but where did these neutron stars come from? Here, we combine the parameters inferred from our gravitational-wave measurements, the observed position of AT 2017gfo in NGC 4993 and models for the host galaxy, to estimate properties like the kick imparted to neutron stars during the supernova explosion and how long it took the binary to merge.
This is the search for neutrinos from the source of GW170817. Lots of neutrinos are emitted during the collision, but not enough to be detectable on Earth. Indeed, we don’t find any neutrinos, but we combine results from three experiments to set upper limits.
After the two neutron stars merged, what was left? A larger neutron star or a black hole? Potentially we could detect gravitational waves from a wibbling neutron star, as it sloshes around following the collision. We don’t. It would have to be a lot closer for this to be plausible. However, this paper outlines how to search for such signals; the GW170817 Properties Paper contains a more detailed look at any potential post-merger signal.
In the GW170817 Discovery Paper we presented initial estimates for the properties of GW170817’s source. These were the best we could do on the tight deadline for the announcement (it was a pretty good job in my opinion). Now we have had a bit more time we can present a new, improved analysis. This uses recalibrated data and a wider selection of waveform models. We also fold in our knowledge of the source location, thanks to the observation of AT 2017gfo by our astronomer partners, for our best results. if you want to know the details of GW170817’s source, this is the paper for you!
If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170817, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.
Title: GW170817: Measurements of neutron star radii and equation of state
Neutron stars are made of weird stuff: nuclear density material which we cannot replicate here on Earth. Neutron star matter is often described in terms of an equation of state, a relationship that explains how the material changes at different pressures or densities. A stiffer equation of state means that the material is harder to squash, and a softer equation of state is easier to squish. This means that for a given mass, a stiffer equation of state will predict a larger, fluffier neutron star, while a softer equation of state will predict a more compact, denser neutron star. In this paper, we assume that GW170817’s source is a binary neutron star system, where both neutron stars have the same equation of state, and see what we can infer about neutron star stuff™.
Synopsis:GW170817 Discovery Paper Read this if: You want all the details of our first gravitational-wave observation of a binary neutron star coalescence Favourite part: Look how well we measure the chirp mass!
GW170817 was a remarkable gravitational-wave discovery. It is the loudest signal observed to date, and the source with the lowest mass components. I’ve written about some of the highlights of the discovery in my previous GW170817 discovery post.
Binary neutron stars are one of the principal targets for LIGO and Virgo. The first observational evidence for the existence of gravitational waves came from observations of binary pulsars—a binary neutron star system where (at least one) one of the components is a pulsar. Therefore (unlike binary black holes), we knew that these sources existed before we turned on our detectors. What was less certain was how often they merge. In our first advanced-detector observing run (O1), we didn’t find any, allowing us to estimate an upper limit on the merger rate of . Now, we know much more about merging binary neutron stars.
GW170817, as a loud and long signal, is a highly significant detection. You can see it in the data by eye. Therefore, it should have been a easy detection. As is often the case with real experiments, it wasn’t quite that simple. Data transfer from Virgo had stopped over night, and there was a glitch (a non-stationary and non-Gaussian noise feature) in the Livingston detector, which meant that this data weren’t automatically analysed. Nevertheless, GstLAL flagged something interesting in the Hanford data, and there was a mad flurry to get the other data in place so that we could analyse the signal in all three detectors. I remember being sceptical in these first few minutes until I saw the plot of Livingston data which blew me away: the chirp was clearly visible despite the glitch!
Time–frequency plots for GW170104 as measured by Hanford, Livingston and Virgo. The Livinston data have had the glitch removed. 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. Figure 1 of the GW170817 Discovery Paper.
Using data from both of our LIGO detectors (as discussed for GW170814, our offline algorithms searching for coalescing binaries only use these two detectors during O2), GW170817 is an absolutely gold-plated detection. GstLAL estimates a false alarm rate (the rate at which you’d expect something at least this signal-like to appear in the detectors due to a random noise fluctuation) of less than one in 1,100,000 years, while PyCBC estimates the false alarm rate to be less than one in 80,000 years.
Parameter estimation (inferring the source properties) used data from all three detectors. We present a (remarkably thorough given the available time) initial analysis in this paper (more detailed results are given in the GW170817 Properties Paper, and the most up-to-date results are in O2 Catalogue Paper). This signal is challenging to analyse because of the glitch and because binary neutron stars are made of stuff™, which can leave an imprint on the waveform. We’ll be looking at the effects of these complications in more detail in the future. Our initial results are
The source is localized to a region of about at a distance of (we typically quote results at the 90% credible level). This is the closest gravitational-wave source yet.
The chirp mass is measured to be , much lower than for our binary black hole detections.
The spins are not well constrained, the uncertainty from this means that we don’t get precise measurements of the individual component masses. We quote results with two choices of spin prior: the astrophysically motivated limit of 0.05, and the more agnostic and conservative upper bound of 0.89. I’ll stick to using the low-spin prior results be default.
Using the low-spin prior, the component masses are – and –. We have the convention that , which is why the masses look unequal; there’s a lot of support for them being nearly equal. These masses match what you’d expect for neutron stars.
As mentioned above, neutron stars are made of stuff™, and the properties of this leave an imprint on the waveform. If neutron stars are big and fluffy, they will get tidally distorted. Raising tides sucks energy and angular momentum out of the orbit, making the inspiral quicker. If neutron stars are small and dense, tides are smaller and the inspiral looks like that for tow black holes. For this initial analysis, we used waveforms which includes some tidal effects, so we get some preliminary information on the tides. We cannot exclude zero tidal deformation, meaning we cannot rule out from gravitational waves alone that the source contains at least one black hole (although this would be surprising, given the masses). However, we can place a weak upper limit on the combined dimensionless tidal deformability of . This isn’t too informative, in terms of working out what neutron stars are made from, but we’ll come back to this in the GW170817 Properties Paper and the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.
Given the source masses, and all the electromagnetic observations, we’re pretty sure this is a binary neutron star system—there’s nothing to suggest otherwise.
Having observed one (and one one) binary neutron star coalescence in O1 and O2, we can now put better constraints on the merger rate. As a first estimate, we assume that component masses are uniformly distributed between and , and that spins are below 0.4 (in between the limits used for parameter estimation). Given this, we infer that the merger rate is , safely within our previous upper limit [citation note].
There’s a lot more we can learn from GW170817, especially as we don’t just have gravitational waves as a source of information, and this is explained in the companion papers.
The Multimessenger Paper
Synopsis:Multimessenger Paper Read this if: Don’t. Use it too look up which other papers to read. Favourite part: The figures! It was a truly amazing observational effort to follow-up GW170817
The remarkable thing about this paper is that it exists. Bringing together such a diverse (and competitive) group was a huge effort. Alberto Vecchio was one of the editors, and each evening when leaving the office, he was convinced that the paper would have fallen apart by morning. However, it hung together—the story was too compelling. This paper explains how gravitational waves, short gamma-ray bursts, kilonovae all come from a single source [citation note]. This is the greatest collaborative effort in the history of astronomy.
The paper outlines the discoveries and all of the initial set of observations. If you want to understand the observations themselves, this is not the paper to read. However, using it, you can track down the papers that you do want. A huge amount of care went in to trying to describe how discoveries were made: for example, Fermi observed GRB 170817A independently of the gravitational-wave alert, and we found GW170817 without relying on the GRB alert, however, the communication between teams meant that we took everything much seriously and pushed out alerts as quickly as possible. For more on the history of observations, I’d suggest scrolling through the GCN archive.
The paper starts with an overview of the gravitational-wave observations from the inspiral, then the prompt detection of GRB 170817A, before describing how the gravitational-wave localization enabled discovery of the optical transient AT 2017gfo. This source, in nearby galaxy NGC 4993, was then the subject of follow-up across the electromagnetic spectrum. We have huge amount of photometric and spectroscopy of the source, showing general agreement with models for a kilonova. X-ray and radio afterglows were observed 9 days and 16 days after the merger, respectively [citation note]. No neutrinos were found, which isn’t surprising.
The GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper
Synopsis:GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper Read this if: You’re interested in the jets from where short gamma-ray bursts originate or in tests of general relativity Favourite part: How much science come come from a simple time delay measurement
This joint LIGO–Virgo–Fermi–INTEGRAL paper combines our observations of GW170817 and GRB 170817A. The result is one of the most contentful of the companion papers.
Detection of GW170817 and GRB 170817A. The top three panels show the gamma-ray lightcurves (first: GBM detectors 1, 2, and 5 for 10–50 keV; second: GBM data for 50–300 keV ; third: the SPI-ACS data starting approximately at 100 keV and with a high energy limit of least 80 MeV), the red line indicates the background.The bottom shows the a time–frequency representation of coherently combined gravitational-wave data from LIGO-Hanford and LIGO-Livingston. Figure 2 of the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.
The first item on the to-do list for joint gravitational-wave–gamma-ray science, is to establish that we are really looking at the same source.
From the GW170817 Discovery Paper, we know that its source is consistent with being a binary neutron star system. Hence, there is matter around which can launch create the gamma-rays. The Fermi-GBM and INTEGRAL observations of GRB170817A indicate that it falls into the short class, as hypothesised as the result of a binary neutron star coalescence. Therefore, it looks like we could have the right ingredients.
Now, given that it is possible that the gravitational waves and gamma rays have the same source, we can calculate the probability of the two occurring by chance. The probability of temporal coincidence is , adding in spatial coincidence too, and the probability becomes . It’s safe to conclude that the two are associated: merging binary neutron stars are the source of at least some short gamma-ray bursts!
There is a delay time between the inferred merger time and the gamma-ray burst. Given that signal has travelled for about 85 million years (taking the 5% lower limit on the inferred distance), this is a really small difference: gravity and light must travel at almost exactly the same speed. To derive exact limit you need to make some assumptions about when the gamma-rays were created. We’d expect some delay as it takes time for the jet to be created, and then for the gamma-rays to blast their way out of the surrounding material. We conservatively (and arbitrarily) take a window of the delay being 0 to 10 seconds, this gives
That’s pretty small!
General relativity predicts that gravity and light should travel at the same speed, so I wasn’t too surprised by this result. I was surprised, however, that this result seems to have caused a flurry of activity in effectively ruling out several modified theories of gravity. I guess there’s not much point in explaining what these are now, but they are mostly theories which add in extra fields, which allow you to tweak how gravity works so you can explain some of the effects attributed to dark energy or dark matter. I’d recommend Figure 2 of Ezquiaga & Zumalacárregui (2017) for a summary of which theories pass the test and which are in trouble; Kase & Tsujikawa (2018) give a good review.
Table showing viable (left) and non-viable (right) scalar–tensor theories after discovery of GW170817/GRB 170817A. The theories are grouped as Horndeski theories and (the more general) beyond Horndeski theories. General relativity is a tensor theory, so these models add in an extra scalar component. Figure 2 of Ezquiaga & Zumalacárregui (2017).
We don’t discuss the theoretical implications of the relative speeds of gravity and light in this paper, but we do use the time delay to place bounds for particular on potential deviations from general relativity.
We look at a particular type of Lorentz invariance violation. This is similar to what we did for GW170104, where we looked at the dispersion of gravitational waves, but here it is for the case of , which we couldn’t test.
We look at the Shapiro delay, which is the time difference travelling in a curved spacetime relative to a flat one. That light and gravity are effected the same way is a test of the weak equivalence principle—that everything falls the same way. The effects of the curvature can be quantified with the parameter , which describes the amount of curvature per unit mass. In general relativity . Considering the gravitational potential of the Milky Way, we find that [citation note].
As you’d expect given the small time delay, these bounds are pretty tight! If you’re working on a modified theory of gravity, you have some extra checks to do now.
Gamma-ray bursts and jets
From our gravitational-wave and gamma-ray observations, we can also make some deductions about the engine which created the burst. The complication here, is that we’re not exactly sure what generates the gamma rays, and so deductions are model dependent. Section 5 of the paper uses the time delay between the merger and the burst, together with how quickly the burst rises and fades, to place constraints on the size of the emitting region in different models. The papers goes through the derivation in a step-by-step way, so I’ll not summarise that here: if you’re interested, check it out.
Isotropic energies (left) and luminosities (right) for all gamma-ray bursts with measured distances. These isotropic quantities assume equal emission in all directions, which gives an upper bound on the true value if we are observing on-axis. The short and long gamma-ray bursts are separated by the standard duration. The green line shows an approximate detection threshold for Fermi-GBM. Figure 4 from the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper; you may have noticed that the first version of this paper contained two copies of the energy plot by mistake.
GRB 170817A was unusually dim [citation note]. The plot above compares it to other gamma-ray bursts. It is definitely in the tail. Since it appears so dim, we think that we are not looking at a standard gamma-ray burst. The most obvious explanation is that we are not looking directly down the jet: we don’t expect to see many off-axis bursts, since they are dimmer. We expect that a gamma-ray burst would originate from a jet of material launched along the direction of the total angular momentum. From the gravitational waves alone, we can estimate that the misalignment angle between the orbital angular momentum axis and the line of sight is (adding in the identification of the host galaxy, this becomes using the Planck value for the Hubble constant and with the SH0ES value), so this is consistent with viewing the burst off-axis (updated numbers are given in the GW170817 Properties Paper). There are multiple models for such gamma-ray emission, as illustrated below. We could have a uniform top-hat jet (the simplest model) which we are viewing from slightly to the side, we could have a structured jet, which is concentrated on-axis but we are seeing from off-axis, or we could have a cocoon of material pushed out of the way by the main jet, which we are viewing emission from. Other electromagnetic observations will tell us more about the inclination and the structure of the jet [citation note].
Cartoon showing three possible viewing geometries and jet profiles which could explain the observed properties of GRB 170817A. Figure 5 of the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.
Now that we know gamma-ray bursts can be this dim, if we observe faint bursts (with unknown distances), we have to consider the possibility that they are dim-and-close in addition to the usual bright-and-far-away.
The paper closes by considering how many more joint gravitational-wave–gamma-ray detections of binary neutron star coalescences we should expect in the future. In our next observing run, we could expect 0.1–1.4 joint detections per year, and when LIGO and Virgo get to design sensitivity, this could be 0.3–1.7 detections per year.
The GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper
Synopsis:GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper Read this if: You have an interest in cosmology Favourite part: In the future, we may be able to settle the argument between the cosmic microwave background and supernova measurements
The Universe is expanding. In the nearby Universe, this can be described using the Hubble relation
where is the expansion velocity, is the Hubble constant and is the distance to the source. GW170817 is sufficiently nearby for this relationship to hold. We know the distance from the gravitational-wave measurement, and we can estimate the velocity from the redshift of the host galaxy. Therefore, it should be simple to combine the two to find the Hubble constant. Of course, there are a few complications…
This work is built upon the identification of the optical counterpart AT 2017gfo. This allows us to identify the galaxy NGC 4993 as the host of GW170817’s source: we calculate that there’s a probability that AT 2017gfo would be as close to NGC 4993 on the sky by chance. Without a counterpart, it would still be possible to infer the Hubble constant statistically by cross-referencing the inferred gravitational-wave source location with the ensemble of compatible galaxies in a catalogue (you assign a probability to the source being associated with each galaxy, instead of saying it’s definitely in this one). The identification of NGC 4993 makes things much simpler.
As a first ingredient, we need the distance from gravitational waves. For this, a slightly different analysis was done than in the GW170817 Discovery Paper. We fix the sky location of the source to match that of AT 2017gfo, and we use (binary black hole) waveforms which don’t include any tidal effects. The sky position needs to be fixed, because for this analysis we are assuming that we definitely know where the source is. The tidal effects were not included (but precessing spins were) because we needed results quickly: the details of spins and tides shouldn’t make much difference to the distance. From this analysis, we find the distance is if we follow our usual convention of quoting the median at symmetric 90% credible interval; however, this paper primarily quotes the most probable value and minimal (not-necessarily symmmetric) 68.3% credible interval, following this convention, we write the distance as .
While NGC 4993 being close by makes the relationship for calculating the Hubble constant simple, it adds a complication for calculating the velocity. The motion of the galaxy is not only due to the expansion of the Universe, but because of how it is moving within the gravitational potentials of nearby groups and clusters. This is referred to as peculiar motion. Adding this in increases our uncertainty on the velocity. Combining results from the literature, our final estimate for the velocity is .
We put together the velocity and the distance in a Bayesian analysis. This is a little more complicated than simply dividing the numbers (although that gives you a similar result). You have to be careful about writing things down, otherwise you might implicitly assume a prior that you didn’t intend (my most useful contribution to this paper is probably a whiteboard conversation with Will Farr where we tracked down a difference in prior assumptions approaching the problem two different ways). This is all explained in the Methods, it’s not easy to read, but makes sense when you work through. The result is (quoted as maximum a posteriori value and 68% interval, or in the usual median-and-90%-interval convention). An updated set of results is given in the GW170817 Properties Paper: (68% interval using the low-spin prior). This is nicely (and diplomatically) consistent with existing results.
The distance has considerable uncertainty because there is a degeneracy between the distance and the orbital inclination (the angle of the normal to the orbital plane relative to the line of sight). If you could figure out the inclination from another observation, then you could tighten constraints on the Hubble constant, or if you’re willing to adopt one of the existing values of the Hubble constant, you can pin down the inclination. Data (updated data) to help you try this yourself are available [citation note].
Two-dimensional posterior probability distribution for the Hubble constant and orbital inclination inferred from GW170817. The contours mark 68% and 95% levels. The coloured bands are measurements from the cosmic microwave background (Planck) and supernovae (SH0ES). Figure 2 of the GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper.
In the future we’ll be able to combine multiple events to produce a more precise gravitational-wave estimate of the Hubble constant. Chen, Fishbach & Holz (2017) is a recent study of how measurements should improve with more events: we should get to 4% precision after around 100 detections.
The GW170817 Kilonova Paper
Synopsis:GW170817 Kilonova Paper Read this if: You want to check our predictions for ejecta against observations Favourite part: We might be able to create all of the heavy r-process elements—including the gold used to make Nobel Prizes—from merging neutron stars
When two neutron stars collide, lots of material gets ejected outwards. This neutron-rich material undergoes nuclear decay—now no longer being squeezed by the strong gravity inside the neutron star, it is unstable, and decays from the strange neutron star stuff™ to become more familiar elements (elements heavier than iron including gold and platinum). As these r-process elements are created, the nuclear reactions power a kilonova, the optical (infrared–ultraviolet) transient accompanying the merger. The properties of the kilonova depends upon how much material is ejected.
In this paper, we try to estimate how much material made up the dynamical ejecta from the GW170817 collision. Dynamical ejecta is material which escapes as the two neutron stars smash into each other (either from tidal tails or material squeezed out from the collision shock). There are other sources of ejected material, such as winds from the accretion disk which forms around the remnant (whether black hole or neutron star) following the collision, so this is only part of the picture; however, we can estimate the mass of the dynamical ejecta from our gravitational-wave measurements using simulations of neutron star mergers. These estimates can then be compared with electromagnetic observations of the kilonova [citation note].
The amount of dynamical ejecta depends upon the masses of the neutron stars, how rapidly they are rotating, and the properties of the neutron star material (described by the equation of state). Here, we use the masses inferred from our gravitational-wave measurements and feed these into fitting formulae calibrated against simulations for different equations of state. These don’t include spin, and they have quite large uncertainties (we include a 72% relative uncertainty when producing our results), so these are not precision estimates. Neutron star physics is a little messy.
We find that the dynamical ejecta is – (assuming the low-spin mass results). These estimates can be feed into models for kilonovae to produce lightcurves, which we do. There is plenty of this type of modelling in the literature as observers try to understand their observations, so this is nothing special in terms of understanding this event. However, it could be useful in the future (once we have hoverboards), as we might be able to use gravitational-wave data to predict how bright a kilonova will be at different times, and so help astronomers decide upon their observing strategy.
Finally, we can consider how much r-process elements we can create from the dynamical ejecta. Again, we don’t consider winds, which may also contribute to the total budget of r-process elements from binary neutron stars. Our estimate for r-process elements needs several ingredients: (i) the mass of the dynamical ejecta, (ii) the fraction of the dynamical ejecta converted to r-process elements, (iii) the merger rate of binary neutron stars, and (iv) the convolution of the star formation rate and the time delay between binary formation and merger (which we take to be ). Together (i) and (ii) give the mass of r-process elements per binary neutron star (assuming that GW170817 is typical); (iii) and (iv) give total density of mergers throughout the history of the Universe, and combining everything together you get the total mass of r-process elements accumulated over time. Using the estimated binary neutron star merger rate of , we can explain the Galactic abundance of r-process elements if more than about 10% of the dynamical ejecta is converted.
Present day binary neutron star merger rate density versus dynamical ejecta mass. The grey region shows the inferred 90% range for the rate, the blue shows the approximate range of ejecta masses, and the red band shows the band where the Galactic elemental abundance can be reproduced if at least 50% of the dynamical mass gets converted. Part of Figure 5 of the GW170817 Kilonova Paper.
For every loud gravitational-wave signal, there are many more quieter ones. We can’t pick these out of the detector noise individually, but they are still there, in our data. They add together to form a stochastic background, which we might be able to detect by correlating the data across our detector network.
Following the detection of GW150914, we considered the background due to binary black holes. This is quite loud, and might be detectable in a few years. Here, we add in binary neutron stars. This doesn’t change the picture too much, but gives a more accurate picture.
Binary black holes have higher masses than binary neutron stars. This means that their gravitational-wave signals are louder, and shorter (they chirp quicker and chirp up to a lower frequency). Being louder, binary black holes dominate the overall background. Being shorter, they have a different character: binary black holes form a popcorn background of short chirps which rarely overlap, but binary neutron stars are long enough to overlap, forming a more continuous hum.
The dimensionless energy density at a gravitational-wave frequency of 25 Hz from binary black holes is , and from binary neutron stars it is . There are on average binary black hole signals in detectors at a given time, and binary neutron star signals.
Simulated time series illustrating the difference between binary black hole (green) and binary neutron star (red) signals. Each chirp increases in amplitude until the point at which the binary merges. Binary black hole signals are short, loud chirps, while the longer, quieter binary neutron star signals form an overlapping background. Figure 2 from the GW170817 Stochastic Paper.
To calculate the background, we need the rate of merger. We now have an estimate for binary neutron stars, and we take the most recent estimate from the GW170104 Discovery Paper for binary black holes. We use the rates assuming the power law mass distribution for this, but the result isn’t too sensitive to this: we care about the number of signals in the detector, and the rates are derived from this, so they agree when working backwards. We evolve the merger rate density across cosmic history by factoring in the star formation rate and delay time between formation and merger. A similar thing was done in the GW170817 Kilonova Paper, here we used a slightly different star formation rate, but results are basically the same with either. The addition of binary neutron stars increases the stochastic background from compact binaries by about 60%.
Detection in our next observing run, at a moderate significance, is possible, but I think unlikely. It will be a few years until detection is plausible, but the addition of binary neutron stars will bring this closer. When we do detect the background, it will give us another insight into the merger rate of binaries.
The identification of NGC 4993 as the host galaxy of GW170817’s binary neutron star system allows us to make some deductions about how it formed. In this paper, we simulate a large number of binaries, tracing the later stages of their evolution, to see which ones end up similar to GW170817. By doing so, we learn something about the supernova explosion which formed the second of the two neutron stars.
The neutron stars started life as a pair of regular stars [bonus note]. These burned through their hydrogen fuel, and once this is exhausted, they explode as a supernova. The core of the star collapses down to become a neutron star, and the outer layers are blasted off. The more massive star evolves faster, and goes supernova first. We’ll consider the effects of the second supernova, and the kick it gives to the binary: the orbit changes both because of the rocket effect of material being blasted off, and because one of the components loses mass.
From the combination of the gravitational-wave and electromagnetic observations of GW170817, we know the masses of the neutron star, the type of galaxy it is found in, and the position of the binary within the galaxy at the time of merger (we don’t know the exact position, just its projection as viewed from Earth, but that’s something).
Orbital trajectories of simulated binaries which led to GW170817-like merger. The coloured lines show the 2D projection of the orbits in our model galaxy. The white lines mark the initial (projected) circular orbit of the binary pre-supernova, and the red arrows indicate the projected direction of the supernova kick. The background shading indicates the stellar density. Figure 4 of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper; animated equivalents can be found in the Science Summary.
We start be simulating lots of binaries just before the second supernova explodes. These are scattered at different distances from the centre of the galaxy, have different orbital separations, and have different masses of the pre-supernova star. We then add the effects of the supernova, adding in a kick. We fix then neutron star masses to match those we inferred from the gravitational wave measurements. If the supernova kick is too big, the binary flies apart and will never merge (boo). If the binary remains bound, we follow its evolution as it moves through the galaxy. The structure of the galaxy is simulated as a simple spherical model, a Hernquist profile for the stellar component and a Navarro–Frenk–White profile for the dark matter halo [citation note], which are pretty standard. The binary shrinks as gravitational waves are emitted, and eventually merge. If the merger happens at a position which matches our observations (yay), we know that the initial conditions could explain GW170817.
Inferred progenitor properties: (second) supernova kick velocity, pre-supernova progenitor mass, pre-supernova binary separation and galactic radius at time of the supernova. The top row shows how the properties vary for different delay times between supernova and merger. The middle row compares all the binaries which survive the second supernova compared with the GW170817-like ones. The bottom row shows parameters for GW170817-like binaries with different galactic offsets than the to range used for GW1708017. The middle and bottom rows assume a delay time of at least . Figure 5 of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper; to see correlations between parameters, check out Figure 8 of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper.
The plot above shows the constraints on the progenitor’s properties. The inferred second supernova kick is , similar to what has been observed for neutron stars in the Milky Way; the per-supernova stellar mass is (we assume that the star is just a helium core, with the outer hydrogen layers having been stripped off, hence the subscript); the pre-supernova orbital separation was , and the offset from the centre of the galaxy at the time of the supernova was . The main strongest constraints come from keeping the binary bound after the supernova; results are largely independent of the delay time once this gets above [citation note].
As we collect more binary neutron star detections, we’ll be able to deduce more about how they form. If you’re interested more in the how to build a binary neutron star system, the introduction to this paper is well referenced; Tauris et al. (2017) is a detailed (pre-GW170817) review.
The GW170817 Neutrino Paper
Synopsis:GW170817 Neutrino Paper Read this if: You want a change from gravitational wave–electromagnetic multimessenger astronomy Favourite part: There’s still something to look forward to with future detections—GW170817 hasn’t stolen all the firsts. Also this paper is not Abbot et al.
This is a joint search by ANTARES, IceCube and the Pierre Auger Observatory for neutrinos coincident with GW170817. Knowing both the location and the time of the binary neutron star merger makes it easy to search for counterparts. No matching neutrinos were detected.
Neutrino candidates at the time of GW170817. The map is is in equatorial coordinates. The gravitational-wave localization is indicated by the red contour, and the galaxy NGC 4993 is indicated by the black cross. Up-going and down-going regions for each detector are indicated, as detectors are more sensitive to up-going neutrinos, as the Cherenkov detectors are subject to a background from cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere. Figure 1 from the GW170817 Neutrino Paper.
Using the non-detections, we can place upper limits on the neutrino flux. These are summarised in the plots below. Optimistic models for prompt emission from an on axis gamma-ray burst would lead to a detectable flux, but otherwise theoretical predictions indicate that a non-detection is expected. From electromagnetic observations, it doesn’t seem like we are on-axis, so the story all fits together.
90% confidence upper limits on neutrino spectral fluence per flavour (electron, muon and tau) as a function of energy in window (top) about the GW170817 trigger time, and a window following GW170817 (bottom). IceCube is also sensitive to MeV neutrinos (none were detected). Fluences are the per-flavour sum of neutrino and antineutrino fluence, assuming equal fluence in all flavours. These are compared to theoretical predictions from Kimura et al. (2017) and Fang & Metzger (2017), scaled to a distance of 40 Mpc. The angles labelling the models are viewing angles in excess of the jet opening angle. Figure 2 from the GW170817 Neutrino paper.
Super-Kamiokande have done their own search for neutrinos, form to around (Abe et al. 2018). They found nothing in either the window around the event or the window following it. Similarly BUST looked for muon neutrinos and antineutrinos and found nothing in the window around the event, and no excess in the window following it (Petkov et al. 2019). NOvA looked for neutrinos and cosmic rays around the event and found nothing (Acero et al. 2020).
The only post-detection neutrino modelling paper I’ve seen is Biehl, Heinze, &Winter (2017). They model prompt emission from the same source as the gamma-ray burst and find that neutrino fluxes would be of current sensitivity.
Following the inspiral of two black holes, we know what happens next: the black holes merge to form a bigger black hole, which quickly settles down to its final stable state. We have a complete model of the gravitational waves from the inspiral–merger–ringdown life of coalescing binary black holes. Binary neutron stars are more complicated.
The inspiral of two binary neutron stars is similar to that for black holes. As they get closer together, we might see some imprint of tidal distortions not present for black holes, but the main details are the same. It is the chirp of the inspiral which we detect. As the neutron stars merge, however, we don’t have a clear picture of what goes on. Material gets shredded and ejected from the neutron stars; the neutron stars smash together; it’s all rather messy. We don’t have a good understanding of what should happen when our neutron stars merge, the details depend upon the properties of the stuff™ neutron stars are made of—if we could measure the gravitational-wave signal from this phase, we would learn a lot.
There are four plausible outcomes of a binary neutron star merger:
If the total mass is below the maximum mass for a (non-rotating) neutron star (), we end up with a bigger, but still stable neutron star. Given our inferences from the inspiral (see the plot from the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper below), this is unlikely.
If the total mass is above the limit for a stable, non-rotating neutron star, but can still be supported by uniform rotation (), we have a supramassive neutron star. The rotation will slow down due to the emission of electromagnetic and gravitational radiation, and eventually the neutron star will collapse to a black hole. The time until collapse could take something like –; it is unclear if this is long enough for supramassive neutron stars to have a mid-life crisis.
If the total mass is above the limit for support from uniform rotation, but can still be supported through differential rotation and thermal gradients(), then we have a hypermassive neutron star. The hypermassive neutron star cools quickly through neutrino emission, and its rotation slows through magnetic braking, meaning that it promptly collapses to a black hole in .
If the total mass is big enough(), the merging neutron stars collapse down to a black hole.
In the case of the collapse to a black hole, we get a ringdown as in the case of a binary black hole merger. The frequency is around , too high for us to currently measure. However, if there is a neutron star, there may be slightly lower frequency gravitational waves from the neutron star matter wibbling about. We’re not exactly sure of the form of these signals, so we perform an unmodelled search for them (knowing the position of GW170817’s source helps for this).
Comparison of inferred component masses with critical mass boundaries for different equations of state. The left panel shows the maximum mass of a non-rotating neutron star compared to the initial baryonic mass (ignoring material ejected during merger and gravitational binding energy); the middle panel shows the maximum mass for a uniformly rotating neutron star; the right panel shows the maximum mass of a non-rotating neutron star compared of the gravitational mass of the heavier component neutron star. Figure 3 of the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.
Several different search algorithms were used to hunt for a post-merger signal:
coherent WaveBurst (cWB) was used to look for short duration () bursts. This searched a window including the merger time and covering the delay to the gamma-ray burst detection, and frequencies of –. Only LIGO data were used, as Virgo data suffered from large noise fluctuations above .
cWB was used to look for intermediate duration () bursts. This searched a window from the merger time, and frequencies –. This used LIGO and Virgo data.
The Stochastic Transient Analysis Multi-detector Pipeline (STAMP) was also used to look for intermediate duration signals. This searched the merger time until the end of O2 (in chunks), and frequencies –. This used only LIGO data. There are two variations of STAMP: Zebragard and Lonetrack, and both are used here.
Although GEO is similar to LIGO and Virgo and the searched high-frequencies, its data were not used as we have not yet studied its noise properties in enough detail. Since the LIGO detectors are the most sensitive, their data is most important for the search.
No plausible candidates were found, so we set some upper limits on what could have been detected. From these, it is not surprising that nothing was found, as we would need pretty much all of the mass of the remnant to somehow be converted into gravitational waves to see something. Results are shown in the plot below. An updated analysis which puts upper limits on the post-merger signal is given in the GW170817 Properties Paper.
Noise amplitude spectral density for the four detectors, and search upper limits as a function of frequency. The noise amplitude spectral densities compare the sensitivities of the detectors. The search upper limits are root-sum-squared strain amplitudes at 50% detection efficiency. The colour code of the upper-limit markers indicates the search algorithm and the shape indicates the waveform injected to set the limits (the frequency is the average for this waveform). The bar mode waveform come from the rapid rotation of the supramassive neutron star leading to it becoming distorted (stretched) in a non-axisymmetric way (Lasky, Sarin & Sammut 2017); the magnetar waveform assumes that the (rapidly rotating) supramassive neutron star’s magnetic field generates significant ellipticity (Corsi & Mészáros 2009); the short-duration merger waveforms are from a selection of numerical simulations (Bauswein et al. 2013; Takami et al. 2015; Kawamura et al. 2016; Ciolfi et al. 2017). The open squares are merger waveforms scaled to the distance and orientation inferred from the inspiral of GW170817. The dashed black lines show strain amplitudes for a narrow-band signal with fixed energy content: the top line is the maximum possible value for GW170817. Figure 1 of the GW170817 Post-merger Paper.
We can’t tell the fate of GW170817’s neutron stars from gravitational waves alone [citation note]. As high-frequency sensitivity is improved in the future, we might be able to see something from a really close by binary neutron star merger.
The GW170817 Properties Paper
Synopsis:GW170817 Properties Paper Read this if: You want the best results for GW170817’s source, our best measurement of the Hubble constant, or limits on the post-merger signal Favourite part: Look how tiny the uncertainties are!
As time progresses, we often refine our analyses of gravitational-wave data. This can be because we’ve had time to recalibrate data from our detectors, because better analysis techniques have been developed, or just because we’ve had time to allow more computationally intensive analyses to finish. This paper is our first attempt at improving our inferences about GW170817. The results use an improved calibration of Virgo data, and analyses more of the signal (down to a low frequency of 23 Hz, instead of 30 Hz, which gives use about an extra 1500 cycles), uses improved models of the waveforms, and includes a new analysis looking at the post-merger signal. The results update those given in the GW170817 Discovery Paper, the GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper and the GW170817 Post-merger Paper.
Our initial analysis was based upon quick to calculate post-Newtonian waveform known as TaylorF2. We thought this should be a conservative choice: any results with more complicated waveforms should give tighter results. This worked out. We try several different waveform models, each based upon the point particle waveforms we use for analysing binary black hole signals with extra bits to model the tidal deformation of neutron stars. The results are broadly consistent, so I’ll concentrate on discussing our preferred results calculated using IMRPhenomPNRT waveform (which uses IMRPhenomPv2 as a base and adds on numerical-relativity calibrated tides). As in the GW170817 Discovery Paper, we perform the analysis with two priors on the binary spins, one with spins up to 0.89 (which should safely encompass all possibilities for neutron stars), and one with spins of up to 0.05 (which matches observations of binary neutron stars in our Galaxy).
The first analysis we did was to check the location of the source. Reassuringly, we are still perfectly consistent with the location of AT 2017gfo (phew!). The localization is much improved, the 90% sky area is down to just ! Go Virgo!
Having established that it still makes sense that AT 2017gfo pin-points the source location, we use this as the position in subsequent analyses. We always use the sky position of the counterpart and the redshift of the host galaxy (Levan et al. 2017), but we don’t typically use the distance. This is because we want to be able to measure the Hubble constant, which relies on using the distance inferred from gravitational waves.
We use the distance from Cantiello et al. (2018) [citation note] for one calculation: an estimation of the inclination angle. The inclination is degenerate with the distance (both affect the amplitude of the signal), so having constraints on one lets us measure the other with improved precision. Without the distance information, we find that the angle between the binary’s total angular momentum and the line of sight is for the high-spin prior and with the low-spin prior. The difference between the two results is because of the spin angular momentum slightly shifts the direction of the total angular momentum. Incorporating the distance information, for the high-spin prior the angle is (so the misalignment angle is ), and for the low-spin prior it is (misalignment ) [citation note].
Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins. The left pair is for the high-spin prior and so magnitudes extend to 0.89, and the right pair are for the low-spin prior and extend to 0.05. In each, the distribution for the more massive component is on the left, and for the smaller component on the right. The probability is binned into areas which have uniform prior probabilities. The low-spin prior truncates the posterior distribution, but this is less of an issue for the high-spin prior. Results are shown at a point in the inspiral corresponding to a gravitational-wave frequency of . Parts of Figure 8 and 9 of the GW170817 Properties Paper.
Main results include:
The luminosity distance is with the low-spin prior and with the high-spin prior. The difference is for the same reason as the difference in inclination measurements. The results are consistent with the distance to NGC 4993 [citation note].
The chirp mass redshifted to the detector-frame is measured to be with the low-spin prior and with the high-spin. This corresponds to a physical chirp mass of .
The spins are not well constrained. We get the best measurement along the direction of the orbital angular momentum. For the low-spin prior, this is enough to disfavour the spins being antialigned, but that’s about it. For the high-spin prior, we rule out large spins aligned or antialigned, and very large spins in the plane. The aligned components of the spin are best described by the effective inspiral spin parameter , for the low-spin prior it is and for the high-spin prior it is .
Using the low-spin prior, the component masses are – and –, and for the high-spin prior they are – and –.
These are largely consistent with our previous results. There are small shifts, but the biggest change is that the errors are a little smaller.
Estimated masses for the two neutron stars in the binary using the high-spin (left) and low-spin (right) priors. The two-dimensional plot follows a line of constant chirp mass which is too narrow to resolve on this scale. Results are shown for four different waveform models. TaylorF2 (used in the initial analysis), IMRPhenomDNRT and SEOBNRT have aligned spins, while IMRPhenomPNRT includes spin precession. IMRPhenomPNRT is used for the main results.Figure 5 of the GW170817 Properties Paper.
For the Hubble constant, we find with the low-spin prior and with the high-spin prior. Here, we quote maximum a posterior value and narrowest 68% intervals as opposed to the usual median and symmetric 90% credible interval. You might think its odd that the uncertainty is smaller when using the wider high-spin prior, but this is just another consequence of the difference in the inclination measurements. The values are largely in agreement with our initial values.
The best measured tidal parameter is the combined dimensionless tidal deformability . With the high-spin prior, we can only set an upper bound of . With the low-spin prior, we find that we are still consistent with zero deformation, but the distribution peaks away from zero. We have using the usual median and symmetric 90% credible interval, and if we take the narrowest 90% interval. This looks like we have detected matter effects, but since we’ve had to use the low-spin prior, which is only appropriate for neutron stars, this would be a circular argument. More details on what we can learn about tidal deformations and what neutron stars are made of, under the assumption that we do have neutron stars, are given in the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.
Previously, in the GW170817 Post-merger Paper, we searched for a post-merger signal. We didn’t find anything. Now, we try to infer the shape of the signal, assuming it is there (with a peak within of the coalescence time). We still don’t find anything, but now we set much tighter upper limits on what signal there could be there.
For this analysis, we use data from the two LIGO detectors, and from GEO 600! We don’t use Virgo data, as it is not well behaved at these high frequencies. We use BayesWave to try to constrain the signal.
Noise amplitude spectral density for the detectors used, prior and posterior strain upper limits, and selected numerical simulations as a function of frequency. The signal upper limits are Bayesian 90% credible bounds for the signal in Hanford, but is derived from a coherent analysis of all three indicated detectors. Figure 13 of the GW170817 Properties Paper.
While the upper limits are much better, they are still about 12–215 times larger than expectations from simulations. Therefore, we’d need to improve our detector sensitivity by about a factor of 3.5–15 to detect a similar signal. Fingers crossed!
Usually in our work, we like to remain open minded and not make too many assumptions. In our analysis of GW170817, as presented in the GW170817 Properties Paper, we have remained agnostic about the components of the binary, seeing what the data tell us. However, from the electromagnetic observations, there is solid evidence that the source is a binary neutron star system. In this paper, we take it as granted that the source is made of two neutron stars, and that these neutron stars are made of similar stuff™ [citation note], to see what we can learn about the properties of neutron stars.
When a two neutron stars get close together, they become distorted by each other’s gravity. Tides are raised, kind of like how the Moon creates tides on Earth. Creating tides takes energy out of the orbit, causing the inspiral to proceed faster. This is something we can measure from the gravitational wave signal. Tides are larger when the neutron stars are bigger. The size of neutron stars and how easy they are the stretch and squash depends upon their equation of state. We can use the measurements of the neutron star masses and amount of tidal deformation to infer their size and their equation of state.
The signal is analysed as in the GW170817 Properties Paper (IMRPhenomPNRT waveform, low-spin prior, position set to match AT 2017gfo). However, we also add in some information about the composition of neutron stars.
Calculating the behaviour of this incredibly dense material is difficult, but there are some relations (called universal relations) between the tidal deformability of neutron stars and their radii which are insensitive to the details of the equation of state. One relates symmetric and antisymmetric combinations of the tidal deformations of the two neutron stars as a function of the mass ratio, allows us to calculate consistent tidal deformations. Another relates the tidal deformation to the compactness (mass divided by radius) allows us to convert tidal deformations to radii. The analysis includes the uncertainty in these relations.
In addition to this, we also use a parametric model of the equation of state to model the tidal deformations. By sampling directly in terms of the equation of state, it is easy to impose constraints on the allowed values. For example, we impose that the speed of sound inside the neutron star is less than the speed of light, that the equation of state can support neutron stars of that mass, that it is possible to explain the most massive confirmed neutron star (we use a lower limit for this mass of ), as well as it being thermodynamically stable. Accommodating the most massive neutron star turns out to be an important piece of information.
The plot below shows the inferred tidal deformation parameters for the two neutron stars. The two techniques, using the equation-of-state insensitive relations and using the parametrised equation-of-state model without included the constraint of matching the neutron star, give similar results. For a neutron star, these results indicate that the tidal deformation parameter would be . We favour softer equations of state over stiffer ones [citation note]. I think this means that neutron stars are more huggable.
Probability distributions for the tidal parameters of the two neutron stars. The tidal deformation of the more massive neutron star must be greater than that for the smaller neutron star . The green shading and (50% and 90%) contours are calculated using the equation-of-state insensitive relations. The blue contours are for the parametrised equation-of-state model. The orange contours are from the GW170817 Properties Paper, where we don’t assume a common equation of state. The black lines are predictions from a selection of different equations of state Figure 1 of the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.
We can translate our results into estimates on the size of the neutron stars. The plots below show the inferred radii. The results for the parametrised equation-of-state model now includes the constraint of accommodating a neutron star, which is the main reason for the difference in the plots. Using the equation-of-state insensitive relations we find that the radius of the heavier (–) neutron star is and the radius of the lighter (–) neutron star is . With the parametrised equation-of-state model, the radii are (–) and (–).
Posterior probability distributions for neutron star masses and radii (blue for the more massive neutron star, orange for the lighter). The left plot uses the equation-of-state insensitive relations, and the right uses the parametrised equation-of-state model. In the one-dimensional plots, the dashed lines indicate the priors. The lines in the top left indicate the size of a Schwarzschild Black hole and the Buchadahl limit for the collapse of a neutron star. Figure 3 of the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.
When I was an undergraduate, I remember learning that neutron stars were about in radius. We now know that’s not the case.
If you want to investigate further, you can download the posterior samples from these analyses.
In astronomy, we often use standard candles, objects like type IA supernovae of known luminosity, to infer distances. If you know how bright something should be, and how bright you measure it to be, you know how far away it is. By analogy, we can infer how far away a gravitational-wave source is by how loud it is. It is thus not a candle, but a siren. Sean Carrol explains more about this term on his blog.
I know… Nature published the original Schutz paper on measuring the Hubble constant using gravitational waves; therefore, there’s a nice symmetry in publishing the first real result doing this in Nature too.
Instead of a binary neutron star system forming from a binary of two stars born together, it is possible for two neutron stars to come close together in a dense stellar environment like a globular cluster. A significant fraction of binary black holes could be formed this way. Binary neutron stars, being less massive, are not as commonly formed this way. We wouldn’t expect GW170817 to have formed this way. In the GW170817 Progenitor Paper, we argue that the probability of GW170817’s source coming from a globular cluster is small—for predicted rates, see Bae, Kim & Lee (2014).
Levan et al. (2017) check for a stellar cluster at the site of AT 2017gfo, and find nothing. The smallest 30% of the Milky Way’s globular clusters would evade this limit, but these account for just 5% of the stellar mass in globular clusters, and a tiny fraction of dynamical interactions. Fong et al. (2019) perform some detailed observations looking for a globular cluster, and also find nothing. This excludes a cluster down to , which is basically all (99.996%) of them. Therefore, it’s unlikely that a cluster is the source of this binary.
From our gravitational-wave data, we estimate the current binary neutron star merger rate density is . Several electromagnetic observers performed their own rate estimates from the frequency of detection (or lack thereof) of electromagnetic transients.
Kasliwal et al. (2017) consider transients seen by the Palomar Transient Factory, and estimate a rate density of approximately (3-sigma upper limit of ), towards the bottom end of our range, but their rate increases if not all mergers are as bright as AT 2017gfo.
Siebert et al. (2017) works out the rate of AT 2017gfo-like transients in the Swope Supernova Survey. They obtain an upper limit of . They use to estimate the probability that AT 2017gfo and GW170817 are just a chance coincidence and are actually unrelated. The probability is at 90% confidence.
Smartt et al. (2017) estimate the kilonova rate from the ATLAS survey, they calculate a 95% upper limit of , safely above our range.
Yang et al. (2017) calculates upper limits from the DLT40 Supernova survey. Depending upon the reddening assumed, this is between and . Their figure 3 shows that this is well above expected rates.
Zhang et al. (2017) is interested in the rate of gamma-ray bursts. If you know the rate of short gamma-ray bursts and of binary neutron star mergers, you can learn something about the beaming angle of the jet. The smaller the jet, the less likely we are to observe a gamma-ray burst. In order to do this, they do their own back-of-the-envelope for the gravitational-wave rate. They get . That’s not too bad, but do stick with our result.
If you’re interested in the future prospects for kilonova detection, I’d recommend Scolnic et al. (2017). Check out their Table 2 for detection rates (assuming a rate of ): LSST and WFIRST will see lots, about 7 and 8 per year respectively.
Using later observational constraints on the jet structure, Gupta & Bartos (2018) use the short gamma-ray burst rate to estimate a binary neutron star merger rate of . They project that around 30% of gravitational-wave detections will be accompanied by gamma-ray bursts, once LIGO and Virgo reach design sensitivity.
Della Valle et al. (2018) calculate an observable kilonova rate of . To match up to our binary neutron star merger rate, we either need only a fraction of binary neutron star mergers to produce kilonova or for them to only be observable for viewing angles of less than . Their table 2 contains a nice compilation of rates for short gamma-ray bursts.
The electromagnetic story
Some notes on an incomplete overview of papers describing the electromagnetic discovery. For observational data, I’d recommend looking at the Open Kilonova Project.
Independently of our gravitational-wave detection, a short gamma-ray burst GRB 170817A was observed by Fermi-GBM (Goldstein et al. 2017). Fermi-LAT did not see anything, as it was offline for crossing through the South Atlantic Anomaly. At the time of the merger, INTEGRAL was following up the location of GW170814, fortunately this meant it could still observe the location of GW170817, and following the alert they found GRB 170817A in their data (Savchenko et al. 2017).
Following up on our gravitational-wave localization, an optical transient AT 2017gfo was discovered. The discovery was made by the One-Meter Two-Hemisphere (1M2H) collaboration using the Swope telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile; they designated the transient as SSS17a (Coulter et al. 2017). That same evening, several other teams also found the transient within an hour of each other:
The MASTER collaboration followed up with their network of global telescopes, and it was their telescope at the San Juan National University Observatory in Argentina which found the transient (Lipunov et al. 2017); they, rather catchily denote the transient as OTJ130948.10-232253.3.
The Dark Energy Survey and the Dark Energy Camera GW–EM (DES and DECam) Collaboration found the transient with the DECam on the Blanco 4-m telescope, which is also at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (Soares-Santos et al. 2017).
The Las Cumbres Observatory Collaboration used their global network of telescopes, with, unsurprisingly, their 1-m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile first imaging the transient (Arcavi et al. 2017). Their observing strategy is described in a companion paper (Arcavi et al. 2017), which also describes follow-up of GW170814.
From these, you can see that South America was the place to be for this event: it was night at just the right time.
There was a huge amount of follow-up across the infrared–optical–ultraviolet range of AT 2017gfo. Villar et al. (2017) attempts to bring these together in a consistent way. Their Figure 1 is beautiful.
Assembled lightcurves from ultraviolet, optical and infrared observations of AT 2017gfo. The data points are the homogenized data, and the lines are fitted kilonova models. The blue light initially dominates but rapidly fades, while the red light undergoes a slower decay. Figure 1 of Villar et al. (2017).
Hinderer et al. (2018) use numerical relativity simulations to compare theory and observations for gravitational-wave constraints on the tidal deformation and the kilonova lightcurve. They find that observations could be consistent with a neutron star–black hole binary and well as a binary neutron star. Coughline & Dietrich (2019) come to a similar conclusion. I think it’s unlikely that there would be a black hole this low mass, but it’s interesting that there are some simulations which can fit the observations.
AT 2017gfo was also the target of observations across the electromagnetic spectrum. An X-ray afterglow was observed 9 days post merger, and 16 days post merger, just as we thought the excitement was over, a radio afterglow was found:
The afterglow will continue to brighten for a while, so we can expect a series of updates:
Pooley, Kumar & Wheeler (2017) observed with Chandra 108 and 111 days post merger. Ruan et al. (2017) observed with Chandra 109 days post merger. The large gap in the X-ray observations from the initial observations is because the Sun got in the way.
Mooley et al. (2017) update the GROWTH radio results up to 107 days post merger (the largest span whilst still pre-empting new X-ray observations), observing with the Very Large Array, Australia Telescope Compact Array and Giant Meterewave Radio Telescope.
Excitingly, the afterglow has also now been spotted in the optical:
Lyman et al. (2018) observed with Hubble 110 (rest-frame) days post-merger (which is when the Sun was out of the way for Hubble). At this point the kilonova should have faded away, but they found something, and this is quite blue. The conclusion is that it’s the afterglow, and it will peak in about a year.
Margutti et al. (2018) brings together Chandra X-ray observations, Very Large Array radio observations and Hubble optical observations. The Hubble observations are 137 days post merger, and the Chandra observations are 153 days and 163 days post-merger. They find that they all agree (including the tentative radio signal at 10 days post-merger). They argue that the emission disfavours on-axis jets and spherical fireballs.
Evolution of radio, optical and X-ray spectral energy density of the counterpart to GW170817. The radio and X-ray are always dominated by the afterglow, as indicated by them following the same power law. At early times, the optical is dominated by the kilonova, but as this fades, the afterglow starts to dominate. Figure 1 of Margutti et al. (2018).
The afterglow is fading.
D’Avanzo et al. (2018) observed in X-ray 135 days post-merger with XMM-Newton. They find that the flux is faded compared to the previous trend. They suggest that we’re just at the turn-over, so this is consistent with the most recent Hubble observations.
Resmi et al. (2018) observed at low radio frequencies with the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope. They saw the signal at after 67 days post-merger, but this evolves little over the duration of their observations (to day 152 post-merger), also suggesting a turn-over.
Dobie et al. (2018) observed in radio 125–200 days post-merger with the Very Large Array and Australia Telescope Compact Array, and they find that the afterglow is starting to fade, with a peak at 149 ± 2 days post-merger.
Nynka et al. (2018) made X-ray observations at 260 days post-merger. They conclude the afterglow is definitely fading, and that this is not because of passing of the synchrotron cooling frequency.
Mooley et al. (2018) observed in radio to 298 days. They find the turn-over around 170 days. They argue that results support a narrow, successful jet.
Troja et al. (2018) observed in radio and X-ray to 359 days. The fading is now obvious, and starting to reveal something about the jet structure. Their best fits seem to favour a structured relativistic jet or a wide-angled cocoon.
Lamb et al. (2018) observed in optical to 358 days. They infer a peak around 140–160 days. Their observations are well fit either by a Gaussian structured jet or a two-component jet (with the second component being the cocoon), although the two-component model doesn’t fit early X-ray observations well. They conclude there must have been a successful jet of some form.
Radio, optical and X-ray observations to 358 days after merger. The coloured lines show fitted Gaussian jet models. Figure 3 of Lamb et al. (2018).
Fong et al. (2019) observe in optical to 584 days post-merger, combined with observation in radio to 585 days post-merger and in X-ray 583 days post-merger. These observations favour a structured jet over a quasi-spherical outflow. Hajela et al. (2019) extend the radio and X-ray observations even further, out to 743 days post-merger.
Left: Optical afterglow observed until 584 days post-merger together with predictions for a structured jet and a quasi-spherical outflow (Wu & MacFadyen 2018). Right: Radio, optical and X-ray observations to 535 days, 534 days and 533 days post-merger-respectively. Triangles denote upper limits. Figures 2 and 3 of Fong et al. (2019).
Troja et al. (2020) observed with Chandra between 935 and 942 days post-merger, and see a nice decline, consistent with a spreading jet. They also looked in radio, but didn’t find anything.
Makhathini et al. (2020) compile a uniform set of radio, optical and X-ray afterglow observations. Their data set covers 0.5 to 940 days post-merger. It really is a lovely data set!
Optical, radio and X-ray light-curves, scaled by a best-fit spectral index so that the different observations lie on top of each other, for GW170817’s afterglow. The top panel shows the individual observations, labelled by observatory and observing band. The bottom panel shows a moving average. Figure 1 of Makhathini et al. (2020).
Balasubramanian et al. (2021) continue to obtain radio and X-ray observations until 1270 days post-merger. The radio is as expected for a structured jet, but there may be some brighting in the X-ray?
Hajela et al. (2021) do find that there is a brightening in the X-ray after around 900 days. However, there is nothing in the radio. This could suggest some form of kilonova afterglow (which may argue against a prompt collapse to a black hole), or it could be from accretion onto the remnant. Either would be an interesting observation.
Troja et al. (2021) reanalyse the X-ray data, checking the calibration. They do not find a rise, but do find an excess at late times that is difficult to explain with just the jet afterglow, suggesting that there is some extra emission like a kilonova afterglow.
Balasubramanian et al. (2022) perform 3 GHz Very Large Array until 29 March 2022. They no longer detect the radio emission, but instead place an upper limit. This suggests no rebrightening.
X-ray (top) and radio (bottom) observations from Chandra and the Very Large Array, respectively. The X-ray observations show an excess after around 900 days, but their is not sign in radio. The red and orange lines show estimated synchrotron emission for different power laws. The grey curve shows synchrotron emission from the dynamical ejecta of a kilonova from a numerical relativity simulation of a neutron star merger. Figure 2 of Hajela at al. (2021).
The story of the most ambitious cross-over of astronomical observations might now be coming to an end?
Using the time delay between GW170817 and GRB 170817A, a few other teams also did their own estimation of the Shapiro delay before they knew what was in our GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.
Wang et al. (2017) consider the Milky Way potential and large scale structure to estimate .
Wei et al. (2017) estimate using the Milky Way’s potential and using the Virgo cluster’s potential.
Our estimate of is the most conservative.
Comparison to other gamma-ray bursts
Are the electromagnetic counterparts to GW170817 similar to what has been observed before?
Yue et al. (2017) compare GRB 170817A with other gamma-ray bursts. It is low luminosity, but it may not be alone. There could be other bursts like it (perhaps GRB 070923, GRB 080121 and GRB 090417A), if indeed they are from nearby sources. They suggest that GRB 130603B may be the on-axis equivalent of GRB 170817A [citation note]; however, the non-detection of kilonovae for several bursts indicates that there needs to be some variation in their properties too. This agree with the results of Gompertz et al. (2017), who compares the GW170817 observations with other kilonovae: it is fainter than the other candidate kilonovae (GRB 050709, GRB 060614, GRB 130603B and tentatively GRB 160821B), but equally brighter than upper limits from other bursts. There must be a diversity in kilonovae observations. Fong et al. (2017) look at the diversity of afterglows (across X-ray to radio), and again find GW170817’s counterpart to be faint. This is probably because we are off-axis. The most comprehensive study is von Kienlin et al. (2019) who search ten years of Fermi archives and find 13 GRB 170817A-like short gamma-ray bursts: GRB 081209A, GRB 100328A, GRB 101224A, GRB 110717A; GRB 111024C, GRB 120302B, GRB 120915A, GRB 130502A, GRB 140511A, GRB 150101B, GRB 170111B, GRB 170817A and GRB 180511A. There is a range behaviours in these, with the shorter GRBs showing fast variability. Future observations will help unravel how much variation there is from viewing different angles, and how much intrinsic variation there is from the source—perhaps some short gamma-ray bursts come from neutron star–black hole binaries?
Inclination, jets and ejecta
Pretty much every observational paper has a go at estimating the properties of the ejecta, the viewing angle or something about the structure of the jet. I may try to pull these together later, but I’ve not had time yet as it is a very long list! Most of the inclination measurements assumed a uniform top-hat jet, which we now know is not a good model.
In my non-expert opinion, the later results seem more interesting. With very-long baseline interferometry radio observations to 230 days post-merger, Mooley et al. (2018) claim that while the early radio emission was powered by the wide cocoon of a structured jet, the later emission is dominated by a narrow, energetic jet. There was a successful jet, so we would have seen something like a regular short gamma-ray burst on axis. They estimate that the jet opening angle is , and that we are viewing it at an angle of . With X-ray and radio observations to 359 days, Troja et al. (2018) estimate (folding in gravitational-wave constraints too) that the viewing angle is , and the width of a Gaussian structured jet would be .
Hubble constant and misalignment
Guidorzi et al. (2017) try to tighten the measurement of the Hubble constant by using radio and X-ray observations. Their modelling assumes a uniform jet, which doesn’t look like a currently favoured option [citation note], so there is some model-based uncertainty to be included here. Additionally, the jet is unlikely to be perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum, which may add a couple of degrees more uncertainty.
Mandel (2018) works the other way and uses the recent Dark Energy Survey Hubble constant estimate to bound the misalignment angle to less than , which (unsurprisingly) agrees pretty well with the result we obtained using the Planck value. Finstad et al. (2018) uses the luminosity distance from Cantiello et al. (2018) [citation note] as a (Gaussian) prior for an analysis of the gravitational-wave signal, and get a misalignment (where the errors are statistical uncertainty and an estimate of systematic error from calibration of the strain).
Hotokezaka et al. (2018) use the inclination results from Mooley et al. (2018) [citation note] (together with the updated posterior samples from the GW170817 Properties Paper) to infer a value of (quoting median and 68% symmetric credible interval). Using different jet models changes their value for the Hubble constant a little; the choice of spin prior does not (since we get basically all of the inclination information from their radio observations). The results is still consistent with Planck and SH0ES, but is closer to the Planck value.
Posterior probability distribution for the Hubble constant inferred from GW170817 using only gravitational waves (GWs), and folding in models for the power-law jet (PLJ) model and very-long baseline interferometry (VLBI) radio observations. The lines symmetric mark 68% intervals. The coloured bands are measurements from the cosmic microwave background (Planck) and supernovae (SH0ES). Figure 2 of Hotokezaka et al. (2018)
Blanchard et al. (2017) estimate a stellar mass of about . They also look at the star formation history, 90% were formed by ago, and the median mass-weighted stellar age is . From this they infer a merger delay time of −. From this, and assuming that the system was born close to its current location, they estimate that the supernova kick , towards the lower end of our estimate. They use .
Im et al. (2017) find a mean stellar mass of − and the mean stellar age is greater than about . They also give a luminosity distance estimate of , which overlaps with our gravitational-wave estimate. I’m not sure what value of they are using.
Levan et al. (2017) suggest a stellar mass of around . They find that 60% of stars by mass are older than and that less than 1% are less than old. Their Figure 5 has some information on likely supernova kicks, they conclude it was probably small, but don’t quantify this. They use .
Pan et al. (2017) find . They calculate a mass-weighted mean stellar age of and a likely minimum age for GW170817’s source system of . They use .
Ebrová & Bílek (2018) assume a distance of and find a halo mass of . They suggest that NGC 4993 swallowed a smaller late-type galaxy somewhere between and ago, most probably around ago.
The consensus seems to be that the stellar population is old (and not much else). Fortunately, the conclusions of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper are pretty robust for delay times longer than as seems likely.
A couple of other papers look at the distance of the galaxy:
The values are consistent with our gravitational-wave estimates.
The remnant’s fate
We cannot be certain what happened to the merger remnant from gravitational-wave observations alone. However, electromagnetic observations do give some hints here.
Evans et al. (2017) argue that their non-detection of X-rays when observing with Swift and NuSTAR indicates that there is no neutron star remnant at this point, meaning we must have collapsed to form a black hole by 0.6 days post-merger. This isn’t too restricting in terms of the different ways the remnant could collapse, but does exclude a stable neutron star remnant. MAXI also didn’t detect any X-rays 4.6 hours after the merger (Sugita et al. 2018).
Pooley, Kumar & Wheeler (2017) consider X-ray observations of the afterglow. They calculate that if the remnant was a hypermassive neutron star with a large magnetic field, the early (10 day post-merger) luminosity would be much higher (and we could expect to see magnetar outbursts). Therefore, they think it is more likely that the remnant is a black hole. However, Piro et al. (2018) suggest that if the spin-down of the neutron star remnant is dominated by losses due to gravitational wave emission, rather than electromagnetic emission, then the scenario is still viable. They argue that a tentatively identified X-ray flare seen 155 days post-merger, could be evidence of dissipation of the neutron star’s toroidal magnetic field.
Kasen et al. (2017) use the observed red component of the kilonova to argue that the remnant must have collapsed to a black hole in . A neutron star would irradiate the ejecta with neutrinos, lower the neutron fraction and making the ejecta bluer. Since it is red, the neutrino flux must have been shut off, and the neutron star must have collapsed. We are in case b in their figure below.
Cartoon of the different components of matter ejected from neutron star mergers. Red colours show heavy r-process elements and blue colours light r-process elements. There is a tidal tail of material forming a torus in the orbital plane, roughly spherical winds from the accretion disk, and material squeezed into the polar reasons during the collision. In case a, we have a long-lived neutron star, and its neutrino irradiation leads to blue ejecta. In case b the neutron star collapses, cutting off the neutrino flux. In case c, there is a neutron star–black hole merger, and we don’t have the polar material from the collision. Figure 1 of Kasen et al. (2017); also see Figure 1 of Margalit & Metzger (2017).
Ai et al. (2018) find that there are some corners of parameter space for certain equations of state where a long-lived neutron star is possible, even given the observations. Therefore, we should remain open minded.
Margalit & Metzger (2017) and Bauswein et al. (2017) note that the relatively large amount of ejecta inferred from observations [citation note] is easier to explain when there is delayed (on timescales of ). This is difficult to resolve unless neutron star radii are small (). Metzger, Thompson & Quataert (2018) derive how this tension could be resolved if the remnant was a rapidly spinning magnetar with a life time of –. Matsumoto et al. (2018), suggest that the optical emission is powered by the jet and material accreting onto the central object, rather than r-process decay, and this permits much smaller amounts of ejecta, which could also solve the issue. Yu & Dai (2017) suggest that accretion onto a long-lived neutron star could power the emission, and would only require a single opacity for the ejecta. Li et al. (2018) put forward a similar theory, arguing that both the high ejecta mass and low opacity are problems for the standard r-process explanation, but fallback onto a neutron star could work. However, Margutti et al. (2018) say that X-ray emission powered by a central engine is disfavoured at all times.
In conclusion, it seems probable that we ended up with a black hole, and we had an a unstable neutron star for a short time after merger, but I don’t think it’s yet settled how long this was around.
Gill, Nathanail & Rezzolla (2019) considered how long it would take to produce the observed amount of ejecta, and the relative amounts of red and blue eject, as well as the delay time between the gravitational-wave measurement of the merger and the observation of the gamma-ray burst, to estimate how long it took the remnant to collapse to a black hole. They find a lifetime of .
We might not have two neutron stars with the same equation of state if they can undergo a phase transition. This would be kind of of like if one one made up of fluffer marshmallow, and the other was made up of gooey toasted marshmallow: they have the same ingredient, but in one the type of stuff™ has changed, giving it different physical properties. Standard neutron stars could be made of hadronic matter, kind of like a giant nucleus, but we could have another type where the hadrons break down into their component quarks. We could therefore have two neutron stars with similar masses but with very different equations of state. This is referred to as the twin star scenario. Hybrid stars which have quark cores surrounded by hadronic outer layers are often discussed in this context.
Neutron star equation of state
Several papers have explored what we can deduce about the nature of neutron star stuff™ from gravitational wave or electromagnetic observations the neutron star coalescence. It is quite a tricky problem. Below are some investigations into the radii of neutron stars and their tidal deformations; these seem compatible with the radii inferred in the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.
Bauswein et al. (2017) argue that the amount of ejecta inferred from the kilonova is too large for there to have been a prompt collapse to a black hole [citation note]. Using this, they estimate that the radius of a non-rotating neutron star of mass has a radius of at least . They also estimate that the radius for the maximum mass nonrotating neutron star must be greater than . Köppel, Bovard & Rezzolla (2019) calculate a similar, updated analysis, using a new approach to fit for the maximum mass of a neutron star, and they find a radius for is greater than , and for is greater than .
Annala et al. (2018) combine our initial measurement of the tidal deformation, with the requirement hat the equation of state supports a neutron star (which they argue requires that the tidal deformation of a neutron star is at least ). They argue that the latter condition implies that the radius of a neutron star is at least and the former that it is less than .
Radice et al. (2018) combine together observations of the kilonova (the amount of ejecta inferred) with gravitational-wave measurements of the masses to place constraints on the tidal deformation. From their simulations, they argue that to explain the ejecta, the combined dimensionless tidal deformability must be . This is consistent with results in the GW170817 Properties Paper, but would eliminate the main peak of the distribution we inferred from gravitational waves alone. However, Kuichi et al. (2019) show that it is possible to get the required ejecta for smaller tidal deformations, depending upon assumptions about the maximum neutron star mass (higher masses allow smaller tidal deformations)mand asymmetry of the binary components.
Lim & Holt (2018) perform some equation-of-state calculations. They find that their particular method (chiral effective theory) is already in good agreement with estimates of the maximum neutron star mass and tidal deformations. Which is nice. Using their models, they predict that for GW170817’s chirp mass .
Raithel, Özel & Psaltis (2018) argue that for a given chirp mass, is only a weak function of component masses, and depends mostly on the radii. Therefore, from our initial inferred value, they put a 90% upper limit on the radii of .
Most et al. (2018) consider a wide range of parametrised equations of state. They consider both hadronic (made up of particles like neutrons and protons) equation of states, and ones where they undergo phase transitions (with hadrons breaking into quarks), which could potentially mean that the two neutron stars have quite different properties [citation note]. A number of different constraints are imposed, to give a selection of potential radius ranges. Combining the requirement that neutron stars can be up to (Antoniadis et al. 2013), the maximum neutron star mass of inferred by Margalit & Metzger (2017), our initial gravitational-wave upper limit on the tidal deformation and the lower limit from Radice et al. (2018), they estimate that the radius of a neutron star is – for the hadronic equation of state. For the equation of state with the phase transition, they do the same, but without the tidal deformation from Radice et al. (2018), and find the radius of a neutron star is –.
Paschalidis et al. (2018) consider in more detail the idea equations of state with hadron–quark phase transitions, and the possibility that one of the components of GW170817’s source was a hadron–quark hybrid star. They find that the initial tidal measurements are consistent with this.
Burgio et al. (2018) further explore the possibility that the two binary components have different properties. They consider both there being a hadron–quark phase transition, and also that one star is hadronic and the other is a quark star (made up of deconfined quarks, rather than ones packaged up inside hadrons). X-ray observations indicate that neutron stars have radii in the range –, whereas most of the radii inferred for GW170817’s components are larger. This paper argues that this can be resolved if one of the components of GW170817’s source was a hadron–quark hybrid star or a quark star.
De et al. (2018) perform their own analysis of the gravitational signal, with a variety of different priors on the component masses. They assume that the two neutron stars have the same radii. In the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper we find that the difference can be up to about , which I think makes this an OK approximation; Zhao & Lattimer (2018) look at this in more detail. Within their approximation, they estimate the neutron stars to have a common radius of –.
Malik et al. (2018) use the initial gravitational-wave upper bound on tidal deformation and the lower bound from Radice et al. (2018) in combination with several equations of state (calculated using relativistic mean field and of Skyrme Hartree–Fock recipes, which sound delicious). For a neutron star, they obtain a tidal deformation in the range – and the radius in the range –.
Radice & Dai (2018) do their own analysis of our gravitational-wave data (using relative binning) and combine this with an analysis of the electromagnetic observations using models for the accretion disc. They find that the areal radius of a is . These results are in good agreement with ours, their inclusion of electromagnetic data pushes their combined results towards larger values for the tidal deformation.
Montaña et al. (2018) consider twin star scenarios [citation note] where we have a regular hadronic neutron star and a hybrid hadron–quark star. They find the data are consistent with neutron star–neutron star, neutron star–hybrid star or hybrid star–hybrid star binaries. Their Table II is a useful collection of results for the radius of a neutron star, including the possibility of phase transitions.
Coughlin et al. (2018) use our LIGO–Virgo results and combine them with constraints from the observation of the kilonova (combined with fits to numerical simulations) and the gamma-ray burst. The electromagnetic observations give some extra information of the tidal deformability, mass ratio and inclination. They use the approximation that the neutron stars have equal radii. They find that the tidal deformability has a 90% interval – and the neutron star radius is –.
Zhou, Chen & Zhang (2019) use data from heavy ion collider experiments, which constrains the properties of nuclear density stuff™ at one end of the spectrum, the existence of neutron stars, and our GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper constraints on the tidal deformation to determine that the radius of a neutron star is –.
Kumar & Landry (2019) use the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper constraints, and combine these of electromagnetic constraints to get an overall tidal deformability measurement. They use of observations of X-ray bursters from Özel et al. (2016) which give mass and radius measurements, and translate these using universal relations. Their overall result is the tidal deformability of a neutron star is .
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.
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.
Text messages from our gravitational-wave candidate event database GraceDB. The final message is for GW170817, or as it was known at the time, G298048. It certainly caught my attention. The messages above are for GW170814, that was picked up multiple times by our search algorithms. It was a busy week.
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…
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].
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 ). 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…
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!
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.
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).
Estimated masses for the two neutron stars in the binary. We show results for two different spin limits, 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 didn’t yet have good model waveforms including tides, so for to start we’ve just done a preliminary analysis (an improved analysis was done for the GW170817 Properties Paper). 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 .
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 (the most recent supernova analysis only increase the tension). 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.
Posterior probability distribution for the Hubble constant 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 (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 and , with a realistic rate of . 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.
If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170817, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.
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.
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.
Here’s one we made earlier. Credit: Associated Press/F. Vergara
Gravitational waves allow us to infer the properties of binary black holes (two black holes in orbit about each other), but can we use this information to figure out how the black holes and the binary form? In this paper, we show that measurements of the black holes’ spins can help us this out, but probably not until we have at least 100 detections.
Black hole spins
Black holes are described by their masses (how much they bend spacetime) and their spins (how much they drag spacetime to rotate about them). The orientation of the spins relative to the orbit of the binary could tell us something about the history of the binary [bonus note].
We considered four different populations of spin–orbit alignments to see if we could tell them apart with gravitational-wave observations:
Aligned—matching the idealised example of isolated binary evolution. This stands in for the case where misalignments are small, which might be the case if material blown off during a supernova ends up falling back and being swallowed by the black hole.
Isotropic—matching the expectations for dynamically formed binaries.
Equal misalignments at birth—this would be the case if the spins and orbit were aligned before the second supernova, which then tilted the plane of the orbit. (As the binary inspirals, the spins wobble around, so the two misalignment angles won’t always be the same).
Both spins misaligned by supernova kicks, assuming that the stars were aligned with the orbit before exploding. This gives a more general scatter of unequal misalignments, but typically the primary (bigger and first forming) black hole is more misaligned.
These give a selection of possible spin alignments. For each, we assumed that the spin magnitude was the same and had a value of 0.7. This seemed like a sensible idea when we started this study [bonus note], but is now towards the upper end of what we expect for binary black holes.
To measurement the properties of the population we need to perform a hierarchical analysis: there are two layers of inference, one for the individual binaries, and one of the population.
From a gravitational wave signal, we infer the properties of the source using Bayes’ theorem. Given the data , we want to know the probability that the parameters have different values, which is written as . This is calculated using
where is the likelihood, which we can calculate from our knowledge of the noise in our gravitational wave detectors, is the prior on the parameters (what we would have guessed before we had the data), and the normalisation constant is called the evidence. We’ll use the evidence again in the next layer of inference.
Our prior on the parameters should actually depend upon what we believe about the astrophysical population. It is different if we believed that Model 1 were true (when we’d only consider aligned spins) than for Model 2. Therefore, we should really write
where denotes which model we are considering.
This is an important point to remember: if you our using our LIGO results to test your theory of binary formation, you need to remember to correct for our choice of prior. We try to pick non-informative priors—priors that don’t make strong assumptions about the physics of the source—but this doesn’t mean that they match what would be expected from your model.
We are interested in the probability distribution for the different models: how many binaries come from each. Given a set of different observations , we can work this out using another application of Bayes’ theorem (yay)
where is just all the evidences for the individual events (given that model) multiplied together, is our prior for the different models, and is another normalisation constant.
Now knowing how to go from a set of observations to the probability distribution on the different channels, let’s give it a go!
To test our approach made a set of mock gravitational wave measurements. We generated signals from binaries for each of our four models, and analysed these as we would for real signals (using LALInference). This is rather computationally expensive, and we wanted a large set of events to analyse, so using these results as a guide, we created a larger catalogue of approximate distributions for the inferred source parameters . We then fed these through our hierarchical analysis. The GIF below shows how measurements of the fraction of binaries from each population tightens up as we get more detections: the true fraction is marked in blue.
Probability distribution for the fraction of binaries from each of our four spin misalignment populations for different numbers of observations. The blue dot marks the true fraction: and equal fraction from all four channels.
The plot shows that we do zoom in towards the true fraction of events from each model as the number of events increases, but there are significant degeneracies between the different models. Notably, it is difficult to tell apart Models 1 and 3, as both have strong support for both spins being nearly aligned. Similarly, there is a degeneracy between Models 2 and 4 as both allow for the two spins to have very different misalignments (and for the primary spin, which is the better measured one, to be quite significantly misaligned).
This means that we should be able to distinguish aligned from misaligned populations (we estimated that as few as 5 events would be needed to distinguish the case that all events came from either Model 1 or Model 2 if those were the only two allowed possibilities). However, it will be more difficult to distinguish different scenarios which only lead to small misalignments from each other, or disentangle whether there is significant misalignment due to big supernova kicks or because binaries are formed dynamically.
The uncertainty of the fraction of events from each model scales roughly with the square root of the number of observations, so it may be slow progress making these measurements. I’m not sure whether we’ll know the answer to how binary black hole form, or who will sit on the Iron Throne first.
If you have two stars forming in a binary together, you’d expect them to be spinning in roughly the same direction, rotating the same way as they go round in their orbit (like our Solar System). This is because they all formed from the same cloud of swirling gas and dust. Furthermore, if two stars are to form a black hole binary that we can detect gravitational waves from, they need to be close together. This means that there can be tidal forces which gently tug the stars to align their rotation with the orbit. As they get older, stars puff up, meaning that if you have a close-by neighbour, you can share outer layers. This transfer of material will tend to align rotate too. Adding this all together, if you have an isolated binary of stars, you might expect that when they collapse down to become black holes, their spins are aligned with each other and the orbit.
Unfortunately, real astrophysics is rarely so clean. Even if the stars were initially rotating the same way as each other, they doesn’t mean that their black hole remnants will do the same. This depends upon how the star collapses. Massive stars explode as supernova, blasting off their outer layers while their cores collapse down to form black holes. Escaping material could carry away angular momentum, meaning that the black hole is spinning in a different direction to its parent star, or material could be blasted off asymmetrically, giving the new black hole a kick. This would change the plane of the binary’s orbit, misaligning the spins.
Alternatively, the binary could be formed dynamically. Instead of two stars living their lives together, we could have two stars (or black holes) come close enough together to form a binary. This is likely to happen in regions where there’s a high density of stars, such as a globular cluster. In this case, since the binary has been randomly assembled, there’s no reason for the spins to be aligned with each other or the orbit. For dynamically assembled binaries, all spin–orbit misalignments are equally probable.
Slow and steady
This project was led by Simon Stevenson. It was one of the first things we started working on at the beginning of his PhD. He has now graduated, and is off to start a new exciting life as a postdoc in Australia. We got a little distracted by other projects, most notably analysing the first detections of gravitational waves. Simon spent a lot of time developing the COMPAS population code, a code to simulate the evolution of binaries. Looking back, it’s impressive how far he’s come. This paper used a simple approximation to to estimate the masses of our black holes: we called it the Post-it note model, as we wrote it down on a single Post-it. Now Simon’s writing papers including the complexities of common-envelope evolution in order to explain LIGO’s actual observations.
On 4 January 2017, Advanced LIGO made a new detection of gravitational waves. The signal, which we call GW170104 [bonus note], came from the coalescence of two black holes, which inspiralled together (making that characteristic chirp) and then merged to form a single black hole.
On 4 January 2017, I was just getting up off the sofa when my phone buzzed. My new year’s resolution was to go for a walk every day, and I wanted to make use of the little available sunlight. However, my phone informed me that PyCBC (one or our search algorithms for signals from coalescing binaries) had identified an interesting event. I sat back down. I was on the rota to analyse interesting signals to infer their properties, and I was pretty sure that people would be eager to see results. They were. I didn’t leave the sofa for the rest of the day, bringing my new year’s resolution to a premature end.
Since 4 January, my time has been dominated by working on GW170104 (you might have noticed a lack of blog posts). Below I’ll share some of my war stories from life on the front line of gravitational-wave astronomy, and then go through some of the science we’ve learnt. (Feel free to skip straight to the science, recounting the story was more therapy for me).
Time–frequency plots for GW170104 as measured by Hanford (top) and Livingston (bottom). The signal is clearly visible as the upward sweeping chirp. The loudest frequency is something between E3 and G♯3 on a piano, and it tails off somewhere between D♯4/E♭4 and F♯4/G♭4. Part of Fig. 1 of the GW170104 Discovery Paper.
In the second observing run, the Parameter Estimation group have divided up responsibility for analysing signals into two week shifts. For each rota shift, there is an expert and a rookie. I had assumed that the first slot of 2017 would be a quiet time. The detectors were offline over the holidays, due back online on 4 January, but the instrumentalists would probably find some extra tinkering they’d want to do, so it’d probably slip a day, and then the weather would be bad, so we’d probably not collect much data anyway… I was wrong. Very wrong. The detectors came back online on time, and there was a beautifully clean detection on day one.
My partner for the rota was Aaron Zimmerman. 4 January was his first day running parameter estimation on live signals. I think I would’ve run and hidden underneath my duvet in his case (I almost did anyway, and I lived through the madness of our first detection GW150914), but he rose to the occasion. We had first results after just a few hours, and managed to send out a preliminary sky localization to our astronomer partners on 6 January. I think this was especially impressive as there were some difficulties with the initial calibration of the data. This isn’t a problem for the detection pipelines, but does impact the parameters which we infer, particularly the sky location. The Calibration group worked quickly, and produced two updates to the calibration. We therefore had three different sets of results (one per calibration) by 6 January [bonus note]!
Producing the final results for the paper was slightly more relaxed. Aaron and I conscripted volunteers to help run all the various permutations of the analysis we wanted to double-check our results [bonus note].
Recovered gravitational waveforms from analysis of GW170104. The broader orange band shows our estimate for the waveform without assuming a particular source (wavelet). The narrow blue bands show results if we assume it is a binary black hole (BBH) as predicted by general relativity. The two match nicely, showing no evidence for any extra features not included in the binary black hole models. Figure 4 of the GW170104 Discovery Paper.
I started working on GW170104 through my parameter estimation duties, and continued with paper writing.
Ahead of the second observing run, we decided to assemble a team to rapidly write up any interesting binary detections, and I was recruited for this (I think partially because I’m not too bad at writing and partially because I was in the office next to John Veitch, one of the chairs of the Compact Binary Coalescence group,so he can come and check that I wasn’t just goofing off eating doughnuts). We soon decided that we should write a paper about GW170104, and you can decide whether or not we succeeded in doing this rapidly…
Being on the paper writing team has given me huge respect for the teams who led the GW150914 and GW151226 papers. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It is extremely hard to absorb negative remarks about your work continuously for months [bonus note]—of course people don’t normally send comments about things that they like, but that doesn’t cheer you up when you’re staring at an inbox full of problems that need fixing. Getting a collaboration of 1000 people to agree on a paper is like herding cats while being a small duckling.
On of the first challenges for the paper writing team was deciding what was interesting about GW170104. It was another binary black hole coalescence—aren’t people getting bored of them by now? The signal was quieter than GW150914, so it wasn’t as remarkable. However, its properties were broadly similar. It was suggested that perhaps we should title the paper “GW170104: The most boring gravitational-wave detection”.
One potentially interesting aspect was that GW170104 probably comes from greater distance than GW150914 or GW151226 (but perhaps not LVT151012) [bonus note]. This might make it a good candidate for testing for dispersion of gravitational waves.
Dispersion occurs when different frequencies of gravitational waves travel at different speeds. A similar thing happens for light when travelling through some materials, which leads to prisms splitting light into a spectrum (and hence the creation of Pink Floyd album covers). Gravitational waves don’t suffered dispersion in general relativity, but do in some modified theories of gravity.
It should be easier to spot dispersion in signals which have travelled a greater distance, as the different frequencies have had more time to separate out. Hence, GW170104 looks pretty exciting. However, being further away also makes the signal quieter, and so there is more uncertainty in measurements and it is more difficult to tell if there is any dispersion. Dispersion is also easier to spot if you have a larger spread of frequencies, as then there can be more spreading between the highest and lowest frequencies. When you throw distance, loudness and frequency range into the mix, GW170104 doesn’t always come out on top, depending upon the particular model for dispersion: sometimes GW150914’s loudness wins, other times GW151226’s broader frequency range wins. GW170104 isn’t too special here either.
Even though GW170104 didn’t look too exciting, we started work on a paper, thinking that we would just have a short letter describing our observations. The Compact Binary Coalescence group decided that we only wanted a single paper, and we wouldn’t bother with companion papers as we did for GW150914. As we started work, and dug further into our results, we realised that actually there was rather a lot that we could say.
I guess the moral of the story is that even though you might be overshadowed by the achievements of your siblings, it doesn’t mean that you’re not awesome. There might not be one outstanding feature of GW170104, but there are lots of little things that make it interesting. We are still at the beginning of understanding the properties of binary black holes, and each new detection adds a little more to our picture.
I think GW170104 is rather neat, and I hope you do too.
As we delved into the details of our results, we realised there was actually a lot of things that we could say about GW170104, especially when considered with our previous observations. We ended up having to move some of the technical details and results to Supplemental Material. With hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to have a companion paper or two. However, I rather like how packed with science this paper is.
The paper, which Physical Review Letters have kindly accommodated, despite its length, might not be as polished a classic as the GW150914 Discovery Paper, but I think they are trying to do different things. I rarely ever refer to the GW150914 Discovery Paper for results (more commonly I use it for references), whereas I think I’ll open up the GW170104 Discovery Paper frequently to look up numbers.
Although perhaps not right away, I’d quite like some time off first. The weather’s much better now, perfect for walking…
Advanced LIGO’s first observing run was hugely successful. Running from 12 September 2015 until 19 January 2016, there were two clear gravitational-wave detections, GW1501914 and GW151226, as well as a less certain candidate signal LVT151012. All three (assuming that they are astrophysical signals) correspond to the coalescence of binary black holes.
The second observing run started 30 November 2016. Following the first observing run’s detections, we expected more binary black hole detections. On 4 January, after we had collected almost 6 days’ worth of coincident data from the two LIGO instruments [bonus note], there was a detection.
The signal was first spotted by an online analysis. Our offline analysis of the data (using refined calibration and extra information about data quality) showed that the signal, GW170104, is highly significant. For both GstLAL and PyCBC, search algorithms which use templates to search for binary signals, the false alarm rate is estimated to be about 1 per 70,000 years.
The signal is also found in unmodelled (burst) searches, which look for generic, short gravitational wave signals. Since these are looking for more general signals than just binary coalescences, the significance associated with GW170104 isn’t as great, and coherent WaveBurst estimates a false alarm rate of 1 per 20,000 years. This is still pretty good! Reconstructions of the waveform from unmodelled analyses also match the form expected for binary black hole signals.
The search false alarm rates are the rate at which you’d expect something this signal-like (or more signal-like) due to random chance, if you data only contained noise and no signals. Using our knowledge of the search pipelines, and folding in some assumptions about the properties of binary black holes, we can calculate a probability that GW170104 is a real astrophysical signal. This comes out to be greater than .
As for the previous gravitational wave detections, GW170104 comes from a binary black hole coalescence. The initial black holes were and (where is the mass of our Sun), and the final black hole was . The quoted values are the median values and the error bars denote the central 90% probable range. The plot below shows the probability distribution for the masses; GW170104 neatly nestles in amongst the other events.
Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary . The two-dimensional shows the probability distribution for GW170104 as well as 50% and 90% contours for all events. The one-dimensional plot shows results using different waveform models. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. Figure 2 of the GW170104 Discovery Paper.
GW150914 was the first time that we had observed stellar-mass black holes with masses greater than around . GW170104 has similar masses, showing that our first detection was not a fluke, but there really is a population of black holes with masses stretching up into this range.
Black holes have two important properties: mass and spin. We have good measurements on the masses of the two initial black holes, but not the spins. The sensitivity of the form of the gravitational wave to spins can be described by two effective spin parameters, which are mass-weighted combinations of the individual spins.
The effective inspiral spin parameter qualifies the impact of the spins on the rate of inspiral, and where the binary plunges together to merge. It ranges from +1, meaning both black holes are spinning as fast as possible and rotate in the same direction as the orbital motion, to −1, both black holes spinning as fast as possible but in the opposite direction to the way that the binary is orbiting. A value of 0 for could mean that the black holes are not spinning, that their rotation axes are in the orbital plane (instead of aligned with the orbital angular momentum), or that one black hole is aligned with the orbital motion and the other is antialigned, so that their effects cancel out.
The effective precession spin parameter qualifies the amount of precession, the way that the orbital plane and black hole spins wobble when they are not aligned. It is 0 for no precession, and 1 for maximal precession.
We can place some constraints on , but can say nothing about . The inferred value of the effective inspiral spin parameter is . Therefore, we disfavour large spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum, but are consistent with small aligned spins, misaligned spins, or spins antialigned with the angular momentum. The value is similar to that for GW150914, which also had a near-zero, but slightly negative of .
Estimated effective inspiral spin parameter and effective precession spin parameter. The two-dimensional shows the probability distribution for GW170104 as well as 50% and 90% contours. The one-dimensional plot shows results using different waveform models, as well as the prior probability distribution. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. We learn basically nothing about precession. Part of Figure 3 of the GW170104 Discovery Paper.
Converting the information about , the lack of information about , and our measurement of the ratio of the two black hole masses, into probability distributions for the component spins gives the plots below [bonus note]. We disfavour (but don’t exclude) spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum, but can’t say much else.
Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins. The distribution for the more massive black hole is on the left, and for the smaller black hole on the right. The probability is binned into areas which have uniform prior probabilities, so if we had learnt nothing, the plot would be uniform. Part of Figure 3 of the GW170104 Discovery Paper.
One of the comments we had on a draft of the paper was that we weren’t making any definite statements about the spins—we would have if we could, but we can’t for GW170104, at least for the spins of the two inspiralling black holes. We can be more definite about the spin of the final black hole. If two similar mass black holes spiral together, the angular momentum from the orbit is enough to give a spin of around . The spins of the component black holes are less significant, and can make it a bit higher of lower. We infer a final spin of ; there is a tail of lower spin values on account of the possibility that the two component black holes could be roughly antialigned with the orbital angular momentum.
Estimated mass and spin for the final black hole. The two-dimensional shows the probability distribution for GW170104 as well as 50% and 90% contours. The one-dimensional plot shows results using different waveform models. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. Figure 6 of the GW170104 Supplemental Material (Figure 11 of the arXiv version).
If you’re interested in parameter describing GW170104, make sure to check out the big table in the Supplemental Material. I am a fan of tables [bonus note].
Adding the first 11 days of coincident data from the second observing run (including the detection of GW170104) to the results from the first observing run, we find merger rates consistent with those from the first observing run.
To calculate the merger rates, we need to assume a distribution of black hole masses, and we use two simple models. One uses a power law distribution for the primary (larger) black hole and a uniform distribution for the mass ratio; the other uses a distribution uniform in the logarithm of the masses (both primary and secondary). The true distribution should lie somewhere between the two. The power law rate density has been updated from to , and the uniform in log rate density goes from to . The median values stay about the same, but the additional data have shrunk the uncertainties a little.
The discoveries from the first observing run showed that binary black holes exist and merge. The question is now how exactly they form? There are several suggested channels, and it could be there is actually a mixture of different formation mechanisms in action. It will probably require a large number of detections before we can make confident statements about the the probable formation mechanisms; GW170104 is another step towards that goal.
There are two main predicted channels of binary formation:
Isolated binary evolution, where a binary star system lives its life together with both stars collapsing to black holes at the end. To get the black holes close enough to merge, it is usually assumed that the stars go through a common envelope phase, where one star puffs up so that the gravity of its companion can steal enough material that they lie in a shared envelope. The drag from orbiting inside this then shrinks the orbit.
Dynamical evolution where black holes form in dense clusters and a binary is created by dynamical interactions between black holes (or stars) which get close enough to each other.
It’s a little artificial to separate the two, as there’s not really such a thing as an isolated binary: most stars form in clusters, even if they’re not particularly large. There are a variety of different modifications to the two main channels, such as having a third companion which drives the inner binary to merge, embedding the binary is a dense disc (as found in galactic centres), or dynamically assembling primordial black holes (formed by density perturbations in the early universe) instead of black holes formed through stellar collapse.
All the channels can predict black holes around the masses of GW170104 (which is not surprising given that they are similar to the masses of GW150914).
The updated rates are broadly consistent with most channels too. The tightening of the uncertainty of the rates means that the lower bound is now a little higher. This means some of the channels are now in tension with the inferred rates. Some of the more exotic channels—requiring a third companion (Silsbee & Tremain 2017; Antonini, Toonen & Hamers 2017) or embedded in a dense disc (Bartos et al. 2016; Stone, Metzger & Haiman 2016; Antonini & Rasio 2016)—can’t explain the full rate, but I don’t think it was ever expected that they could, they are bonus formation mechanisms. However, some of the dynamical models are also now looking like they could predict a rate that is a bit low (Rodriguez et al. 2016; Mapelli 2016; Askar et al. 2017; Park et al. 2017). Assuming that this result holds, I think this may mean that some of the model parameters need tweaking (there are more optimistic predictions for the merger rates from clusters which are still perfectly consistent), that this channel doesn’t contribute all the merging binaries, or both.
The spins might help us understand formation mechanisms. Traditionally, it has been assumed that isolated binary evolution gives spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum. The progenitor stars were probably more or less aligned with the orbital angular momentum, and tides, mass transfer and drag from the common envelope would serve to realign spins if they became misaligned. Rodriguez et al. (2016) gives a great discussion of this. Dynamically formed binaries have no correlation between spin directions, and so we would expect an isotropic distribution of spins. Hence it sounds quite simple: misaligned spins indicates dynamical formation (although we can’t tell if the black holes are primordial or stellar), and aligned spins indicates isolated binary evolution. The difficulty is the traditional assumption for isolated binary evolution potentially ignores a number of effects which could be important. When a star collapses down to a black hole, there may be a supernova explosion. There is an explosion of matter and neutrinos and these can give the black hole a kick. The kick could change the orbital plane, and so misalign the spin. Even if the kick is not that big, if it is off-centre, it could torque the black hole, causing it to rotate and so misalign the spin that way. There is some evidence that this can happen with neutron stars, as one of the pulsars in the double pulsar system shows signs of this. There could also be some instability that changes the angular momentum during the collapse of the star, possibly with different layers rotating in different ways [bonus note]. The spin of the black hole would then depend on how many layers get swallowed. This is an area of research that needs to be investigated further, and I hope the prospect of gravitational wave measurements spurs this on.
For GW170104, we know the spins are not large and aligned with the orbital angular momentum. This might argue against one variation of isolated binary evolution, chemically homogeneous evolution, where the progenitor stars are tidally locked (and so rotate aligned with the orbital angular momentum and each other). Since the stars are rapidly spinning and aligned, you would expect the final black holes to be too, if the stars completely collapse down as is usually assumed. If the stars don’t completely collapse down though, it might still be possible that GW170104 fits with this model. Aside from this, GW170104 is consistent with all the other channels.
Estimated effective inspiral spin parameter for all events. To indicate how much (or little) we’ve learnt, the prior probability distribution for GW170104 is shown (the other priors are similar).All of the events have at 90% probability. Figure 5 of the GW170104 Supplemental Material (Figure 10 of the arXiv version). This is one of my favourite plots [bonus note].
If we start looking at the population of events, we do start to notice something about the spins. All of the inferred values of are close to zero. Only GW151226 is inconsistent with zero. These values could be explained if spins are typically misaligned (with the orbital angular momentum or each other) or if the spins are typically small (or both). We know that black holes spins can be large from observations of X-ray binaries, so it would be odd if they are small for binary black holes. Therefore, we have a tentative hint that spins are misaligned. We can’t say why the spins are misaligned, but it is intriguing. With more observations, we’ll be able to confirm if it is the case that spins are typically misaligned, and be able to start pinning down the distribution of spin magnitudes and orientations (as well as the mass distribution). It will probably take a while to be able to say anything definite though, as we’ll probably need about 100 detections.
Tests of general relativity
As well as giving us an insight into the properties of black holes, gravitational waves are the perfect tools for testing general relativity. If there are any corrections to general relativity, you’d expect them to be most noticeable under the most extreme conditions, where gravity is strong and spacetime is rapidly changing, exactly as in a binary black hole coalescence.
We added extra terms to to the waveform and constrained their potential magnitudes. The results are pretty much identical to at the end of the first observing run (consistent with zero and hence general relativity). GW170104 doesn’t add much extra information, as GW150914 typically gives the best constraints on terms that modify the post-inspiral part of the waveform (as it is louder), while GW151226 gives the best constraint on the terms which modify the inspiral (as it has the longest inspiral).
We also chopped the waveform at a frequency around that of the innermost stable orbit of the remnant black hole, which is about where the transition from inspiral to merger and ringdown occurs, to check if the low frequency and high frequency portions of the waveform give consistent estimates for the final mass and spin. They do.
We have also done something slightly new, and tested for dispersion of gravitational waves. We did something similar for GW150914 by putting a limit on the mass of the graviton. Giving the graviton mass is one way of adding dispersion, but we consider other possible forms too. In all cases, results are consistent with there being no dispersion. While we haven’t discovered anything new, we can update our gravitational wave constraint on the graviton mass of less than .
The search for counterparts
We don’t discuss observations made by our astronomer partners in the paper (they are not our results). A number (28 at the time of submission) of observations were made, and I expect that there will be a series of papers detailing these coming soon. So far papers have appeared from:
AGILE—hard X-ray and gamma-ray follow-up. They didn’t find any gamma-ray signals, but did identify a weak potential X-ray signal occurring about 0.46 s before GW170104. It’s a little odd to have a signal this long before the merger. The team calculate a probability for such a coincident to happen by chance, and find quite a small probability, so it might be interesting to follow this up more (see the INTEGRAL results below), but it’s probably just a coincidence (especially considering how many people did follow-up the event).
ANTARES—a search for high-energy muon neutrinos. No counterparts are identified in a ±500 s window around GW170104, or over a ±3 month period.
AstroSat-CZTI and GROWTH—a collaboration of observations across a range of wavelengths. They don’t find any hard X-ray counterparts. They do follow up on a bright optical transient ATLASaeu, suggested as a counterpart to GW170104, and conclude that this is a likely counterpart of long, soft gamma-ray burst GRB 170105A.
ATLAS and Pan-STARRS—optical follow-up. They identified a bright optical transient 23 hours after GW170104, ATLAS17aeu. This could be a counterpart to GRB 170105A. It seems unlikely that there is any mechanism that could allow for a day’s delay between the gravitational wave emission and an electromagnetic signal. However, the team calculate a small probability (few percent) of finding such a coincidence in sky position and time, so perhaps it is worth pondering. I wouldn’t put any money on it without a distance estimate for the source: assuming it’s a normal afterglow to a gamma-ray burst, you’d expect it to be further away than GW170104’s source.
Borexino—a search for low-energy neutrinos. This paper also discusses GW150914 and GW151226. In all cases, the observed rate of neutrinos is consistent with the expected background.
Fermi (GBM and LAT)—gamma-ray follow-up. They covered an impressive fraction of the sky localization, but didn’t find anything.
INTEGRAL—gamma-ray and hard X-ray observations. No significant emission is found, which makes the event reported by AGILE unlikely to be a counterpart to GW170104, although they cannot completely rule it out.
The intermediate Palomar Transient Factory—an optical survey. While searching, they discovered iPTF17cw, a broad-line type Ic supernova which is unrelated to GW170104 but interesting as it an unusual find.
Mini-GWAC—a optical survey (the precursor to GWAC). This paper covers the whole of their O2 follow-up including GW170608.
NOvA—a search for neutrinos and cosmic rays over a wide range of energies. This paper covers all the events from O1 and O2, plus triggers from O3.
If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170104, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.
Gravitational wave signals (at least the short ones, which are all that we have so far), are named by their detection date. GW170104 was discovered 2017 January 4. This isn’t too catchy, but is at least better than the ID number in our database of triggers (G268556) which is used in corresponding with our astronomer partners before we work out if the “GW” title is justified.
Previous detections have attracted nicknames, but none has stuck for GW170104. Archisman Ghosh suggested the Perihelion Event, as it was detected a few hours before the Earth reached its annual point closest to the Sun. I like this name, its rather poetic.
More recently, Alex Nitz realised that we should have called GW170104 the Enterprise-D Event, as the USS Enterprise’s registry number was NCC-1701. For those who like Star Trek: the Next Generation, I hope you have fun discussing whether GW170104 is the third or fourth (counting LVT151012) detection: “There are four detections!“
The 6 January sky map
I would like to thank the wi-fi of Chiltern Railways for their role in producing the preliminary sky map. I had arranged to visit London for the weekend (because my rota slot was likely to be quiet… ), and was frantically working on the way down to check results so they could be sent out. I’d also like to thank John Veitch for putting together the final map while I was stuck on the Underground.
Binary black hole waveforms
The parameter estimation analysis works by matching a template waveform to the data to see how well it matches. The results are therefore sensitive to your waveform model, and whether they include all the relevant bits of physics.
In the first observing run, we always used two different families of waveforms, to see what impact potential errors in the waveforms could have. The results we presented in discovery papers used two quick-to-calculate waveforms. These include the effects of the black holes’ spins in different ways
SEOBNRv2 has spins either aligned or antialigned with the orbital angular momentum. Therefore, there is no precession (wobbling of orientation, like that of a spinning top) of the system.
IMRPhenomPv2 includes an approximate description of precession, packaging up the most important information about precession into a single parameter .
For GW150914, we also performed a follow-up analysis using a much more expensive waveform SEOBNRv3 which more fully includes the effect of both spins on precession. These results weren’t ready at the time of the announcement, because the waveform is laborious to run.
For GW170104, there were discussions that using a spin-aligned waveform was old hat, and that we should really only use the two precessing models. Hence, we started on the endeavour of producing SEOBNRv3 results. Fortunately, the code has been sped up a little, although it is still not quick to run. I am extremely grateful to Scott Coughlin (one of the folks behind Gravity Spy), Andrea Taracchini and Stas Babak for taking charge of producing results in time for the paper, in what was a Herculean effort.
I spent a few sleepless nights, trying to calculate if the analysis was converging quickly enough to make our target submission deadline, but it did work out in the end. Still, don’t necessarily expect we’ll do this for a all future detections.
Since the waveforms have rather scary technical names, in the paper we refer to IMRPhenomPv2 as the effective precession model and SEOBNRv3 as the full precession model.
Distance measurements for gravitational wave sources have significant uncertainties. The distance is difficult to measure as it determined from the signal amplitude, but this is also influences by the binary’s inclination. A signal could either be close and edge on or far and face on-face off.
Estimated luminosity distance and binary inclination angle . The two-dimensional shows the probability distribution for GW170104 as well as 50% and 90% contours. The one-dimensional plot shows results using different waveform models. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. Figure 4 of the GW170104 Supplemental Material (Figure 9 of the arXiv version).
The uncertainty on the distance rather awkwardly means that we can’t definitely say that GW170104 came from a further source than GW150914 or GW151226, but it’s a reasonable bet. The 90% credible intervals on the distances are 250–570 Mpc for GW150194, 250–660 Mpc for GW151226, 490–1330 Mpc for GW170104 and 500–1500 Mpc for LVT151012.
Translating from a luminosity distance to a travel time (gravitational waves do travel at the speed of light, our tests of dispersion are consistent wit that!), the GW170104 black holes merged somewhere between 1.3 and 3.0 billion years ago. This is around the time that multicellular life first evolved on Earth, and means that black holes have been colliding longer than life on Earth has been reproducing sexually.
A first draft of the paper (version 2; version 1 was a copy-and-paste of the Boxing Day Discovery Paper) was circulated to the Compact Binary Coalescence and Burst groups for comments on 4 March. This was still a rough version, and we wanted to check that we had a good outline of the paper. The main feedback was that we should include more about the astrophysical side of things. I think the final paper has a better balance, possibly erring on the side of going into too much detail on some of the more subtle points (but I think that’s better than glossing over them).
A first proper draft (version 3) was released to the entire Collaboration on 12 March in the middle of our Collaboration meeting in Pasadena. We gave an oral presentation the next day (I doubt many people had read the paper by then). Collaboration papers are usually allowed two weeks for people to comment, and we followed the same procedure here. That was not a fun time, as there was a constant trickle of comments. I remember waking up each morning and trying to guess how many emails would be in my inbox–I normally low-balled this.
I wasn’t too happy with version 3, it was still rather rough. The members of the Paper Writing Team had been furiously working on our individual tasks, but hadn’t had time to look at the whole. I was much happier with the next draft (version 4). It took some work to get this together, following up on all the comments and trying to address concerns was a challenge. It was especially difficult as we got a series of private comments, and trying to find a consensus probably made us look like the bad guys on all sides. We released version 4 on 14 April for a week of comments.
The next step was approval by the LIGO and Virgo executive bodies on 24 April. We prepared version 5 for this. By this point, I had lost track of which sentences I had written, which I had merely typed, and which were from other people completely. There were a few minor changes, mostly adding technical caveats to keep everyone happy (although they do rather complicate the flow of the text).
The paper was circulated to the Collaboration for a final week of comments on 26 April. Most comments now were about typos and presentation. However, some people will continue to make the same comment every time, regardless of how many times you explain why you are doing something different. The end was in sight!
The paper was submitted to Physical Review Letters on 9 May. I was hoping that the referees would take a while, but the reports were waiting in my inbox on Monday morning.
The referee reports weren’t too bad. Referee A had some general comments, Referee B had some good and detailed comments on the astrophysics, and Referee C gave the paper a thorough reading and had some good suggestions for clarifying the text. By this point, I have been staring at the paper so long that some outside perspective was welcome. I was hoping that we’d have a more thorough review of the testing general relativity results, but we had Bob Wald as one of our Collaboration Paper reviewers (the analysis, results and paper are all reviewed internally), so I think we had already been held to a high standard, and there wasn’t much left to say.
We put together responses to the reports. There were surprisingly few comments from the Collaboration at this point. I guess that everyone was getting tired. The paper was resubmitted and accepted on 20 May.
One of the suggestions of Referee A was to include some plots showing the results of the searches. People weren’t too keen on showing these initially, but after much badgering they were convinced, and it was decided to put these plots in the Supplemental Material which wouldn’t delay the paper as long as we got the material submitted by 26 May. This seemed like plenty of time, but it turned out to be rather frantic at the end (although not due to the new plots). The video below is an accurate representation of us trying to submit the final version.
I have an email which contains the line “Many Bothans died to bring us this information” from 1 hour and 18 minutes before the final deadline.
After this, things were looking pretty good. We had returned the proofs of the main paper (I had a fun evening double checking the author list. Yes, all of them). We were now on version 11 of the paper.
Of course, there’s always one last thing. On 31 May, the evening before publication, Salvo Vitale spotted a typo. Nothing serious, but annoying. The team at Physical Review Letters were fantastic, and took care of it immediately!
There’ll still be one more typo, there always is…
Looking back, it is clear that the principal bottle-neck in publishing the results is getting the Collaboration to converge on the paper. I’m not sure how we can overcome this… Actually, I have some ideas, but none that wouldn’t involve some form of doomsday device.
The sensitivities of the LIGO Hanford and Livinston detectors are around the same as they were in the first observing run. After the success of the first observing run, the second observing run is the difficult follow up album. Livingston has got a little better, while Hanford is a little worse. This is because the Livingston team concentrate on improving low frequency sensitivity whereas the Hanford team focused on improving high frequency sensitivity. The Hanford team increased the laser power, but this introduces some new complications. The instruments are extremely complicated machines, and improving sensitivity is hard work.
The current plan is to have a long commissioning break after the end of this run. The low frequency tweaks from Livingston will be transferred to Hanford, and both sites will work on bringing down other sources of noise.
While the sensitivity hasn’t improved as much as we might have hoped, the calibration of the detectors has! In the first observing run, the calibration uncertainty for the first set of published results was about 10% in amplitude and 10 degrees in phase. Now, uncertainty is better than 5% in amplitude and 3 degrees in phase, and people are discussing getting this down further.
As the binary inspirals, the orientation of the spins will evolve as they precess about. We always quote measurements of the spins at a point in the inspiral corresponding to a gravitational wave frequency of 20 Hz. This is most convenient for our analysis, but you can calculate the spins at other points. However, the resulting probability distributions are pretty similar at other frequencies. This is because the probability distributions are primarily determined by the combination of three things: (i) our prior assumption of a uniform distribution of spin orientations, (ii) our measurement of the effective inspiral spin, and (iii) our measurement of the mass ratio. A uniform distribution stays uniform as spins evolve, so this is unaffected, the effective inspiral spin is approximately conserved during inspiral, so this doesn’t change much, and the mass ratio is constant. The overall picture is therefore qualitatively similar at different moments during the inspiral.
I love footnotes. It was challenging for me to resist having any in the paper.
It is possible that internal gravity waves (that is oscillations of the material making up the star, where the restoring force is gravity, not gravitational waves, which are ripples in spacetime), can transport angular momentum from the core of a star to its outer envelope, meaning that the two could rotate in different directions (Rogers, Lin & Lau 2012). I don’t think anyone has studied this yet for the progenitors of binary black holes, but it would be really cool if gravity waves set the properties of gravitational wave sources.
I really don’t want to proof read the paper which explains this though.
For our plots, we use a consistent colour coding for our events. GW150914 is blue; LVT151012 is green; GW151226 is red–orange, and GW170104 is purple. The colour scheme is designed to be colour blind friendly (although adopting different line styles would perhaps be more distinguishable), and is implemented in Python in the Seaborn package as colorblind. Katerina Chatziioannou, who made most of the plots showing parameter estimation results is not a fan of the colour combinations, but put a lot of patient effort into polishing up the plots anyway.
Gravitational waves give us a new way of observing the Universe. This raises the possibility of multimessenger astronomy, where we study the same system using different methods: gravitational waves, light or neutrinos. Each messenger carries different information, so by using them together we can build up a more complete picture of what’s going on. This paper looks for gravitational waves that coincide with radio bursts. None are found, but we now have a template for how to search in the future.
On a dark night, there are two things which almost everyone will have done: wondered at the beauty of the starry sky and wondered exactly what was it that just went bump… Astronomers do both. Transient astronomy is about figuring out what are the things which go bang in the night—not the things which make suspicious noises, but objects which appear (and usually disappear) suddenly in the sky.
Most processes in astrophysics take a looooong time (our Sun is four-and-a-half billion years old and is just approaching middle age). Therefore, when something happens suddenly, flaring perhaps over just a few seconds, you know that something drastic must be happening! We think that most transients must be tied up with a violent event such as an explosion. However, because transients are so short, it can difficult to figure out exactly where they come from (both because they might have faded by the time you look, and because there’s little information to learn from a blip in the first place).
Radio transients are bursts of radio emission of uncertain origin. We’ve managed to figure out that some come from microwave ovens, but the rest do seem to come from space. This paper looks at two types: rotating radio transients (RRATs) and fast radio bursts (FRBs). RRATs look like the signals from pulsars, except that they don’t have the characteristic period pattern of pulsars. It may be that RRATs come from dying pulsars, flickering before they finally switch off, or it may be that they come from neutron stars which are not normally pulsars, but have been excited by a fracturing of their crust (a starquake). FRBs last a few milliseconds, they could be generated when two neutron stars merge and collapse to form a black hole, or perhaps from a highly-magnetised neutron star. Normally, when astronomers start talking about magnetic fields, it means that we really don’t know what’s going on [bonus note]. That is the case here. We don’t know what causes radio transients, but we are excited to try figuring it out.
This paper searches old LIGO, Virgo and GEO data for any gravitational-wave signals that coincide with observed radio transients. We use a catalogue of RRATs and FRBs from the Green Bank Telescope and the Parkes Observatory, and search around these times. We use a burst search, which doesn’t restrict itself to any particular form of gravitational-wave; however, the search was tuned for damped sinusoids and sine–Gaussians (generic wibbles), cosmic strings (which may give an indication of how uncertain we are of where radio transients could come from), and coalescences of binary neutron stars or neutron star–black hole binaries. Hopefully the search covers all plausible options. Discovering a gravitational wave coincident with a radio transient would give us much welcomed information about the source, and perhaps pin down their origin.
Search results for gravitational waves coincident with radio transients. The probabilities for each time containing just noise (blue) match the expected background distribution (dashed). This is consistent with a non-detection.
The search discovered nothing. Results match what we would expect from just noise in the detectors. This is not too surprising since we are using data from the first-generation detectors. We’ll be repeating the analysis with the upgraded detectors, which can find signals from larger distances. If we are lucky, multimessenger astronomy will allow us to figure out exactly what needs to go bump to create a radio transient.
Magnetic fields complicate calculations. They make things more difficult to model and are therefore often left out. However, we know that magnetic fields are everywhere and that they do play important roles in many situations. Therefore, they are often invoked as an explanation of why models can’t explain what’s going on. I learnt early in my PhD that you could ask “What about magnetic fields?” at the end of almost any astrophysics seminar (it might not work for some observational talks, but then you could usually ask “What about dust?” instead). Handy if ever you fall asleep…
Black holes are, well, black. Their gravity is so strong that if you get close enough, nothing, not even light, can escape. I think that’s about as dark as you can get!
After picking Dark as a primary type, I thought Ghost was a good secondary type, since black holes could be thought of as the remains of dead stars. This also fit well with black holes not really being made of anything—they are just warped spacetime—and so are ethereal in nature. Of course, black holes’ properties are grounded in general relativity and not the supernatural.
In the games, having a secondary type has another advantage: Dark types are weak against Fighting types. In reality, punching or kicking a black hole is a Bad Idea™: it will not damage the black hole, but will certainly cause you some difficulties. However, Ghost types are unaffected by Fighting-type moves, so our black hole Pokémon doesn’t have to worry about them.
Height: 0’04″/0.1 m
Real astrophysical black holes are probably a bit too big for Pokémon games. The smallest Pokémon are currently the electric bug Joltik and fairy Flabébé, so I’ve made our black hole Pokémon the same size as these. It should comfortably fit inside a Pokéball.
Measuring the size of a black hole is actually rather tricky, since they curve spacetime. When talking about the size of a black hole, we normally think in terms of the Schwarzschild radius. Named after Karl Schwarzschild, who first calculated the spacetime of a black hole (although he didn’t realise that at the time), the Schwarzschild radius correspond to the event horizon (the point of no return) of a non-spinning black hole. It’s rather tricky to measure the distance to the centre of a black hole, so really the Schwarzschild radius gives an idea of the circumference (the distance around the edge) of the event horizon: this is 2π times the Schwarschild radius. We’ll take the height to really mean twice the Schwarzschild radius (which would be the Schwarzschild diameter, if that were actually a thing).
Weight: 7.5 × 1025 lbs/3.4 × 1025 kg
Although we made our black hole pocket-sized, it is monstrously heavy. The mass is for a black hole of the size we picked, and it is about 6 times that of the Earth. That’s still quite small for a black hole (it’s 3.6 million times less massive than the black hole that formed from GW150914’s coalescence). With this mass, our Pokémon would have a significant effect on the tides as it would quickly suck in the Earth’s oceans. Still, Pokémon doesn’t need to be too realistic.
Our black hole Pokémon would be by far the heaviest Pokémon, despite being one of the smallest. The heaviest Pokémon currently is the continent Pokémon Primal Groudon. This is 2,204.4 lbs/999.7 kg, so about 34,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times lighter.
Within the games, having such a large weight would make our black hole Pokémon vulnerable to Grass Knot, a move which trips a Pokémon. The heavier the Pokémon, the more it is hurt by the falling over, so the more damage Grass Knot does. In the case of our Pokémon, when it trips it’s not so much that it hits the ground, but that the Earth hits it, so I think it’s fair that this hurts.
Black holes are beautifully simple, they are described just by their mass, spin and electric charge. There’s no other information you can learn about them, so I don’t think there’s any way to give them a gender. I think this is rather fitting as the sun-like Solrock is also genderless, and it seems right that stars and black holes share this.
Sticky Hold prevents a Pokémon’s item from being taken. (I’d expect wild black hole Pokémon to be sometimes found holding Stardust, from stars they have consumed). Due to their strong gravity, it is difficult to remove an object that is orbiting a black hole—a common misconception is that it is impossible to escape the pull of a black hole, this is only true if you cross the event horizon (if you replaced the Sun with a black hole of the same mass, the Earth would happily continue on its orbit as if nothing had happened).
Soundproof is an ability that protects Pokémon from sound-based moves. I picked it as a reference to sonic (or acoustic) black holes. These are black hole analogues—systems which mimic some of the properties of black holes. A sonic black hole can be made in a fluid which flows faster than its speed of sound. When this happens, sound can no longer escape this rapidly flowing region (it just gets swept away), just like light can’t escape from the event horizon or a regular black hole.
Sonic black holes are fun, because you can make them in the lab. You can them use them to study the properties of black holes—there is much excitement about possibly observing the equivalent of Hawking radiation. Predicted by Stephen Hawking (as you might guess), Hawking radiation is emitted by black holes, and could cause them to evaporate away (if they didn’t absorb more than they emit). Hawking radiation has never been observed from proper black holes, as it is very weak. However, finding the equivalent for sonic black holes might be enough to get Hawking his Nobel Prize…
The starting two moves are straightforward. Gravity is the force which governs black holes; it is gravity which pulls material in and causes the collapse of stars. I think Crunch neatly captures the idea of material being squeezed down by intense gravity.
Vacuum Wave sounds like a good description of a gravitational wave: it is a ripple in spacetime. Black holes (at least when in a binary) are great sources of gravitational waves (as GW150914 and GW151226 have shown), so this seems like a sensible move for our Pokémon to learn—although I may be biased. Why at level 16? Because Einstein first predicted gravitational waves from his theory of general relativity in 1916.
Black holes can have an electric charge, so our Pokémon should learn an Electric-type move. Charged black holes can have some weird properties. We don’t normally worry about charged black holes for two reasons. First, charged black holes are difficult to make: stuff is usually neutral overall, you don’t get a lot of similarly charged material in one place that can collapse down, and even if you did, it would quickly attract the opposite charge to neutralise itself. Second, if you did manage to make a charged black hole, it would quickly lose its charge: the strong electric and magnetic fields about the black hole would lead to the creation of charged particles that would neutralise the black hole. Discharge seems like a good move to describe this process.
Why level 18? The mathematical description of charged black holes was worked out by Hans Reissner and Gunnar Nordström, the second paper was published in 1918.
In general relativity, gravity bends spacetime. It is this warping that causes objects to move along curved paths (like the Earth orbiting the Sun). Light is affected in the same way and gets deflected by gravity, which is called gravitational lensing. This was the first experimental test of general relativity. In 1919, Arthur Eddington led an expedition to measure the deflection of light around the Sun during a solar eclipse.
Black holes, having strong gravity, can strongly lens light. The graphics from the movie Interstellar illustrate this beautifully. Below you can see how the image of the disc orbiting the black hole is distorted. The back of the disc is visible above and below the black hole! If you look closely, you can also see a bright circle inside the disc, close to the black hole’s event horizon. This is known as the light ring. It is where the path of light gets so bent, that it can orbit around and around the black hole many times. This sounds like a Light Screen to me.
Light-bending around the black hole Gargantua in Interstellar. The graphics use proper simulations of black holes, but they did fudge a couple of details to make it look extra pretty. Credit: Warner Bros./Double Negative.
These are three moves which with the most black hole-like names. Dark Void might be “black hole” after a couple of goes through Google Translate. Hyperspace Hole might be a good name for one of the higher dimensional black holes theoreticians like to play around with. (I mean, they like to play with the equations, not actually the black holes, as you’d need more than a pair of safety mittens for that). Shadow Ball captures the idea that a black hole is a three-dimensional volume of space, not just a plug-hole for the Universe. Non-rotating black holes are spherical (rotating ones bulge out at the middle, as I guess many of us do), so “ball” fits well, but they aren’t actually the shadow of anything, so it falls apart there.
I’ve picked the levels to be the masses of the two black holes which inspiralled together to produce GW150914, measured in units of the Sun’s mass, and the mass of the black hole that resulted from their merger. There’s some uncertainty on these measurements, so it would be OK if the moves were learnt a few levels either way.
When gas falls into a black hole, it often spirals around and forms into an accretion disc. You can see an artistic representation of one in the image from Instellar above. The gas swirls around like water going down the drain, making Whirlpool and apt move. As it orbits, the gas closer to the black hole is moving quicker than that further away. Different layers rub against each other, and, just like when you rub your hands together on a cold morning, they heat up. One of the ways we look for black holes is by spotting the X-rays emitted by these hot discs.
As the material spirals into a black hole, it spins it up. If a black hole swallows enough things that were all orbiting the same way, it can end up rotating extremely quickly. Therefore, I thought our black hole Pokémon should learn Rapid Spin as the same time as Whirlpool.
I picked level 63, as the solution for a rotating black hole was worked out by Roy Kerr in 1963. While Schwarzschild found the solution for a non-spinning black hole soon after Einstein worked out the details of general relativity in 1915, and the solution for a charged black hole came just after these, there’s a long gap before Kerr’s breakthrough. It was some quite cunning maths! (The solution for a rotating charged black hole was quickly worked out after this, in 1965).
Another cool thing about discs is that they could power jets. As gas sloshes around towards a black hole, magnetic fields can get tangled up. This leads to some of the material to be blasted outwards along the axis of the field. We’ve some immensely powerful jets of material, like the one below, and it’s difficult to imagine anything other than a black hole that could create such high energies! Important work on this was done by Roger Blandford and Roman Znajek in 1977, which is why I picked the level. Hyper Beam is no exaggeration in describing these jets.
After using Hyper Beam, a Pokémon must recharge for a turn. It’s an exhausting move. A similar thing may happen with black holes. If they accrete a lot of stuff, the radiation produced by the infalling material blasts away other gas and dust, cutting off the black hole’s supply of food. Black holes in the centres of galaxies may go through cycles of feeding, with discs forming, blowing away the surrounding material, and then a new disc forming once everything has settled down. This link between the black hole and its environment may explain why we see a trend between the size of supermassive black holes and the properties of their host galaxies.
To finish off, since black holes are warped spacetime, a space move and a time move. Relativity say that space and time are two aspects of the same thing, so these need to be learnt together.
It’s rather tricky to imagine space and time being linked. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, spacey-wacey stuff gets quickly gets befuddling. If you imagine just two space dimension (forwards/backwards and left/right), then you can see how to change one to the other by just rotating. If you turn to face a different way, you can mix what was left to become forwards, or to become a bit of right and a bit of forwards. Black holes sort of do the same thing with space and time. Normally, we’re used to the fact that we a definitely travelling forwards in time, but if you stray beyond the event horizon of a black hole, you’re definitely travelling towards the centre of the black hole in the same inescapable way. Black holes are the masters when it comes to manipulating space and time.
There we have it, we can now sleep easy knowing what a black hole Pokémon would be like. Well almost, we still need to come up with a name. Something resembling a pun would be traditional. Suggestions are welcome. The next games in the series are Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon. Perhaps with this space theme Nintendo might consider a black hole Pokémon too?
I love collecting things, there’s something extremely satisfying about completing a set. I suspect that this is one of the alluring features of Pokémon—you’ve gotta catch ’em all. The same is true of black hole hunting. Currently, we know of stellar-mass black holes which are a few times the mass of our Sun, up to a few tens of the mass of our Sun (the black holes of GW150914 are the biggest yet to be observed), and we know of supermassive black holes, which are ten thousand to ten billion times the mass our Sun. However, we are missing intermediate-mass black holes which lie in the middle. We have Charmander and Charizard, but where is Charmeleon? The elusive ones are always the most satisfying to capture.
Intermediate-mass black holes have evaded us so far. We’re not even sure that they exist, although that would raise questions about how you end up with the supermassive ones (you can’t just feed the stellar-mass ones lots of rare candy). Astronomers have suggested that you could spot intermediate-mass black holes in globular clusters by the impact of their gravity on the motion of other stars. However, this effect would be small, and near impossible to conclusively spot. Another way (which I’ve discussed before), would to be to look at ultra luminous X-ray sources, which could be from a disc of material spiralling into the black hole. However, it’s difficult to be certain that we understand the source properly and that we’re not misclassifying it. There could be one sure-fire way of identifying intermediate-mass black holes: gravitational waves.
The frequency of gravitational waves depend upon the mass of the binary. More massive systems produce lower frequencies. LIGO is sensitive to the right range of frequencies for stellar-mass black holes. GW150914 chirped up to the pitch of a guitar’s open B string (just below middle C). Supermassive black holes produce gravitational waves at too low frequency for LIGO (a space-based detector would be perfect for these). We might just be able to detect signals from intermediate-mass black holes with LIGO.
In a recent paper, a group of us from Birmingham looked at what we could learn from gravitational waves from the coalescence of an intermediate-mass black hole and a stellar-mass black hole [bonus note]. We considered how well you would be able to measure the masses of the black holes. After all, to confirm that you’ve found an intermediate-mass black hole, you need to be sure of its mass.
The signals are extremely short: we only can detect the last bit of the two black holes merging together and settling down as a final black hole. Therefore, you might think there’s not much information in the signal, and we won’t be able to measure the properties of the source. We found that this isn’t the case!
We considered a set of simulated signals, and analysed these with our parameter-estimation code [bonus note]. Below are a couple of plots showing the accuracy to which we can infer a couple of different mass parameters for binaries of different masses. We show the accuracy of measuring the chirp mass (a much beloved combination of the two component masses which we are usually able to pin down precisely) and the total mass .
Measured chirp mass for systems of different total masses. The shaded regions show the 90% credible interval and the dashed lines show the true values. The mass ratio is the mass of the stellar-mass black hole divided by the mass of the intermediate-mass black hole. Figure 1 of Haster et al. (2016).
Measured total mass for systems of different total masses. The shaded regions show the 90% credible interval and the dashed lines show the true values. Figure 2 of Haster et al. (2016).
For the lower mass systems, we can measure the chirp mass quite well. This is because we get a little information from the part of the gravitational wave from when the two components are inspiralling together. However, we see less and less of this as the mass increases, and we become more and more uncertain of the chirp mass.
The total mass isn’t as accurately measured as the chirp mass at low masses, but we see that the accuracy doesn’t degrade at higher masses. This is because we get some constraints on its value from the post-inspiral part of the waveform.
We found that the transition from having better fractional accuracy on the chirp mass to having better fractional accuracy on the total mass happened when the total mass was around 200–250 solar masses. This was assuming final design sensitivity for Advanced LIGO. We currently don’t have as good sensitivity at low frequencies, so the transition will happen at lower masses: GW150914 is actually in this transition regime (the chirp mass is measured a little better).
Given our uncertainty on the masses, when can we conclude that there is an intermediate-mass black hole? If we classify black holes with masses more than 100 solar masses as intermediate mass, then we’ll be able to say to claim a discovery with 95% probability if the source has a black hole of at least 130 solar masses. The plot below shows our inferred probability of there being an intermediate-mass black hole as we increase the black hole’s mass (there’s little chance of falsely identifying a lower mass black hole).
Probability that the larger black hole is over 100 solar masses (our cut-off mass for intermediate-mass black holes ). Figure 7 of Haster et al. (2016).
Gravitational-wave observations could lead to a concrete detection of intermediate mass black holes if they exist and merge with another black hole. However, LIGO’s low frequency sensitivity is important for detecting these signals. If detector commissioning goes to plan and we are lucky enough to detect such a signal, we’ll finally be able to complete our set of black holes.
The coalescence of an intermediate-mass black hole and a stellar-mass object (black hole or neutron star) has typically been known as an intermediate mass-ratio inspiral (an IMRI). This is similar to the name for the coalescence of a a supermassive black hole and a stellar-mass object: an extreme mass-ratio inspiral (an EMRI). However, my colleague Ilya has pointed out that with LIGO we don’t really see much of the intermediate-mass black hole and the stellar-mass black hole inspiralling together, instead we see the merger and ringdown of the final black hole. Therefore, he prefers the name intermediate mass-ratio coalescence (or IMRAC). It’s a better description of the signal we measure, but the acronym isn’t as good.
The main parameter-estimation analysis for this paper was done by Zhilu, a summer student. This is notable for two reasons. First, it shows that useful research can come out of a summer project. Second, our parameter-estimation code installed and ran so smoothly that even an undergrad with no previous experience could get some useful results. This made us optimistic that everything would work perfectly in the upcoming observing run (O1). Unfortunately, a few improvements were made to the code before then, and we were back to the usual level of fun in time for The Event.
In 2015 I made a resolution to write a blog post for each paper I had published. In 2016 I’ll have to break this because there are too many to keep up with. A suite of papers were prepared to accompany the announcement of the detection of GW150914 [bonus note], and in this post I’ll give an overview of these.
This is the central paper that announces the observation of gravitational waves. There are three discoveries which are describe here: (i) the direct detection of gravitational waves, (ii) the existence of stellar-mass binary black holes, and (iii) that the black holes and gravitational waves are consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. That’s not too shabby in under 11 pages (if you exclude the author list). Coming 100 years after Einstein first published his prediction of gravitational waves and Schwarzschild published his black hole solution, this is the perfect birthday present.
This paper gives a short summary of how the LIGO detectors work and their configuration in O1 (see the Advanced LIGO paper for the full design). Giant lasers and tiny measurements, the experimentalists do some cool things (even if their paper titles are a little cheesy and they seem to be allergic to error bars).
Here we explain how we search for binary black holes and calculate the significance of potential candidates. This is the evidence to back up (i) in the Discovery Paper. We can potentially detect binary black holes in two ways: with searches that use templates, or with searches that look for coherent signals in both detectors without assuming a particular shape. The first type is also used for neutron star–black hole or binary neutron star coalescences, collectively known as compact binary coalescences. This type of search is described here, while the other type is described in the Burst Paper.
This paper describes the compact binary coalescence search pipelines and their results. As well as GW150914 there is also another interesting event, LVT151012. This isn’t significant enough to be claimed as a detection, but it is worth considering in more detail.
If you’re interested in the properties of the binary black hole system, then this is the paper for you! Here we explain how we do parameter estimation and how it is possible to extract masses, spins, location, etc. from the signal. These are the results I’ve been most heavily involved with, so I hope lots of people will find them useful! This is the paper to cite if you’re using our best masses, spins, distance or sky maps. The masses we infer are so large we conclude that the system must contain black holes, which is discovery (ii) reported in the Discovery Paper.
The observation of GW150914 provides a new insight into the behaviour of gravity. We have never before probed such strong gravitational fields or such highly dynamical spacetime. These are the sorts of places you might imagine that we could start to see deviations from the predictions of general relativity. Aside from checking that we understand gravity, we also need to check to see if there is any evidence that our estimated parameters for the system could be off. We find that everything is consistent with general relativity, which is good for Einstein and is also discovery (iii) in the Discovery Paper.
Given that we’ve spotted one binary black hole (plus maybe another with LVT151012), how many more are out there and how many more should we expect to find? We answer this here, although there’s a large uncertainty on the estimates since we don’t know (yet) the distribution of masses for binary black holes.
What can you learn about GW150914 without having to make the assumptions that it corresponds to gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger (as predicted by general relativity)? This paper describes and presents the results of the burst searches. Since the pipeline which first found GW150914 was a burst pipeline, it seems a little unfair that this paper comes after the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper, but I guess the idea is to first present results assuming it is a binary (since these are tightest) and then see how things change if you relax the assumptions. The waveforms reconstructed by the burst models do match the templates for a binary black hole coalescence.
Could GW150914 be caused by something other than a gravitational wave: are there sources of noise that could mimic a signal, or ways that the detector could be disturbed to produce something that would be mistaken for a detection? This paper looks at these problems and details all the ways we monitor the detectors and the external environment. We can find nothing that can explain GW150914 (and LVT151012) other than either a gravitational wave or a really lucky random noise fluctuation. I think this paper is extremely important to our ability to claim a detection and I’m surprised it’s not number 2 in the list of companion papers. If you want to know how thorough the Collaboration is in monitoring the detectors, this is the paper for you.
Completing the triumvirate of instrumental papers with the Detector Paper and the Detector Characterisation Paper, this paper describes how the LIGO detectors are calibrated. There are some cunning control mechanisms involved in operating the interferometers, and we need to understand these to quantify how they effect what we measure. Building a better model for calibration uncertainties is high on the to-do list for improving parameter estimation, so this is an interesting area to watch for me.
Having estimated source parameters and rate of mergers, what can we say about astrophysics? This paper reviews results related to binary black holes to put our findings in context and also makes statements about what we could hope to learn in the future.
For every loud signal we detect, we expect that there will be many more quiet ones. This paper considers how many quiet binary black hole signals could add up to form a stochastic background. We may be able to see this background as the detectors are upgraded, so we should start thinking about what to do to identify it and learn from it.
We are interested so see if there’s any other signal that coincides with a gravitational wave signal. We wouldn’t expect something to accompany a black hole merger, but it’s good to check. This paper describes the search for high-energy neutrinos. We didn’t find anything, but perhaps we will in the future (perhaps for a binary neutron star merger).
As well as looking for coincident neutrinos, we are also interested in electromagnetic observations (gamma-ray, X-ray, optical, infra-red or radio). We had a large group of observers interesting in following up on gravitational wave triggers, and 25 teams have reported observations. This companion describes the procedure for follow-up observations and discusses sky localisation.
This work split into a main article and a supplement which goes into more technical details.
Synopsis:Discovery Paper Read this if: You want an overview of The Event Favourite part: The entire conclusion:
The LIGO detectors have observed gravitational waves from the merger of two stellar-mass black holes. The detected waveform matches the predictions of general relativity for the inspiral and merger of a pair of black holes and the ringdown of the resulting single black hole. These observations demonstrate the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems. This is the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger.
The Discovery Paper gives the key science results and is remarkably well written. It seems a shame to summarise it: you should read it for yourself! (It’s free).
The Detector Paper
Synopsis:Detector Paper Read this if: You want a brief description of the detector configuration for O1 Favourite part: It’s short!
The LIGO detectors contain lots of cool pieces of physics. This paper briefly outlines them all: the mirror suspensions, the vacuum (the LIGO arms are the largest vacuum envelopes in the world and some of the cleanest), the mirror coatings, the laser optics and the control systems. A full description is given in the Advanced LIGO paper, but the specs there are for design sensitivity (it is also heavy reading). The main difference between the current configuration and that for design sensitivity is the laser power. Currently the circulating power in the arms is , the plan is to go up to . This will reduce shot noise, but raises all sorts of control issues, such as how to avoid parametric instabilities.
The noise amplitude spectral density. The curves for the current observations are shown in red (dark for Hanford, light for Livingston). This is around a factor 3 better than in the final run of initial LIGO (green), but still a factor of 3 off design sensitivity (dark blue). The light blue curve shows the impact of potential future upgrades. The improvement at low frequencies is especially useful for high-mass systems like GW150914. Part of Fig. 1 of the Detector Paper.
The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper
Synopsis:Compact Binary Coalescence Paper Read this if: You are interested in detection significance or in LVT151012 Favourite part: We might have found a second binary black hole merger
There are two compact binary coalescence searches that look for binary black holes: PyCBC and GstLAL. Both match templates to the data from the detectors to look for anything binary like, they then calculate the probability that such a match would happen by chance due to a random noise fluctuation (the false alarm probability or p-value [unhappy bonus note]). The false alarm probability isn’t the probability that there is a gravitational wave, but gives a good indication of how surprised we should be to find this signal if there wasn’t one. Here we report the results of both pipelines on the first 38.6 days of data (about 17 days where both detectors were working at the same time).
Both searches use the same set of templates to look for binary black holes [bonus note]. They look for where the same template matches the data from both detectors within a time interval consistent with the travel time between the two. However, the two searches rank candidate events and calculate false alarm probabilities using different methods. Basically, both searches use a detection statistic (the quantity used to rank candidates: higher means less likely to be noise), that is based on the signal-to-noise ratio (how loud the signal is) and a goodness-of-fit statistic. They assess the significance of a particular value of this detection statistic by calculating how frequently this would be obtained if there was just random noise (this is done by comparing data from the two detectors when there is not a coincident trigger in both). Consistency between the two searches gives us greater confidence in the results.
PyCBC’s detection statistic is a reweighted signal-to-noise ratio which takes into account the consistency of the signal in different frequency bands. You can get a large signal-to-noise ratio from a loud glitch, but this doesn’t match the template across a range of frequencies, which is why this test is useful. The consistency is quantified by a reduced chi-squared statistic. This is used, depending on its value, to weight the signal-to-noise ratio. When it is large (indicating inconsistency across frequency bins), the reweighted signal-to-noise ratio becomes smaller.
To calculate the background, PyCBC uses time slides. Data from the two detectors are shifted in time so that any coincidences can’t be due to a real gravitational wave. Seeing how often you get something signal-like then tells you how often you’d expect this to happen due to random noise.
GstLAL calculates the signal-to-noise ratio and a residual after subtracting the template. As a detection statistic, it uses a likelihood ratio : the probability of finding the particular values of the signal-to-noise ratio and residual in both detectors for signals (assuming signal sources are uniformly distributed isotropically in space), divided by the probability of finding them for noise.
The background from GstLAL is worked out by looking at the likelihood ratio fro triggers that only appear in one detector. Since there’s no coincident signal in the other, these triggers can’t correspond to a real gravitational wave. Looking at their distribution tells you how frequently such things happen due to noise, and hence how probable it is for both detectors to see something signal-like at the same time.
The results of the searches are shown in the figure below.
Search results for PyCBC (left) and GstLAL (right). The histograms show the number of candidate events (orange squares) compare to the background. The black line includes GW150914 in the background estimate, the purple removes it (assuming that it is a signal). The further an orange square is above the lines, the more significant it is. Particle physicists like to quote significance in terms of and for some reason we’ve copied them. The second most significant event (around ) is LVT151012. Fig. 7 from the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper.
GW150914 is the most significant event in both searches (it is the most significant PyCBC event even considering just single-detector triggers). They both find GW150914 with the same template values. The significance is literally off the charts. PyCBC can only calculate an upper bound on the false alarm probability of . GstLAL calculates a false alarm probability of , but this is reaching the level that we have to worry about the accuracy of assumptions that go into this (that the distribution of noise triggers in uniform across templates—if this is not the case, the false alarm probability could be about times larger). Therefore, for our overall result, we stick to the upper bound, which is consistent with both searches. The false alarm probability is so tiny, I don’t think anyone doubts this signal is real.
There is a second event that pops up above the background. This is LVT151012. It is found by both searches. Its signal-to-noise ratio is , compared with GW150914’s , so it is quiet. The false alarm probability from PyCBC is , and from GstLAL is , consistent with what we would expect for such a signal. LVT151012 does not reach the standards we would like to claim a detection, but it is still interesting.
Running parameter estimation on LVT151012, as we did for GW150914, gives beautiful results. If it is astrophysical in origin, it is another binary black hole merger. The component masses are lower, and (the asymmetric uncertainties come from imposing ); the chirp mass is . The effective spin, as for GW150914, is close to zero . The luminosity distance is , meaning it is about twice as far away as GW150914’s source. I hope we’ll write more about this event in the future; there are some more details in the Rates Paper.
Is it random noise or is it a gravitational wave? LVT151012 remains a mystery. This candidate event is discussed in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper (where it is found), the Rates Paper (which calculates the probability that it is extraterrestrial in origin), and the Detector Characterisation Paper (where known environmental sources fail to explain it). SPOILERS
The Parameter Estimation Paper
Synopsis:Parameter Estimation Paper Read this if: You want to know the properties of GW150914’s source Favourite part: We inferred the properties of black holes using measurements of spacetime itself!
The gravitational wave signal encodes all sorts of information about its source. Here, we explain how we extract this information to produce probability distributions for the source parameters. I wrote about the properties of GW150914 in my previous post, so here I’ll go into a few more technical details.
To measure parameters we match a template waveform to the data from the two instruments. The better the fit, the more likely it is that the source had the particular parameters which were used to generate that particular template. Changing different parameters has different effects on the waveform (for example, changing the distance changes the amplitude, while changing the relative arrival times changes the sky position), so we often talk about different pieces of the waveform containing different pieces of information, even though we fit the whole lot at once.
The shape of the gravitational wave encodes the properties of the source. This information is what lets us infer parameters. The example signal is GW150914. I made this explainer with Ban Farr and Nutsinee Kijbunchoo for the LIGO Magazine.
The waveform for a binary black hole merger has three fuzzily defined parts: the inspiral (where the two black holes orbit each other), the merger (where the black holes plunge together and form a single black hole) and ringdown (where the final black hole relaxes to its final state). Having waveforms which include all of these stages is a fairly recent development, and we’re still working on efficient ways of including all the effects of the spin of the initial black holes.
We currently have two favourite binary black hole waveforms for parameter estimation:
The first we refer to as EOBNR, short for its proper name of SEOBNRv2_ROM_DoubleSpin. This is constructed by using some cunning analytic techniques to calculate the dynamics (known as effective-one-body or EOB) and tuning the results to match numerical relativity (NR) simulations. This waveform only includes the effects of spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum of the binary, so it doesn’t allow us to measure the effects of precession (wobbling around caused by the spins).
The second we refer to as IMRPhenom, short for IMRPhenomPv2. This is constructed by fitting to the frequency dependence of EOB and NR waveforms. The dominant effects of precession of included by twisting up the waveform.
We’re currently working on results using a waveform that includes the full effects of spin, but that is extremely slow (it’s about half done now), so those results won’t be out for a while.
The results from the two waveforms agree really well, even though they’ve been created by different teams using different pieces of physics. This was a huge relief when I was first making a comparison of results! (We had been worried about systematic errors from waveform modelling). The consistency of results is partly because our models have improved and partly because the properties of the source are such that the remaining differences aren’t important. We’re quite confident that we’ve most of the parameters are reliably measured!
The component masses are the most important factor for controlling the evolution of the waveform, but we don’t measure the two masses independently. The evolution of the inspiral is dominated by a combination called the chirp mass, and the merger and ringdown are dominated by the total mass. For lighter mass systems, where we gets lots of inspiral, we measure the chirp mass really well, and for high mass systems, where the merger and ringdown are the loudest parts, we measure the total mass. GW150914 is somewhere in the middle. The probability distribution for the masses are shown below: we can compensate for one of the component masses being smaller if we make the other larger, as this keeps chirp mass and total mass about the same.
Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary. Results are shown for the EOBNR waveform and the IMRPhenom: both agree well. The Overall results come from averaging the two. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The sharp diagonal line cut-off in the two-dimensional plot is a consequence of requiring . Fig. 1 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.
To work out these masses, we need to take into account the expansion of the Universe. As the Universe expands, it stretches the wavelength of the gravitational waves. The same happens to light: visible light becomes redder, so the phenomenon is known as redshifting (even for gravitational waves). If you don’t take this into account, the masses you measure are too large. To work out how much redshift there is you need to know the distance to the source. The probability distribution for the distance is shown below, we plot the distance together with the inclination, since both of these affect the amplitude of the waves (the source is quietest when we look at it edge-on from the side, and loudest when seen face-on/off from above/below).
Estimated luminosity distance and binary inclination angle. An inclination of means we are looking at the binary (approximately) edge-on. Results are shown for the EOBNR waveform and the IMRPhenom: both agree well. The Overall results come from averaging the two. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. Fig. 2 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.
After the masses, the most important properties for the evolution of the binary are the spins. We don’t measure these too well, but the probability distribution for their magnitudes and orientations from the precessing IMRPhenom model are shown below. Both waveform models agree that the effective spin , which is a combination of both spins in the direction of the orbital angular momentum) is small. Therefore, either the spins are small or are larger but not aligned (or antialigned) with the orbital angular momentum. The spin of the more massive black hole is the better measured of the two.
Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins from the precessing IMRPhenom model. The magnitude is between 0 and 1 and is perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum if the angle is 0. The distribution for the more massive black hole is on the left, and for the smaller black hole on the right. Part of Fig. 5 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.
The Testing General Relativity Paper
Synopsis:Testing General Relativity Paper Read this if: You want to know more about the nature of gravity. Favourite part: Einstein was right! (Or more correctly, we can’t prove he was wrong… yet)
The Testing General Relativity Paper is one of my favourites as it packs a lot of science in. Our first direct detection of gravitational waves and of the merger of two black holes provides a new laboratory to test gravity, and this paper runs through the results of the first few experiments.
Before we start making any claims about general relativity being wrong, we first have to check if there’s any weird noise present. You don’t want to have to rewrite the textbooks just because of an instrumental artifact. After taking out a good guess for the waveform (as predicted by general relativity), we find that the residuals do match what we expect for instrumental noise, so we’re good to continue.
The final part of the signal, where the black hole settles down to its final state (the ringdown), is the place to look to check that the object is a black hole and not some other type of mysterious dark and dense object. It is tricky to measure this part of the signal, but we don’t see anything odd. We can’t yet confirm that the object has all the properties you’d want to pin down that it is exactly a black hole as predicted by general relativity; we’re going to have to wait for a louder signal for this. This test is especially poignant, as Steven Detweiler, who pioneered a lot of the work calculating the ringdown of black holes, died a week before the announcement.
We can allow terms in our waveform (here based on the IMRPhenom model) to vary and see which values best fit the signal. If there is evidence for differences compared with the predictions from general relativity, we would have evidence for needing an alternative. Results for this analysis are shown below for a set of different waveform parameters : the parameters determine the inspiral, the parameters determine the merger–ringdown and the parameters cover the intermediate regime. If the deviation is zero, the value coincides with the value from general relativity. The plot shows what would happen if you allow all the variable to vary at once (the multiple results) and if you tried just that parameter on its own (the single results).
Probability distributions for waveform parameters. The single analysis only varies one parameter, the multiple analysis varies all of them, and the J0737-3039 result is the existing bound from the double pulsar. A deviation of zero is consistent with general relativity. Fig. 7 from the Testing General Relativity Paper.
Overall the results look good. Some of the single results are centred away from zero, but we think that this is just a random fluctuate caused by noise (we’ve seen similar behaviour in tests, so don’t panic yet). It’s not surprising the , and all show this behaviour, as they are sensitive to similar noise features. These measurements are much tighter than from any test we’ve done before, except for the measurement of which is better measured from the double pulsar (since we have lots and lots of orbits of that measured).
The final test is to look for additional polarizations of gravitational waves. These are predicted in several alternative theories of gravity. Unfortunately, because we only have two detectors which are pretty much aligned we can’t say much, at least without knowing for certain the location of the source. Extra detectors will be useful here!
In conclusion, we have found no evidence to suggest we need to throw away general relativity, but future events will help us to perform new and stronger tests.
The Rates Paper
Synopsis:Rates Paper Read this if: You want to know how often binary black holes merge (and how many we’ll detect) Favourite part: There’s a good chance we’ll have ten detections by the end of our second observing run (O2)
Before September 14, we had never seen a binary stellar-mass black hole system. We were therefore rather uncertain about how many we would see. We had predictions based on simulations of the evolution of stars and their dynamical interactions. These said we shouldn’t be too surprised if we saw something in O1, but that we shouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see anything for many years either. We weren’t really expecting to see a black hole system so soon (the smart money was on a binary neutron star). However, we did find a binary black hole, and this happened right at the start of our observations! What do we now believe about the rate of mergers?
To work out the rate, you first need to count the number of events you have detected and then work out how sensitive you are to the population of signals (how many could you see out of the total).
Counting detections sounds simple: we have GW150914 without a doubt. However, what about all the quieter signals? If you have 100 events each with a 1% probability of being real, then even though you can’t say with certainty that anyone is an actual signal, you would expect one to be so. We want to work out how many events are real and how many are due to noise. Handily, trying to tell apart different populations of things when you’re not certain about individual members is a common problem is astrophysics (where it’s often difficult to go and check what something actually is), so there exists a probabilistic framework for doing this.
Using the expected number of real and noise events for a given detection statistic (as described in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper), we count the number of detections and as a bonus, get a probability that each event is of astrophysical origin. There are two events with more than a 50% chance of being real: GW150914, where the probability is close to 100%, and LVT151012, where to probability is 84% based on GstLAL and 91% based on PyCBC.
By injecting lots of fake signals into some data and running our detection pipelines, we can work out how sensitive they are (in effect, how far away can they find particular types of sources). For a given number of detections, the more sensitive we are, the lower the actual rate of mergers should be (for lower sensitivity we would miss more, while there’s no hiding for higher sensitivity).
There is one final difficulty in working out the total number of binary black hole mergers: we need to know the distribution of masses, because our sensitivity depends on this. However, we don’t yet know this as we’ve only seen GW150914 and (maybe) LVT151012. Therefore, we try three possibilities to get an idea of what the merger rate could be.
We assume that binary black holes are either like GW150914 or like LVT151012. Given that these are our only possible detections at the moment, this should give a reasonable estimate. A similar approach has been used for estimating the population of binary neutron stars from pulsar observations [bonus note].
We assume that the distribution of masses is flat in the logarithm of the masses. This probably gives more heavy black holes than in reality (and so a lower merger rate)
We assume that black holes follow a power law like the initial masses of stars. This probably gives too many low mass black holes (and so a higher merger rate)
The estimated merger rates (number of binary black hole mergers per volume per time) are then: 1. ; 2. , and 3. . There is a huge scatter, but the flat and power-law rates hopefully bound the true value.
We’ll pin down the rate better after a few more detections. How many more should we expect to see? Using the projected sensitivity of the detectors over our coming observing runs, we can work out the probability of making more detections. This is shown in the plot below. It looks like there’s about about a 10% chance of not seeing anything else in O1, but we’re confident that we’ll have 10 more by the end of O2, and 35 more by the end of O3! I may need to lie down…
The percentage chance of making 0, 10, 35 and 70 more detections of binary black holes as time goes on and detector sensitivity improves (based upon our data so far). This is a simplified version of part of Fig. 3 of the Rates Paper taken from the science summary.
The Burst Paper
Synopsis:Burst Paper Read this if: You want to check what we can do without a waveform template Favourite part: You don’t need a template to make a detection
When discussing what we can learn from gravitational wave astronomy, you can almost guarantee that someone will say something about discovering the unexpected. Whenever we’ve looked at the sky in a new band of the electromagnetic spectrum, we found something we weren’t looking for: pulsars for radio, gamma-ray burst for gamma-rays, etc. Can we do the same in gravitational wave astronomy? There may well be signals we weren’t anticipating out there, but will we be able to detect them? The burst pipelines have our back here, at least for short signals.
The burst search pipelines, like their compact binary coalescence partners, assign candidate events a detection statistic and then work out a probability associated with being a false alarm caused by noise. The difference is that the burst pipelines try to find a wider range of signals.
As you might guess from the name, cWB looks for a coherent signal in both detectors. It looks for excess power (indicating a signal) in a time–frequency plot, and then classifies candidates based upon their structure. There’s one class for blip glitches and resonance lines (see the Detector Characterisation Paper), these are all thrown away as noise; one class for chirp-like signals that increase in frequency with time, this is where GW150914 was found, and one class for everything else. cWB’s detection statistic is something like a signal-to-noise ratio constructed based upon the correlated power in the detectors. The value for GW150914 was , which is higher than for any other candidate. The false alarm probability (or p-value), folding in all three search classes, is , which is pretty tiny, even if not as significant as for the tailored compact binary searches.
The oLIB search has two stages. First it makes a time–frequency plot and looks for power coincident between the two detectors. Likely candidates are then followed up by matching a sine–Gaussian wavelet to the data, using a similar algorithm to the one used for parameter estimation. It’s detection statistic is something like a likelihood ratio for the signal verses noise. It calculates a false alarm probability of about too.
BayesWave fits a variable number of sine–Gaussian wavelets to the data. This can model both a signal (when the wavelets are the same for both detectors) and glitches (when the wavelets are independent). This is really clever, but is too computationally expensive to be left running on all the data. Therefore, it follows up on things highlighted by cWB, potentially increasing their significance. It’s detection statistic is the Bayes factor comparing the signal and glitch models. It estimates the false alarm probability to be about (which agrees with the cWB estimate if you only consider chirp-like triggers).
None of the searches find LVT151012. However, as this is a quiet, lower mass binary black hole, I think that this is not necessarily surprising.
cWB and BayesWave also output a reconstruction of the waveform. Reassuringly, this does look like binary black hole coalescence!
Gravitational waveforms from our analyses of GW150914. The wiggly grey line are the data from Hanford (top) and Livinston (bottom); these are analysed coherently. The plots show waveforms whitened by the noise power spectral density. The dark band shows the waveform reconstructed by BayesWave without assuming that the signal is from a binary black hole (BBH). The light bands show the distribution of BBH template waveforms that were found to be most probable from our parameter-estimation analysis. The two techniques give consistent results: the match between the two models is . Fig. 6 of the Parameter Estimation Paper.
The paper concludes by performing some simple fits to the reconstructed waveforms. For this, you do have to assume that the signal cane from a binary black hole. They find parameters roughly consistent with those from the full parameter-estimation analysis, which is a nice sanity check of our results.
The Detector Characterisation Paper
Synopsis:Detector Characteristation Paper Read this if: You’re curious if something other than a gravitational wave could be responsible for GW150914 or LVT151012 Favourite part: Mega lightning bolts can cause correlated noise
The output from the detectors that we analyses for signals is simple. It is a single channel that records the strain. To monitor instrumental behaviour and environmental conditions the detector characterisation team record over 200,000 other channels. These measure everything from the alignment of the optics through ground motion to incidence of cosmic rays. Most of the data taken by LIGO is to monitor things which are not gravitational waves.
This paper examines all the potential sources of noise in the LIGO detectors, how we monitor them to ensure they are not confused for a signal, and the impact they could have on estimating the significance of events in our searches. It is amazingly thorough work.
There are lots of potential noise sources for LIGO. Uncorrelated noise sources happen independently at both sites, therefore they can only be mistaken for a gravitational wave if by chance two occur at the right time. Correlated noise sources effect both detectors, and so could be more confusing for our searches, although there’s no guarantee that they would cause a disturbance that looks anything like a binary black hole merger.
Sources of uncorrelated noise include:
Groundmotion caused by earthquakes or ocean waves. These create wibbling which can affect the instruments, even though they are well isolated. This is usually at low frequencies (below for earthquakes, although it can be higher if the epicentre is near), unless there is motion in the optics around (which can couple to cause higher frequency noise). There is a network of seismometers to measure earthquakes at both sites. There where two magnitude 2.1 earthquakes within 20 minutes of GW150914 (one off the coast of Alaska, the other south-west of Seattle), but both produced ground motion that is ten times too small to impact the detectors. There was some low frequency noise in Livingston at the time of LVT151012 which is associated with a period of bad ocean waves. however, there is no evidence that these could be converted to the frequency range associated with the signal.
People moving around near the detectors can also cause vibrational or acoustic disturbances. People are kept away from the detectors while they are running and accelerometers, microphones and seismometers monitor the environment.
Modulation of the lasers at and is done to monitor and control several parts of the optics. There is a fault somewhere in the system which means that there is a coupling to the output channel and we get noise across to , which is where we look for compact binary coalescences. Rai Weiss suggested shutting down the instruments to fix the source of this and delaying the start of observations—it’s a good job we didn’t. Periods of data where this fault occurs are flagged and not included in the analysis.
Blip transients are a short glitch that occurs for unknown reasons. They’re quite mysterious. They are at the right frequency range ( to ) to be confused with binary black holes, but don’t have the right frequency evolution. They contribute to the background of noise triggers in the compact binary coalescence searches, but are unlikely to be the cause of GW150914 or LVT151012 since they don’t have the characteristic chirp shape.
A time–frequency plot of a blip glitch in LIGO-Livingston. Blip glitches are the right frequency range to be confused with binary coalescences, but don’t have the chirp-like structure. Blips are symmetric in time, whereas binary coalescences sweep up in frequency. Fig. 3 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.
Correlated noise can be caused by:
Electromagnetic signals which can come from lightning, solar weather or radio communications. This is measured by radio receivers and magnetometers, and its extremely difficult to produce a signal that is strong enough to have any impact of the detectors’ output. There was one strong (peak current of about ) lightning strike in the same second as GW150914 over Burkino Faso. However, the magnetic disturbances were at least a thousand times too small to explain the amplitude of GW150914.
Cosmic ray showers can cause electromagnetic radiation and particle showers. The particle flux become negligible after a few kilometres, so it’s unlikely that both Livingston and Hanford would be affected, but just in case there is a cosmic ray detector at Hanford. It has seen nothing suspicious.
All the monitoring channels give us a lot of insight into the behaviour of the instruments. Times which can be identified as having especially bad noise properties (where the noise could influence the measured output), or where the detectors are not working properly, are flagged and not included in the search analyses. Applying these vetoes mean that we can’t claim a detection when we know something else could mimic a gravitational wave signal, but it also helps us clean up our background of noise triggers. This has the impact of increasing the significance of the triggers which remain (since there are fewer false alarms they could be confused with). For example, if we leave the bad period in, the PyCBC false alarm probability for LVT151012 goes up from to . The significance of GW150914 is so great that we don’t really need to worry about the effects of vetoes.
At the time of GW150914 the detectors were running well, the data around the event are clean, and there is nothing in any of the auxiliary channels that record anything which could have caused the event. The only source of a correlated signal which has not been rules out is a gravitational wave from a binary black hole merger. The time–frequency plots of the measured strains are shown below, and its easy to pick out the chirps.
Time–frequency plots for GW150914 as measured by Hanford (left) and Livingston (right). These show the characteristic increase in frequency with time of the chirp of a binary merger. The signal is clearly visible above the noise. Fig. 10 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.
The data around LVT151012 are significantly less stationary than around GW150914. There was an elevated noise transient rate around this time. This is probably due to extra ground motion caused by ocean waves. This low frequency noise is clearly visible in the Livingston time–frequency plot below. There is no evidence that this gets converted to higher frequencies though. None of the detector characterisation results suggest that LVT151012 has was caused by a noise artifact.
Time–frequency plots for LVT151012 as measured by Hanford (left) and Livingston (right). You can see the characteristic increase in frequency with time of the chirp of a binary merger, but this is mixed in with noise. The scale is reduced compared with for GW150914, which is why noise features appear more prominent. The band at low frequency in Livingston is due to ground motion; this is not present in Hanford. Fig. 13 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.
If you’re curious about the state of the LIGO sites and their array of sensors, you can see more about the physical environment monitors at pem.ligo.org.
The Calibration Paper
Synopsis:Calibration Paper Read this if: You like control engineering or precision measurement Favourite part: Not only are the LIGO detectors sensitive enough to feel the push from a beam of light, they are so sensitive that you have to worry about where on the mirrors you push
We want to measure the gravitational wave strain—the change in length across our detectors caused by a passing gravitational wave. What we actually record is the intensity of laser light out the output of our interferometer. (The output should be dark when the strain is zero, and the intensity increases when the interferometer is stretched or squashed). We need a way to convert intensity to strain, and this requires careful calibration of the instruments.
The calibration is complicated by the control systems. The LIGO instruments are incredibly sensitive, and maintaining them in a stable condition requires lots of feedback systems. These can impact how the strain is transduced into the signal readout by the interferometer. A schematic of how what would be the change in the length of the arms without control systems is changed into the measured strain is shown below. The calibration pipeline build models to correct for the effects of the control system to provide an accurate model of the true gravitational wave strain.
Model for how a differential arm length caused by a gravitational wave or a photon calibration signal is converted into the measured signal . Fig. 2 from the Calibration Paper.
To measure the different responses of the system, the calibration team make several careful measurements. The primary means is using photon calibration: an auxiliary laser is used to push the mirrors and the response is measured. The spots where the lasers are pointed are carefully chosen to minimise distortion to the mirrors caused by pushing on them. A secondary means is to use actuators which are parts of the suspension system to excite the system.
As a cross-check, we can also use two auxiliary green lasers to measure changes in length using either a frequency modulation or their wavelength. These are similar approaches to those used in initial LIGO. These go give consistent results with the other methods, but they are not as accurate.
Overall, the uncertainty in the calibration of the amplitude of the strain is less than between and , and the uncertainty in phase calibration is less than . These are the values that we use in our parameter-estimation runs. However, the calibration uncertainty actually varies as a function of frequency, with some ranges having much less uncertainty. We’re currently working on implementing a better model for the uncertainty, which may improve our measurements. Fortunately the masses, aren’t too affected by the calibration uncertainty, but sky localization is, so we might get some gain here. We’ll hopefully produce results with updated calibration in the near future.
The Astrophysics Paper
Synopsis:Astrophysics Paper Read this if: You are interested in how binary black holes form Favourite part: We might be able to see similar mass binary black holes with eLISA before they merge in the LIGO band [bonus note]
This paper puts our observations of GW150914 in context with regards to existing observations of stellar-mass black holes and theoretical models for binary black hole mergers. Although it doesn’t explicitly mention LVT151012, most of the conclusions would be just as applicable to it’s source, if it is real. I expect there will be rapid development of the field now, but if you want to catch up on some background reading, this paper is the place to start.
The paper contains lots of references to good papers to delve into. It also highlights the main conclusion we can draw in italics, so its easy to skim through if you want a summary. I discussed the main astrophysical conclusions in my previous post. We will know more about binary black holes and their formation when we get more observations, so I think it is a good time to get interested in this area.
The Stochastic Paper
Synopsis:Stochastic Paper Read this if: You like stochastic backgrounds Favourite part: We might detect a background in the next decade
A stochastic gravitational wave background could be created by an incoherent superposition of many signals. In pulsar timing, they are looking for a background from many merging supermassive black holes. Could we have a similar thing from stellar-mass black holes? The loudest signals, like GW150914, are resolvable, they stand out from the background. However, for every loud signal, there will be many quiet signals, and the ones below our detection threshold could form a background. Since we’ve found that binary black hole mergers are probably plentiful, the background may be at the high end of previous predictions.
The background from stellar-mass black holes is different than the one from supermassive black holes because the signals are short. While the supermassive black holes produce an almost constant hum throughout your observations, stellar-mass black hole mergers produce short chirps. Instead of having lots of signals that overlap in time, we have a popcorn background, with one arriving on average every 15 minutes. This might allow us to do some different things when it comes to detection, but for now, we just use the standard approach.
This paper calculates the energy density of gravitational waves from binary black holes, excluding the contribution from signals loud enough to be detected. This is done for several different models. The standard (fiducial) model assumes parameters broadly consistent with those of GW150914’s source, plus a particular model for the formation of merging binaries. There are then variations on the the model for formation, considering different time delays between formation and merger, and adding in lower mass systems consistent with LVT151012. All these models are rather crude, but give an idea of potential variations in the background. Hopefully more realistic distributions will be considered in the future. There is some change between models, but this is within the (considerable) statistical uncertainty, so predictions seems robust.
Different models for the stochastic background of binary black holes. This is plotted in terms of energy density. The red band indicates the uncertainty on the fiducial model. The dashed line indicates the sensitivity of the LIGO and Virgo detectors after several years at design sensitivity. Fig. 2 of the Stochastic Paper.
After a couple of years at design sensitivity we may be able to make a confident detection of the stochastic background. The background from binary black holes is more significant than we expected.
If you’re wondering about if we could see other types of backgrounds, such as one of cosmological origin, then the background due to binary black holes could make detection more difficult. In effect, it acts as another source of noise, masking the other background. However, we may be able to distinguish the different backgrounds by measuring their frequency dependencies (we expect them to have different slopes), if they are loud enough.
The Neutrino Paper
Synopsis:Neutrino Paper Read this if: You really like high energy neutrinos Favourite part: We’re doing astronomy with neutrinos and gravitational waves—this is multimessenger astronomy without any form of electromagnetic radiation
There are multiple detectors that can look for high energy neutrinos. Currently, LIGO–Virgo Observations are being followed up by searches from ANTARES and IceCube. Both of these are Cherenkov detectors: they look for flashes of light created by fast moving particles, not the neutrinos themselves, but things they’ve interacted with. ANTARES searches the waters of the Mediterranean while IceCube uses the ice of Antarctica.
Within 500 seconds either side of the time of GW150914, ANTARES found no neutrinos and IceCube found three. These results are consistent with background levels (you would expect on average less than one and 4.4 neutrinos over that time from the two respectively). Additionally, none of the IceCube neutrinos are consistent with the sky localization of GW150914 (even though the sky area is pretty big). There is no sign of a neutrino counterpart, which is what we were expecting.
Synopsis:Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper Read this if: You are interested in the search for electromagnetic counterparts Favourite part: So many people were involved in this work that not only do we have to abbreviate the list of authors (Abbott, B.P. et al.), but we should probably abbreviate the list of collaborations too (LIGO Scientific & Virgo Collaboration et al.)
This is the last of the set of companion papers to be released—it took a huge amount of coordinating because of all the teams involved. The paper describes how we released information about GW150914. This should not be typical of how we will do things going forward (i) because we didn’t have all the infrastructure in place on September 14 and (ii) because it was the first time we had something we thought was real.
The first announcement was sent out on September 16, and this contained sky maps from the Burst codes cWB and LIB. In the future, we should be able to send out automated alerts with a few minutes latency.
For the first alert, we didn’t have any results which assumed the the source was a binary, as the searches which issue triggers at low latency were only looking for lower mass systems which would contain a neutron star. I suspect we’ll be reprioritising things going forward. The first information we shared about the potential masses for the source was shared on October 3. Since this was the first detection, everyone was cautious about triple-checking results, which caused the delay. Revised false alarm rates including results from GstLAL and PyCBC were sent out October 20.
The final sky maps were shared January 13. This is when we’d about finished our own reviews and knew that we would be submitting the papers soon [bonus note]. Our best sky map is the one from the Parameter Estimation Paper. You might it expect to be more con straining than the results from the burst pipelines since it uses a proper model for the gravitational waves from a binary black hole. This is the case if we ignore calibration uncertainty (which is not yet included in the burst codes), then the 50% area is and the 90% area is . However, including calibration uncertainty, the sky areas are and at 50% and 90% probability respectively. Calibration uncertainty has the largest effect on sky area. All the sky maps agree that the source is in in some region of the annulus set by the time delay between the two detectors.
The different sky maps for GW150914 in an orthographic projection. The contours show the 90% region for each algorithm. The faint circles show lines of constant time delay between the two detectors. BAYESTAR rapidly computes sky maps for binary coalescences, but it needs the output of one of the detection pipelines to run, and so was not available at low latency. The LALInference map is our best result. All the sky maps are available as part of the data release. Fig. 2 of the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.
A timeline of events is shown below. There were follow-up observations across the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma-rays and X-rays through the optical and near infra-red to radio.
Timeline for observations of GW15014. The top (grey) band shows information about gravitational waves. The second (blue) band shows high-energy (gamma- and X-ray) observations. The third and fourth (green) bands show optical and near infra-red observations respectively. The bottom (red) band shows radio observations. Fig. 1 from the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.
Together they cover an impressive amount of the sky as shown below. Many targeted the Large Magellanic Cloud before the knew the source was a binary black hole.
Footprints of observations compared with the 50% and 90% areas of the initially distributed (cWB: thick lines; LIB: thin lines) sky maps, also in orthographic projection. The all-sky observations are not shown. The grey background is the Galactic plane. Fig. 3 of the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.
Additional observations have been done using archival data by XMM-Newton and AGILE.
We don’t expect any electromagnetic counterpart to a binary black hole. No-one found anything with the exception of Fermi GBM. This has found a weak signal which may be coincident. More work is required to figure out if this is genuine (the statistical analysis looks OK, but some times you do have a false alarm). It would be a surprise if it is, so most people are sceptical. However, I think this will make people more interested in following up on our next binary black hole signal!
Naming The Event
GW150914 is the name we have given to the signal detected by the two LIGO instruments. The “GW” is short for gravitational wave (not galactic worm), and the numbers give the date the wave reached the detectors (2015 September 14). It was originally known as G184098, its ID in our database of candidate events (most circulars sent to and from our observer partners use this ID). That was universally agreed to be terrible to remember. We tried to think of a good nickname for the event, but failed to, so rather by default, it has informally become known as The Event within the Collaboration. I think this is fitting given its significance.
LVT151012 is the name of the most significant candidate after GW150914, it doesn’t reach our criteria to claim detection (a false alarm rate of less than once per century), which is why it’s not GW151012. The “LVT” is short for LIGO–Virgo trigger. It took a long time to settle on this and up until the final week before the announcement it was still going by G197392. Informally, it was known as The Second Monday Event, as it too was found on a Monday. You’ll have to wait for us to finish looking at the rest of the O1 data to see if the Monday trend continues. If it does, it could have serious repercussions for our understanding of Garfield.
Following the publication of the O2 Catalogue Paper, LVT151012 was upgraded to GW151012, AND we decided to get rid of the LVT class as it was rather confusing.
Publishing in Physical Review Letters
Several people have asked me if the Discovery Paper was submitted to Science or Nature. It was not. The decision that any detection would be submitted to Physical Review was made ahead of the run. As far as I am aware, there was never much debate about this. Physical Review had been good about publishing all our non-detections and upper limits, so it only seemed fair that they got the discovery too. You don’t abandon your friends when you strike it rich. I am glad that we submitted to them.
Gaby González, the LIGO Spokesperson, contacted the editors of Physical Review Letters ahead of submission to let them know of the anticipated results. They then started to line up some referees to give confidential and prompt reviews.
The initial plan was to submit on January 19, and we held a Collaboration-wide tele-conference to discuss the science. There were a few more things still to do, so the paper was submitted on January 21, following another presentation (and a long discussion of whether a number should be a six or a two) and a vote. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of submission.
We got the referee reports back on January 27, although they were circulated to the Collaboration the following day. This was a rapid turnaround! From their comments, I suspect that Referee A may be a particle physicist who has dealt with similar claims of first detection—they were most concerned about statistical significance; Referee B seemed like a relativist—they made comments about the effect of spin on measurements, knew about waveforms and even historical papers on gravitational waves, and I would guess that Referee C was an astronomer involved with pulsars—they mentioned observations of binary pulsars potentially claiming the title of first detection and were also curious about sky localization. While I can’t be certain who the referees were, I am certain that I have never had such positive reviews before! Referee A wrote
The paper is extremely well written and clear. These results are obviously going to make history.
Referee B wrote
This paper is a major breakthrough and a milestone in gravitational science. The results are overall very well presented and its suitability for publication in Physical Review Letters is beyond question.
and Referee C wrote
It is an honor to have the opportunity to review this paper. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the most enjoyable paper I’ve ever read. […] I unreservedly recommend the paper for publication in Physical Review Letters. I expect that it will be among the most cited PRL papers ever.
Publishing in Physical Review Letters seems to have been a huge success. So much so that their servers collapsed under the demand, despite them adding two more in anticipation. In the end they had to quintuple their number of servers to keep up with demand. There were 229,000 downloads from their website in the first 24 hours. Many people remarked that it was good that the paper was freely available. However, we always make our papers public on the arXiv or via LIGO’s Document Control Center [bonus bonus note], so there should never be a case where you miss out on reading a LIGO paper!
Publishing the Parameter Estimation Paper
The reviews for the Parameter Estimation Paper were also extremely positive. Referee A, who had some careful comments on clarifying notation, wrote
This is a beautiful paper on a spectacular result.
Referee B, who commendably did some back-of-the-envelope checks, wrote
The paper is also very well written, and includes enough background that I think a decent fraction of it will be accessible to non-experts. This, together with the profound nature of the results (first direct detection of gravitational waves, first direct evidence that Kerr black holes exist, first direct evidence that binary black holes can form and merge in a Hubble time, first data on the dynamical strong-field regime of general relativity, observation of stellar mass black holes more massive than any observed to date in our galaxy), makes me recommend this paper for publication in PRL without hesitation.
Referee C, who made some suggestions to help a non-specialist reader, wrote
This is a generally excellent paper describing the properties of LIGO’s first detection.
Physical Review Letters were also kind enough to publish this paper open access without charge!
Publishing the Rates Paper
It wasn’t all clear sailing getting the companion papers published. Referees did give papers the thorough checking that they deserved. The most difficult review was of the Rates Paper. There were two referees, one astrophysics, one statistics. The astrophysics referee was happy with the results and made a few suggestions to clarify or further justify the text. The statistics referee has more serious complaints…
There are five main things which I think made the statistics referee angry. First, the referee objected to our terminology
While overall I’ve been impressed with the statistics in LIGO papers, in one respect there is truly egregious malpractice, but fortunately easy to remedy. It concerns incorrectly using the term “false alarm probability” (FAP) to refer to what statisticians call a p-value, a deliberately vague term (“false alarm rate” is similarly misused). […] There is nothing subtle or controversial about the LIGO usage being erroneous, and the practice has to stop, not just within this paper, but throughout the LIGO collaboration (and as a matter of ApJ policy).
I agree with this. What we call the false alarm probability is not the probability that the detection is a false alarm. It is not the probability that the given signal is noise rather that astrophysical, but instead it is the probability that if we only had noise that we would get a detection statistic as significant or more so. It might take a minute to realise why those are different. The former (the one we should call p-value) is what the search pipelines give us, but is less useful than the latter for actually working out if the signal is real. The probabilities calculated in the Rates Paper that the signal is astrophysical are really what you want.
p-values are often misinterpreted, but most scientists are aware of this, and so are cautious when they come across them
As a consequence of this complaint, the Collaboration is purging “false alarm probability” from our papers. It is used in most of the companion papers, as they were published before we got this report (and managed to convince everyone that it is important).
Second, we were lacking in references to existing literature
Regarding scholarship, the paper is quite poor. I take it the authors have written this paper with the expectation, or at least the hope, that it would be read […] If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am.
This is fair enough. The referee made some good suggestions to work done on inferring the rate of gamma-ray bursts by Loredo & Wasserman (Part I, Part II, Part III), as well as by Petit, Kavelaars, Gladman & Loredo on trans-Neptunian objects, and we made sure to add as much work as possible in revisions. There’s no excuse for not properly citing useful work!
Third, the referee didn’t understand how we could be certain of the distribution of signal-to-noise ratio without also worrying about the distribution of parameters like the black hole masses. The signal-to-noise ratio is inversely proportional to distance, and we expect sources to be uniformly distributed in volume. Putting these together (and ignoring corrections from cosmology) gives a distribution for signal-to-noise ratio of (Schulz 2011). This is sufficiently well known within the gravitational-wave community that we forgot that those outside wouldn’t appreciate it without some discussion. Therefore, it was useful that the referee did point this out.
Fourth, the referee thought we had made an error in our approach. They provided an alternative derivation which
if useful, should not be used directly without some kind of attribution
Unfortunately, they were missing some terms in their expressions. When these were added in, their approach reproduced our own (I had a go at checking this myself). Given that we had annoyed the referee on so many other points, it was tricky trying to convince them of this. Most of the time spent responding to the referees was actually working on the referee response and not on the paper.
Finally, the referee was unhappy that we didn’t make all our data public so that they could check things themselves. I think it would be great, and it will happen, it was just too early at the time.
LIGO Document Control Center
Papers in the LIGO Document Control Center are assigned a number starting with P (for “paper”) and then several digits. The Discover Paper’s reference is P150914. I only realised why this was the case on the day of submission.
The set of templates used in the searches is designed to be able to catch binary neutron stars, neutron star–black hole binaries and binary neutron stars. It covers component masses from 1 to 99 solar masses, with total masses less than 100 solar masses. The upper cut off is chosen for computational convenience, rather than physical reasons: we do look for higher mass systems in a similar way, but they are easier to confuse with glitches and so we have to be more careful tuning the search. Since bank of templates is so comprehensive, it is known as the überbank. Although it could find binary neutron stars or neutron star–black hole binaries, we only discuss binary black holes here.
The template bank doesn’t cover the full parameter space, in particular it assumes that spins are aligned for the two components. This shouldn’t significantly affect its efficiency at finding signals, but gives another reason (together with the coarse placement of templates) why we need to do proper parameter estimation to measure properties of the source.
In the calculation of rates, the probabilistic means for counting sources is known as the FGMC method after its authors (who include two Birmingham colleagues and my former supervisor). The means of calculating rates assuming that the population is divided into one class to match each observation is also named for the initial of its authors as the KKL approach. The combined FGMCKKL method for estimating merger rates goes by the name alphabet soup, as that is much easier to swallow.
Multi-band gravitational wave astronomy
The prospect of detecting a binary black hole with a space-based detector and then seeing the same binary merger with ground-based detectors is especially exciting. My officemate Alberto Sesana (who’s not in LIGO) has just written a paper on the promise of multi-band gravitational wave astronomy. Black hole binaries like GW150914 could be spotted by eLISA (if you assume one of the better sensitivities for a detector with three arms). Then a few years to weeks later they merge, and spend their last moments emitting in LIGO’s band. The evolution of some binary black holes is sketched in the plot below.
The evolution of binary black hole mergers (shown in blue). The eLISA and Advanced LIGO sensitivity curves are shown in purple and orange respectively. As the black holes inspiral, they emit gravitational waves at higher frequency, shifting from the eLISa band to the LIGO band (where they merge). The scale at the top gives the approximate time until merger. Fig. 1 of Sesana (2016).
Seeing the signal in two bands can help in several ways. First it can increase our confidence in detection, potentially picking out signals that we wouldn’t otherwise. Second, it gives us a way to verify the calibration of our instruments. Third, it lets us improve our parameter-estimation precision—eLISA would see thousands of cycles, which lets it pin down the masses to high accuracy, these results can be combined with LIGO’s measurements of the strong-field dynamics during merger to give a fantastic overall picture of the system. Finally, since eLISA can measure the signal for a considerable time, it can well localise the source, perhaps just to a square degree; since we’ll also be able to predict when the merger will happen, you can point telescopes at the right place ahead of time to look for any electromagnetic counterparts which may exist. Opening up the gravitational wave spectrum is awesome!
The LALInference sky map
One of my jobs as part of the Parameter Estimation group was to produce the sky maps from our parameter-estimation runs. This is a relatively simple job of just running our sky area code. I had done it many times while were collecting our results, so I knew that the final versions were perfectly consistent with everything else we had seen. While I was comfortable with running the code and checking the results, I was rather nervous uploading the results to our database to be shared with our observational partners. I somehow managed to upload three copies by accident. D’oh! Perhaps future historians will someday look back at the records for G184098/GW150914 and wonder what was this idiot Christopher Berry doing? Probably no-one would every notice, but I know the records are there…
The first observing run (O1) of Advanced LIGO was scheduled to start 9 am GMT (10 am BST), 14 September 2015. Both gravitational-wave detectors were running fine, but there were few a extra things the calibration team wanted to do and not all the automated analysis had been set up, so it was decided to postpone the start of the run until 18 September. No-one told the Universe. At 9:50 am, 14 September there was an event. To those of us in the Collaboration, it is known as The Event.
The Event’s signal as measured by LIGO Hanford and LIGO Livingston. The shown signal has been filtered to make it more presentable. The Hanford signal is inverted because of the relative orientations of the two interferometers. You can clearly see that both observatories see that same signal, and even without fancy analysis, that there are definitely some wibbles there! Part of Fig. 1 from the Discovery Paper.
The detectors were taking data and the coherent WaveBurst (cWB) detection pipeline was set up analysing this. It finds triggers in near real time, and so about 3 minutes after the gravitational wave reached Earth, cWB found it. I remember seeing the first few emails… and ignoring them—I was busy trying to finalise details for our default parameter-estimation runs for the start of O1. However, the emails kept on coming. And coming. Something exciting was happening. The detector scientists at the sites swung in to action and made sure that the instruments would run undisturbed so we could get lots of data about their behaviour; meanwhile, the remaining data analysis codes were set running with ruthless efficiency.
The cWB algorithm doesn’t search for a particular type of signal, instead it looks for the same thing in both detectors—it’s what we call a burst search. Burst searches could find supernova explosions, black hole mergers, or something unexpected (so long as the signal is short). Looking at the data, we saw that the frequency increased with time, there was the characteristic chirp of a binary black hole merger! This meant that the searches that specifically look for the coalescence of binaries (black hole or neutron stars) should find it too, if the signal was from a binary black hole. It also meant that we could analyse the data to measure the parameters.
A time–frequency plot that shows The Event’s signal power in the detectors. You can see the signal increase in frequency as time goes on: the characteristic chirp of a binary merger! The fact that you can spot the signal by eye shows how loud it is. Part of Fig. 1 from the Discovery Paper.
The signal was quite short, so it was quick for us to run parameter estimation on it—this makes a welcome change as runs on long, binary neutron-star signals can take months. We actually had the first runs done before all the detection pipelines had finished running. We kept the results secret: the detection people didn’t want to know the results before they looked at their own results (it reminded me of the episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads where they try to avoid hearing the results of the football until they can watch the match). The results from each of the detection pipelines came in [bonus note]. There were the other burst searches: LALInferenceBurst found strong evidence for a signal, and BayesWave classified it clearly as a signal, not noise or a glitch; then the binary searches: both GstLAL and PyCBC found the signal (the same signal) at high significance. The parameter-estimation results were beautiful—we had seen the merger of two black holes!
At first, we couldn’t quite believe that we had actually made the detection. The signal seemed too perfect. Famously, LIGO conducts blind injections: fake signals are secretly put into the data to check that we do things properly. This happened during the run of initial LIGO (an event known as the Big Dog), and many people still remembered the disappointment. We weren’t set up for injections at the time (that was part of getting ready for O1), and the heads of the Collaboration said that there were no plans for blind injections, but people wanted to be sure. Only three or four people in the Collaboration can perform a blind injection; however, it’s a little publicised fact that you can tell if there was an injection. The data from the instruments is recorded at many stages, so there’s a channel which records the injected signal. During a blind-injection run, we’re not allowed to look at this, but this wasn’t a blind-injection run, so this was checked and rechecked. There was nothing. People considered other ways of injecting the signal that wouldn’t be recorded (perhaps splitting the signal up and putting small bits in lots of different systems), but no-one actually understands all the control systems well enough to get this to work. There were basically two ways you could fake the signal. The first is hack into the servers at both sites and CalTech simultaneously and modify the data before it got distributed. You would need to replace all the back-ups and make sure you didn’t leave any traces of tampering. You would also need to understand the control system well enough that all the auxiliary channels (the signal as recorded at over 30 different stages throughout the detectors’ systems) had the right data. The second is to place a device inside the interferometers that would inject the signal. As long as you had a detailed understanding of the instruments, this would be simple: you’d just need to break into both interferometers without being noticed. Since the interferometers are two of the most sensitive machines ever made, this is like that scene from Mission:Impossible, except on the actually impossible difficulty setting. You would need to break into the vacuum tube (by installing an airlock in the concrete tubes without disturbing the seismometers), not disturb the instrument while working on it, and not scatter any of the (invisible) infra-red laser light. You’d need to do this at both sites, and then break in again to remove the devices so they’re not found now that O1 is finished. The devices would also need to be perfectly synchronised. I would love to see a movie where they try to fake the signal, but I am convinced, absolutely, that the easiest way to inject the signal is to collide two black holes a billion years ago. (Also a good plot for a film?)
I still remember the exact moment this hit me. I was giving a public talk on black holes. It was a talk similar to ones I have given many times before. I start with introducing general relativity and the curving of spacetime, then I talk about the idea of a black hole. Next I move on to evidence for astrophysical black holes, and I showed the video zooming into the centre of the Milky Way, ending with the stars orbiting around Sagittarius A*, the massive black hole in the centre of our galaxy (shown below). I said that the motion of the stars was our best evidence for the existence of black holes, then I realised that this was no longer the case. Now, we have a whole new insight into the properties of black holes.
Having caught a gravitational wave, what do you do with it? It turns out that there’s rather a lot of science you can do. The last few months have been exhausting. I think we’ve done a good job as a Collaboration of assembling all the results we wanted to go with the detection—especially since lots of things were being done for the first time! I’m sure we’ll update our analysis with better techniques and find new ways of using the data, but for now I hope everyone can enjoy what we have discovered so far.
The results of our parameter-estimation runs tell us about the nature of the source. We have a binary with objects of masses and , where indicates the mass of our Sun (about kilograms). If you’re curious what’s going with these numbers and the pluses and minuses, check out this bonus note.
Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary. is the mass of the heavier black hole and is the mass of the lighter black hole. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The different coloured curves show different models: they agree which made me incredibly happy! Fig. 1 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.
We know that we’re dealing with compact objects (regular stars could never get close enough together to orbit fast enough to emit gravitational waves at the right frequency), and the only compact objects that can be as massive as these object are black holes. This means we’re discovered the first stellar-mass black hole binary! We’ve also never seen stellar-mass black holes (as opposed to the supermassive flavour that live in the centres of galaxies) this heavy, but don’t get too attached to that record.
Black holes have at most three properties. This makes them much simpler than a Starbucks Coffee (they also stay black regardless of how much milk you add). Black holes are described by their mass, their spin (how much they rotate), and their electric charge. We don’t expect black holes out in the Universe to have much electric charge because (i) its very hard to separate lots of positive and negative charge in the first place, and (ii) even if you succeed at (i), it’s difficult to keep positive and negative charge apart. This is kind of like separating small children and sticky things that are likely to stain. Since the electric charge can be ignored, we just need mass and spin. We’ve measured masses, can we measure spins?
Black hole spins are defined to be between 0 (no spin) and 1 (the maximum amount you can have). Our best estimates are that the bigger black hole has spin , and the small one has spin (these numbers have been rounded). These aren’t great measurements. For the smaller black hole, its spin is almost equally probable to take any allowed value; this isn’t quite the case, but we haven’t learnt much about its size. For the bigger black hole, we do slightly better, and it seems that the spin is on the smaller side. This is interesting, as measurements of spins for black holes in X-ray binaries tend to be on the higher side: perhaps there are different types of black holes?
We can’t measure the spins precisely for a few reasons. The signal is short, so we don’t see lots of wibbling while the binaries are orbiting each other (the tell-tale sign of spin). Results for the orientation of the binary also suggest that we’re looking at it either face on or face off, which makes any wobbles in the orbit that are there less visible. However, there is one particular combination of the spins, which we call the effective spin, that we can measure. The effective spin controls how the black holes spiral together. It has a value of 1 if both black holes have max spin values, and are rotating the same way as the binary is orbiting. It has a value of −1 if the black holes have max spin values and are both rotating exactly the opposite way to the binary’s orbit. We find that the effective spin is small, . This could mean that both black holes have small spins, or that they have larger spins that aren’t aligned with the orbit (or each other). We have learnt something about the spins, it’s just not too easy to tease that apart to give values for each of the black holes.
As the two black holes orbit each other, they (obviously, given what we’ve seen) emit gravitational waves. These carry away energy and angular momentum, so the orbit shrinks and the black holes inspiral together. Eventually they merge and settle down into a single bigger black hole. All this happens while we’re watching (we have great seats). A simulation of this happening is below. You can see that the frequency of the gravitational waves is twice that of the orbit, and the video freezes around the merger so you can see two become one.
What are the properties of the final black hole? The mass of the remnant black holes is . It is the new record holder for the largest observed stellar-mass black hole!
If you do some quick sums, you’ll notice that the final black hole is lighter than the sum of the two initial black holes. This is because of that energy that was carried away by the gravitational waves. Over the entire evolution of the system, of energy was radiated away as gravitational waves (where is the speed of light as in Einstein’s famous equation). This is a colossal amount of energy. You’d need to eat over eight billion times the mass of the Sun in butter to get the equivalent amount of calories. (Do not attempt the wafer-thin mint afterwards). The majority of that energy is radiated within the final second. For a brief moment, this one black hole merger outshines the whole visible Universe if you compare its gravitational-wave luminosity, to everything else’s visible-light luminosity!
We’ve measured mass, what about spin? The final black hole’s spin in , which is in the middling-to-high range. You’ll notice that we can deduce this to a much higher precisely than the spins of the two initial black holes. This is because it is largely fixed by the orbital angular momentum of the binary, and so its value is set by orbital dynamics and gravitational physics. I think its incredibly satisfying that we we can such a clean measurement of the spin.
We have measured both of the properties of the final black hole, and we have done this using spacetime itself. This is astounding!
Estimated mass and spin for the final black hole. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The different coloured curves show different models: they agree which still makes me incredibly happy! Fig. 3 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.
How big is the final black hole? My colleague Nathan Johnson-McDaniel has done some calculations and finds that the total distance around the equator of the black hole’s event horizon is about (about six times the length of the M25). Since the black hole is spinning, its event horizon is not a perfect sphere, but it bulges out around the equator. The circumference going over the black hole’s poles is about (about five and a half M25s, so maybe this would be the better route for your morning commute). The total area of the event horizon is about . If you flattened this out, it would cover an area about the size of Montana. Neil Cornish (of Montana State University) said that he’s not sure which we know more accurately: the area of the event horizon or the area of Montana!
OK, we’ve covered the properties of the black holes, perhaps it’s time for a celebratory biscuit and a sit down? But we’re not finished yet, where is the source?
We infer that the source is at a luminosity distance of , a megaparsec is a unit of length (regardless of what Han Solo thinks) equal to about 3 million light-years. The luminosity distance isn’t quite the same as the distance you would record using a tape measure because it takes into account the effects of the expansion of the Universe. But it’s pretty close. Using our 90% probability range, the merger would have happened sometime between 700 million years and 1.6 billion years ago. This coincides with the Proterozoic Eon on Earth, the time when the first oxygen-dependent animals appeared. Gasp!
With only the two LIGO detectors in operation, it is difficult to localise where on the sky source came from. To have a 90% chance of finding the source, you’d need to cover of the sky. For comparison, the full Moon is about . This is a large area to cover with a telescope, and we don’t expect there to be anything to see for a black hole merger, but that hasn’t stopped our intrepid partners from trying. For a lovely visualisation of where we think the source could be, marvel at the Gravoscope.
The detection of this black hole merger tells us:
Black holes 30 times the mass of our Sun do form These must be the remains of really massive stars. Stars lose mass throughout their lifetime through stellar winds. How much they lose depends on what they are made from. Astronomers have a simple periodic table: hydrogen, helium and metals. (Everything that is not hydrogen or helium is a metal regardless of what it actually is). More metals means more mass loss, so to end up with our black holes, we expect that they must have started out as stars with less than half the fraction of metals found in our Sun. This may mean the parent stars were some of the first stars to be born in the Universe.
Binary black holes exist There are two ways to make a black hole binary. You can start with two stars in a binary (stars love company, so most have at least one companion), and have them live their entire lives together, leaving behind the two black holes. Alternatively, you could have somewhere where there are lots of stars and black holes, like a globular cluster, and the two black holes could wander close enough together to form the binary. People have suggested that either (or both) could happen. You might be able to tell the two apart using spin measurements. The spins of the black holes are more likely to be aligned (with each other and the way that the binary orbits) if they came from stars formed in a binary. The spins would be randomly orientated if two black holes came together to form a binary by chance. We can’t tell the two apart now, but perhaps when we have more observations!
Binary black holes merge Since we’ve seen a signal from two black holes inspiralling together and merging, we know that this happens. We can also estimate how often this happens, given how many signals we’ve seen in our observations. Somewhere in the observable Universe, a similar binary could be merging about every 15 minutes. For LIGO, this should mean that we’ll be seeing more. As the detectors’ sensitivity improves (especially at lower frequencies), we’ll be able to detect more and more systems [bonus note]. We’re still uncertain in our predictions of exactly how many we’ll see. We’ll understand things better after observing for longer: were we just lucky, or were we unlucky not to have seen more? Given these early results, we estimate that the end of the third observing run (O3), we could have over 30. It looks like I will be kept busy over the next few years…
Black holes are the parts of the Universe with the strongest possible gravity. They are the ideal place to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The gravitational waves from a black hole merger let us probe right down to the event horizon, using ripples in spacetime itself. This makes gravitational waves a perfect way of testing our understanding of gravity.
We have run some tests on the signal to see how well it matches our expectations. We find no reason to doubt that Einstein was right.
The first check is that if we try to reconstruct the signal, without putting in information about what gravitational waves from a binary merger look like, we find something that agrees wonderfully with our predictions. We can reverse engineer what the gravitational waves from a black hole merger look like from the data!
Recovered gravitational waveforms from our analysis of The Event. The dark band shows our estimate for the waveform without assuming a particular source (it is build from wavelets, which sound adorable to me). The light bands show results if we assume it is a binary black hole (BBH) as predicted by general relativity. They match really well! Fig. 6 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.
As a consistency test, we checked what would happen if you split the signal in two, and analysed each half independently with our parameter-estimation codes. If there’s something weird, we would expect to get different results. We cut the data into a high frequency piece and a low frequency piece at roughly where we think the merger starts. The lower frequency (mostly) inspiral part is more similar to the physics we’ve tested before, while the higher frequency (mostly) merger and ringdown is new and hence more uncertain. Looking at estimates for the mass and spin of the final black hole, we find that the two pieces are consistent as expected.
In general relativity, gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. (The speed of light is misnamed, it’s really a property of spacetime, rather than of light). If gravitons, the theoretical particle that carries the gravitational force, have a mass, then gravitational waves can’t travel at the speed of light, but would travel slightly slower. Because our signals match general relativity so well, we can put a limit on the maximum allowed mass. The mass of the graviton is less than (in units that the particle physicists like). This is tiny! It is about as many times lighter than an electron as an electron is lighter than a teaspoon of water (well, , which is just under a full teaspoon), or as many times lighter than the almost teaspoon of water is than three Earths.
Bounds on the Compton wavelength of the graviton from The Event (GW150914). The Compton wavelength is a length defined by the mass of a particle: smaller masses mean large wavelengths. We place much better limits than existing tests from the Solar System or the double pulsar. There are some cosmological tests which are stronger still (but they make assumptions about dark matter). Fig. 8 from the Testing General Relativity Paper.
Overall things look good for general relativity, it has passed a tough new test. However, it will be extremely exciting to get more observations. Then we can combine all our results to get the best insights into gravity ever. Perhaps we’ll find a hint of something new, or perhaps we’ll discover that general relativity is perfect? We’ll have to wait and see.
100 years after Einstein predicted gravitational waves and Schwarzschild found the equations describing a black hole, LIGO has detected gravitational waves from two black holes orbiting each other. This is the culmination of over forty years of effort. The black holes inspiral together and merge to form a bigger black hole. This is the signal I would have wished for. From the signal we can infer the properties of the source (some better than others), which makes me exceedingly happy. We’re starting to learn about the properties of black holes, and to test Einstein’s theory. As we continue to look for gravitational waves (with Advanced Virgo hopefully joining next year), we’ll learn more and perhaps make other detections too. The era of gravitational-wave astronomy has begun!
After all that, I am in need of a good nap! (I was too excited to sleep last night, it was like a cross between Christmas Eve and the night before final exams). For more on the story from scientists inside the LIGO–Virgo Collaboration, check out posts by:
Matt Pitkin (the tireless reviewer of our parameter-estimation work)
At the Large Hadron Collider, there are separate experiments that independently analyse data, and this is an excellent cross-check of any big discoveries (like the Higgs). We’re not in a position to do this for gravitational waves. However, the different search pipelines are mostly independent of each other. They use different criteria to rank potential candidates, and the burst and binary searches even look for different types of signals. Therefore, the different searches act as a check of each other. The teams can get competitive at times, so they do check each other’s results thoroughly.
The moment of the announcement of the first observation of gravitational waves at the University of Birmingham. Credit: Kat Grover
Parameters and uncertainty
We don’t get a single definite number from our analysis, we have some uncertainty too. Therefore, our results are usually written as the median value (which means we think that the true value is equally probable to be above or below this number), plus the range needed to safely enclose 90% of the probability (so there’s a 10% chance the true value is outside this range. For the mass of the bigger black hole, the median estimate is , we think there’s a 5% chance that the mass is below , and a 5% chance it’s above , so we write our result as .
Sensitivity and ranges
Gravitational-wave detectors measure the amplitude of the wave (the amount of stretch and squash). The measured amplitude is smaller for sources that are further away: if you double the luminosity distance of a source, you halve its amplitude. Therefore, if you improve your detectors’ sensitivity by a factor of two, you can see things twice as far away. This means that we observe a volume of space (2 × 2 × 2) = 8 times as big. (This isn’t exactly the case because of pesky factors from the expansion of the Universe, but is approximately right). Even a small improvement in sensitivity can have a considerable impact on the number of signals detected!