Where do gravitational waves like GW170817 come from? Using our network of detectors, we cannot pinpoint a source, but we can make a good estimate—the amplitude of the signal tells us about the distance; the time delay between the signal arriving at different detectors, and relative amplitudes of the signal in different detectors tells us about the sky position (see the excellent video by Leo Singer below).
In this paper we look at full three-dimensional localization of gravitational-wave sources; we important a (rather cunning) technique from computer vision to construct a probability distribution for the source’s location, and then explore how well we could localise a set of simulated binary neutron stars. Knowing the source location enables lots of cool science. First, it aids direct follow-up observations with non-gravitational-wave observatories, searching for electromagnetic or neutrino counterparts. It’s especially helpful if you can cross-reference with galaxy catalogues, to find the most probable source locations (this technique was used to find the kilonova associated with GW170817). Even without finding a counterpart, knowing the most probable host galaxy helps us figure out how the source formed (have lots of stars been born recently, or are all the stars old?), and allows us measure the expansion of the Universe. Having a reliable technique to reconstruct source locations is useful!
This was a fun paper to write [bonus note]. I’m sure it will be valuable, both for showing how to perform this type of reconstruction of a multi-dimensional probability density, and for its implications for source localization and follow-up of gravitational-wave signals. I go into details of both below, first discussing our statistical model (this is a bit technical), then looking at our results for a set of binary neutron stars (which have implications for hunting for counterparts) .
Dirichlet process Gaussian mixture model
When we analyse gravitational-wave data to infer the source properties (location, masses, etc.), we map out parameter space with a set of samples: a list of points in the parameter space, with there being more around more probable locations and fewer in less probable locations. These samples encode everything about the probability distribution for the different parameters, we just need to extract it…
For our application, we want a nice smooth probability density. How do we convert a bunch of discrete samples to a smooth distribution? The simplest thing is to bin the samples. However, picking the right bin size is difficult, and becomes much harder in higher dimensions. Another popular option is to use kernel density estimation. This is better at ensuring smooth results, but you now have to worry about the size of your kernels.
Our approach is in essence to use a kernel density estimate, but to learn the size and position of the kernels (as well as the number) from the data as an extra layer of inference. The “Gaussian mixture model” part of the name refers to the kernels—we use several different Gaussians. The “Dirichlet process” part refers to how we assign their properties (their means and standard deviations). What I really like about this technique, as opposed to the usual rule-of-thumb approaches used for kernel density estimation, is that it is well justified from a theoretical point of view.
I hadn’t come across a Dirchlet process before. Section 2 of the paper is a walkthrough of how I built up an understanding of this mathematical object, and it contains lots of helpful references if you’d like to dig deeper.
In our application, you can think of the Dirichlet process as being a probability distribution for probability distributions. We want a probability distribution describing the source location. Given our samples, we infer what this looks like. We could put all the probability into one big Gaussian, or we could put it into lots of little Gaussians. The Gaussians could be wide or narrow or a mix. The Dirichlet distribution allows us to assign probabilities to each configuration of Gaussians; for example, if our samples are all in the northern hemisphere, we probably want Gaussians centred around there, rather than in the southern hemisphere.
With the resulting probability distribution for the source location, we can quickly evaluate it at a single point. This means we can rapidly produce a list of most probable source galaxies—extremely handy if you need to know where to point a telescope before a kilonova fades away (or someone else finds it).
To verify our technique works, and develop an intuition for three-dimensional localizations, we used studied a set of simulated binary neutron star signals created for the First 2 Years trilogy of papers. This data set is well studied now, it illustrates performance it what we anticipated to be the first two observing runs of the advanced detectors, which turned out to be not too far from the truth. We have previously looked at three-dimensional localizations for these signals using a super rapid approximation.
The plots below show how well we could localise the sources of our binary neutron star sources. Specifically, the plots show the size of the volume which has a 90% probability of containing the source verses the signal-to-noise ratio (the loudness) of the signal. Typically, volumes are –, which is about – Olympic swimming pools. Such a volume would contain something like – galaxies.
Looking at the results in detail, we can learn a number of things
- The localization volume is roughly inversely proportional to the sixth power of the signal-to-noise ratio [bonus note]. Loud signals are localized much better than quieter ones!
- The localization dramatically improves when we have three-detector observations. The extra detector improves the sky localization, which reduces the localization volume.
- To get the benefit of the extra detector, the source needs to be close enough that all the detectors could get a decent amount of the signal-to-noise ratio. In our case, Virgo is the least sensitive, and we see the the best localizations are when it has a fair share of the signal-to-noise ratio.
- Considering the cases where we only have two detectors, localization volumes get bigger at a given signal-to-noise ration as the detectors get more sensitive. This is because we can detect sources at greater distances.
Putting all these bits together, I think in the future, when we have lots of detections, it would make most sense to prioritise following up the loudest signals. These are the best localised, and will also be the brightest since they are the closest, meaning there’s the greatest potential for actually finding a counterpart. As the sensitivity of the detectors improves, its only going to get more difficult to find a counterpart to a typical gravitational-wave signal, as sources will be further away and less well localized. However, having more sensitive detectors also means that we are more likely to have a really loud signal, which should be really well localized.
Using our localization volumes as a guide, you would only need to search one galaxy to find the true source in about 7% of cases with a three-detector network similar to at the end of our second observing run. Similarly, only ten would need to be searched in 23% of cases. It might be possible to get even better performance by considering which galaxies are most probable because they are the biggest or the most likely to produce merging binary neutron stars. This is definitely a good approach to follow.
arXiv: 1801.08009 [astro-ph.IM]
Journal: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; 479(1):601–614; 2018
Buzzword bingo: Interdisciplinary (we worked with computer scientist Tom Haines); machine learning (the inference involving our Dirichlet process Gaussian mixture model); multimessenger astronomy (as our results are useful for following up gravitational-wave signals in the search for counterparts)
We started writing this paper back before the first observing run of Advanced LIGO. We had a pretty complete draft on Friday 11 September 2015. We just needed to gather together a few extra numbers and polish up the figures and we’d be done! At 10:50 am on Monday 14 September 2015, we made our first detection of gravitational waves. The paper was put on hold. The pace of discoveries over the coming years meant we never quite found enough time to get it together—I’ve rewritten the introduction a dozen times. It’s extremely satisfying to have it done. This is a shame, as it meant that this study came out much later than our other three-dimensional localization study. The delay has the advantage of justifying one of my favourite acknowledgement sections.
We find that the localization volume is inversely proportional to the sixth power of the signal-to-noise ration . This is what you would expect. The localization volume depends upon the angular uncertainty on the sky , the distance to the source , and the distance uncertainty ,
Typically, the uncertainty on a parameter (like the masses) scales inversely with the signal-to-noise ratio. This is the case for the logarithm of the distance, which means
The uncertainty in the sky location (being two dimensional) scales inversely with the square of the signal-to-noise ration,
The signal-to-noise ratio itself is inversely proportional to the distance to the source (sources further way are quieter. Therefore, putting everything together gives
We all know that treasure is marked by a cross. In the case of a binary neutron star merger, dense material ejected from the neutron stars will decay to heavy elements like gold and platinum, so there is definitely a lot of treasure at the source location.