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

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

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

Discovery

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 message alert from Thursday 17 August 2017 13:58 BST

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…

Duh-nuh…

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

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

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

Signal and glitch

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

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

Overlapping localizations for GW170817's source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science

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

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

Normalised spectrograms for GW170817

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

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

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

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

Binary neutron star masses

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

If we were dealing with black holes, we’d be done: they are only described by mass and spin. Neutron stars are more complicated. Black holes are just made of warped spacetime, neutron stars are made of delicious nuclear material. This can get distorted during the inspiral—tides are raised on one by the gravity of the other. These extract energy from the orbit and accelerate the inspiral. The tidal deformability depends on the properties of the neutron star matter (described by its equation of state). The fluffier a neutron star is, the bigger the impact of tides; the more compact, the smaller the impact. We don’t know enough about neutron star material to predict this with certainty—by measuring the tidal deformation we can learn about the allowed range. Unfortunately, we also didn’t yet have good model waveforms including tides, so for to start we’ve just done a preliminary analysis (an improved analysis was done for the GW170817 Properties Paper). We find that some of the stiffer equations of state (the ones which predict larger neutron stars and bigger tides) are disfavoured; however, we cannot rule out zero tides. This means we can’t rule out the possibility that we have found two low-mass black holes from the gravitational waves alone. This would be an interesting discovery; however, the electromagnetic observations mean that the more obvious explanation of neutron stars is more likely.

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

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

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

GW170817 Hubble constant

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170817, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.

Bonus notes

Inbox zero

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

Worst case scenario

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

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

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

Parameter estimation rota

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

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

Especially made

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

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

Nobel medal

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

 

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Testing general relativity using golden black-hole binaries

Binary black hole mergers are the ultimate laboratory for testing gravity. The gravitational fields are strong, and things are moving at close to the speed of light. these extreme conditions are exactly where we expect our theories could breakdown, which is why we were so exciting by detecting gravitational waves from black hole coalescences. To accompany the first detection of gravitational waves, we performed several tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity (it passed). This paper outlines the details of one of the tests, one that can be extended to include future detections to put Einstein’s theory to the toughest scrutiny.

One of the difficulties of testing general relativity is what do you compare it to? There are many alternative theories of gravity, but only a few of these have been studied thoroughly enough to give an concrete idea of what a binary black hole merger should look like. Even if general relativity comes out on top when compared to one alternative model, it doesn’t mean that another (perhaps one we’ve not thought of yet) can be ruled out. We need ways of looking for something odd, something which hints that general relativity is wrong, but doesn’t rely on any particular alternative theory of gravity.

The test suggested here is a consistency test. We split the gravitational-wave signal into two pieces, a low frequency part and a high frequency part, and then try to measure the properties of the source from the two parts. If general relativity is correct, we should get answers that agree; if it’s not, and there’s some deviation in the exact shape of the signal at different frequencies, we can get different answers. One way of thinking about this test is imagining that we have two experiments, one where we measure lower frequency gravitational waves and one where we measure higher frequencies, and we are checking to see if their results agree.

To split the waveform, we use a frequency around that of the last stable circular orbit: about the point that the black holes stop orbiting about each other and plunge together and merge [bonus note]. For GW150914, we used 132 Hz, which is about the same as the C an octave below middle C (a little before time zero in the simulation below). This cut roughly splits the waveform into the low frequency inspiral (where the two black hole are orbiting each other), and the higher frequency merger (where the two black holes become one) and ringdown (where the final black hole settles down).

We are fairly confident that we understand what goes on during the inspiral. This is similar physics to where we’ve been testing gravity before, for example by studying the orbits of the planets in the Solar System. The merger and ringdown are more uncertain, as we’ve never before probed these strong and rapidly changing gravitational fields. It therefore seems like a good idea to check the two independently [bonus note].

We use our parameter estimation codes on the two pieces to infer the properties of the source, and we compare the values for the mass M_f and spin \chi_f of the final black hole. We could use other sets of parameters, but this pair compactly sum up the properties of the final black hole and are easy to explain. We look at the difference between the estimated values for the mass and spin, \Delta M_f and \Delta \chi_f, if general relativity is a good match to the observations, then we expect everything to match up, and \Delta M_f and \Delta \chi_f to be consistent with zero. They won’t be exactly zero because we have noise in the detector, but hopefully zero will be within the uncertainty region [bonus note]. An illustration of the test is shown below, including one of the tests we did to show that it does spot when general relativity is not correct.

Consistency test resuls

Results from the consistency test. The top panels show the outlines of the 50% and 90% credible levels for the low frequency (inspiral) part of the waveform, the high frequency (merger–ringdown) part, and the entire (inspiral–merger–ringdown, IMR) waveform. The bottom panel shows the fractional difference between the high and low frequency results. If general relativity is correct, we expect the distribution to be consistent with (0,0), indicated by the cross (+). The left panels show a general relativity simulation, and the right panel shows a waveform from a modified theory of gravity. Figure 1 of Ghosh et al. (2016).

A convenient feature of using \Delta M_f and \Delta \chi_f to test agreement with relativity, is that you can combine results from multiple observations. By averaging over lots of signals, you can reduce the uncertainty from noise. This allows you to pin down whether or not things really are consistent, and spot smaller deviations (we could get precision of a few percent after about 100 suitable detections). I look forward to seeing how this test performs in the future!

arXiv: 1602.02453 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 94(2):021101(6); 2016
Favourite golden thing: Golden syrup sponge pudding

Bonus notes

Review

I became involved in this work as a reviewer. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration is a bit of a stickler when it comes to checking its science. We had to check that the test was coded up correctly, that the results made sense, and that calculations done and written up for GW150914 were all correct. Since most of the team are based in India [bonus note], this involved some early morning telecons, but it all went smoothly.

One of our checks was that the test wasn’t sensitive to exact frequency used to split the signal. If you change the frequency cut, the results from the two sections do change. If you lower the frequency, then there’s less of the low frequency signal and the measurement uncertainties from this piece get bigger. Conversely, there’ll be more signal in the high frequency part and so we’ll make a more precise measurement of the parameters from this piece. However, the overall results where you combine the two pieces stay about the same. You get best results when there’s a roughly equal balance between the two pieces, but you don’t have to worry about getting the cut exactly on the innermost stable orbit.

Golden binaries

In order for the test to work, we need the two pieces of the waveform to both be loud enough to allow us to measure parameters using them. This type of signals are referred to as golden. Earlier work on tests of general relativity using golden binaries has been done by Hughes & Menou (2015), and Nakano, Tanaka & Nakamura (2015). GW150914 was a golden binary, but GW151226 and LVT151012 were not, which is why we didn’t repeat this test for them.

GW150914 results

For The Event, we ran this test, and the results are consistent with general relativity being correct. The plots below show the estimates for the final mass and spin (here denoted a_f rather than \chi_f), and the fractional difference between the two measurements. The points (0,0) is at the 28% credible level. This means that if general relativity is correct, we’d expect a deviation at this level to occur around-about 72% of the time due to noise fluctuations. It wouldn’t take a particular rare realisation of noise to cause the assume true value of (0,0) to be found at this probability level, so we’re not too suspicious that something is amiss with general relativity.

GW150914 consistency test results

Results from the consistency test for The Event. The top panels final mass and spin measurements from the low frequency (inspiral) part of the waveform, the high frequency (post-inspiral) part, and the entire (IMR) waveform. The bottom panel shows the fractional difference between the high and low frequency results. If general relativity is correct, we expect the distribution to be consistent with (0,0), indicated by the cross. Figure 3 of the Testing General Relativity Paper.

The authors

Abhirup Ghosh and Archisman Ghosh were two of the leads of this study. They are both A. Ghosh at the same institution, which caused some confusion when compiling the LIGO Scientific Collaboration author list. I think at one point one of them (they can argue which) was removed as someone thought there was a mistaken duplication. To avoid confusion, they now have their full names used. This is a rare distinction on the Discovery Paper (I’ve spotted just two others). The academic tradition of using first initials plus second name is poorly adapted to names which don’t fit the typical western template, so we should be more flexible.