Posts about papers by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (mostly with the Virgo Collaboration too). As a collaboration member, I’m one of about 1000 authors, so I try to understand about a 1000th of each paper. Reading the official science summaries (which are written by people who actually know what they’re talking about) may give a more complete understanding.
GW200115 and GW200105 are the first gravitational-wave candidates announced from the second half of LIGO and Virgo’s third observing run (O3b). They may be our first ever observations of neutron star–black hole binaries [bonus note]. These mixed binaries of one neutron star and one black hole have long proved elusive, but we are now on our way to revealing their secrets.
The population of compact objects (black holes and neutron stars) observed with gravitational waves and with electromagnetic astronomy, including a few that are uncertain. The sources for GW200115 (left) and GW200105 (right) are highlighted. Source: Northwestern
The first gravitational-wave signal ever detected, GW150914, came from a binary black hole system: two black holes that inspiralled together to form a bigger black hole. (I hope you are all imagining a bloopy chirp to accompany this). We had never before observed a binary black hole system. However, binary black holes have proved to be the most common source of gravitational waves, and we are now starting to understand their properties. We found our next type of gravitational-wave source with GW170817, which came from a binary neutron star system (two neutron stars that orbited each other). Before we had gravitational-wave astronomy, we knew this type of binary existed as we had observed pulsars in binaries thanks to radio astronomy. Yet, our second binary neutron star observation, GW190425, still showed that we didn’t know everything about their properties. After finding binary black holes and binary neutron stars, what about a mixed neutron star–black hole binary? These should exist, but finding evidence for them has proved difficult.
Time to tick neutron star–black hole binaries off the checklist. Part of a comic by Nutsinee Kijbunchoo drawn following the discovery of GW170817 showing Rai Weiss rather happy with his work. [Update]
The first hints of neutron star–black hole binaries came in the first half of LIGO and Virgo’s third observing run (O3a, yes we are the best at thinking up names). The gravitational-wave candidate GW190426_152155 (the best at names) looks like it could have come from a neutron star–black hole binary. However, this is a quiet signal, so we are not sure whether it is real or a false alarm.
Our detection pipelines search the data from the detectors looking for signals. Our searches designed to specifically look for signals from binaries match the data against templates of what the signals should look like. From this comparison, they consider two pieces of information: how loud a signal is (its signal-to-noise ratio), and how consistent the signal is with the template. These are combined into a ranking statistic, and by comparing the ranking statistic with values produced by a background of noise, we can compute a false alarm rate of how often something at least this signal-like would happen in random noise. For GW190426_152155, this is , which isn’t too great.
The false alarm rate is not the end of the story though: we need to consider the true alarm rate: how often we expect to detect such a signal. If something is an everyday occurrence, you don’t need much evidence to convince yourself it’s real. Consider the quality of a photo you would need to convince yourself there was a horse walking around outside, and the quality needed to convince yourself there is a unicorn. For gravitational waves, a false alarm rate of would be enough to give you a fair (but not necessarily conclusive) probability of the signal being real if the source were a binary black hole, as we know they are pretty common. We don’t yet know how common gravitational waves from neutron star–black hole binaries are, but the fact that we are lacking good examples indicates that they are at least somewhat rare. Therefore, with the balance of probability, it seems plausible that GW190426_152155 is noise, and the hunt needs to continue.
Estimated total mass and mass ratio $q = m_2/m_1 \leq 1$ of the binary sources for the candidates in O3a. The contours mark the 90% credible regions. The dashed lines mark a robust upper limit on the maximum neutron star mass. Figure 6 of the GWTC-2 Paper.
The next potential candidate was GW190814. This is a super clear detection. However, the nature of the source is more mysterious. The primary (the more massive object in the binary) is definitely a black hole, but the secondary, at around (where is a solar mass) is either potentially too large to be a neutron star. We’re not entirely sure of the maximum mass a neutron star can be before collapsing. Hence, we’re not quite sure if we have a massive neutron star, or a really small black hole. I think the black hole is more likely. The curious nature of GW190814’s source means we are still missing an unambiguous neutron star–black hole.
Observations in O3b changed everything. Within the space of ten days in January 2020 [bonus note], we collected two neutron star–black hole candidates: GW200105_162426 (GW200105 for short) and GW200115_042309 (GW200115).
GW200115 is a clear detection. All three detectors were observing at the time, and we get a good signal in both LIGO Livingston and LIGO Hanford (Virgo, being less sensitive currently, has less informative data). From these observations, our search algorithm GstLAL estimates a false alarm rate of , PyCBC estimates , and MBTA (being used for the first time for final search results) estimates . All of the search algorithms agree that this is a significant detection.
GW200105 is more difficult. LIGO Hanford was offline at the time, so we only have LIGO Livingston and Virgo. In Livingston data we can see a beautiful chirp, but in Virgo the signal is too quiet for the detection algorithms to use. This is like the case for GW190425, we must try to establish the significance using a single detector.
Time–frequency plots for GW200105 (left) and GW200115 (right) as measured by LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston and Virgo. LIGO Hanford was not observing at the time of GW200105. The chirp of a binary coalescence is clearest in Livingston for GW200105; these are usually hard to see for these types of signals. The Livingston data for GW200105 is shown after glitch subtraction, and the Livingston data for GW200115 shows light-scattering glitches at low frequencies. Figure 1 of the NSBH Discovery Paper.
When we have multiple detectors, we can ask how often we would expect to see the same signal at compatible times in multiple detectors. It is much less likely that multiple detectors would have the same random bit of noise in one detector and at the same time in another. We can estimate how often this would happen, for example, by comparing data from the detectors at different times. Considering many different time offsets, we can build up statistics for tens of thousands of years, even though we have only been observing for a few months (the upper limit on the false alarm rate quoted for GW200115 is because it stands out after we have exhausted all these times slides). When we have a single detector, we can’t do this.
GW200105 stands out from anything we have seen in the data we’ve analysed. We could therefore assign a false alarm rate of one per observing time. However, that doesn’t quite encode everything we know. We expect louder noise artifacts to be rarer than quieter ones. An outlier with signal-to-noise ratio of 12 should be rarer than one with signal-to-noise ratio of 11 (and GW200105 is over 13), and hence we can use this knowledge to try to extrapolate a false alarm rate.
Detection statistics for GW200105, GW200115 and GW190426_152155, showing they compare to background data. The plot shows the signal-to-noise ratio and signal-consistency statistic from the GstLAL algorithm. The coloured density plot shows the distribution of background triggers. LHO indicates a trigger from LIGO Hanford, and LLO indicates a trigger from LIGO Livingston. GW200105 is distinct from anything else seen in O3. However, GW200105 is calculated less significant than GW200115 as it only has a trigger from a single detector. Figure 3 of the NSBH Discovery Paper.
Currently, only GstLAL can calculate single-detector false alarm rates. PyCBC and MBTA both identify the same feature in the data, but cannot assign a significance to this. Using GstLAL’s extrapolation, which is chosen to be conservative (not as conservative as one per observing time, but a better representation of the data), we calculate a false alarm rate of . This is good enough to be interesting, and better than for GW190426_152155, but not enough to be absolutely conclusive. I think we may see some active development of estimating single-detector false alarm rates (or lowering the threshold for Virgo data to be used) in the future to try to address these difficulties.
It is very tempting to look at GW200105‘s clear chirp and convince yourself it must be real. However, our detection algorithms are more sensitive than our eyes and more reliable. They are carefully tested, and build up their statistics analysing large chunks of data. Hence, we should acknowledge that the difficulty in assigning a false alarm rate is an intrinsic difficulty when you only have so much data. Even the best signal can only end up with a modest false alarm rate. It’s kind of like winning the lottery on your third go if you don’t know how the lottery works: you can estimate that the probability of winning is about 1/3, even if you suspect it should be much smaller. The results computed for this paper only use a fraction of O3b, so we could be able to do a little better in the future.
Let us assume both signals are real, where do they come from? Do we at last have our undisputable neutron star–black hole binaries?
We infer [bonus note] that GW200115 comes from a binary with component masses and (or and if we restrict the secondary’s spin to ). The primary here looks to be a black hole. It is one of the smallest we have seen. The uncertainties on the measurement potentially take it into the hypothesised lower mass gap between neutron stars and black holes suggested from X-ray observations (and somewhat questioned by GW190814); however, there is a 70% chance that the mass is , so it is pretty consistent with the population of black holes we’ve seen in X-ray binaries. The secondary is perfectly in the neutron star range. Hence, this looks like a great neutron star–black hole binary candidate.
For GW200105, we infer that the primary has mass and secondary has mass (or and with low secondary spin). The primary is a nice black hole, the secondary is a nice plump neutron star. It is towards the more massive end of the distribution we have seen with radio observations, but it is consistent with past observations. Unlike for GW190814, we do not have any trouble explaining such as mass given what we know about the stiffness of neutron star stuff™. This is another good neutron star–black hole binary candidate.
Estimated masses for the binary primary and secondary masses and for neutron star–black hole binary candidates. The two-dimensional plot shows the 90% probability contour. For GW200105 and GW200115 we show results for two different spin priors for the secondary. The one-dimensional plot shows individual masses; the vertical lines mark 90% bounds away from equal mass. Estimates for the maximum neutron star mass (based upon Galactic neutron stars and studies of the equation of state) are shown for comparison with the mass of the secondary. Figure 4 of the NSBH Discovery Paper.
The masses for GW200115 overlap nicely with those inferred for GW190426_152155 and [bonus note]. The uncertainties for GW190426_152155 are larger, on account of it being quieter. Perhaps this could indicate this is fairly typical for neutron star–black hole binaries (and we might need to revise that true alarm rate)? It’s still too early to say, but I very much look forward to finding out!
The masses align nicely with expectations for neutron star–black hole binaries, so there are no surprises there. Ideally, we would confirm that we have seen neutron stars by measuring the tidal distortion of the neutron star [bonus note]. Unfortunately, these effects get harder to measure when the asymmetry in masses gets more significant, and we can’t pick anything out of the data. However, we did compare the secondary masses to various expectations for the maximum neutron star mass, and find that there’s over a 93% probability that the secondaries are safely below this. In conclusion, I think we have a good case for having completed our set of binaries and found neutron star–black hole binaries.
Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins for GW200105 (left) and GW200115 (right). The distribution for the more massive primary component is on the left, and for the lighter secondary component 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. The maximum spin magnitude of 1 is appropriate for black holes. The solid line shows the 90% credible region using the high spin prior (which is used for the rest of the plot) and the dashed line shows the 90% contour for the low-spin prior. Figure 6 of the NSBH Discovery Paper.
The spins are more interesting. Spins range from zero for non-spinning, to one for a maximally spinning black hole. As a consequence of the large mass asymmetry, we measure the spin of the black holes better than for the neutron stars. For GW200105, we can constrain the spin magnitude to be at 90% probability (or with the low neutron star spin prior). This matches what we have seen for a lot of our black holes (as for GW190814‘s primary, but probably not for GW190412‘s primary), that their spins are small and nicely consistent with being zero.
For GW200115, the primary spin is also consistent with zero. However, there is also support for larger spins, and intriguingly, spin misaligned (or even antialigned as there’s little evidence of spin components in the orbital plane) with the orbital angular momentum. It is often convenient to work with the effective inspiral spin, which is a mass-weighted combination of the two spins projected along the direction of the orbital momentum. A positive value indicates the spins are overall aligned with the orbital angular momentum, while a negative value indicates the spins are overall misaligned. For GW200105, we find (or with low neutron star spin). This is consistent with zero, and what you would expect if spins were small, or if there were no preferred alignment. For GW200115 however, we find ( with low neutron star spin). This is still consistent with positive or zero values, but prefers negative values.
Generally aligned spins are expected for binaries formed from two binary stars that lived their lives together. The stars would have formed from the same cloud of gas, so you would expect the stars to start out rotating the same way. Tides and mass transfer between the stars should also help to align spins. Supernova explosions could tilt the spins, but it’s hard to get a complete reversal without disrupting the binary. This did happen for the double pulsar, so it’s not impossible, but overall you would expect it to be rare. However, for binaries formed dynamically, the spins would be randomly aligned.
Does the spin for GW200115 thus point to a dynamical origin? That would be unexpected, as isolated evolution generally predicts higher rates of forming neutron star–black hole binaries than dynamical channels. Dynamical channels tend to prefer making more massive binaries. The spin is perfectly consistent with being small and aligned, so perhaps that is the correct answer, and there’s nothing unexpected to see.
Estimated primary mass , spin component in the orbital plane , and spin component aligned with the orbital angular momentum and for GW200115. The (off-diagonal) two-dimensional plots show the correlations between parameters. The solid lines indicate 50% and 90% credible regions with the high-spin prior for the secondary, and the dashed lines show the same for the low-spin prior. The (on-diagonal) one-dimensional plots show probability densities. The vertical lines indicate 90% credible intervals. The black lines show the priors. Figure 7 of the NSBH Discovery Paper.
Since the spin is correlated with the mass, if we impose that GW200115‘s primary spin is small and aligned, we also find that the primary mass is towards the upper end of its range. This would keep it safely out of the proposed range of the lower mass gap. I’m not sure if that is of any physical relevance (as I’m not sure if I believe there is a gap), but it is potentially worth keeping in mind if you want to model the progenitor (you need to fit mass and spin together).
I look forward to lots of studies looking at how to form these systems.
Now we have confirmation that neutron star–black hole binaries exist, how many do we think there are out there? To go from our detections to a merger rate density, we need to assume something about the population of neutron star–black hole binaries (we need to know about the systems that we could have observed but didn’t). This is rather tricky, as neutron star–black hole binaries could potentially have a diverse range of properties, and we can’t be sure of this distribution with only a couple of observations. Therefore, we’ve tried a few different things.
First, we considered what are the rates of binaries that match the inferred properties of the two sources. We infer that the rate of GW200115-like binaries is using the results of GstLAL (and using PyCBC). The rate of GW200105-like binaries is (since PyCBC couldn’t detect this event, we could only set an upper limit, which is less interesting). GW200115 is less massive than GW200105, and so could not be detected to as great a distance. Therefore, since we’ve detected one of both, it means that the rate of GW200115-like binaries should be a bit higher. If we assume all neutron star–black hole binaries are like one of the two, we find an overall event-based rate of .
Probability distribution for the neutron star–black hole binary merger rate density. The green curve shows the event-based rate assuming all neutron star–black hole binaries are like GW200105 or GW200115. The black line assumes a broader population that also includes GW190814 and higher mass black holes. The vertical lines mark the 90% credible interval. Figure 9 of the NSBH Discovery Paper.
The second approach is to take a much more agnostic approach, and consider all output from our detection pipelines over a plausible mass range. The population here is defined more for convenience than anything else. We picked search triggers (down to a signal-to-noise ratio) corresponding to binaries with a primary mass between and and a secondary mass between and . The upper limit on the primary mass is set by the limits of our waveforms. Potentially, this mass could catch some binary neutron stars or binary black holes too. Therefore, we consider a mixture model and probabilistically assign candidates to being either noise, binary neutron star (if both components are below ), binary black hole (if both components are above ), and neutron star–black hole binaries (for things in between). I think we’ve been very inclusive in defining the neutron star–black hole space here, both excluding the possibility of binary neutron star components above (which I think unlikely, but possible), and binary black hole components below (which I think probable). Therefore, we should absolutely not be missing any neutron star–black holes (GW190814’s source is counted as a neutron star–black hole in this calculation). This rate comes out as .
I don’t think these will rule out any models, but they give the ballpark to aim for. As we find more neutron star–black hole candidates, these rates should evolve as our uncertainties will shrink, and we get a better understanding of the source population.
Predictions for the neutron star–black hole binary merger rate density as modelled by the COMPAS population synthesis code. The different models illustrate variations in the input physics, highlighting the range of predictions for isolated binary evolution. Other channels could potentially form neutron star–black hole binaries too. Figure 9 of Broekgaarden et al. (2021).
We have finally found our neutron star–black hole binaries. They’re pretty neat. These are the first discoveries from O3b. They will not be the last.
I like to think of neutron star–black hole binaries as the mirror counterparts of fluffernutter cookies. Black holes are black and super dense, completely unlike marshmallows. Neutron stars are made of something mysterious that we don’t know the properties of, but we think all neutron stars are made of the same type of stuff™, whereas peanut butter is made of well known ingredients, but has both smooth and crunchy equations of state. Despite the difference in ingredients, for both, when we mix the two types we get something delicious.
Previously, all our LIGO–Virgo discoveries came during odd-numbered years, so I was kind of hoping for a quiet 2020. This didn’t work out.
One of the most difficult things with inferring the properties of neutron star–black hole binaries is the waveform models that we use. We need accurate models to compare with the data to get good estimates of the parameters. Unfortunately, we don’t have models that include all the physics we want (spin precession, higher-order multipole moments, and the effects of the neutron star stuff™). From our tests, it seems like spin precession and higher-order multipole moments are more important. The latter is certainly important for asymmetric binaries. Therefore, for our main results, we use binary black hole waveforms that include spin precession and higher-order multipole moments (but no neutron star stuff™ effects). These models should be a pretty good representation of the overall physics (especially if the neutron tar gets swallowed whole). However, they may not give the best estimate of the final black hole mass. In the paper, we used the neutron star–black hole waveforms that include neutron star stuff™ effects but not spin precession and higher-order multipole moments, but I think it’s a bit confusing to mix the two results here, so I’ll skip over final masses and spins.
While GW190426_152155 agrees nicely with GW200115‘s masses, its other properties are somewhat different. Its effective inspiral spin is (compared with ), and its distance is . (compared with ). The sky positions are also not significantly overlapping.
An electromagnetic counterpart, as was found for GW170817, would confirm the presence of stuff™, and that we didn’t just have two black holes. However, with these mass black holes, we would expect the neutron stars to be pretty much swallowed whole (like me consuming a fluffernutter cookie) with nothing to see [bonus bonus note]. So far nothing has been reported, which is about as surprising as failing to find a needle in a haystack, when there is no needle.
We estimate that the amount of neutron star stuff ejected during the merger is less than . This is very small by astronomical standards, but is still pretty large. It’s around a third of the mass of the Earth, and would correspond to around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 elephants. Sadly, it is not expected that material ejected from neutron stars would directly turn into elephants, and elephants do remain endangered.
GW190521 is a huge discovery—it a gravitational wave signal from the coalescence of two black holes to form one about (where our Sun has a mass of ). That is the largest black hole we have yet discovered with gravitational waves. It is the first definitive discovery of an intermediate-mass black hole. It is also a puzzle, as it is a mystery how its source could form…
How big can a black hole be?
Anything can become a black hole if it is squeezed enough [bonus note]: you just need to pack enough stuff into a small enough space (just like when taking a Ryanair flight). In practice, most stuff is stiff enough to push back against squeezing to avoid becoming a black hole. It’s only when you get the core of a star about somewhere between and that gravity becomes strong enough to collapse things down to a black hole [bonus note]. Above this threshold, can we have a black hole of any size?
The biggest black holes are found in the centres of galaxies. These can be hundreds of thousands to tens of billions the mass of our Sun. Our own Milky Way has a rather moderate black hole. These massive (or supermassive) black holes are far bigger than any star. Even Elvis. They therefore couldn’t have formed from a collapsing star. So how did they form? The truth is that we’re not sure. It’s possible that we started with smaller black holes and fed them up, or merged them together, or a mixture of both. These initial seed black holes could have formed from stars, or possibly giant clouds of collapsing gas (which may form black holes). In any case, whatever mechanism created these black holes needs to work quickly, as we know from observations of quasars, that there are massive black holes by the time the Universe is a mere billion years old. To figure out how massive black holes form, we need to discovery their seeds.
The shadow of a black hole reconstructed from the radio observations of the Event Horizon Telescope. The black hole lies at the centre of M87, and is about . Credit: Event Horizon Team
Between stellar-mass black holes and massive black holes should lie intermediate-mass black holes. These are typically defined as having masses between and . Massive black holes should grow from these smaller black holes. However, we have never found one, they are the missing link in the black hole spectrum. There are candidates: ultrabright X-ray sources, or globular clusters with suspiciously moving stars, but none of these is rock solid, and couldn’t be explained another way. GW190521 changes this, at the merger remnant is without doubt an intermediate-mass black hole.
This discovery shows that intermediate-mass black holes can form from mergers of smaller black holes. However, this doesn’t yet solve the mystery of how massive black holes are grown; we need observations of larger intermediate-mass black holes for that. We’ll keep searching.
What I find more exciting about GW190521 are the masses of the two black holes that merged. Our analysis gives these as and . The large black hole masses extremely difficult to explain.
Estimated masses for the two components in the binary . We show results several different waveform models and use the numerical relativity surrogate (NRSur PHM) as our best results. The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour. The dotted lines in one-dimensional plots the symmetric 90% credible interval. Part of Figure 1 of the GW190521 Implications Paper.
When you form a black hole from a star, its mass depends upon the mass of of its parent star. More massive stars generally form bigger black holes, but because of all the physics that goes on inside stars, it’s not a simple relationship. One important phenomena in determining the fate of massive stars is pair instability. When the cores of stars become very hot (, just slightly less than the temperature of the mozerlla on that first bite of pizza, even though you should know better by now), the photons of light (gamma-rays) bouncing around inside the core become energetic enough to produce pairs of electrons and positrons [bonus note]. For the star, this causes some trouble. Its core is mostly supported by radiation pressure. If photons start disappearing as they are converted to electrons and positrons, then there isn’t as much radiation around, and the star will start to collapse. As it collapses, explosive nuclear reactions are triggered. Pair instability kicks in for stars with helium cores about . If the core is between and about , the star will blast off its outer layers, possibly repeating the cycle of pair-instability collapse and explosion many times. This results in smaller black holes than you might otherwise expect. For helium cores between and about , the explosion completely destroys the star, leaving nothing behind. These stars never collapse down to a black hole, and this leaves a gap, predicted to start somewhere between and .
Remnant (white dwarf, neutron star or black hole) mass for different initial (zero age main sequence) stellar masses . This is just for single stars, and ignores all the complicated things that can happen in binaries. The different coloured lines indicate different metallicities (higher metallicity stars lose more mass through stellar winds). The two panels are for two different supernova models. The grey bars indicate potential mass gaps: the lower core collapse mass gap (only predicted by the Rapid model) and the upper pair-instability mass gap. The tick marks in the middle are various claimed gravitational-wave source, colour-coded by the total mass of the binary . Figure 1 of Zevin et al. (2020).
The more massive of GW190521’s black holes sits squarely in the expected pair-instability mass gap. How can we form such a system?
To delve into all the details, we have put together two papers on GW190521. The high mass of the system poses challenges not just for our understanding of astrophysics, but also for our data analysis. Below, I’ll go through what we have discovered.
GW190521 was first identified in our online searches about 20 seconds after we took the data. All three of our detectors were online and observing at the time. It was a short bleep of a signal indicating a high mass system. Short signals always make me suspicious as they can easily confused with some types of glitch. The signal was picked up by multiple search algorithms, which generally is a good sign, as they all estimate the background of noise in a slightly different way. However, the estimated false alarm rates were only one per few years. That’s not terribly impressive—it’s the range where things can change as we collect more data. Immediately, checks of the signal began. We have many ways of monitoring our detectors, and experts started running through these. Microphones at Hanford picked up a helicopter overhead a few minutes later, but that’s too far away in time to be related to the signal. The initial checks all looked OK, so we were confident that it was safe to share the candidate detection S190521g.
Visualisations of GW190521. The top panels show whitened data and reconstructed waveforms from the template-free detection algorithm cWB, BayesWave (which reconstructs the signal from sine–Gaussian wavelets), and our parameter estimation code LALInference (which uses binary black hole waveforms). The bottom panels show time–frequency plots: each plot has a different scale as the signal is loudest in LIGO Livingston and hardly noticeable in Virgo. As the signal is so short, we don’t see the usual chirp of a binary coalescence clearly. Figure 1 of the GW190521 Discovery Paper.
After hearing that the initial checks were complete, I went to bed, little knowing the significance of what we had found. The initial estimates for the masses of a binary come from our search pipelines—specifically the pipelines that match signal templates to the data. At high masses, the search template bank doesn’t have many templates, so the best fitting template can be quite a way from the true value. It was only after completing a proper parameter estimation analysis that we get a good idea of the masses and their uncertainties. When these results came in we found that we potentially had something lying smack in the middle of the pair-instability mass gap. That was, if the signal were real.
While initial checks of the signal showed nothing suspicious, we always do more offline checks. For GW190521 there were a few questions that took some digging to understand.
First, the peak of the signal is around 60 Hz. This is also the mains frequency in the US, so there was concern that the signal was contaminated by noise caused by this (which would obviously be shocking). A variety of careful investigations were done subtracting out noise from the mains. In the end, it turns out that this makes negligible difference to the results, which is nice.
Second, there was concern over the shape of the signal. Our template-based search algorithms always look at how well the signal matches the template: if you get a really good match in one frequency range, but not another, then that’s an indicator that you have some random noise rather than a true signal. This consistency test is summarised in a statistic, which should be around 1 if all is OK, and larger if things don’t fit. For the PyCBC algorithm, the value for the Livingston data was about 3. Since the signal was loudest in Livingston, was this cause for alarm? One explanation could be that the template wasn’t a good fit because the templates used by the search don’t include the effects of spin precession. Hence, if you have a signal where spin precession is important, you would expect a bad fit. Checking the consistency with templates which included precession did give better consistency. However, the GstLAL algorithm also used templates without precession, and its consistency test looked fine. Therefore, it couldn’t just be precession. It seems that the key is that there are so few templates in the relevant area for PyCBC’s template bank (GstLAL had things better covered). Hence, it is hard to find a good fitting template. Adding the best fitting template from the GstLAL bank to the PyCBC search leads to it being picked out as the best template too, with a consistency check statistic of 1.7 (not perfect, but not suspicious). I think this highlights the importance of not limiting yourself to only finding what you expect: we need to include the potential for our searches to discover things outside of what we have discovered in the past.
Finally, there was the difference in significance reported by the different search algorithms. In addition to the template-based searches, we also have searches which look for more generic signals without templates [bonus note], instead using the consistency in the data from different detectors to spot signals. Famously, our non-template algorithm coherent WaveBurst (cWB) made the first detection of GW150914 (other algorithms weren’t up-and-running at the time). Usually, the template searches should do better as they know what they are looking for. This has mostly been the case so far. The exception was GW170729, our previously most massive and lowest significance detection. Generally, you expect searches to disagree more on quiet signals (not too much of an issue for GW190521), as then how they characterise the noise background is more important. We also expect the template searches to lose their advantage for very short signals, when there’s not much for a template to match, and when the coherence check used by cWB comes in especially handy. GW190521 is again found with greatest significance by cWB. In our final searches (using all the data from the first six months of the third observing run), cWB gives a false alarm rate of 1 per 4900 years (pretty darn good—at least a Jammie Wagon Wheel in biscuit terms), GstLAL gives 1 per 829 years (nice—a couple of Fruit Creme biscuits), and PyCBC gives 1 per 0.94 years (not at all exciting—an Iced Gem at best). Should we be suspicious of the difference? Perhaps cWB can pick up on something extra in the signal because actually the source isn’t a quasicircular binary [bonus note] as assumed by our templates? We know that the search templates are missing some features, like the effects of spin precession, and also higher order multipole moments. Seeing how our search algorithms cope finding simulated signals that include these extra bits of physics, we find that similar discrepancies between cWB and GstLAL happen around 8% of the time, while for cWB and PyCBC they happen about 3% of the time. That’s enough to make me go Hmm, but not enough to convince me that we’ve detected a completely new type of signal, one which doesn’t come from a quasicircular binary.
The conclusion from our analysis is that GW190521 is a good-looking gravitational wave signal. We are confident that it is a real detection, even though it is really short. However, we can’t be positive that the source is quasicircular binary. That’s the most likely explanation, and consistent with what we’ve seen, but potentially not the only explanation.
There are other sources for gravitational waves beyond quasicircular binaries. One of the best known would be a supernova explosion. GW190521 is certainly not one of these. For one thing, the signals are much longer and more complicated, and for another, we could really only detect a supernova within our own galaxy, and we probably would have noticed that happen. Another hypothesised search which could produce a nice, short bleep of a signal would be a cosmic string. Vibrations or ripples along a cosmic string can source gravitational waves, and while we don’t know if cosmic strings exist, we do have templates for what these signals should look like. Using these, we can compare how well the data are described by cosmic string signals compared to our quasiciruclar binary templates. We find Bayes factors of about in favour of the binary signals, so it’s probably not cosmic strings. Finally, you’ve perhaps noticed that I’ve been writing quasicircular [bonus note] a lot. Part of that is because it’s a cool word (25 points in Scrabble), but also because it’s possible that we have an eccentric binary. These are difficult to model, so we don’t have lots of good templates for them, but when you have a short signal, it is possible that eccentricity could be confused with spin precession. This would lead us to overestimating the distance and underestimating the masses. Initial studies do seem to show that an eccentric signal fits the data well (Romero-Shaw et al. 2020; Gayathri et al. 2020). An eccentric binary is the most probable alternative to a quasicircular binary, but it is pretty improbable. Since eccentricity is lost during inspiral, we would need something to have pumped the eccentricity, which is difficult for a binary so close to merger. I would bet my Oreos on the source being a quasicircular binary.
The source properties
If we stick with the assumption of a quasicircular binary, what can we tell about the source? We have already covered the component masses of and , and that the merger remnant is . The plot below shows the final mass as well as the spin, which is . For the black holes formed from the mergers of near equal mass binaries, you’d expect the final spin to be around .
Estimated mass and spin for the final black hole. We show results several different waveform models and use the numerical relativity surrogate (NRSur PHM) as our best results. The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour. The dotted lines in one-dimensional plots the symmetric 90% credible interval. The mass is safely above the conventional lower limit to be considered an intermediate-mass black hole. Figure 3 of the GW190521 Implications Paper.
We can also get an estimate of the final spin from the final part of the signal, the ringdown. This is where the black hole settles down to its final state, like me after 6 pm. What is neat about using the ringdown is that we don’t need to assume that the binary was quasicircular, as we only care about the black hole formed at the end. The downside is that we don’t get an estimate of the distance, so we only measure the redshifted final mass . Looking at the ringdown, we get lovely consistent results trying ringdown models at different start times and including different higher order multipole moments, and all agree with the analysis of the entire signal using the quasicircular templates.
Estimated redshifted mass and spin for the final black hole. We show results several different insprial–merger–ringdown waveform models, which we use for our standard analysis, as well as ringdown-only waveforms. They agree nicely. The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour. The dotted lines in one-dimensional plots the symmetric 90% credible interval. The mass is safely above the conventional lower limit to be considered an intermediate-mass black hole. Part of Figure 9 of the GW190521 Implications Paper.
Being able to measure the ringdown at all is an achievement. It’s only possible for loud signals from high mass systems. The consistency of the mass and spin estimates is not only a check of the quasicircular analysis. It is much more powerful than that. The ringdown measurements are a test of the black hole nature of the final object. All looks as expected so far. I really want to do this for louder signals in the future.
Returning to the initial binary, what can we say about the spins of the initial black holes? Not much, as it is difficult to extract information from such a short waveform.
The spin components aligned with the orbital angular momentum affect the transition from inspiral, and have a small influence on the final spin. We often quantify the aligned components of the spin in the mass-weighted effective inspiral spin parameter , which goes from for both the spins being maximal and antialigned with the orbital angular momentum to for both spins being maximal and aligned with the orbital angular momentum. We find that , consistent with no spin, spins antialigned with each other or in the orbital plane. The result is strongly influenced by the assumed prior, we’ve not learnt much from the signal.
The component of the spin in the orbital plane (perpendicular to the orbital angular momentum) control the amount of spin precession. We often quantify this using the effective precession spin parameter , which goes from for no in-plane spin, to for maximal precession. Precession normally shows up in the modulation of the inspiral signal, so you wouldn’t expect to measure it well from a short signal. However, it can also influence to amplitude of the signal around merger, and we seem to get a bit of information here, which seems to prefer larger . We find , but there’s support across the entire range.
Estimated effective inspiral spin and effective precession spin . We show results several different waveform models and use the numerical relativity surrogate (NRSur PHM) as our best results. The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour. The dotted lines in one-dimensional plots the symmetric 90% credible interval. We also show the prior distributions in the one-dimensional plots. Part of Figure 1 of the GW190521 Implications Paper.
Looking at the spins overall, the lack of aligned spin plus the support for in-plane spins means that we prefer misaligned spins. You wouldn’t expect this for two stars which have lived their lives together as a binary, but it wouldn’t be implausible for a dynamically formed binary. A dynamical formation seems plausible to me, but since the spin measurements aren’t too concrete, we can’t really rule too much out [bonus note].
Finally, let’s take a look at the distance to the source. Our analysis gives a luminosity distance of . This makes the source a good contender for the most distant gravitational wave source ever found [bonus note]. It’s actually far enough, that we might want to reconsider our standard approximation that sources are uniformly distributed like . This would be OK if sources were uniformly distributed in a non-evolving Universe, but sadly we don’t live in such a thing, and we have to take into account the expansion of the Universe, and the evolution of the galaxies and stars within it. We’ll come back to look at this when we present our catalogue of detections from the first part of the third observing run.
Exploring the upper mass gap
The location of the upper mass gap is pretty well determined. There are a variety of uncertainties in the input physics, such as the nuclear reaction rate for burning carbon into oxygen, the treatment of convection inside stars or if stars rapidly rotate which can alter the cut-off. No-one has tried varying all these together, but individually you can’t get above about for your black hole. Allowing for new types of particles (like axions, one of the candidates for dark matter, and possibly the explanation for why teenage boys can smell terrible) can potentially increase the limit to above , but that is extremely speculative (I’d love it if it were true). Sticking to known physics, at face value, it is hard to explain the mass of the primary black hole from our understanding of how stars evolve.
There are potentially ways around the mass gap with help from a star’s environment:
Super efficient accretion from a companion star can grow black holes into the mass gap. Then you wouldn’t expect the total mass of the binary to over about , so we’d need to swap out partners in this case.
The pair instability originates in the helium core of a star. If we can find a way to grow the envelope of the star, while keeping the core below the threshold for the instability to set in, then the whole thing could collapse down to a mass gap black hole. This could potentially happen if two stars collide after one has already formed its helium core. The other gets disrupted and swells the envelope. This might be expected in stellar clusters. Similarly, a couple of recent papers (Farrell et al. 2020; Kinugawa, Nakamura & Nakano 2020) have also suggested that the first generation of stars, which have few elements other than hydrogen or helium, could also collapse down to black holes in this mass range. The idea here is that these stars lose much less of their envelopes due to stellar winds, so you can end up with what we would otherwise consider an oversized envelope around a core below the pair instability threshold
We could have two black holes merge to form a bigger one, and then have the remnant go on to form a new binary. You would need a dense environment for this, somewhere like a globular cluster where it’s easy to find new partners. Ideally, somewhere with a large escape velocity, perhaps a nuclear star cluster, which has a high escape velocity so that it is more difficult for the remnant black hole to get kicked out at any point: gravitational waves give a recoil kick, and close encounters with other objects can also lead to the initial binary getting a kick.
Especially good for growing black holes may be if they are embedded in the accretion disc around a supermassive black hole. Then these disc black holes can merge with each other whilst being unlikely to escape the environment. Additionally, they can swallow lots of gas from the surrounding disc to help them grow big and strong.
There is also the potential that we don’t have a black hole formed from stellar collapse, but instead a primordial black hole formed from dense regions in the early Universe. These primordial black holes are a another candidate for dark matter. I like that there are two options for potential dark matter-related formation channels. It’s good to have options.
The difficulty with all of these alternative formation channels is matching the observed rate for GW190521-like systems. It’s not enough for a proposed channel to be able to explain the system’s properties, it also needs to make enough of them for us to have come across one. From our data, we infer that GW190521-like systems have a merger rate density of . Predicted rates for the various formation mechanisms discussed above can be rather uncertain (kind of like how the exact value of a small bag full of Bitcoin is uncertain), so I would like to see more work on this, before picking a most plausible option.
We did do some quantitative analysis for the case of hierarchical mergers of black holes, following the framework outlined in Kimball et al. (2020). This simultaneously fits the mass and spin distribution for the first generation (1g) of black holes formed from stars, and a fraction of hierarchical mergers involving second generation (2g) merger remnants. To calibrate the number of hierarchical mergers, we use globular cluster simulations.
Using our base model, where the 1g+1g population is basically the Model C we used to describe our detections from the first two observing runs, we find that the odds are in favour of GW190521 being a 1g+1g merger. Hierarchical mergers are so rare, that it’s actually more probable that we squish down the inferred masses and have something from the tail of the 1g population.
The rate of hierarchical mergers, however, is very sensitive to the distribution of spins of 1g black holes. Larger spins give bigger kicks (even a spin of 0.1 is enough to mean remnants are hardly ever retained in typical globular clusters). If we add into the mix a fraction of 1g+1g binaries which have 0 spin (motivated by recent simulations), we improve the odds to be roughly even 1g+1g vs 1g+2g, and less common for 2g+2g. Given that we are not taken into account that only a fraction of binaries would be in clusters, which would reduce the odds of a hierarchical merger considerably, this isn’t quite enough to convince me.
However, what if we were to turn up the mass of the cluster? For our globular cluster model, we used , what if we tried , more like you would expect for a nuclear star cluster? We shouldn’t really be doing this, as our model is calibrated against globular cluster simulations, and nuclear star clusters have different dynamics, but we can use our results as illustrative. In this case, we find odds of about 1000:1 in favour of hierarchical mergers. This suggests that this option may be a promising one to follow, but we must moderate our results remembering that only a fraction of binaries would form in these dense environments.
The analysis is done using only our first 10 detected binary black hole from our first two observing runs plus GW190521. GW190521 is not the most representative of the third observing run detections (hence why it gets special papers™), so it is not exactly fair to stick it in to the mix to infer the population parameters. We’ll need to redo this analysis when we have the full results of the run to update the results. Having more binaries in the analysis should allow us to more precisely measure the population parameters, so we will be more confident in our results.
After all our investigations, we thought we had examined every aspect of GW190521. However, there’s always one more thing. As we were finishing up the paper, a potential electromagnetic counterpart was announced.
Electromagnetic counterparts are not expected when two black holes merge—black holes are indeed black—however, material around the binary could produce light.
The counterpart was found by the Zwicky Transient Factory. They targeted active galactic nuclei to look for counterparts. These are the bright cores of galaxies where the supermassive black hole is feeding off a surrounding disc. In this case, they hypothesis that the binary had some gas orbiting around it, and when the binary merged, the gravitational wave recoil kick sent the remnant black hole and its orbiting material into the disc of the supermassive black hole. As the orbiting material crashes into the disc it will emit light. Then, once it is blasted away, material from the disc accreting onto the remnant black hole will also emit light. This seems to fit with what was observed, with the later powering the observed emission.
What I think is exciting about this proposal is that active galactic nuclei are one of the channels predicted to produce binaries as massive as GW190521! Therefore, things seem to line up nicely.
The three dimensional localisation for GW190521. The lines indicate the position of the claimed electromagnetic counterpart from around an active galactic nucleus. This location lies at the 70% credible level. Credit: Will Farr
What I think is less certain is if the counterpart is really associated with our gravitational wave source. The observing team estimate that the probability of a chance association is small. However, there is a lot of uncertainty in how active galactic nuclei can flare. The good news is that the remnant black hole may continue to orbit and hit the disc again, leading to another flare. The bad news is that the uncertainty on when this happens is many years, so we don’t know when to look.
Follow-up analyses by Ashton et al. (2020) and Palmese et al. (2021) cast the association as more uncertain. It is difficult to be confident of an association when the localization volume is so large. If we knew that this type of flare had to look exactly like the observed emission, that would help, but we can’t be that certain yet.
Overall, I think we need to observe another similar association before we can be certain what’s going on. I really hope this candidate counterpart encourages people to follow up more binary black holes to look for emission. The unexpected discoveries are often the most rewarding.
This is the paper announcing the gravitational wave detection. It follows our now standard pattern for a detection paper of discussing our instruments and data quality; our detection algorithms and the statistical significance of the search; the inferred properties of the source, and a bit of testing gravity; a check of the reconstruction of the waveform, and then a nice summary looking forward to more discoveries to come.
What is a little different for this paper is that because the signal is so short, we have had to be extra careful in our checks of the detectors’ statuses, the reliability of our detection algorithms, and the assumptions that go into estimating the source properties. If you are sceptical of being able to detect such short signals, I recommend checking out the Supplemental Material for a summary of some of the tests we did.
In this paper we explore the properties of GW190521. We check the robustness of the inferred source properties. For such a short signal, our usual assumption that we have a quasicircular binary is probably the most sensible thing to do, but we can’t be certain, and if this assumption is wrong, then we will have got the properties wrong. Astronomy is hard sometimes. Assuming that our estimates of the properties are correct, we look at potential formation mechanisms. We don’t come to any firm conclusions, but sketch out some of the possibilities. We also look at tests of the black hole nature of the final object in a bit more detail. A few wibbles can sure cause a lot of excitement.
The uncertainty in when gravity will take over and squish things down to a black hole is set by the stiffness of neutron star matter. Neutron stars are the densest matter can be, this is the stiffest form of matter, the one most resistant to being crushed down into a black hole. The amount of weight neutron star matter can support is uncertain, so we don’t quite know their maximum mass yet. This made the discovery of GW190814 particularly intriguing. This gravitational wave came from a binary where the less massive component was about , exactly in the range where we’d expect the transition between neutron stars and black holes. We can’t tell for certain which it is, but I’ve bet my M&Ms on a black hole.
It’s potentially possible that there are black holes smaller than the maximum neutron star mass which didn’t form from collapsing stars. These are primordial black holes, which formed from overdense regions in the early universe. We don’t know for certain if they do exist, but we are looking.
Positrons are antielectrons, the antimatter equivalent of electrons. This means that they share identical properties to electrons except that they have opposite charge. Electrons things that the glass is half-empty, positrons think it is half-full. Neutrinos think that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be, but so long as we have a well-mixed cocktail, who cares?
In the jargon of LIGO and Virgo, we refer to the non-template detection algorithms as Burst searches, as they are good at spotting bursts of gravitational waves. Burst is not a terribly useful description if you’ve not met it before, so we generally try to avoid this in our papers. A common description is an unmodelled search, to distinguish from the template-based searches which use model waveforms as input. However, it’s not really true that the Burst searches don’t make modelling assumptions about the signal. For example, the cWB algorithm used to look for binaries assumes that the frequency will increase with time (as you would expect for an inspiralling binary). To avoid this, we’ve sometimes describes the search algorithm as weakly modelled, but that’s perhaps no clearer than Burst. For this post, I’ll stick to non-template as a description.
When talking about the orbits of binaries, we might be interested in their eccentricity. Eccentricity is a key tracer of how the binary formed. As binaries emit gravitational waves, they quickly lose their eccentricity, so in general we don’t expect there to be significant eccentricity for the binaries detected by LIGO and Virgo.
An orbit with zero eccentricity should be circular. However, since we have a binary emitting gravitational waves the orbit will be shrinking. As we have an inspiral, if you were to trace out the orbit, it would not be a circle, even though we would describe it as having zero eccentricity. This is particularly noticeable at the end of the inspiral, when we get close to the two objects plunging together. Hence, we describe orbits as quasicircular, which I think sounds rather cute.
The simulation above shows the orbit of an inspiral. Here the spins of the black holes also lead to the precession of the orbit, making it a bit more complicated than you might expect for a something described as circular, but, of course, not at all unexpected for something with a cool name like quasicircular. I also really like how this visualisation shows the event horizons of the two black holes merging.
Spin Bayes factors
To try to quantify the support for spin, we quote two Bayes factors. The first is for spin verses no spin. There we find a Bayes factor of about 8.3 in favour of there being spin. That’s not something you’d want to bet against, but for comparison, for GW190412 we found that is it over 400, and for GW151226 it is over a million. I’d expect any statement on spins for GW190521 will depend upon your prior assumptions. The second Bayes factor is in favour of measurable precession. This is not the same as comparing the Bayes factor between perfectly aligned spins (when there would be no precession) and generic, isotropically distributed spins. Instead we are comparing the scenario where we can measure in-plane spins verses the case where there are isotropically distributed but the in-plane spins don’t have any discernible consequences. Here we find a Bayes factor of 11.5 in favour of measurable precession. This makes sense as we do have some information on , and would expect an even Bayes factor of 1 if we only got the prior back. It seems we have gained some information about the spins from the signal.
For more on Bayes factors, I would suggest reading Zevin et al. (2020). In particular, this explains why it can make sense here that the Bayes factor for measurable precession is larger than the Bayes factor for there being spin. At first, it might appear odd that we can be more definite that there is precession than any spin at all. However, this is because in comparing spin verses no spin we are hit by the Occam factor—we are adding extra parameters to our model, and we are penalised for this. If the effects of spins are small, so that they are not worth including, we would expect no-spin to win. When looking at the measurability of precession, we have set up the comparison so that there is no Occam factor. We can only win, if waveforms with precession clearly fit the data better, or break even if they make no difference.
To put a luminosity distance of in context, if you put $1 in a jar ever two weeks over the duration the gravitational wave signal was travelling from its source to us (7.1 billion years, about 1.5 times the age of the Sun), you would end up with about a net worth only 7% less than Jeff Bezos (currently $199.3 billion).
On 1 April 2019 LIGO and Virgo began their third observing run (O3). Never before had we observed using such sensitive gravitational wave detectors. Throughout O3 discoveries came rapidly. Binary black holes are our most common source, and as we built a larger collection we starting to find some unusual systems. GW190412 is our first observation from a binary with two distinctly differently sized black holes. This observation lets us test our predictions for gravitational wave signals in a new way, and is another piece in the puzzle of understanding how binary black holes form.
On 12 April 2019 I awoke to the news that we had a new gravitational wave candidate [bonus note]. The event was picked up by our searches and sent out as a public alert under the name S190412m. The signal is a real beauty. There’s a striking chirp visible in the Livingston data, and a respectable chirp in the Hanford data. You can’t see a chirp in Virgo, the signal-to-noise ratio is only about 4, but this is why we have cunning search algorithms instead of looking at the data by eye. In our final search results, our matched-filter searches (which use templates of gravitational wave signals to comb through the data) GstLAL and PyCBC identified the event with false alarm rates of better than 1 in 100,000 years and 1 in 30,000 years, respectively. Our unmodelled search coherent WaveBurst (which looks for compatible signals in multiple detectors, rather than a specific template) also identified the event with a false alarm rate of better than 1 in 1,000 years. This is a confident detection!
Time–frequency plots for GW190412 as measured by LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston and Virgo. The chirp of a binary coalescence is clearer in two LIGO detectors, with the signal being loudest in Livingston. Figure 1 of the GW190412 Discovery Paper.
Vanilla black holes
Our first gravitational wave detection, GW150914, was amazing. We had never seen a black hole around 30 times the mass of our Sun, and here we had two merging together (which we had also never seen). By the end of our second observing run, we had discovered that GW150914 was not rare! Many of detections consisted of two roughly equal mass black holes around 20 to 40 times the mass of Sun. We now call these systems vanilla binary black holes. They are nice and easy to analyse: we know what to do, and it’s not too difficult. I think that these signals are delicious.
GW190412’s source, however, is different. We estimate that the binary had one black hole times the mass of our Sun (quoting the 90% range for parameters), and the other times the mass of our Sun. Neither of these masses is too surprising on their own. We know black holes come in these sizes. What is new is the ratio of the masses [bonus note]. This is roughly equal to the ratio of filling in a regular Oreo to in a Mega Stuf Oreo. Investigations of connections between Oreos and black hole formation are ongoing. All our previous observations have mass ratios close to 1 or at least with uncertainties stretching all the way to 1. GW190412’s mass ratio is the exception.
Estimated mass ratio for the two components in the binary and the effective inspiral spin (a mass-weighted combination of the spins perpendicular to the orbital plane). We show results for two different model waveforms: Phenom PHM and EOB PHM (the PHM stands for precession and higher order multipoles). Systems with unequal masses are difficult to model, so we have some extra uncertainty from the accuracy of our models. The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour. The one-dimensional plots show the probability distributions and the the dotted lines mark the central 90%. Figure 2 of the GW190412 Discovery Paper.
The interesting mass ratio has a few awesome implications:
We get a really wonderful measurement of the spin of the more massive black hole.
We can observe a new feature of the gravitational wave signal (higher order multipole moments).
We understand a bit more about the population of binary black holes.
Black holes have two important properties: mass (how much the bend spacetime) and spin (how much they swirl spacetime around). The black hole masses are most important for determining what a gravitational wave signal looks like, so we measure the masses pretty well. Spins leave a more subtle imprint, and so are more difficult to measure.
where and are the spins of the two black holes [bonus note], and and are the tilts angles measuring the alignment of the spins with the orbital angular momentum. The spins change orientations during the inspiral if they are not perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum, which is referred to as precession, but is roughly constant. It also effects the rate of inspiral, binaries with larger also merge when they’re a bit closer. For GW190412, we measure .
This is only the second time we’ve had a definite non-zero measurement of after GW151226. GW170729 had a reasonable large value, but the uncertainties did stretch to include zero. The measurement of a non-zero means that we know at least one of the black holes has spin.
The effective inspiral spin parameter measures the spin components aligned with the orbital angular momentum. To measure the spin components in the orbital plane, we typically use the effective precession spin parameter [bonus note]
This characterises how much spin precession we have: 1 means significant in-plane spin and maximal precession, and zero means no in-plane spin and no precession.
For GW190412, we measure . This is the best measurement of so far. It shows that we don’t see strong procession, but also suggests that there is some in-plane spin.
Estimated effective precession spin parameter . Results are shown for two different waveform models. To indicate how much (or little) we’ve learnt, the prior probability distribution is shown: the global prior is what we would get if we had learnt nothing, the restricted prior is what we would have after placing cuts on the effective inspiral spin parameter and mass ratio to match our observations. We are definitely getting information on precession from the data. Figure 5 of the GW190412 Discovery Paper.
Now, since we know that the masses are unequal in the binary, the contribution to is dominated by the spin of the larger black hole, or at least the component of the spin aligned with the orbital angular momentum (), and similarly is dominated by the in-place components of the larger black hole’s spin (). Combining all this information, we can actually get a good measurement of the spin of the bigger black hole. We infer that . This is the first time we’ve really been able to measure an individual spin!
We don’t yet have a really good understanding of the spins black holes are born with. Their spins can increase if they accrete material, but it needs to be a lot of stuff to change it significantly. When we make a few more spin measurements, I’m looking forward to using the information to help figure out the histories of our black holes.
Higher order multipoles
When calculating gravitational wave signals, we often use spin-weighted spherical harmonics. These are a set of functions, which describe possible patterns on a sphere. Using them, we can describe the amount of gravitational waves emitted in a particular direction. Any gravitational wave signal can be approximated as a sum of the spin-weighted spherical harmonics , where we use as the angles on the sphere, and specify the harmonic. The majority of the gravitational radiation emitted from a binary is from the harmonic, so we usually start with this. Larger values of contribute less and less. For exactly equal mass binaries with non-spinning components, only harmonics with even are non-zero, so really the harmonic is all you need. For unequal mass binaries this is not the case. Here odd are important, and harmonics with are expected to contribute a significant amount. In previous detection, we’ve not had to worry too much about the harmonics with , which we refer to as higher order multipole moments, as they contributed little to the signal. GW190412’s unequal masses mean that they are important here.
During the inspiral, the frequency of the part of the gravitational wave signal corresponding to a given is , where is the orbital frequency. Most of the signal is emitted at twice the orbital frequency, but the emission from the higher order multipoles is at higher frequencies. If the multipole was a music A, then the multipole would correspond to an E, and if the multipole was a C, the would be a G. There’s a family of chirps [bonus note]. For GW190412, we clearly pick out the frequency component at showing the significance of the mode. This shows that the harmonic structure of gravitational waves is as expected [bonus note]. We have observed a perfect fifth, as played by the inspiral of two black holes.
Using waveforms which include higher order multipoles is important to get good measurements of the source’s parameters. We would not get a good measurement of the mass ratio or the distance (, corresponding to a travel time for the signal of around 2 billion years) using templates calculated using only the harmonic.
The black hole population
GW190412’s source has two unequal mass black holes, unlike our vanilla binary black holes. Does this indicate a new flavour of binary black hole, and what can we learn about how it formed from it’s properties?
After our second observing run, we analysed our family of ten binary black holes to infer what the population looked like. This included fitting for the distribution of mass mass ratios. We assumed that the mass ratios were drawn from a distribution something like and estimated the value of . A result of would mean that all mass ratios were equally common, while larger values would mean that binaries liked more equal mass binaries. Our analysis preferred larger values of , making it appear that black holes were picky about their partners. However, with only ten systems, our uncertainties spanned the entire range we’d allowed for . It was too early to say anything definite about the mass ratio distribution.
If we add in GW190412 to the previous ten observations, we get a much tighter measurement of , and generally prefer values towards the lower end of what we found previously. Really, we shouldn’t just add in GW190412 when making statements about the entire population, we should fold in everything we saw in our observing run. We’re working on that. For now, consider these as preliminary results which would be similar to those we would have got if the observing run was only a couple of weeks long.
Estimated power-law slope for the binary black hole mass ratio distribution . Dotted lines show the results with our first ten detections, and solid lines include GW190412. Results are shown for two different waveform models. Figure 11 of the GW190412 Discovery Paper.
Since most of the other binaries are more equal mass, we can see the effects of folding this information into our analysis of GW190412. Instead of making weak assumptions about what we expect the masses to be (we normally assume uniform prior probability on the masses as redshifted and measured in the detector, as that’s easy to work with), we can use our knowledge of the population. In this case, our prior expectation that we should have something near equal mass does shift the result a little, the 90% upper limit for the mass ratio shifts from to , but we see that the mass ratio is still clearly unequal.
Have we detected a new flavour of binary black hole? Should we be lumping in GW190412 with the others, or should it be it’s own category? Going back to our results from the second observing run, we find that we’d expect that in a set of eleven observations that at least one would have a mass ratio as extreme as GW190412 of the time. Therefore, GW190412 is exceptional, but not completely inconsistent with our previous observations. If we repeat the calculation using the population inferred folding in GW190412, we (unsurprisingly) find it is much less unusual, with such systems being found in a set of eleven observations of the time. In conclusion, GW190412 is not vanilla, but is possibly raspberry ripple or Neapolitan: there’s still a trace of vanilla in there to connect it to the more usual binaries
Now we’ve compared GW190412 to our previous observations, where does its source fit in with predictions? The two main options for making a merging binary black hole are via isolated evolution, where two stars live their lives together, and dynamical formation, where you have lots of black holes in a dense environment like a globular cluster and two get close enough together to capture each other. Both of these favour more equal mass binaries, with unequal mass binaries like GW190412’s source being rare (but not impossible). Since we’ve only seen one system with such a mass ratio in amongst our detections so far, either channel could possibly explain things. My money is on a mixture.
In case you were curious, calculations from Chase Kimball indicate that GW190412 is not a hierarchical merger with the primary black hole being formed from the merger of two smaller black holes.
Odds of binary black holes being a hierarchical merger verses being original generation binary. 1G indicates first generation black holes formed from the collapse of stars, 2G indicates a black hole formed from the merger of two 1G black holes. These are preliminary results using the GWTC-1 results plus GW!90412. Fig. 15 of Kimball et al. (2020).
As we build up a larger collection of detections, we’ll be able to use our constraints on the population to better understand the relative contributions from the different formation mechanisms, and hence the physics of black hole manufacturing.
Einstein is not wrong yet
Finally, since GW190412 is beautifully loud and has a respectably long inspiral, we were able to perform our usual tests of general relativity and confirm that all is as predicted.
We performed the inspiral/merger–ringdown consistency test, where we check that parameters inferred from the early, low frequency part of the signal match those from the later, high frequency part. They do.
We also performed the parameterized test, where we we allow different pieces of the signal template vary. We found that all the deviations were consistent with zero, as expected. The results are amongst the tightest we have from a single event, being comparable to results from GW151226 and GW170608. These are the lowest mass binary black holes we’ve observed so far, and so have the longest chirps.
We’ll keep checking for any evidence that Einstein’s theory of gravity is wrong. If Columbo has taught us anything, it is that the guest star is usually guilty. If it’s taught us something else, it’s the importance of a good raincoat. After that, however, it’s taught us the importance of perseverance, and always asking one more thing. Maybe we’ll catch Einstein out eventually.
Just a taste of what’s to come
GW190412 was observed on the 12th day of O3. There were many detections to follow. Using this data set, we’ll be able to understand the properties of black holes and gravitational waves better than ever before. There are exciting results still being finalised.
Perhaps there will be a salted caramel binary black hole, or even a rocky road flavoured one? We might need to wait for our next observing run in 2021 for sprinkles though.
Possibly the greatest dispute in gravitational wave astronomy is the definition of . We pretty much all agree that the larger mass in a binary is and the lesser mass . However, there two camps on the mass ratio: those enlightened individuals who define , meaning that the mass ratio spans the entirely sensible range of , and those heretics who define , meaning that it cover the ridiculous range of . Within LIGO and Virgo, we have now settled on the correct convention. Many lives may have been lost, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it is a sacrifice worth making in the cause of consistent notation.
The second greatest dispute may be what to call the spin magnitudes. In LIGO and Virgo we’ve often used both (the Greek letter chi) and . After a tense negotiation, conflict was happily avoided, and we have settled on , with only the minimum amount of bloodshed. If you’re reading some of our older stuff, please bear in mind that we’ve not been consistent about the meaning of these symbols.
Sadly, my suggestions to call and Chip and Dale have not caught on.
Here are two model waveforms (made by Florian Wicke and Frank Ohme) consistent with the properties of GW190412, but shifted in frequency by a factor of 25 to make them easier to hear:
Can you tell the difference? I prefer the more proper one with harmonics.
Exactly as predicted
The presence of higher order multipole moments, as predicted, could be seen as another win for Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, we expect the same pattern of emission in any theory, as it’s really set by the geometry of the source. If the frequency were not an integer multiple of the orbital frequency, the gravitational waves would get out of phase with their source, which would not make any sense.
The really cool thing, in my opinion, is that we now how detectors sensitive enough to pick out these subtle details.
LIGO and Virgo make their data open for anyone to try analysing [bonus note]. If you’re a student looking for a project, a teacher planning a class activity, or a scientist working on a paper, this data is waiting for you to use. Understanding how to analyse the data can be tricky. In this post, I’ll share some of the resources made by LIGO and Virgo to help introduce gravitational-wave analysis. These papers together should give you a good grounding in how to get started working with gravitational-wave data.
It took many decades to develop the technology necessary to build gravitational-wave detectors. Similarly, gravitational-wave data analysis has developed over many decades—I’d say LIGO analysis was really kicked off in the early 1990s by Kipp Thorne’s group. There are now hundreds of papers on various aspects of gravitational-wave analysis. If you are new to the area, where should you start? Don’t panic! For the binary sources discovered so far, this Data Analysis Guide has you covered.
Data from the LIGO and Virgo detectors is released by the Gravitational Wave Open Science Center (GWOSC, pronounced, unfortunately, as it is spelt). If you want to try analysing our delicious data yourself, either searching for signals or studying the signals we have found, GWOSC is the place to start. This paper outlines how these data are produced, going from our laser interferometers to your hard-drive. The paper specifically looks at the data released for our first and second observing runs (O1 and O2), however, GWOSC also host data from the initial detectors’ fifth science run (S5) and sixth science run (S6), and will be updated with new data in the future.
If you do use data from GWOSC, please remember to say thank you.
Synopsis:Data Analysis Guide Read this if: You want an introduction to signal analysis Favourite part: This is a great resource for new students [bonus note]
Gravitational-wave detectors measure ripples in spacetime. They record a simple time series of the stretching and squeezing of space as a gravitational wave passes. Well, they measure that, plus a whole lot of noise. Most of the time it is just noise. How do we go from this time series to discoveries about the Universe’s black holes and neutron stars? This paper gives the outline, it covers (in order)
Residuals around GW150914—a consistency check that we have understood the noise surrounding our first detection
The paper works through things thoroughly, and I would encourage you to work though it if you are interested.
I won’t summarise everything here, I want to focus the (roughly undergraduate-level) foundations of how we do our analysis in the frequency domain. My discussion of the GWOSC Paper goes into more detail on the basics of LIGO and Virgo data, and some details on calibration and data quality. I’ll leave talking about residuals to this bonus note, as it involves a long tangent and me needing to lie down for a while.
The signal our detectors measure is a time series . This is may just contain noise, , or it may also contain a signal, .
There are many sources of noise for our detectors. The different sources can affect different frequencies. If we assume that the noise is stationary, so that it’s properties don’t change with time, we can simply describe the properties of the noise with the power spectral density . On average we expect the noise at a given frequency to be zero, but with it fluctuating up and down with a variance given by the power spectral density. We typically approximate the noise as Gaussian, such that
where we use to represent a normal distribution with mean and standard deviation . The approximations of stationary and Gaussian noise are good most of the time. The noise does vary over time, but is usually effectively stationary over the durations we look at for a signal. The noise is also mostly Gaussian except for glitches. These are taken into account when we search for signals, but we’ll ignore them for now. The statistical description of the noise in terms of the power spectral density allows us to understand our data, but this understanding comes as a function of frequency: we must transform of time domain data to frequency domain data.
The go from to we can use a Fourier transform. Fourier transforms are a way of converting a function of one variable into a function of a reciprocal variable—in the case of time you convert to frequency. Fourier transforms encode all the information of the original function, so it is possible to convert back and forth as you like. Really, a Fourier transform is just another way of looking at the same function.
The Fourier transform is defined as
Now, from this you might notice a problem when it comes to real data analysis, namely that the integral is defined over an infinite amount of time. We don’t have that much data. Instead, we only have a short period.
We could recast the integral above over a shorter time if instead of taking the Fourier transform of , we take the Fourier transform of where is some window function which goes to zero outside of the time interval we are looking at. What we end up with is a convolution of the function we want with the Fourier transform of the window function,
It is important to pick a window function which minimises the distortion to the signal that we want. If we just take a tophat (also known as a boxcar or rectangular, possibly on account of its infamous criminal background) function which is abruptly cuts off the data at the ends of the time interval, we find that is a sinc function. This is not a good thing, as it leads to all sorts of unwanted correlations between different frequencies, commonly known as spectral leakage. A much better choice is a function which smoothly tapers to zero at the edges. Using a tapering window, we lose a little data at the edges (we need to be careful choosing the length of the data analysed), but we can avoid the significant nastiness of spectral leakage. A tapering window function should always be used. Then or finite-time Fourier transform is then a good approximation to the exact .
Data processing to reveal GW150914. The top panel shows raw Hanford data. The second panel shows a window function being applied. The third panel shows the data after being whitened. This cleans up the data, making it easier to pick out the signal from all the low frequency noise. The bottom panel shows the whitened data after a bandpass filter is applied to pick out the signal. We don’t use the bandpass filter in our analysis (it is just for illustration), but the other steps reflect how we treat our data. Figure 2 of the Data Analysis Guide.
Now we have our data in the frequency domain, it is simple enough to compare the data to the expected noise a t a given frequency. If we measure something loud at a frequency with lots of noise we should be less surprised than if we measure something loud at a frequency which is usually quiet. This is kind of like how somewhat shouting is less startling at a rock concert than in a library. The appropriate way to weight is to divide by the square root of power spectral density . This is known as whitening. Whitened data should have equal amplitude fluctuations at all frequencies, allowing for easy comparisons.
Now we understand the statistical properties of noise we can do some analysis! We can start by testing our assumption that the data are stationary and Gaussian by checking that that after whitening we get the expected distribution. We can also define the likelihood of obtaining the data given a model of a gravitational-wave signal , as the properties of the noise mean that . Combining the likelihood for each individual frequency gives the overall likelihood
This likelihood is at the heart of parameter estimation, as we can work out the probability of there being a signal with a given set of parameters. The Data Analysis Guide goes through many different analyses (including parameter estimation) and demonstrates how to check that noise is nice and Gaussian.
Distribution of residuals for 4 seconds of data around GW150914 after subtracting the maximum likelihood waveform. The residuals are the whitened Fourier amplitudes, and they should be consistent with a unit Gaussian. The residuals follow the expected distribution and show no sign of non-Gaussianity. Figure 14 of the Data Analysis Guide.
Synopsis:GWOSC Paper Read this if: You want to analyse our gravitational wave data Favourite part: All the cool projects done with this data
You’re now up-to-speed with some ideas of how to analyse gravitational-wave data, you’ve made yourself a fresh cup of really hot tea, you’re ready to get to work! All you need are the data—this paper explains where this comes from.
The first step in getting gravitational-wave data is the easy one. You need to design a detector, convince science agencies to invest something like half a billion dollars in building one, then spend 40 years carefully researching the necessary technology and putting it all together as part of an international collaboration of hundreds of scientists, engineers and technicians, before painstakingly commissioning the instrument and operating it. For your convenience, we have done this step for you, but do feel free to try it yourself at home.
Gravitational-wave detectors like Advanced LIGO are built around an interferometer: they have two arms at right angles to each other, and we bounce lasers up and down them to measure their length. A passing gravitational wave will change the relative length of one arm relative to the other. This changes the time taken to travel along one arm compared to the other. Hence, when the two bits of light reach the output of the interferometer, they’ll have a different phase:where normally one light wave would have a peak, it’ll have a trough. This change in phase will change how light from the two arms combine together. When no gravitational wave is present, the light interferes destructively, almost cancelling out so that the output is dark. We measure the brightness of light at the output which tells us about how the length of the arms changes.
We want our detector in measure the gravitational-wave strain. That is the fractional change in length of the arms,
where is the relative difference in the length of the two arms, and is the usually arm length. Since we love jargon in LIGO & Virgo, we’ll often refer to the strain as HOFT (as you would read as h of t; it took me years to realise this) or DARM (differential arm measurement).
The actual output of the detector is the voltage from a photodiode measuring the intensity of the light. It is necessary to make careful calibration of the detectors. In theory this is simple: we change the position of the mirrors at the end of the arms and see how the output changes. In practise, it is very difficult. The GW150914 Calibration Paper goes into details for O1, more up-to-date descriptions are given in Cahillane et al. (2017) for LIGO and Acernese et al. (2018) for Virgo. The calibration of the detectors can drift over time, improving the calibration is one of the things we do between originally taking the data and releasing the final data.
The data are only celebrated between 10 Hz and 5 kHz, so don’t trust the data outside of that frequency range.
The next stage of our data’s journey is going through detector characterisation and data quality checks. In addition to measuring gravitational-wave strain, we record many other data channels: about 200,000 per detector. These measure all sorts of things, from the internal state of the instrument, to monitoring the physical environment around the detectors. These auxiliary channels are used to check the data quality. In some cases, an auxiliary channel will record a source of noise, like scattered light or the mains power frequency, allowing us to clean up our strain data by subtracting out this noise. In other cases, an auxiliary channel can act as a witness to a glitch in our detector, identifying when it is misbehaving so that we know not to trust that part of the data. The GW150914 Detector Characterisation Paper goes into details of how we check potential detections. In doing data quality checks we are careful to only use the auxiliary channels which record something which would be independent of a passing gravitational wave.
We have 4 flags for data quality:
DATA: All clear. Certified fresh. Eat as much as you like.
CAT1: A critical problem with the instrument. Data from these times are likely to be a dumpster fire of noise. We do not use them in our analyses, and they are currently excluded from our public releases. About 1.7% of Hanford data and 1.0% of time from Livingston was flagged with CAT1 in O1. In O2, we got this done to 0.001% for Hanford, 0.003% for Livingston and 0.05% for Virgo.
CAT2: Some activity in an auxiliary channel (possibly the electric boogaloo monitor) which has a well understood correlation with the measured strain channel. You would therefore expect to find some form of glitchiness in the data.
CAT3: There is some correlation in an auxiliary channel and the strain channel which is not understood. We’re not currently using this flag, but it’s kept as an option.
It’s important to verify the data quality before starting your analysis. You don’t want to get excited to discover a completely new form of gravitational wave only to realise that it’s actually some noise from nearby logging. Remember, if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around, LIGO will still know.
To test our systems, we also occasionally perform a signal injection: we move the mirrors to simulate a signal. This is useful for calibration and for testing analysis algorithms. We don’t perform injections very often (they get in the way of looking for real signals), but these times are flagged. Just as for data quality flags, it is important to check for injections before analysing a stretch of data.
Once passing through all these checks, the data is ready to analyse!
After our data have been lovingly prepared, they are served up in two data formats:
Hierarchical Data Format HDF, which is a popular data storage format, as it is easily allows for metadata and multiple data sets (like the important data quality flags) to be packaged together.
Gravitational Wave Frame GWF, which is the standard format we use internally. Veteran gravitational-wave scientists often get a far-way haunted look when you bring up how the specifications for this file format were decided. It’s best not to mention unless you are also buying them a stiff drink.
In these files, you will find sampled at either 4096 Hz or 16384 Hz (either are available). Pick the sampling rate you need depending upon the frequency range you are interested in: the 4096 Hz data are good for upto 1.7 kHz, while the 16384 Hz are good to the limit of the calibration range at 5 kHz.
Files can be downloaded from the GWOSC website. If you want to download a large amount, it is recommended to use the CernVM-FS distributed file system.
To check when the gravitational-wave detectors were observing, you can use the Timeline search.
Screenshot of the GWOSC Timeline showing observing from the fifth science run (S5) on the initial detector era through to the second observing run (O2) of the advanced detector era. Bars show observing of GEO 600 (G1), Hanford (H1 and H2), Livingston (L1) and Virgo (V1). Hanford initial had two detectors housed within its site, the plan in the advanced detector era is to install the equipment as LIGO India instead.
Try this at home
Having gone through all these details, you should now know what are data is, over what ranges it can be analyzed, and how to get access to it. Your cup of tea has also probably gone cold. Why not make yourself a new one, and have a couple of biscuits as reward too. You deserve it!
In a chunk surrounding an event at time of publication of that event. This enables the new detection to be analysed by anyone. We typically release about an hour of data around an event.
18 months after the end of the run. This time gives us chance to properly calibrate the data, check the data quality, and then run the analyses we are committed to. A lot of work goes into producing gravitational wave data!
Start marking your calendars now for the release of O3 data.
In summer 2019, while we were finishing up on the Data Analysis Guide, I gave it to one of my summer students Andrew Kim as an introduction. Andrew was working on gravitational-wave data analysis, so I hoped that he’d find it useful. He ended up working through the draft notebook made to accompany the paper and making a number of useful suggestions! He ended up as an author on the paper because of these contributions, which was nice.
The conspiracy of residuals
The Data Analysis Guide is an extremely useful paper. It explains many details of gravitational-wave analysis. The detections made by LIGO and Virgo over the last few years has increased the interest in analysing gravitational waves, making it the perfect time to write such an article. However, that’s not really what motivated us to write it.
In 2017, a paper appeared on the arXiv making claims of suspicious correlations in our LIGO data around GW150914. Could this call into question the very nature of our detection? No. The paper has two serious flaws.
The first argument in the paper was that there were suspicious phase correlations in the data. This is because the authors didn’t window their data before Fourier transforming.
The second argument was the residuals presented in Figure 1 of the GW150914 Discovery Paper contain a correlation. This is true, but these residuals aren’t actually the results of how we analyse the data. The point of Figure 1 was to that you don’t need our fancy analysis to see the signal—you can spot it by eye. Unfortunately, doing things by eye isn’t perfect, and this imperfection was picked up on.
The first flaw is a rookie mistake—pretty much everyone does it at some point. I did it starting out as a first-year PhD student, and I’ve run into it with all the undergraduates I’ve worked with writing their own analyses. The authors of this paper are rookies in gravitational-wave analysis, so they shouldn’t be judged too harshly for falling into this trap, and it is something so simple I can’t blame the referee of the paper for not thinking to ask. Any physics undergraduate who has met Fourier transforms (the second year of my degree) should grasp the mistake—it’s not something esoteric you need to be an expert in quantum gravity to understand.
The second flaw is something which could have been easily avoided if we had been more careful in the GW150914 Discovery Paper. We could have easily aligned the waveforms properly, or more clearly explained that the treatment used for Figure 1 is not what we actually do. However, we did write many other papers explaining what we did do, so we were hardly being secretive. While Figure 1 was not perfect, it was not wrong—it might not be what you might hope for, but it is described correctly in the text, and none of the LIGO–Virgo results depend on the figure in any way.
Recovered gravitational waveforms from our analysis of GW150914. The grey line shows the data whitened by the noise spectrum. The dark band shows our estimate for the waveform without assuming a particular source. The light bands show results if we assume it is a binary black hole (BBH) as predicted by general relativity. This plot more accurately represents how we analyse gravitational-wave data. Figure 6 of the GW150914 Parameter Estimation Paper.
Both mistakes are easy to fix. They are at the level of “Oops, that’s embarrassing! Give me 10 minutes. OK, that looks better”. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
The paper regrettably got picked up by science blogs, and caused much of a flutter. There were demands that LIGO and Virgo publically explain ourselves. This was difficult—the Collaboration is set up to do careful science, not handle a PR disaster. One of the problems was that we didn’t want to be seen to policing the use of our data. We can’t check that every paper ever using our data does everything perfectly. We don’t have time, and that probably wouldn’t encourage people to use our data if they knew any mistake would be pulled up by this 1000 person collaboration. A second problem was that getting anything approved as an official Collaboration document takes ages—getting consensus amongst so many people isn’t always easy. What would you do—would you want to be the faceless Collaboration persecuting the helpless, plucky scientists trying to check results?
There were private communications between people in the Collaboration and the authors. It took us a while to isolate the sources of the problems. In the meantime, pressure was mounting for an official™ response. It’s hard to justify why your analysis is correct by gesturing to a stack of a dozen papers—people don’t have time to dig through all that (I actually sent links to 16 papers to a science journalist who contacted me back in July 2017). Our silence may have been perceived as arrogance or guilt.
It was decided that we would put out an unofficial response. Ian Harry had been communicating with the authors, and wrote up his notes which Sean Carroll kindly shared on his blog. Unfortunately, this didn’t really make anyone too happy. The authors of the paper weren’t happy that something was shared via such an informal medium; the post is too technical for the general public to appreciate, and there was a minor typo in the accompanying code which (since fixed) was seized upon. It became necessary to write a formal paper.
We did continue to try to explain the errors to the authors. I have colleagues who spent many hours in a room in Copenhagen trying to explain the mistakes. However, little progress was made, and it was not a fun time™. I can imagine at this point that the authors of the paper were sufficiently angry not to want to listen, which is a shame.
Now that the Data Analysis Guide is published, everyone will be satisfied, right? A refereed journal article should quash all fears, surely? Sadly, I doubt this will be the case. I expect these doubts will keep circulating for years. After all, there are those who still think vaccines cause autism. Fortunately, not believing in gravitational waves won’t kill any children. If anyone asks though, you can tell them that any doubts on LIGO’s analysis have been quashed, and that vaccines cause adults!
For a good account of the back and forth, Natalie Wolchover wrote a nice article in Quanta, and for a more acerbic view, try Mark Hannam’s blog.
The first gravitational wave detection of LIGO and Virgo’s third observing run (O3) has been announced: GW190425! [bonus note] The signal comes from the inspiral of two objects which have a combined mass of about 3.4 times the mass of our Sun. These masses are in range expected for neutron stars, this makes GW190425 the second observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star inspiral (after GW170817). While the individual masses of the two components agree with the masses of neutron stars found in binaries, the overall mass of the binary (times the mass of our Sun) is noticeably larger than any previously known binary neutron star system. GW190425 may be the first evidence for multiple ways of forming binary neutron stars.
The gravitational wave signal
On 25 April 2019 the LIGO–Virgo network observed a signal. This was promptly shared with the world as candidate event S190425z [bonus note]. The initial source classification was as a binary neutron star. This caused a flurry of excitement in the astronomical community [bonus note], as the smashing together of two neutron stars should lead to the emission of light. Unfortunately, the sky localization was HUGE (the initial 90% area wass about a quarter of the sky, and the refined localization provided the next day wasn’t much improvement), and the distance was four times that of GW170817 (meaning that any counterpart would be about 16 times fainter). Covering all this area is almost impossible. No convincing counterpart has been found [bonus note].
Early sky localization for GW190425. Darker areas are more probable. This localization was circulated in GCN 24228 on 26 April and was used to guide follow-up, even though it covers a huge amount of the sky (the 90% area is about 18% of the sky).
The localization for GW19045 was so large because LIGO Hanford (LHO) was offline at the time. Only LIGO Livingston (LLO) and Virgo were online. The Livingston detector was about 2.8 times more sensitive than Virgo, so pretty much all the information came from Livingston. I’m looking forward to when we have a larger network of detectors at comparable sensitivity online (we really need three detectors observing for a good localization).
We typically search for gravitational waves by looking for coincident signals in our detectors. When looking for binaries, we have templates for what the signals look like, so we match these to the data and look for good overlaps. The overlap is quantified by the signal-to-noise ratio. Since our detectors contains all sorts of noise, you’d expect them to randomly match templates from time to time. On average, you’d expect the signal-to-noise ratio to be about 1. The higher the signal-to-noise ratio, the less likely that a random noise fluctuation could account for this.
Our search algorithms don’t just rely on the signal-to-noise ratio. The complication is that there are frequently glitches in our detectors. Glitches can be extremely loud, and so can have a significant overlap with a template, even though they don’t look anything like one. Therefore, our search algorithms also look at the overlap for different parts of the template, to check that these match the expected distribution (for example, there’s not one bit which is really loud, while the others don’t match). Each of our different search algorithms has their own way of doing this, but they are largely based around the ideas from Allen (2005), which is pleasantly readable if you like these sort of things. It’s important to collect lots of data so that we know the expected distribution of signal-to-noise ratio and signal-consistency statistics (sometimes things change in our detectors and new types of noise pop up, which can confuse things).
It is extremely important to check the state of the detectors at the time of an event candidate. In O3, we have unfortunately had to retract various candidate events after we’ve identified that our detectors were in a disturbed state. The signal consistency checks take care of most of the instances, but they are not perfect. Fortunately, it is usually easy to identify that there is a glitch—the difficult question is whether there is a glitch on top of a signal (as was the case for GW170817). Our checks revealed nothing up with the detectors which could explain the signal (there was a small glitch in Livingston about 60 seconds before the merger time, but this doesn’t overlap with the signal).
Now, the search that identified GW190425 was actually just looking for single-detector events: outliers in the distribution of signal-to-noise ratio and signal-consistency as expected for signals. This was a Good Thing™. While the signal-to-noise ratio in Livingston was 12.9 (pretty darn good), the signal-to-noise ration in Virgo was only 2.5 (pretty meh) [bonus note]. This is below the threshold (signal-to-noise ratio of 4) the search algorithms use to look for coincidences (a threshold is there to cut computational expense: the lower the threshold, the more triggers need to be checked) [bonus note]. The Bad Thing™ about GW190425 being found by the single-detector search, and being missed by the usual multiple detector search, is that it is much harder to estimate the false-alarm rate—it’s much harder to rule out the possibility of some unusual noise when you don’t have another detector to cross-reference against. We don’t have a final estimate for the significance yet. The initial estimate was 1 in 69,000 years (which relies on significant extrapolation). What we can be certain of is that this event is a noticeable outlier: across the whole of O1, O2 and the first 50 days of O3, it comes second only to GW170817. In short, we can say that GW190425 is worth betting on, but I’m not sure (yet) how heavily you want to bet.
Detection statistics for GW190425 showing how it stands out from the background. The left plot shows the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and signal-consistency statistic from the GstLAL algorithm, which made the detection. The coloured density plot shows the distribution of background triggers. Right shows the detection statistic from PyCBC, which combines the SNR and their signal-consistency statistic. The lines show the background distributions. GW190425 is more significant than everything apart from GW170817. Adapted from Figures 1 and 6 of the GW190425 Discovery Paper.
I’m always cautious of single-detector candidates. If you find a high-mass binary black hole (which would be an extremely short template), or something with extremely high spins (indicating that the templates don’t match unless you push to the bounds of what is physical), I would be suspicious. Here, we do have consistent Virgo data, which is good for backing up what is observed in Livingston. It may be a single-detector detection, but it is a multiple-detector observation. To further reassure ourselves about GW190425, we ran our full set of detection algorithms on the Livingston data to check that they all find similar signals, with reasonable signal-consistency test values. Indeed, they do! The best explanation for the data seems to be a gravitational wave.
Given that we have a gravitational wave, where did it come from? The best-measured property of a binary inspiral is its chirp mass—a particular combination of the two component masses. For GW190425, this is solar masses (quoting the 90% range for parameters). This is larger than GW170817’s solar masses: we have a heavier binary.
Estimated masses for the two components in the binary. We show results for two different spin limits. 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. The masses are in the range expected for neutron stars. Figure 3 of the GW190425 Discovery Paper.
Figuring out the component masses is trickier. There is a degeneracy between the spins and the mass ratio—by increasing the spins of the components it is possible to get more extreme mass ratios to fit the signal. As we did for GW170817, we quote results with two ranges of spins. The low-spin results use a maximum spin of 0.05, which matches the range of spins we see for binary neutron stars in our Galaxy, while the high-spin results use a limit of 0.89, which safely encompasses the upper limit for neutron stars (if they spin faster than about 0.7 they’ll tear themselves apart). We find that the heavier component of the binary has a mass of – solar masses with the low-spin assumption, and – solar masses with the high-spin assumption; the lighter component has a mass – solar masses with the low-spin assumption, and – solar masses with the high-spin. These are the range of masses expected for neutron stars.
Without an electromagnetic counterpart, we cannot be certain that we have two neutron stars. We could tell from the gravitational wave by measuring the imprint in the signal left by the tidal distortion of the neutron star. Black holes have a tidal deformability of 0, so measuring a nonzero tidal deformability would be the smoking gun that we have a neutron star. Unfortunately, the signal isn’t loud enough to find any evidence of these effects. This isn’t surprising—we couldn’t say anything for GW170817, without assuming its source was a binary neutron star, and GW170817 was louder and had a lower mass source (where tidal effects are easier to measure). We did check—it’s probably not the case that the components were made of marshmallow, but there’s not much more we can say (although we can still make pretty simulations). It would be really odd to have black holes this small, but we can’t rule out than at least one of the components was a black hole.
Two binary neutron stars is the most likely explanation for GW190425. How does it compare to other binary neutron stars? Looking at the 17 known binary neutron stars in our Galaxy, we see that GW190425’s source is much heavier. This is intriguing—could there be a different, previously unknown formation mechanism for this binary? Perhaps the survey of Galactic binary neutron stars (thanks to radio observations) is incomplete? Maybe the more massive binaries form in close binaries, which are had to spot in the radio (as the neutron star moves so quickly, the radio signals gets smeared out), or maybe such heavy binaries only form from stars with low metallicity (few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium) from earlier in the Universe’s history, so that they are no longer emitting in the radio today? I think it’s too early to tell—but it’s still fun to speculate. I expect there’ll be a flurry of explanations out soon.
Comparison of the total binary mass of the 10 known binary neutron stars in our Galaxy that will merge within a Hubble time and GW190425’s source (with both the high-spin and low-spin assumptions). We also show a Gaussian fit to the Galactic binaries. GW190425’s source is higher mass than previously known binary neutron stars. Figure 5 of the GW190425 Discovery Paper.
Since the source seems to be an outlier in terms of mass compared to the Galactic population, I’m a little cautious about using the low-spin results—if this sample doesn’t reflect the full range of masses, perhaps it doesn’t reflect the full range of spins too? I think it’s good to keep an open mind. The fastest spinning neutron star we know of has a spin of around 0.4, maybe binary neutron star components can spin this fast in binaries too?
One thing we can measure is the distance to the source: . That means the signal was travelling across the Universe for about half a billion years. This is as many times bigger than diameter of Earth’s orbit about the Sun, as the diameter of the orbit is than the height of a LEGO brick. Space is big.
We have now observed two gravitational wave signals from binary neutron stars. What does the new observation mean for the merger rate of binary neutron stars? To go from an observed number of signals to how many binaries are out there in the Universe we need to know how sensitive our detectors are to the sources. This depends on the masses of the sources, since more massive binaries produce louder signals. We’re not sure of the mass distribution for binary neutron stars yet. If we assume a uniform mass distribution for neutron stars between 0.8 and 2.3 solar masses, then at the end of O2 we estimated a merger rate of –. Now, adding in the first 50 days of O3, we estimate the rate to be –, so roughly the same (which is nice) [bonus note].
Since GW190425’s source looks rather different from other neutron stars, you might be interested in breaking up the merger rates to look at different classes. Using measured masses, we can construct rates for GW170817-like (matching the usual binary neutron star population) and GW190425-like binaries (we did something similar for binary black holes after our first detection). The GW170817-like rate is –, and the GW190425-like rate is lower at –. Combining the two (Assuming that binary neutron stars are all one class or the other), gives an overall rate of –, which is not too different than assuming the uniform distribution of masses.
Given these rates, we might expect some more nice binary neutron star signals in the O3 data. There is a lot of science to come.
GW190425 hints that there might be a greater variety of binary neutron stars out there than previously thought. As we collect more detections, we can start to reconstruct the mass distribution. Using this, together with the merger rate, we can start to pin down the details of how these binaries form.
As we find more signals, we should also find a few which are loud enough to measure tidal effects. With these, we can start to figure out the properties of the Stuff™ which makes up neutron stars, and potentially figure out if there are small black holes in this mass range. Discovering smaller black holes would be extremely exciting—these wouldn’t be formed from collapsing stars, but potentially could be remnants left over from the early Universe.
Probability distributions for neutron star masses and radii (blue for the more massive neutron star, orange for the lighter), assuming that GW190425’s source is a binary neutron star. The left plots use the high-spin assumption, the right plots use the low-spin assumptions. The top plots use equation-of-state insensitive relations, and the bottom use parametrised equation-of-state models incorporating the requirement that neutron stars can be 1.97 solar masses. Similar analyses were done in the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper. In the one-dimensional plots, the dashed lines indicate the priors. Figure 16 of the GW190425 Discovery Paper.
With more detections (especially when we have more detectors online), we should also be lucky enough to have a few which are well localised. These are the events when we are most likely to find an electromagnetic counterpart. As our gravitational-wave detectors become more sensitive, we can detect sources further out. These are much harder to find counterparts for, so we mustn’t expect every detection to have a counterpart. However, for nearby sources, we will be able to localise them better, and so increase our odds of finding a counterpart. From such multimessenger observations we can learn a lot. I’m especially interested to see how typical GW170817 really was.
O3 might see gravitational wave detection becoming routine, but that doesn’t mean gravitational wave astronomy is any less exciting!
The plan for publishing papers in O3 is that we would write a paper for any particularly exciting detections (such as a binary neutron star), and then put out a catalogue of all our results later. The initial discovery papers wouldn’t be the full picture, just the key details so that the entire community could get working on them. Our initial timeline was to get the individual papers out in four months—that’s not going so well, it turns out that the most interesting events have lots of interesting properties, which take some time to understand. Who’d have guessed?
We’re still working on getting papers out as soon as possible. We’ll be including full analyses, including results which we can’t do on these shorter timescales in our catalogue papers. The catalogue paper for the first half of O3 (O3a) is currently pencilled in for April 2020.
The name of a gravitational wave signal is set by the date it is observed. GW190425 is hence the gravitational wave (GW) observed on 2019 April 25th. Our candidates alerts don’t start out with the GW prefix, as we still need to do lots of work to check if they are real. Their names start with S for superevent (not for hope) [bonus bonus note], then the date, and then a letter indicating the order it was uploaded to our database of candidates (we upload candidates with false alarm rates of around one per hour, so there are multiple database entries per day, and most are false alarms). S190425z was the 26th superevent uploaded on 2019 April 25th.
What is a superevent? We call anything flagged by our detection pipelines an event. We have multiple detection pipelines, and often multiple pipelines produce events for the same stretch of data (you’d expect this to happen for real signals). It was rather confusing having multiple events for the same signal (especially when trying to quickly check a candidate to issue an alert), so in O3 we group together events from similar times into SUPERevents.
Pozanenko et al. (2019) suggest a gamma-ray burst observed by INTEGRAL (first reported in GCN 24170). The INTEGRAL team themselves don’t find anything in their data, and seem sceptical of the significance of the detection claim. The significance of the claim seems to be based on there being two peaks in the data (one about 0.5 seconds after the merger, one 5.9 seconds after the merger), but I’m not convinced why this should be the case. Nothing was observed by Fermi, which is possibly because the source was obscured by the Earth for them. I’m interested in seeing more study of this possible gamma-ray burst.
At the time of GW190425, I was attending the first day of the Enabling Multi-Messenger Astrophysics in the Big Data Era Workshop. This was a meeting bringing together many involved in the search for counterparts to gravitational wave events. The alert for S190425z cause some excitement. I don’t think there was much sleep that week.
The cafeteria at @stsci is just a war room now, with people scheduling satellites and telescopes all over the world, on the phone with colleagues, running around sharing rumors and the latest info. Exciting! @LIGO#Emma2019pic.twitter.com/2BnvOtYNcJ
The signal-to-noise ratio reported from our search algorithm for LIGO Livingston is 12.9, and the same code gives 2.5 for Virgo. Virgo was about 2.8 times less sensitive that Livingston at the time, so you might be wondering why we have a signal-to-noise ratio of 2.8, instead of 4.6? The reason is that our detectors are not equally sensitive in all directions. They are most sensitive directly to sources directly above and below, and less sensitive to sources from the sides. The relative signal-to-noise ratios, together with the time or arrival at the different detectors, helps us to figure out the directions the signal comes from.
In O2, GW170818 was only detected by GstLAL because its signal-to-noise ratios in Hanford and Virgo (4.1 and 4.2 respectively) were below the threshold used by PyCBC for their analysis (in O2 it was 5.5). Subsequently, PyCBC has been rerun on the O2 data to produce the second Open Gravitational-wave Catalog (2-OGC). This is an analysis performed by PyCBC experts both inside and outside the LIGO Scientific & Virgo Collaboration. For this, a threshold of 4 was used, and consequently they found GW170818, which is nice.
I expect that if the threshold for our usual multiple-detector detection pipelines were lowered to ~2, they would find GW190425. Doing so would make the analysis much trickier, so I’m not sure if anyone will ever attempt this. Let’s see. Perhaps the 3-OGC team will be feeling ambitious?
In comparing rates calculated for this papers and those from our end-of-O2 paper, my student Chase Kimball (who calculated the new numbers) would like me to remember that it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. The older numbers evaluated our sensitivity to gravitational waves by doing a large number of injections: we simulated signals in our data and saw what fraction of search algorithms could pick out. The newer numbers used an approximation (using a simple signal-to-noise ratio threshold) to estimate our sensitivity. Performing injections is computationally expensive, so we’re saving that for our end-of-run papers. Given that we currently have only two detections, the uncertainty on the rates is large, and so we don’t need to worry too much about the details of calculating the sensitivity. We did calibrate our approximation to past injection results, so I think it’s really an apples-to-pears-carved-into-the-shape-of-apples comparison.
The original plan for GW190425 was to have the paper published before the announcement, as we did with our early detections. The timeline neatly aligned with the AAS meeting, so that seemed like an good place to make the announcement. We managed to get the the paper submitted, and referee reports back, but we didn’t quite get everything done in time for the AAS announcement, so Plan B was to have the paper appear on the arXiv just after the announcement. Unfortunately, there was a problem uploading files to the arXiv (too large), and by the time that was fixed the posting deadline had passed. Therefore, we went with Plan C or sharing the paper on the LIGO DCC. Next time you’re struggling to upload something online, remember that it happens to Nobel-Prize winning scientific collaborations too.
On the question of when it is best to share a paper, I’m still not decided. I like the idea of being peer-reviewed before making a big splash in the media. I think it is important to show that science works by having lots of people study a topic, before coming to a consensus. Evidence needs to be evaluated by independent experts. On the other hand, engaging the entire community can lead to greater insights than a couple of journal reviewers, and posting to arXiv gives opportunity to make adjustments before you having the finished article.
I think I am leaning towards early posting in general—the amount of internal review that our Collaboration papers receive, satisfies my requirements that scientists are seen to be careful, and I like getting a wider range of comments—I think this leads to having the best paper in the end.
The joke that S stands for super, not hope is recycled from an article I wrote for the LIGO Magazine. The editor, Hannah Middleton wasn’t sure that many people would get the reference, but graciously printed it anyway. Did people get it, or do I need to fly around the world really fast?
The full results of our second advanced-detector observing run (O2) have now been released—we’re pleased to announce four new gravitational wave signals: GW170729, GW170809, GW170818 and GW170823 [bonus note]. These latest observations are all of binary black hole systems. Together, they bring our total to 10 observations of binary black holes, and 1 of a binary neutron star. With more frequent detections on the horizon with our third observing run due to start early 2019, the era of gravitational wave astronomy is truly here.
The population of black holes and neutron stars observed with gravitational waves and with electromagnetic astronomy. You can play with an interactive version of this plot online.
The new detections are largely consistent with our previous findings. GW170809, GW170818 and GW170823 are all similar to our first detection GW150914. Their black holes have masses around 20 to 40 times the mass of our Sun. I would lump GW170104 and GW170814 into this class too. Although there were models that predicted black holes of these masses, we weren’t sure they existed until our gravitational wave observations. The family of black holes continues out of this range. GW151012, GW151226 and GW170608 fall on the lower mass side. These overlap with the population of black holes previously observed in X-ray binaries. Lower mass systems can’t be detected as far away, so we find fewer of these. On the higher end we have GW170729 [bonus note]. Its source is made up of black holes with masses and (where is the mass of our Sun). The larger black hole is a contender for the most massive black hole we’ve found in a binary (the other probable contender is GW170823’s source, which has a black hole). We have a big happy family of black holes!
Of the new detections, GW170729, GW170809 and GW170818 were both observed by the Virgo detector as well as the two LIGO detectors. Virgo joined O2 for an exciting August [bonus note], and we decided that the data at the time of GW170729 were good enough to use too. Unfortunately, Virgo wasn’t observing at the time of GW170823. GW170729 and GW170809 are very quiet in Virgo, you can’t confidently say there is a signal there [bonus note]. However, GW170818 is a clear detection like GW170814. Well done Virgo!
Using the collection of results, we can start understand the physics of these binary systems. We will be summarising our findings in a series of papers. A huge amount of work went into these.
The paper summarises all our observations of binaries to date. It covers our first and second observing runs (O1 and O2). This is the paper to start with if you want any information. It contains estimates of parameters for all our sources, including updates for previous events. It also contains merger rate estimates for binary neutron stars and binary black holes, and an upper limit for neutron star–black hole binaries. We’re still missing a neutron star–black hole detection to complete the set.
Using our set of ten binary black holes, we can start to make some statistical statements about the population: the distribution of masses, the distribution of spins, the distribution of mergers over cosmic time. With only ten observations, we still have a lot of uncertainty, and can’t make too many definite statements. However, if you were wondering why we don’t see any more black holes more massive than GW170729, even though we can see these out to significant distances, so are we. We infer that almost all stellar-mass black holes have masses less than .
Synopsis:O2 Catalogue Paper Read this if: You want the most up-to-date gravitational results Favourite part: It’s out! We can tell everyone about our FOUR new detections
This is a BIG paper. It covers our first two observing runs and our main searches for coalescing stellar mass binaries. There will be separate papers going into more detail on searches for other gravitational wave signals.
Gravitational wave detectors are complicated machines. You don’t just take them out of the box and press go. We’ll be slowly improving the sensitivity of our detectors as we commission them over the next few years. O2 marks the best sensitivity achieved to date. The paper gives a brief overview of the detector configurations in O2 for both LIGO detectors, which did differ, and Virgo.
During O2, we realised that one source of noise was beam jitter, disturbances in the shape of the laser beam. This was particularly notable in Hanford, where there was a spot on the one of the optics. Fortunately, we are able to measure the effects of this, and hence subtract out this noise. This has now been done for the whole of O2. It makes a big difference! Derek Davis and TJ Massinger won the first LIGO Laboratory Award for Excellence in Detector Characterization and Calibration™ for implementing this noise subtraction scheme (the award citation almost spilled the beans on our new detections). I’m happy that GW170104 now has an increased signal-to-noise ratio, which means smaller uncertainties on its parameters.
We use three search algorithms in this paper. We have two matched-filter searches (GstLAL and PyCBC). These compare a bank of templates to the data to look for matches. We also use coherent WaveBurst (cWB), which is a search for generic short signals, but here has been tuned to find the characteristic chirp of a binary. Since cWB is more flexible in the signals it can find, it’s slightly less sensitive than the matched-filter searches, but it gives us confidence that we’re not missing things.
The two matched-filter searches both identify all 11 signals with the exception of GW170818, which is only found by GstLAL. This is because PyCBC only flags signals above a threshold in each detector. We’re confident it’s real though, as it is seen in all three detectors, albeit below PyCBC’s threshold in Hanford and Virgo. (PyCBC only looked at signals found in coincident Livingston and Hanford in O2, I suspect they would have found it if they were looking at all three detectors, as that would have let them lower their threshold).
The search pipelines try to distinguish between signal-like features in the data and noise fluctuations. Having multiple detectors is a big help here, although we still need to be careful in checking for correlated noise sources. The background of noise falls off quickly, so there’s a rapid transition between almost-certainly noise to almost-certainly signal. Most of the signals are off the charts in terms of significance, with GW170818, GW151012 and GW170729 being the least significant. GW170729 is found with best significance by cWB, that gives reports a false alarm rate of .
Cumulative histogram of results from GstLAL (top left), PyCBC (top right) and cWB (bottom). The expected background is shown as the dashed line and the shaded regions give Poisson uncertainties. The search results are shown as the solid red line and named gravitational-wave detections are shown as blue dots. More significant results are further to the right of the plot. Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
The false alarm rate indicates how often you would expect to find something at least as signal like if you were to analyse a stretch of data with the same statistical properties as the data considered, assuming that they is only noise in the data. The false alarm rate does not fold in the probability that there are real gravitational waves occurring at some average rate. Therefore, we need to do an extra layer of inference to work out the probability that something flagged by a search pipeline is a real signal versus is noise.
The results of this calculation is given in Table IV. GW170729 has a 94% probability of being real using the cWB results, 98% using the GstLAL results, but only 52% according to PyCBC. Therefore, if you’re feeling bold, you might, say, only wager the entire economy of the UK on it being real.
We also list the most marginal triggers. These all have probabilities way below being 50% of being real: if you were to add them all up you wouldn’t get a total of 1 real event. (In my professional opinion, they are garbage). However, if you want to check for what we might have missed, these may be a place to start. Some of these can be explained away as instrumental noise, say scattered light. Others show no obvious signs of disturbance, so are probably just some noise fluctuation.
The source properties
We give updated parameter estimates for all 11 sources. These use updated estimates of calibration uncertainty (which doesn’t make too much difference), improved estimate of the noise spectrum (which makes some difference to the less well measured parameters like the mass ratio), the cleaned data (which helps for GW170104), and our most currently complete waveform models [bonus note].
This plot shows the masses of the two binary components (you can just make out GW170817 down in the corner). We use the convention that the more massive of the two is and the lighter is . We are now really filling in the mass plot! Implications for the population of black holes are discussed in the Populations Paper.
Estimated masses for the two binary objects for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817 (solid), GW170608 (dashed), GW151226 (solid), GW151012 (dashed), GW170104 (solid), GW170814 (dashed), GW170809 (dashed), GW170818 (dashed), GW150914 (solid), GW170823 (dashed), GW170729 (solid). The contours mark the 90% credible regions. The grey area is excluded from our convention on masses. Part of Fig. 4 of the O2 Catalogue Paper. The mass ratio is .
As well as mass, black holes have a spin. For the final black hole formed in the merger, these spins are always around 0.7, with a little more or less depending upon which way the spins of the two initial black holes were pointing. As well as being probably the most most massive, GW170729’s could have the highest final spin! It is a record breaker. It radiated a colossal worth of energy in gravitational waves [bonus note].
Estimated final masses and spins for each of the binary black hole events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red–orange) to highest (right; purple): GW170608 (dashed), GW151226 (solid), GW151012 (dashed), GW170104 (solid), GW170814 (dashed), GW170809 (dashed), GW170818 (dashed), GW150914 (solid), GW170823 (dashed), GW170729 (solid). The contours mark the 90% credible regions. Part of Fig. 4 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
There is considerable uncertainty on the spins as there are hard to measure. The best combination to pin down is the effective inspiral spin parameter . This is a mass weighted combination of the spins which has the most impact on the signal we observe. It could be zero if the spins are misaligned with each other, point in the orbital plane, or are zero. If it is non-zero, then it means that at least one black hole definitely has some spin. GW151226 and GW170729 have with more than 99% probability. The rest are consistent with zero. The spin distribution for GW170104 has tightened up for GW170104 as its signal-to-noise ratio has increased, and there’s less support for negative , but there’s been no move towards larger positive .
Estimated effective inspiral spin parameters for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817, GW170608, GW151226, GW151012, GW170104, GW170814, GW170809, GW170818, GW150914, GW170823, GW170729. Part of Fig. 5 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
For our analysis, we use two different waveform models to check for potential sources of systematic error. They agree pretty well. The spins are where they show most difference (which makes sense, as this is where they differ in terms of formulation). For GW151226, the effective precession waveform IMRPhenomPv2 gives and the full precession model gives and extends to negative . I panicked a little bit when I first saw this, as GW151226 having a non-zero spin was one of our headline results when first announced. Fortunately, when I worked out the numbers, all our conclusions were safe. The probability of is less than 1%. In fact, we can now say that at least one spin is greater than at 99% probability compared with previously, because the full precession model likes spins in the orbital plane a bit more. Who says data analysis can’t be thrilling?
Our measurement of tells us about the part of the spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum, but not in the orbital plane. In general, the in-plane components of the spin are only weakly constrained. We basically only get back the information we put in. The leading order effects of in-plane spins is summarised by the effective precession spin parameter . The plot below shows the inferred distributions for . The left half for each event shows our results, the right shows our prior after imposed the constraints on spin we get from . We get the most information for GW151226 and GW170814, but even then it’s not much, and we generally cover the entire allowed range of values.
Estimated effective inspiral spin parameters for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817, GW170608, GW151226, GW151012, GW170104, GW170814, GW170809, GW170818, GW150914, GW170823, GW170729. The left (coloured) part of the plot shows the posterior distribution; the right (white) shows the prior conditioned by the effective inspiral spin parameter constraints. Part of Fig. 5 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
One final measurement which we can make (albeit with considerable uncertainty) is the distance to the source. The distance influences how loud the signal is (the further away, the quieter it is). This also depends upon the inclination of the source (a binary edge-on is quieter than a binary face-on/off). Therefore, the distance is correlated with the inclination and we end up with some butterfly-like plots. GW170729 is again a record setter. It comes from a luminosity distance of away. That means it has travelled across the Universe for – billion years—it potentially started its journey before the Earth formed!
Estimated luminosity distances and orbital inclinations for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817 (solid), GW170608 (dashed), GW151226 (solid), GW151012 (dashed), GW170104 (solid), GW170814 (dashed), GW170809 (dashed), GW170818 (dashed), GW150914 (solid), GW170823 (dashed), GW170729 (solid). The contours mark the 90% credible regions.An inclination of zero means that we’re looking face-on along the direction of the total angular momentum, and inclination of means we’re looking edge-on perpendicular to the angular momentum. Part of Fig. 7 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
To check our results, we reconstruct the waveforms from the data to see that they match our expectations for binary black hole waveforms (and there’s not anything extra there). To do this, we use unmodelled analyses which assume that there is a coherent signal in the detectors: we use both cWB and BayesWave. The results agree pretty well. The reconstructions beautifully match our templates when the signal is loud, but, as you might expect, can resolve the quieter details. You’ll also notice the reconstructions sometimes pick up a bit of background noise away from the signal. This gives you and idea of potential fluctuations.
Time–frequency maps and reconstructed signal waveforms for the binary black holes. For each event we show the results from the detector where the signal was loudest. The left panel for each shows the time–frequency spectrogram with the upward-sweeping chip. The right show waveforms: blue the modelled waveforms used to infer parameters (LALInf; top panel); the red wavelet reconstructions (BayesWave; top panel); the black is the maximum-likelihood cWB reconstruction (bottom panel), and the green (bottom panel) shows reconstructions for simulated similar signals. I think the agreement is pretty good! All the data have been whitened as this is how we perform the statistical analysis of our data. Fig. 10 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
I still think GW170814 looks like a slug. Some people think they look like crocodiles.
We’ll be doing more tests of the consistency of our signals with general relativity in a future paper.
Given all our observations now, we can set better limits on the merger rates. Going from the number of detections seen to the number merger out in the Universe depends upon what you assume about the mass distribution of the sources. Therefore, we make a few different assumptions.
For binary black holes, we use (i) a power-law model for the more massive black hole similar to the initial mass function of stars, with a uniform distribution on the mass ratio, and (ii) use uniform-in-logarithmic distribution for both masses. These were designed to bracket the two extremes of potential distributions. With our observations, we’re starting to see that the true distribution is more like the power-law, so I expect we’ll be abandoning these soon. Taking the range of possible values from our calculations, the rate is in the range of – for black holes between and [bonus note].
For binary neutron stars, which are perhaps more interesting astronomers, we use a uniform distribution of masses between and , and a Gaussian distribution to match electromagnetic observations. We find that these bracket the range –. This larger than are previous range, as we hadn’t considered the Gaussian distribution previously.
90% upper limits for neutron star–black hole binaries. Three black hole masses were tried and two spin distributions. Results are shown for the two matched-filter search algorithms. Fig. 14 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
Finally, what about neutron star–black holes? Since we don’t have any detections, we can only place an upper limit. This is a maximum of . This is about a factor of 2 better than our O1 results, and is starting to get interesting!
We are sure to discover lots more in O3… [bonus note].
The O2 Populations Paper
Synopsis:O2 Populations Paper Read this if: You want the best family portrait of binary black holes Favourite part: A maximum black hole mass?
Each detection is exciting. However, we can squeeze even more science out of our observations by looking at the entire population. Using all 10 of our binary black hole observations, we start to trace out the population of binary black holes. Since we still only have 10, we can’t yet be too definite in our conclusions. Our results give us some things to ponder, while we are waiting for the results of O3. I think now is a good time to start making some predictions.
We look at the distribution of black hole masses, black hole spins, and the redshift (cosmological time) of the mergers. The black hole masses tell us something about how you go from a massive star to a black hole. The spins tell us something about how the binaries form. The redshift tells us something about how these processes change as the Universe evolves. Ideally, we would look at these all together allowing for mixtures of binary black holes formed through different means. Given that we only have a few observations, we stick to a few simple models.
To work out the properties of the population, we perform a hierarchical analysis of our 10 binary black holes. We infer the properties of the individual systems, assuming that they come from a given population, and then see how well that population fits our data compared with a different distribution.
In doing this inference, we account for selection effects. Our detectors are not equally sensitive to all sources. For example, nearby sources produce louder signals and we can’t detect signals that are too far away, so if you didn’t account for this you’d conclude that binary black holes only merged in the nearby Universe. Perhaps less obvious is that we are not equally sensitive to all source masses. More massive binaries produce louder signals, so we can detect these further way than lighter binaries (up to the point where these binaries are so high mass that the signals are too low frequency for us to easily spot). This is why we detect more binary black holes than binary neutron stars, even though there are more binary neutron stars out here in the Universe.
When looking at masses, we try three models of increasing complexity:
Model A is a simple power law for the mass of the more massive black hole . There’s no real reason to expect the masses to follow a power law, but the masses of stars when they form do, and astronomers generally like power laws as they’re friendly, so its a sensible thing to try. We fit for the power-law index. The power law goes from a lower limit of to an upper limit which we also fit for. The mass of the lighter black hole is assumed to be uniformly distributed between and the mass of the other black hole.
Model B is the same power law, but we also allow the lower mass limit to vary from . We don’t have much sensitivity to low masses, so this lower bound is restricted to be above . I’d be interested in exploring lower masses in the future. Additionally, we allow the mass ratio of the black holes to vary, trying instead of Model A’s .
Model C has the same power law, but now with some smoothing at the low-mass end, rather than a sharp turn-on. Additionally, it includes a Gaussian component towards higher masses. This was inspired by the possibility of pulsational pair-instability supernova causing a build up of black holes at certain masses: stars which undergo this lose extra mass, so you’d end up with lower mass black holes than if the stars hadn’t undergone the pulsations. The Gaussian could fit other effects too, for example if there was a secondary formation channel, or just reflect that the pure power law is a bad fit.
In allowing the mass distributions to vary, we find overall rates which match pretty well those we obtain with our main power-law rates calculation included in the O2 Catalogue Paper, higher than with the main uniform-in-log distribution.
The fitted mass distributions are shown in the plot below. The error bars are pretty broad, but I think the models agree on some broad features: there are more light black holes than heavy black holes; the minimum black hole mass is below about , but we can’t place a lower bound on it; the maximum black hole mass is above about and below about , and we prefer black holes to have more similar masses than different ones. The upper bound on the black hole minimum mass, and the lower bound on the black hole upper mass are set by the smallest and biggest black holes we’ve detected, respectively.
Binary black hole merger rate as a function of the primary mass (; top) and mass ratio (; bottom). The solid lines and bands show the medians and 90% intervals. The dashed line shows the posterior predictive distribution: our expectation for future observations averaging over our uncertainties. Fig. 2 of the O2 Populations Paper.
That there does seem to be a drop off at higher masses is interesting. There could be something which stops stars forming black holes in this range. It has been proposed that there is a mass gap due to pair instability supernovae. These explosions completely disrupt their progenitor stars, leaving nothing behind. (I’m not sure if they are accompanied by a flash of green light). You’d expect this to kick for black holes of about –. We infer that 99% of merging black holes have masses below with Model A, with Model B, and with Model C. Therefore, our results are not inconsistent with a mass gap. However, we don’t really have enough evidence to be sure.
We can compare how well each of our three models fits the data by looking at their Bayes factors. These naturally incorporate the complexity of the models: models with more parameters (which can be more easily tweaked to match the data) are penalised so that you don’t need to worry about overfitting. We have a preference for Model C. It’s not strong, but I think good evidence that we can’t use a simple power law.
To model the spins:
For the magnitude, we assume a beta distribution. There’s no reason for this, but these are convenient distributions for things between 0 and 1, which are the limits on black hole spin (0 is nonspinning, 1 is as fast as you can spin). We assume that both spins are drawn from the same distribution.
For the spin orientations, we use a mix of an isotropic distribution and a Gaussian centred on being aligned with the orbital angular momentum. You’d expect an isotropic distribution if binaries were assembled dynamically, and perhaps something with spins generally aligned with each other if the binary evolved in isolation.
We don’t get any useful information on the mixture fraction. Looking at the spin magnitudes, we have a preference towards smaller spins, but still have support for large spins. The more misaligned spins are, the larger the spin magnitudes can be: for the isotropic distribution, we have support all the way up to maximal values.
Inferred spin magnitude distributions. The left shows results for the parametric distribution, assuming a mixture of almost aligned and isotropic spin, with the median (solid), 50% and 90% intervals shaded, and the posterior predictive distribution as the dashed line. Results are included both for beta distributions which can be singular at 0 and 1, and with these excluded. Model V is a very low spin model shown for comparison. The right shows a binned reconstruction of the distribution for aligned and isotropic distributions, showing the median and 90% intervals. Fig. 8 of the O2 Populations Paper.
Since spins are harder to measure than masses, it is not surprising that we can’t make strong statements yet. If we were to find something with definitely negative , we would be able to deduce that spins can be seriously misaligned.
As a simple model of evolution over cosmological time, we allow the merger rate to evolve as . That’s right, another power law! Since we’re only sensitive to relatively small redshifts for the masses we detect (), this gives a good approximation to a range of different evolution schemes.
Evolution of the binary black hole merger rate (blue), showing median, 50% and 90% intervals. For comparison, a non-evolving rate calculated using Model B is shown too. Fig. 6 of the O2 Populations Paper.
We find that we prefer evolutions that increase with redshift. There’s an 88% probability that , but we’re still consistent with no evolution. We might expect rate to increase as star formation was higher bach towards . If we can measure the time delay between forming stars and black holes merging, we could figure out what happens to these systems in the meantime.
The local merger rate is broadly consistent with what we infer with our non-evolving distributions, but is a little on the lower side.
Gravitational waves are named as GW-year-month-day, so our first observation from 14 September 2015 is GW150914. We realise that this convention suffers from a Y2K-style bug, but by the time we hit 2100, we’ll have so many detections we’ll need a new scheme anyway.
Previously, we had a second designation for less significant potential detections. They were LIGO–Virgo Triggers (LVT), the one example being LVT151012. No-one was really happy with this designation, but it stems from us being cautious with our first announcement, and not wishing to appear over bold with claiming we’d seen two gravitational waves when the second wasn’t that certain. Now we’re a bit more confident, and we’ve decided to simplify naming by labelling everything a GW on the understanding that this now includes more uncertain events. Under the old scheme, GW170729 would have been LVT170729. The idea is that the broader community can decide which events they want to consider as real for their own studies. The current condition for being called a GW is that the probability of it being a real astrophysical signal is at least 50%. Our 11 GWs are safely above that limit.
The naming change has hidden the fact that now when we used our improved search pipelines, the significance of GW151012 has increased. It would now be a GW even under the old scheme. Congratulations LVT151012, I always believed in you!
Is it of extraterrestrial origin, or is it just a blurry figure? GW151012: the truth is out there!.
We are lacking nicknames for our new events. They came in so fast that we kind of lost track. Ilya Mandel has suggested that GW170729 should be the Tiger, as it happened on the International Tiger Day. Since tigers are the biggest of the big cats, this seems apt.
Carl-Johan Haster argues that LIGO+tiger = Liger. Since ligers are even bigger than tigers, this seems like an excellent case to me! I’d vote for calling the bigger of the two progenitor black holes GW170729-tiger, the smaller GW170729-lion, and the final black hole GW17-729-liger.
Suggestions for other nicknames are welcome, leave your ideas in the comments.
August 2017—Something fishy or just Poisson statistics?
The final few weeks of O2 were exhausting. I was trying to write job applications at the time, and each time I sat down to work on my research proposal, my phone went off with another alert. You may be wondering about was special about August. Some have hypothesised that it is because Aaron Zimmerman, my partner for the analysis of GW170104, was on the Parameter Estimation rota to analyse the last few weeks of O2. The legend goes that Aaron is especially lucky as he was bitten by a radioactive Leprechaun. I can neither confirm nor deny this. However, I make a point of playing any lottery numbers suggested by him.
A slightly more mundane explanation is that August was when the detectors were running nice and stably. They were observing for a large fraction of the time. LIGO Livingston reached its best sensitivity at this time, although it was less happy for Hanford. We often quantify the sensitivity of our detectors using their binary neutron star range, the average distance they could see a binary neutron star system with a signal-to-noise ratio of 8. If this increases by a factor of 2, you can see twice as far, which means you survey 8 times the volume. This cubed factor means even small improvements can have a big impact. The LIGO Livingston range peak a little over . We’re targeting at least for O3, so August 2017 gives an indication of what you can expect.
Binary neutron star range for the instruments across O2. The break around week 3 was for the holidays (We did work Christmas 2015). The break at week 23 was to tune-up the instruments, and clean the mirrors. At week 31 there was an earthquake in Montana, and the Hanford sensitivity didn’t recover by the end of the run. Part of Fig. 1 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.
Of course, in the case of GW170817, we just got lucky.
GW170809 was the first event we identified with Virgo after it joined observing. The signal in Virgo is very quiet. We actually got better results when we flipped the sign of the Virgo data. We were just starting to get paranoid when GW170814 came along and showed us that everything was set up right at Virgo. When I get some time, I’d like to investigate how often this type of confusion happens for quiet signals.
One of the waveforms, which includes the most complete prescription of the precession of the spins of the black holes, we use in our analysis goes by the technical name of SEOBNRv3. It is extremely computationally expensive. Work has been done to improve that, but this hasn’t been implemented in our reviewed codes yet. We managed to complete an analysis for the GW170104 Discovery Paper, which was a huge effort. I said then to not expect it for all future events. We did it for all the black holes, even for the lowest mass sources which have the longest signals. I was responsible for GW151226 runs (as well as GW170104) and I started these back at the start of the summer. Eve Chase put in a heroic effort to get GW170608 results, we pulled out all the stops for that.
I have recently enjoyed my first Thanksgiving in the US. I was lucky enough to be hosted for dinner by Shane Larson and his family (and cats). I ate so much I thought I might collapse to a black hole. Apparently, a Thanksgiving dinner can be 3000–4500 calories. That sounds like a lot, but the merger of GW170729 would have emitted about times more energy. In conclusion, I don’t need to go on a diet.
We cheated a little bit in calculating the rates. Roughly speaking, the merger rate is given by
where is the number of detections and is the amount of volume and time we’ve searched. You expect to detect more events if you increase the sensitivity of the detectors (and hence ), or observer for longer (and hence increase ). In our calculation, we included GW170608 in , even though it was found outside of standard observing time. Really, we should increase to factor in the extra time outside of standard observing time when we could have made a detection. This is messy to calculate though, as there’s not really a good way to check this. However, it’s only a small fraction of the time (so the extra should be small), and for much of the sensitivity of the detectors will be poor (so will be small too). Therefore, we estimated any bias from neglecting this is smaller than our uncertainty from the calibration of the detectors, and not worth worrying about.
We saw our first binary black hole shortly after turning on the Advanced LIGO detectors. We saw our first binary neutron star shortly after turning on the Advanced Virgo detector. My money is therefore on our first neutron star–black hole binary shortly after we turn on the KAGRA detector. Because science…
This paper, known as the Observing Scenarios Document with the Collaboration, outlines the observing plans of the ground-based detectors over the coming decade. If you want to search for electromagnetic or neutrino signals from our gravitational-wave sources, this is the paper for you. It is a living review—a document that is continuously updated.
This is the second published version, the big changes since the last version are
As you might imagine, these are quite significant updates! The first showed that we can do gravitational-wave astronomy. The second showed that we can do exactly the science this paper is about. The third makes this the first joint publication of the LIGO Scientific, Virgo and KAGRA Collaborations—hopefully the first of many to come.
I lead both this and the previous version. In my blog on the previous version, I explained how I got involved, and the long road that a collaboration must follow to get published. In this post, I’ll give an overview of the key details from the new version together with some behind-the-scenes background (working as part of a large scientific collaboration allows you to do amazing science, but it can also be exhausting). If you’d like a digest of this paper’s science, check out the LIGO science summary.
Commissioning and observing phases
The first section of the paper outlines the progression of detector sensitivities. The instruments are incredibly sensitive—we’ve never made machines to make these types of measurements before, so it takes a lot of work to get them to run smoothly. We can’t just switch them on and have them work at design sensitivity [bonus note].
Target evolution of the Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo detectors with time. The lower the sensitivity curve, the further away we can detect sources. The distances quoted are binary neutron star (BNS) ranges, the average distance we could detect a binary neutron star system. The BNS-optimized curve is a proposal to tweak the detectors for finding BNSs. Figure 1 of the Observing Scenarios Document.
The plots above show the planned progression of the different detectors. We had to get these agreed before we could write the later parts of the paper because the sensitivity of the detectors determines how many sources we will see and how well we will be able to localize them. I had anticipated that KAGRA would be the most challenging here, as we had not previously put together this sequence of curves. However, this was not the case, instead it was Virgo which was tricky. They had a problem with the silica fibres which suspended their mirrors (they snapped, which is definitely not what you want). The silica fibres were replaced with steel ones, but it wasn’t immediately clear what sensitivity they’d achieve and when. The final word was they’d observe in August 2017 and that their projections were unchanged. I was sceptical, but they did pull it out of the bag! We had our first clear three-detector observation of a gravitational wave 14 August 2017. Bravo Virgo!
Plausible time line of observing runs with Advanced LIGO (Hanford and Livingston), advanced Virgo and KAGRA. It is too early to give a timeline for LIGO India. The numbers above the bars give binary neutron star ranges (italic for achieved, roman for target); the colours match those in the plot above. Currently our third observing run (O3) looks like it will start in early 2019; KAGRA might join with an early sensitivity run at the end of it. Figure 2 of the Observing Scenarios Document.
Searches for gravitational-wave transients
The second section explain our data analysis techniques: how we find signals in the data, how we work out probable source locations, and how we communicate these results with the broader astronomical community—from the start of our third observing run (O3), information will be shared publicly!
The information in this section hasn’t changed much [bonus note]. There is a nice collection of references on the follow-up of different events, including GW170817 (I’d recommend my blog for more on the electromagnetic story). The main update I wanted to include was information on the detection of our first gravitational waves. It turned out to be more difficult than I imagined to come up with a plot which showed results from the five different search algorithms (two which used templates, and three which did not) which found GW150914, and harder still to make a plot which everyone liked. This plot become somewhat infamous for the amount of discussion it generated. I think we ended up with something which was a good compromise and clearly shows our detections sticking out above the background of noise.
Offline transient search results from our first observing run (O1). The plot shows the number of events found verses false alarm rate: if there were no gravitational waves we would expect the points to follow the dashed line. The left panel shows the results of the templated search for compact binary coalescences (binary black holes, binary neutron stars and neutron star–black hole binaries), the right panel shows the unmodelled burst search. GW150914, GW151226 and LVT151012 are found by the templated search; GW150914 is also seen in the burst search. Arrows indicate bounds on the significance. Figure 3 of the Observing Scenarios Document.
The third section brings everything together and looks at what the prospects are for (gravitational-wave) multimessenger astronomy during each observing run. It’s really all about the big table.
Summary of different observing scenarios with the advanced detectors. We assume a 70–75% duty factor for each instrument (including Virgo for the second scenario’s sky localization, even though it only joined our second observing run for the final month). Table 3 from the Observing Scenarios Document.
I think there are three really awesome take-aways from this
Actual binary neutron stars detected = 1. We did it!
Using the rates inferred using our observations so far (including GW170817), once we have the full five detector network of LIGO-Hanford, LIGO-Livingston, Virgo, KAGRA and LIGO-India, we could be detected 11–180 binary neutron stars a year. That something like between one a month to one every other day! I’m kind of scared…
With the five detector network the sky localization is really good. The median localization is about 9–12 square degrees, about the area the LSST could cover in a single pointing! This really shows the benefit of adding more detector to the network. The improvement comes not because a source is much better localized with five detectors than four, but because when you have five detectors you almost always have at least three detectors(the number needed to get a good triangulation) online at any moment, so you get a nice localization for pretty much everything.
In summary, the prospects for observing and localizing gravitational-wave transients are pretty great. If you are an astronomer, make the most of the quiet before O3 begins next year.
The announcement of our first multimessenger detection came between us submitting this update and us getting referee reports. We wanted an updated version of this paper, with the current details of our observing plans, to be available for our astronomer partners to be able to cite when writing their papers on GW170817.
Predictably, when the referee reports came back, we were told we really should include reference to GW170817. This type of discovery is exactly what this paper is about! There was avalanche of results surrounding GW170817, so I had to read through a lot of papers. The reference list swelled from 8 to 13 pages, but this effort was handy for my blog writing. After including all these new results, it really felt like this was version 2.5 of the Observing Scenarios, rather than version 2.
We use the term design sensitivity to indicate the performance the current detectors were designed to achieve. They are the targets we aim to achieve with Advanced LIGO, Advance Virgo and KAGRA. One thing I’ve had to try to train myself not to say is that design sensitivity is the final sensitivity of our detectors. Teams are currently working on plans for how we can upgrade our detectors beyond design sensitivity. Reaching design sensitivity will not be the end of our journey.
Binary black holes vs binary neutron stars
Our first gravitational-wave detections were from binary black holes. Therefore, when we were starting on this update there was a push to switch from focusing on binary neutron stars to binary black holes. I resisted on this, partially because I’m lazy, but mostly because I still thought that binary neutron stars were our best bet for multimessenger astronomy. This worked out nicely.
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 .
Detected in June, GW170608 has had a difficult time. It was challenging to analyse, and neglected in favour of its louder and shinier siblings. However, we can now introduce you to our smallest chirp-mass binary black hole system!
Our family of binary black holes is now growing large. During our first observing run (O1) we found three: GW150914, LVT151012 and GW151226. The advanced detector observing run (O2) ran from 30 November 2016 to 25 August 2017 (with a couple of short breaks). From our O1 detections, we were expecting roughly one binary black hole per month. The first same in January, GW170104, and we have announced the first detection which involved Virgo from August, GW170814, so you might be wondering what happened in-between? Pretty much everything was dropped following the detection of our first binary neutron star system, GW170817, as a sizeable fraction of the astronomical community managed to observe its electromagnetic counterparts. Now, we are starting to dig our way out of the O2 back-log.
On 8 June 2017, a chirp was found in data from LIGO Livingston. At the time, LIGO Hanford was undergoing planned engineering work [bonus explanation]. We would not normally analyse this data, as the detector is disturbed; however, we had to follow up on the potential signal in Livingston. Only low frequency data in Hanford should have been affected, so we limited our analysis to above 30 Hz (this sounds easier than it is—I was glad I was not on rota to analyse this event [bonus note]). A coincident signal was found [bonus note]. Hello GW170608, the June event!
Time–frequency plots for GW170608 as measured by LIGO Hanford and Livingston. The chirp is clearer in Hanford, despite it being less sensitive, because of the sources position. Figure 1 of the GW170608 Paper.
Analysing data from both Hanford and Livingston (limiting Hanford to above 30 Hz) [bonus note], GW170608 was found by both of our offline searches for binary signals. PyCBC detected it with a false alarm rate of less than 1 in 3000 years, and GstLAL estimated a false alarm rate of 1 in 160000 years. The signal was also picked up by coherent WaveBurst, which doesn’t use waveform templates, and so is more flexible in what it can detect at the cost off sensitivity: this analysis estimates a false alarm rate of about 1 in 30 years. GW170608 probably isn’t a bit of random noise.
GW170608 comes from a low mass binary. Well, relatively low mass for a binary black hole. For low mass systems, we can measure the chirp mass , the particular combination of the two black hole masses which governs the inspiral, well. For GW170608, the chirp mass is . This is the smallest chirp mass we’ve ever measured, the next smallest is GW151226 with . GW170608 is probably the lowest mass binary we’ve found—the total mass and individual component masses aren’t as well measured as the chirp mass, so there is small probability (~11%) that GW151226 is actually lower mass. The plot below compares the two.
Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary. The two-dimensional shows the probability distribution for GW170608 as well as 50% and 90% contours for GW151226, the other contender for the lightest black hole binary. The one-dimensional plots on the sides show results using different waveform models. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The one-dimensional plots at the top show the probability distributions for the total mass and chirp mass . Figure 2 of the GW170608 Paper. I think this plot is neat.
One caveat with regards to the masses is that the current results only consider spin magnitudes up to 0.89, as opposed to the usual 0.99. There is a correlation between the mass ratio and the spins: you can have a more unequal mass binary with larger spins. There’s not a lot of support for large spins, so it shouldn’t make too much difference. We use the full range in updated analysis in the O2 Catalogue Paper.
Speaking of spins, GW170608 seems to prefer small spins aligned with the angular momentum; spins are difficult to measure, so there’s a lot of uncertainty here. The best measured combination is the effective inspiral spin parameter . This is a combination of the spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum. For GW170608 it is , so consistent with zero and leaning towards being small and positive. For GW151226 it was , and we could exclude zero spin (at least one of the black holes must have some spin). The plot below shows the probability distribution for the two component spins (you can see the cut at a maximum magnitude of 0.89). We prefer small spins, and generally prefer spins in the upper half of the plots, but we can’t make any definite statements other than both spins aren’t large and antialigned with the orbital angular momentum.
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. This analysis assumed spin magnitudes less than 0.89, which is why there is an apparent cut-off. Part of Figure 3 of the GW170608 Paper. For the record, I voted against this colour scheme.
The properties of GW170608’s source are consistent with those inferred from observations of low-mass X-ray binaries (here the low-mass refers to the companion star, not the black hole). These are systems where mass overflows from a star onto a black hole, swirling around in an accretion disc before plunging in. We measure the X-rays emitted from the hot gas from the disc, and these measurements can be used to estimate the mass and spin of the black hole. The similarity suggests that all these black holes—observed with X-rays or with gravitational waves—may be part of the same family.
Estimated black hole masses inferred from low-mass X-ray binary observations. Figure 1 of Farr et al. (2011). The masses overlap those of the lower mass binary black holes found by LIGO and Virgo.
We’ll present update merger rates and results for testing general relativity in our end-of-O2 paper. The low mass of GW170608’s source will make it a useful addition to our catalogue here. Small doesn’t mean unimportant.
If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170608, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.
A lot of time and effort goes into monitoring, maintaining and tweaking the detectors so that they achieve the best possible performance. The majority of work on the detectors happens during engineering breaks between observing runs, as we progress towards design sensitivity. However, some work is also needed during observing runs, to keep the detectors healthy.
On 8 June, Hanford was undergoing angle-to-length (A2L) decoupling, a regular maintenance procedure which minimises the coupling between the angular position of the test-mass mirrors and the measurement of strain. Our gravitational-wave detectors carefully measure the time taken for laser light to bounce between the test-mass mirrors in their arms. If one of these mirrors gets slightly tilted, then the laser could bounce of part of the mirror which is slightly closer or further away than usual: we measure a change in travel time even though the length of the arm is the same. To avoid this, the detectors have control systems designed to minimise angular disturbances. Every so often, it is necessary to check that these are calibrated properly. To do this, the mirrors are given little pushes to rotate them in various directions, and we measure the output to see the impact.
Examples of how angular fluctuations can couple to length measurements. Here are examples of how pitch rotations in the suspension level above the test mass (L3 is the test mass, L2 is the level above) can couple to length measurement . Yaw fluctuations (rotations about the vertical axis) can also have an impact. Figure 1 of Kasprzack & Yu (2016).
The angular pushes are done at specific frequencies, so we we can tease apart the different effects of rotations in different directions. The frequencies are in the range 19–23 Hz. 30 Hz is a safe cut-off for effects of the procedure (we see no disturbances above this frequency).
Imprint of angular coupling testing in Hanford. The left panel shows a spectrogram of strain data, you can clearly see the excitations between ~19 Hz and ~23 Hz. The right panel shows the amplitude spectral density for Hanford before and during the procedure, as well as for Livingston. The procedure adds extra noise in the broad peak about 20 Hz. There are no disturbances above ~30 Hz. Figure 4 of GW170608 Paper.
While we normally wouldn’t analyse data from during maintenance, we think it is safe to do so, after discarding the low-frequency data. If you are worried about the impact of including addition data in our rate estimates (there may be a bias only using time when you know there are signals), you can be reassured that it’s only a small percent of the total time, and so should introduce an error less significant than uncertainty from the calibration accuracy of the detectors.
Parameter estimation rota
Unusually for an O2 event, Aaron Zimmerman was not on shift for the Parameter Estimation rota at the time of GW170608. Instead, it was Patricia Schmidt and Eve Chase who led this analysis. Due to the engineering work in Hanford, and the low mass of the system (which means a long inspiral signal), this was one of the trickiest signals to analyse: I’d say only GW170817 was more challenging (if you ignore all the extra work we did for GW150914 as it was the first time).
Alerts and follow-up
Since this wasn’t a standard detection, it took a while to send out an alert (about thirteen and a half hours). Since this is a binary black hole merger, we wouldn’t expect that there is anything to see with telescopes, so the delay isn’t as important as it would be for a binary neutron star. Several observing teams did follow up the laert. Details can be found in the GCN Circular archive. So far, papers on follow-up have appeared from:
Mini-GWAC—a optical survey (the precursor to GWAC). This paper covers the whole of their O2 follow-up (including GW170104).
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.
The VLA and VLITE—radio follow-up, particularly targeting a potentially interesting gamma-ray transient spotted by Fermi.
If you are wondering about the status of Virgo: on June 8 it was still in commissioning ahead of officially joining the run on 1 August. We have data at the time of the event. The sensitivity is of the detector is not great. We often quantify detector sensitivity by quoting the binary neutron star range (the average distance a binary neutron star could be detected). Around the time of the event, this was something like 7–8 Mpc for Virgo. During O2, the LIGO detectors have been typically in the 60–100 Mpc region; when Virgo joined O2, it had a range of around 25–30 Mpc. Unsurprisingly, Virgo didn’t detect the signal. We could have folded the data in for parameter estimation, but it was decided that it was probably not well enough understood at the time to be worthwhile.
The GW170608 Paper is the first discovery paper to be made public before journal acceptance (although the GW170814 Paper was close, and we would have probably gone ahead with the announcement anyway). I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I like that the Collaboration is seen to take their detections seriously and follow the etiquette of peer review. On the other hand, I think it is good that we can get some feedback from the broader community on papers before they’re finalised. I think it is good that the first few were peer reviewed, it gives us credibility, and it’s OK to relax now. Binary black holes are becoming routine.
This is also the first discovery paper not to go to Physical Review Letters. I don’t think there’s any deep meaning to this, the Collaboration just wanted some variety. Perhaps GW170817 sold everyone that we were astrophysicists now? Perhaps people thought that we’ve abused Physical Review Letters‘ page limits too many times, and we really do need that appendix. I was still in favour of Physical Review Letters for this paper, if they would have had us, but I approve of sharing the love. There’ll be plenty more events.
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!