GW200115 and GW200105—Completing the set

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.

Masses of neutron stars and stellar-mass black holes

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.

The LIGO checklist

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]

Previous candidates

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 1.4~\mathrm{yr^{-1}}, 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 1.4~\mathrm{yr^{-1}} 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.

All O3a masses

Estimated total mass M = m_1 + m_2 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 2.6 M_\odot (where 1 M_\odot 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.

Discovery

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 <1/(1 \times 10^5)~\mathrm{yr^{-1}}, PyCBC estimates <1/(5.6\times 10^4)~\mathrm{yr^{-1}}, and MBTA (being used for the first time for final search results) estimates 1/182~\mathrm{yr^{-1}}. 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.

Normalised spectrograms for GW200105 and GW200115

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.

Comparison of GW200105, GW200115 and GW190426_152155 to O3 data

Detection statistics for GW200105, GW200115 and GW190426_152155, showing they compare to background data. The plot shows the signal-to-noise \rho ratio and signal-consistency statistic \xi 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 1/2.8~\mathrm{yr^{-1}}. 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.

Sources

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 5.7^{+1.8}_{-2.1} M_\odot and 1.5^{+0.7}_{-0.3} M_\odot (or 5.9^{+1.4}_{-2.1} M_\odot and 1.4^{+0.2}_{-0.2} M_\odot if we restrict the secondary’s spin to < 0.05). 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 > 5 M_\odot, 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 8.9^{+1.2}_{-1.5} M_\odot and secondary has mass 1.9^{+0.3}_{-0.2} M_\odot (or 8.9^{+1.1}_{-1.3} M_\odot and 1.9^{+0.2}_{-0.2} M_\odot 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.

Binary component masses for neutron star–black hole binary candidates

Estimated masses for the binary primary and secondary masses m_1 and m_2 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 5.7^{+3.9}_{-2.3} M_\odot and 1.5^{+0.8}_{-0.5} [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.

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins for GW200105 and GW200115

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 < 0.23 at 90% probability (or < 0.22 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 -0.01^{+0.11}_{-0.15} (or -0.01^{+0.08}_{-0.12} 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 -0.19^{+0.23}_{-0.35} (-0.14^{+0.17}_{-0.34} 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.

Primary mass, spin aligned with orbital angular momentum and spin incomponent in the the orbital plane for GW200115

Estimated primary mass m_1, spin component in the orbital plane \chi_{1\perp}, and spin component aligned with the orbital angular momentum \chi_{1,z} 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.

Rates

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 36^{+82}_{-20}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} using the results of GstLAL (and 40^{+92}_{-34}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} using PyCBC). The rate of GW200105-like binaries is 16^{+38}_{-14}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} (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 45^{+75}_{-33}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}.

Neutron star–black hole binary merger rate density

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 2.5 M_\odot and 40 M_\odot and a secondary mass between 1 M_\odot and 3 M_\odot. 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 2.5 M_\odot), binary black hole (if both components are above 5 M_\odot), 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 2.5 M_\odot (which I think unlikely, but possible), and binary black hole components below 5 M_\odot (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 130^{+112}_{-69}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}.

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 neutron star–black hole binary rates in different COMPAS models

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).

Summary

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.

Title: Observation of gravitational waves from two neutron star–black hole coalescences
Journal:
Astrophysical Journal Letters; 915(1):L5(25)
arXiv: 2106.15163 [astro-ph.HE]
Science summary:
 A new source of gravitational waves: Neutron star–black hole binaries
Data release: GW200105; GW200115
GW200105 Rating: 🐦🍨🥇😮
GW200115 Rating: 🐭🍨😮🙃🏆

Bonus notes

Cookies

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.

Even years

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.

Waveform models

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.

GW190426_152155’s properties

While GW190426_152155 agrees nicely with GW200115‘s masses, its other properties are somewhat different. Its effective inspiral spin is -0.03^{+0.32}_{-0.30} (compared with -0.19^{+0.23}_{-0.35}), and its distance is 0.37^{+0.18}_{-0.16}~\mathrm{Gpc}. (compared with 0.30^{+0.15}_{-0.10}~\mathrm{Gpc}). The sky positions are also not significantly overlapping.

Electromagnetic observations

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.

Ejecta

We estimate that the amount of neutron star stuff ejected during the merger is less than 10^{-6} M_\odot. 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—The big one

GW190521 is a huge discovery—it a gravitational wave signal from the coalescence of two black holes to form one about 140 M_\odot (where our Sun has a mass of 1 M_\odot). 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 2.1 M_\odot and 3 M_\odot 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 4 \times 10^6 M_\odot 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 10,000 M_\odot 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 Event Horizon Telescope's image of M87*

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 6.5 \times 10^9 M_\odot. 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 100 M_\odot and 100,000 M_\odot. 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 142^{+28}_{-16} M_\odot 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 85^{+21}_{-14} M_\odot and 66^{+17}_{-18} M_\odot. The large black hole masses extremely difficult to explain.

Binary black hole masses for GW190521

Estimated masses for the two components in the binary m_1 \geq m_2. 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 (\sim 3 \times 10^9~\mathrm{K}, 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 30 M_\odot. If the core is between 30 M_\odot and about 65 M_\odot, 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 65 M_\odot and about 135 M_\odot, 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 45 M_\odot and 55 M_\odot.

Remnant masses for stars of different masses

Remnant (white dwarf, neutron star or black hole) mass M_\mathrm{rem}for different initial (zero age main sequence) stellar masses M_\mathrm{ZAMS}. This is just for single stars, and ignores all the complicated things that can happen in binaries. The different coloured lines indicate different metallicities Z (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 M_\mathrm{tot}. 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.

The signal

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

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 10^{30} 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 m_1 = 85^{+21}_{-14} M_\odot and m_2 = 66^{+17}_{-18} M_\odot, and that the merger remnant is M_\mathrm{f} = 142^{+28}_{-16} M_\odot. The plot below shows the final mass as well as the spin, which is \chi_\mathrm{f} = 0.72^{+0.09}_{-0.12}. For the black holes formed from the mergers of near equal mass binaries, you’d expect the final spin to be around 0.7.

Final black hole mass and spin

Estimated mass M_\mathrm{f} and spin \chi_\mathrm{f} 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 (1+z)M_\mathrm{f}. 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.

Final black hole mass and spin measured from GW190521's ringdown

Estimated redshifted mass (1+z)M_\mathrm{f} and spin \chi_\mathrm{f} 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 \chi_\mathrm{eff}, which goes from -1 for both the spins being maximal and antialigned with the orbital angular momentum to 1 for both spins being maximal and aligned with the orbital angular momentum. We find that \chi_\mathrm{eff} = 0.08^{+0.27}_{-0.36}, 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 \chi_\mathrm{p}, which goes from 0 for no in-plane spin, to 1 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 \chi_\mathrm{p}. We find \chi_\mathrm{p} = 0.68^{+0.28}_{-0.34}, but there’s support across the entire range.

Effective inspiral spin and effective precession spin for GW190521

Estimated effective inspiral spin \chi_\mathrm{eff} and effective precession spin \chi_\mathrm{p} . 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 D_\mathrm{L} 5.3^{+2.4}_{-2.6}~\mathrm{Gpc}. 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 D_\mathrm{L}^2. 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.

The astrophysics

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 55 M_\odot 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 70 M_\odot, 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:

  1. 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 100 M_\odot, so we’d need to swap out partners in this case.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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 0.13^{+0.30}_{-0.11}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. 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.

Hierarchical mergers

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 5\times 10^5 M_\odot, what if we tried 10^8 M_\odot, 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.

The surprise

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.

Three dimensional localisation and active galactic nucleus location

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.

The papers

The GW190521 Discovery Paper

Title: GW190521: A binary black hole merger with a total mass of 150 solar masses
Journal:
 Physical Review Letters125(10):101102(17)
arXiv: 2009.01075 [gr-qc]
Read this if:
 You want to understand the detection of GW190521

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.

The GW190521 Implications Paper

Title: Properties and astrophysical implications of the 150 solar mass binary black hole merger GW190521
Journal:
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 900(1):L13(27)
arXiv: 2009.01190 [astro-ph.HE]
Read this if:
You want to understand the implications for fundamental physics and astrophysics of the discovery

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.

Science summary: GW190521: The most massive black hole collision observed to date
Data release: Gravitational Wave Open Science Center; Parameter estimation results
Rating: 🍰🐋📏🏆

Bonus notes

Squeezing

Please hug responsibly.

Minimum black hole mass

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 2.6 M_\odot, 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

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?

Burst searches

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.

Quasicircular

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 \chi_\mathrm{p}, 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.

Economically large

To put a luminosity distance of 5.3~\mathrm{Gpc} 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).

GW190814—The mystery of a 2.6 solar mass compact object

GW190814 is an exception discovery from the third observing run (O3) of the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors. The signal came from the coalescence of a binary made up of a component about 23 times the mass of our Sun (solar masses) and one about 2.6 solar masses. The more massive component would be a black hole, similar to past discoveries. The less massive component, however, we’re not sure about. This is a mass range where observations have been lacking. It could be a neutron star. In this case, GW190814 would be the first time we have seen a neutron star–black hole binary. This could also be the most massive neutron star ever found, certainly the most massive in a compact-object (black hole or neutron star) binary. Alternatively, it could be a black hole, in which case it would be the smallest black hole ever found. We have discovered something special, we’re just not sure exactly what…

Black hole and neutron star masses highlighting GW190814

The population of compact objects (black holes and neutron stars) observed with gravitational waves and with electromagnetic astronomy, including a few which are uncertain. GW190814 is highlighted. It is not clear if its lighter component is a black hole or neutron star. Source: Northwestern

Detection

14 August 2019 marked the second birthday of GW170814—the first gravitational wave we clearly detected using all three of our detectors. As a present, we got an even more exciting detection.

I was at the MESA Summer School at the time [bonus advertisement], learning how to model stars. My student Chase come over excitedly as soon as he saw the alert. We snuck a look at the data in a private corner of the class. GW190814 (then simply known as candidate S190814bv) was a beautifully clear chirp. You shouldn’t assess how plausible a candidate signal is by eye (that’s why we spent years building detection algorithms [bonus note]), but GW190814 was a clear slam dunk that hit it out of the park straight into the bullseye. Check mate!

Normalised spectrograms for GW190814

Time–frequency plots for GW190814 as measured by LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston and Virgo. The chirp of a binary coalescence is clearest in Livingston. For long signals, like GW190814, it is usually hard to pick out the chirp by eye. Figure 1 of the GW190814 Discovery Paper.

Unlike GW170814, however, it seemed that we only had two detectors observing. LIGO Hanford was undergoing maintenance (the same procedure as when GW170608 occurred). However, after some quick checks, it was established that the Hanford data was actually good to use—the detectors had been left alone in the 5 minutes around the signal (phew), so the data were clean (wooh)! We had another three-detector detection.

The big difference that having three detectors make is a much better localization of the source. For GW190814 we get a beautifully tight localization. This was exciting, as GW190814 could be a neutron star–black hole. The initial source classification (which is always pretty uncertain as it’s done before we have detailed analysis) went back and forth between being a binary black hole with one component in the the 3–5 solar mass range, and a neutron star–black hole (which means the less massive component is below 3 solar masses, not necessarily a neutron star). Neutron star–black hole mergers may potentially have an electromagnetic counterparts which can be found by telescopes. Not all neutron star–black hole binaries will have counterparts as sometimes, when the black hole is much bigger than the neutron star, it will be swallowed whole. Even if there is a counterpart, it may be too faint to see (we expect this to be increasingly common as our detectors detect gravitational waves from more distance sources). GW190814’s source is about 240 Mpc away (six times the distance of GW170817, meaning any light emitted would be about 36 times fainter) [bonus note]. Many teams searched for counterparts, but none have been reported. Despite the excellent localization, we have no multimessenger counterpart this time.

Sky map for GW190814

Sky localizations for GW190814’s source. The blue dashed contour shows the preliminary localization using only LIGO Livingston and Virgo data, and the solid orange shows the preliminary localization adding in Hanford data. The dashed green contour shows and updated localization used by many for their follow-up studies. The solid purple contour shows our final result, which has an area of just 18.5~\mathrm{deg^2}. All contours are for 90% probabilities. Figure 2 of the GW190814 Discovery Paper.

The sky localisation for GW190814 demonstrates nicely how localization works for gravitational-wave sources. We get most of our information from the delay time between the signal reaching the different detectors. With a two-detector network, a single time delay corresponds to a ring on the sky. We kind of see this with the blue dashed localization above, which was the initial result using just LIGO Livingston and Virgo data. There are actual arcs corresponding to two different time delays. This is because the signal is quiet in Virgo, and so we don’t get an absolute lock on the arrival time: if you shift the signal so it’s one cycle different, it still matches pretty well, so we get two possibilities. The arcs aren’t full circles because information on the phase of the signals, and the relative amplitudes (since detectors are not uniformal sensitive in all directions) add extra information. Adding in LIGO Hanford data gives us more information on the timing. The Hanford–Livingston circle of constant time delay slices through the Livingston–Virgo one, leaving us with just the two overlapping islands as possibilities. The sky localizations shifted a little bit as we refined the analysis, but remained pretty consistent.

Whodunnit?

From the gravitational wave signal we inferred that GW190814 came from a binary with masses m_1 = 23.2^{+1.1}_{-1.0} solar masses (quoting the 90% range for parameters), and the other m_2 = 2.59^{+0.08}_{-0.09} solar masses. This is remarkable for two reasons: first, the lower mass object is right in the range where we might hit the maximum mass of a neutron star, and second, this is the most asymmetric masses from any of our gravitational wave sources.

Binary component masses for GW190814

Estimated masses for the two components in the binary m_i \geq m_2. We show results several different waveform models (which include spin precession and higher order multiple moments). The two-dimensional shows the 90% probability contour. The one-dimensional plot shows individual masses; the dotted lines mark 90% bounds away from equal mass. Estimates for the maximum neutron star mass are shown for comparison with the mass of the lighter component m_2. Figure 3 of the GW190814 Discovery Paper.

Neutron star or black hole?

Neutron stars are massive balls of stuff™. They are made of matter in its most squished form. A neutron star about 1.4 solar masses would have a radius of only about 12 kilometres. For comparison, that’s roughly the same as trying to fit the mass of 3\times 10^{33} M&Ms (plain; for peanut butter it would be different, and of course, more delicious) into the volume of just 1.2 \times 10^{19} M&Ms (ignoring the fact that you can’t perfectly pack them)! Neutron stars are about 3 \times 10^{14} times more dense than M&Ms. As you make neutron stars heavier, their gravity gets stronger until at some point the strange stuff™ they are made of can’t take the pressure. At this point the neutron star will collapse down to a black hole. Since we don’t know the properties of neutron star stuff™ we don’t know the maximum mass of a neutron star.

We have observed neutron stars of a range of masses. The recently discovered pulsar J0740+6620 may be around 2.1 solar masses, and potentially pulsar J1748−2021B may be around 2.7 solar masses (although that measurement is more uncertain as it requires some strong assumptions about the pulsar’s orbit and its companion star). Using observations of GW170817, estimates have been made that the maximum neutron star mass should be below 2.2 or 2.3 solar masses; using late-time observations of short gamma-ray bursts (assuming that they all come from binary neutron star mergers) indicates an upper limit of 2.4 solar masses, and looking at the observed population of neutron stars, it could be anywhere between 2 and 3 solar masses. About 3 solar masses is a safe upper limit,  as it’s not possible to make stuff™ stiff enough to withstand more pressure than that.

At about 2.6 solar masses, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that the less massive component is a neutron star. In this case, we have learnt something valuable about the properties of neutron star stuff™. Assuming that we have a neutron star, we can infer the properties of neutron star stuff™. We find that a typical neutron star 1.4 solar masses, the radius would be R_{1.4} = 12.9^{+0.8}_{-0.7}~\mathrm{km} and the tidal deformability \Lambda_{1.4} = 616^{+273}_{-158}.

The plot below shows our results fitting the neutron star equation of state, which describes how the density pf neutron star stuff™ changes with pressure. The dashed lines show the 90% range of our prior (what the analysis would return with no input information). The blue curve shows results adding in GW170817 (what we would have if GW190814 was a binary black hole), we prefer neutron stars made of softer stuff™ (which is squisher to hug, and would generally result in more compact neutron stars). Adding in GW190814 (assuming a neutron star–black hole) pushes us back up to stiffer stuff™ as we now need to support a massive maximum mass.

Neutron star pressure and density

Constraints on the neutron star equation of state, showing how density \rho changes with pressure $p$. The blue curve just uses GW170817, implicitly assuming that GW190814 is from a binary black hole, while the orange shows what happens if we include GW190814, assuming it is from a neutron star–black hole binary. The 90% and 50% credible contours are shown as the dark and lighter bands, and the dashed lines indicate the 90% region of the prior. Figure 8 of the GW190814 Discovery Paper.

What if it’s not a neutron star?

In this case we must have a black hole. In theory black holes can be any mass: you just need to squish enough mass into a small enough space. However, from our observations of X-ray binaries, there seem to be no black holes below about 5 solar masses. This is referred to as the lower mass gap, or the core collapse mass gap. The theory was that when the cores of massive stars collapse, there are different types of explosions and implosions depending upon the core’s mass. When you have a black hole, more material from outside the core falls back than when you have a neutron star. All the extra material would always mean that black holes are born above 5 solar masses. If we’ve found a black hole below this, either this theory is wrong and we need a new explanation for the lack of X-ray observations, or we have a black hole formed via a different means.

Potentially, we could if we measured the effects of the tidal distortion of the neutron star in the gravitational wave signal. Unfortunately, tidal effects are weaker for more unequal mass binaries. GW190814 is extremely unequal, so we can’t measure anything and say either way. Equally, seeing an electromagnetic counterpart would be evidence for a neutron star, but with such unequal masses the neutron star would likely be eaten whole, like me eating an M&M. The mass ratio means that we can’t be certain what we have.

The calculation we can do, is use past observations of neutron stars and measurements of the stiffness of neutron star stuff™ to estimate the probability the the mass of the less massive component is below the maximum neutron star mass. Using measurements from GW170817 for the stuff™ stiffness, we estimate that there’s only a 3% probability of the mass being below the maximum neutron star mass, and using the observed population of neutron stars the probability is 29%. It seems that it is improbable, but not impossible, that the component is a neutron star.

I’m yet to be convinced one way or the other on black hole vs neutron star [bonus note], but I do like the idea of extra small black holes. They would be especially cute, although you must never try to hug them.

The unequal masses

Most of the binaries we’ve seen with gravitational waves so far are consistent with having equal masses. The exception is GW190412, which has a mass ratio of q = m_2/m_1 = 0.28^{+0.13}_{-0.07}. The mass ratio changes a few things about the gravitational wave signal. When you have unequal masses, it is possible to observe higher harmonics in the gravitational wave signal: chirps at multiples of the orbital frequency (the dominant two form a perfect fifth). We observed higher harmonics for the first time with GW190412. GW190814 has a more extreme mass ratio q = 0.112^{+0.008}_{-0.009}. We again spot the next harmonic in GW190814, this time it is even more clear. Modelling gravitational waves from systems with mass ratios of q \sim 0.1 is tricky, it is important to include the higher order multipole moments in order to get good estimates of the source parameters.

Having unequal masses makes some of the properties of the lighter component, like its tidal deformability of its spin, harder to measure. Potentially, it can be easier to pick out the spin of the more massive component. In the case of GW190814, we find that the spin is small, \chi_1 < 0.07. This is our best ever measurement of black hole spin!

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins

Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins. The distribution for the more massive component is on the left, and for the lighter 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. On account of the mass ratio, we get a good measurement of the spin of the more massive component, but not the lighter one. Figure 6 of the GW190814 Discovery Paper.

Typically, it is easier to measure the amount of spin aligned with the orbital angular momentum. We often characterise this as the effective inspiral spin parameter. In this case, we measure \chi_\mathrm{eff} = -0.002^{+0.060}_{-0.061}. Harder to measure is the spin in the orbital plane. This controls the amount of spin precession (wobbling in the spin orientation as the orbital angular momentum is not aligned with the total angular momentum), and is characterised by the effective precession spin parameter. For GW190814, we find \chi_\mathrm{p} < 0.07, which is our tightest measurement. It might seem odd that we get our best measurement of in-plane spin in the case when there is no precession. However, this is because if there were precession, we would clearly measure it. Since there is no support for precession in the data, we know that it isn’t there, and hence that the amount of in-plane spin is small.

Implications

While we haven’t solved the mystery of neutron star vs black hole, what can we deduce?

  1. Einstein is still not wrong yet. Our tests of general relativity didn’t give us any evidence that something was wrong. We even tried a new test looking for deviations in the spin-induced quadrupole moment. GW190814 was initially thought to be a good case to try this, on account of its mass ratio, unfortunately, since there’s little hint of spin, we don’t get particularly informative results. Next time.
  2. The Universe is expanded about as fast as we’d expect. We have a wonderfully tight localization: GW190814 has the best localization of all our gravitational waves except for GW170817. This means we can cross-reference with galaxy catalogues to estimate the Hubble constant, a measure of the expansion rate of the Universe. We get the distance from our gravitational wave measurement, and the redshift from the catalogue, and putting them together give the Hubble constant H_0. From GW190814 alone, we get H_0 = 83^{+55}_{-53}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} (quoting numbers with our usual median and symmetric 90% interval convention; if you like mode and narrowest 68% region, it’s H_0 = 75^{+59}_{-13}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}}). If we combine with results for GW170817, we get H_0 = 77^{+33}_{-23}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} (or H_0 = 70^{+17}_{-8}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}}) [bonus note].
  3. The merger rate density for a population of GW190814-like systems is 7^{+16}_{-6}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. If you think you know how GW190814 formed, you’ll need to make sure to get a compatible rate estimate.

What can we say about potential formation channels for the source? This is rather tricky as many predictions assume supernova models which lead to a mass group, so there’s nothing with a compatible mass for the lighter component. I expect there will be lots of checking what happens without this assumption.

Given the mass of the black hole, we would expect that it formed from a low metallicity star. That is a star which doesn’t have too many of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements lead to stronger stellar winds, meaning that stars are smaller at the end of their lives and it is harder to get a black hole that’s 23 solar masses. The same is true for many of the black holes we’ve seen in gravitational waves.

Massive stars have short lives. The bigger they are, the more quickly they burn up all their nuclear fuel. This has an important implication for the mass of the lighter component: it probably has not grown much since it formed. We could either have the bigger component forming from the initially bigger star (which is the simpler scenario to imagine). In this case, the black hole forms first, and there is no chance for the lighter component to grow after it forms as it’s sitting next to a black hole. It is possible that the lighter component formed first if when its parent star started expanding in middle age (as many of us do) it transferred lots of mass to its companion star. The mass transfer would reverse which of the stars was more massive, and we could then have some accretion back onto the lighter compact object to grow it a bit. However, the massive partner star would only have a short lifetime, and compact objects can only swallow a relatively small rate of material, so you wouldn’t be able the lighter component by much more than 0.1 solar masses, not nearly enough to bridge the gap from what we would consider a typical neutron star. We do need to figure out a way to form compact objects about 2.6 solar masses.

How to form GW190814-like systems through isolated binary evolution.

Two possible ways of forming GW190814-like systems through isolated binary evolution. In Channel A the heavier black hole forms first from the initially more massive star. In Channel B, the initially more massive star transfers so much mass to its companion that we get a mass inversion, and the lighter component forms first. In the plot, a is the orbital separation, e is the orbital inclination, t is the time since the stars started their life on the main sequence. The letters on the right indicate the evolution phase: ZAMS is zero-age main sequence, MS is main sequence (burning hydrogen), CHeB is core helium burning (once the hydrogen has been used up), and BH and NS mean black hole and neutron star. At low metallicities Z (when stars have few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium), the two channels are about as common, as metallicity increases Channel A becomes more common. Figure 6 of Zevin et al. (2020).

The mass ratio is difficult to produce. It’s not what you would expect for dynamically formed binaries in globular clusters (as you’d expect heavier objects to pair up). It could maybe happen in the discs around active galactic nuclei, although there are lots of uncertainties about this, and since this is only a small part of space, I wouldn’t expect a large numbers of events. Isolated binaries (or higher multiples) can form these mass ratios, but they are rare for binaries that go on to merge. Again, it might be difficult to produce enough systems to explain our observation of GW190814. We need to do some more sleuthing to figure out how binaries form.

Epilogue

The LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors embody decades of work by thousand of scientists across the globe. It took many hard years of research to create the technology capable of observing gravitational waves. Many doubted it would ever be possible. Finally, in 2015, we succeeded. The first detection of gravitational waves opened a new field of astronomy—our goal was not to just detect gravitational waves once, but to use them to explore our Universe. Since then we have continued to work improving our detectors and our analyses. More discoveries have come. LIGO and Virgo are revolutionising our understanding of astrophysics, and GW190814 is the latest advancement in our knowledge. It will not be the last. Gravitational wave astronomy thrives thanks to, and as a consequence of, many people working together towards a common goal.

If a few thousand people can work together to imagine, create and operate gravitational wave detectors, think what we could achieve if millions, or billions, or if we all worked together. Let’s get to work.

Title: GW190814: Gravitational waves from the coalescence of a 23 solar mass black hole with a 2.6 solar mass compact object
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 896(2):L44(20); 2020
arXiv: 2006.12611 [astro.ph-HE]
Science summary: The curious case of GW190814: The coalescence of a stellar-mass black hole and a mystery compact object
Data release: Gravitational Wave Open Science Center; Parameter estimation results
Rating: 🍩🐦🦚🦆❔

Bonus notes

MESA Summer School

Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA) is a code for simulating the evolution of stars. It’s pretty neat, and can do all sorts of cool things. The summer school is a chance to be taught how to use it as well as some theory behind the lives of stars. The school is aimed at students (advanced undergrads and postgrads) and postdocs starting out using or developing the code, but there’ll let faculty attend if there’s space. I was lucky enough to get a spot together with my fantastic students Chase, Monica and Kyle. I was extremely impressed by everything. The ratio of demonstrators to students was high, all the sessions were well thought out, and ice cream was plentiful. I would definitely recommend attending if you are interested in stellar evolution, and if you want to build the user base for your scientific code, this is certainly a wonderful model to follow.

Detection significance

For our final (for now) detection significance we only used data from LIGO Livingston and Virgo. Although the Hanford data are good, we wouldn’t have looked at this time without the prompt from the other detectors. We therefore need to be careful not to bias ourselves. For simplicity we’ve stuck with using just the two detectors. Since Hanford would boost the significance, these results should be conservative. GstLAL and PyCBC identified the event with false alarm rates of better than 1 in 100,000 years and 1 in 42,000 years, respectively.

Distance

The luminosity distance of GW190814’s source is estimated as 241^{+41}_{-45}~\mathrm{Mpc}. The luminosity distance is a measure which incorporates the effects of the signal travelling through an expanding Universe, so it’s not quite the same as the actual distance between us and the source. Given the uncertainties on the luminosity distance, it would have taken the signal somewhere between 600 million and 850 million years to reach us. It therefore set out during the Neoproterozoic era here on Earth, which is pretty cool.

In this travel time, the signal would have covered about 6 sextillion kilometres, or to put it in easier to understand units, about 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 M&Ms laid end-to-end. Eating that many M&Ms would give you about 2 \times 10^{27} calories. That seems like a lot of energy, but it’s less than 2 \times 10^{-16} of the energy emitted as gravitational waves for GW190814.

Betting

Given current uncertainties on what the maximum mass of a neutron star should be, it is hard to offer odds for whether of not the smaller component of GW190814’s binary is a black hole or neutron star. Since it does seem higher mass than expected for neutron stars from other observations, a black hole origin does seem more favoured, but as GW190425 showed, we might be missing the full picture about the neutron star population. I wouldn’t be too surprised if our understanding shifted over the next few years. Consequently, I’d stretch to offering odds of one peanut butter M&M to one plain chocolate M&M in favour of black holes over neutron stars.

Hubble constant

Using the Dark Energy Survey galaxy catalogue, Palmese et al. (2020) calculate a Hubble constant of H_0 = 66^{+55}_{-18}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} (mode and narrowest 68% region) using GW190814. Adding in GW170814 they get H_0 = 68^{+43}_{-21}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} as a gravitational-wave-only measurement, and including GW170817 and its electromagnetic counterpart gives H_0 = 69.0^{+14.0}_{-7.5}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}}.

 

GW190412—A new flavour of binary black hole

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.

The discovery

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!

Normalised spectrograms for GW190412

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 m_1 = 30.1^{+4.6}_{-5.3} times the mass of our Sun (quoting the 90% range for parameters), and the other m_2 = 8.3^{+1.6}_{-0.9} 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 q = m_2/m_1 = 0.28^{+0.12}_{-0.07} [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.

Mass ratio and effective inspiral spin

Estimated mass ratio q for the two components in the binary and the effective inspiral spin \chi_\mathrm{eff} (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:

  1. We get a really wonderful measurement of the spin of the more massive black hole.
  2. We can observe a new feature of the gravitational wave signal (higher order multipole moments).
  3. We understand a bit more about the population of binary black holes.

Spin

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.

A well measured, and convenient to work with, combination of the two spins is the effective inspiral spin parameter

\displaystyle \chi_\mathrm{eff} = \frac{m_1 \chi_1 \cos \theta_1 + m_2 \chi_2 \cos \theta_2}{m_1 + m_2},

where \chi_1 and \chi_2 are the spins of the two black holes [bonus note], and \theta_1 and \theta_2 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 \chi_\mathrm{eff} is roughly constant. It also effects the rate of inspiral, binaries with larger \chi_\mathrm{eff} also merge when they’re a bit closer. For GW190412, we measure \chi_\mathrm{eff} = 0.25^{+0.08}_{-0.11}.

This is only the second time we’ve had a definite non-zero measurement of \chi_\mathrm{eff} after GW151226. GW170729 had a reasonable large value, but the uncertainties did stretch to include zero. The measurement of a non-zero \chi_\mathrm{eff} means that we know at least one of the black holes has spin.

The effective inspiral spin parameter \chi_\mathrm{eff} 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]

\displaystyle \chi_\mathrm{p} = \max\left\{\chi_1 \sin \theta_1 , \frac{q(4q + 3)}{(4 + 3q)}\chi_2 \sin \theta_2\right\}.

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 \chi_\mathrm{p} = 0.31^{+0.19}_{-0.16}. This is the best measurement of \chi_\mathrm{p} so far. It shows that we don’t see strong procession, but also suggests that there is some in-plane spin.

Effective precession spin parameter

Estimated effective precession spin parameter \chi_\mathrm{p}. 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 \chi_\mathrm{eff} is dominated by the spin of the larger black hole, or at least the component of the spin aligned with the orbital angular momentum (\chi_\mathrm{eff} \approx \chi_1 \cos \theta_1), and similarly \chi_\mathrm{p} is dominated by the in-place components of the larger black hole’s spin (\chi_\mathrm{p} \approx \chi_1 \sin \theta_1). Combining all this information, we can actually get a good measurement of the spin of the bigger black hole. We infer that \chi_1 = 0.44^{+0.16}_{-0.26}. 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 {}_{-2}Y_{\ell m}(\vartheta, \phi), where we use \{\vartheta, \phi\} as the angles on the sphere, and (\ell, m) specify the harmonic. The majority of the gravitational radiation emitted from a binary is from the (2, \pm2) harmonic, so we usually start with this. Larger values of \ell contribute less and less. For exactly equal mass binaries with non-spinning components, only harmonics with even \ell are non-zero, so really the (2, \pm2) harmonic is all you need. For unequal mass binaries this is not the case. Here odd \ell are important, and harmonics with \ell = \pm m are expected to contribute a significant amount. In previous detection, we’ve not had to worry too much about the harmonics with \ell > 2, 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 (\ell, m) is f_{\ell m} \simeq m f_\mathrm{orb}, where f_\mathrm{orb} 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 m = 2 multipole was a music A, then the m = 3 multipole would correspond to an E, and if the m = 2 multipole was a C, the m = 3  would be a G. There’s a family of chirps [bonus note]. For GW190412, we clearly pick out the frequency component at 3 f_\mathrm{orb} showing the significance of the (3,\pm3) 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 (740^{+130}_{-160}~\mathrm{Mpc}, corresponding to a travel time for the signal of around 2 billion years) using templates calculated using only the (2,\pm2) 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 p(q) \propto q^{\beta_q} and estimated the value of \beta_q. A result of \beta_q = 0 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 \beta_q, 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 \beta_q. 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 \beta_q, 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.

Mass ratio power-law sloe

Estimated power-law slope \beta_q for the binary black hole mass ratio distribution p(q) \propto q^{\beta_q}. 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 q < 0.37 to q < 0.43, 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 1.7^{+10.3}_{-1.3}\% 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 25^{+47}_{-17}\% 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 for GWTC-1 plus GW190412

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.

Title: GW190412: Observation of a binary-black-hole coalescence with asymmetric masses
Journal: Physical Review D; 102(4):043015(29)
arXiv: 2004.08342 [astro-ph.HE]
Science summary: GW190412: The first observation of an unequal-mass black hole merger
Data release: Gravitational Wave Open Science Center
Rating: 🍨🐦🎶🐦🥴

Bonus notes

Sleep

I like sleep. I’d strongly recommend it.

Notation

Possibly the greatest dispute in gravitational wave astronomy is the definition of q. We pretty much all agree that the larger mass in a binary is m_1 and the lesser mass m_2. However, there two camps on the mass ratio: those enlightened individuals who define q = m_2/m_1, meaning that the mass ratio spans the entirely sensible range of 0 \leq q \leq 1, and those heretics who define q = m_1/m_2, meaning that it cover the ridiculous range of 1 \leq q \leq \infty. 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 \chi (the Greek letter chi) and a. After a tense negotiation, conflict was happily avoided, and we have settled on \chi, 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.

Effective spins

Sadly, my suggestions to call \chi_\mathrm{p} and \chi_\mathrm{eff} Chip and Dale have not caught on.

Hey! Listen!

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:

  1. Without higher order multipole moments
  2. With higher order mulitpole moments

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.

Eclipses of continuous gravitational waves as a probe of stellar structure

Understanding how stars work is a fundamental problem in astrophysics. We can’t open up a star to investigate its inner workings, which makes it difficult to test our models. Over the years, we have developed several ways to sneak a peek into what must be happening inside stars, such as by measuring solar neutrinos, or using asteroseismology to measure how sounds travels through a star. In this paper, we propose a new way to examine the hearts of stars using gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves interact very weakly with stuff. Whereas light gets blocked by material (meaning that we can’t see deeper than a star’s photosphere), gravitational waves will happily travel through pretty much anything. This property means that gravitational waves are hard to detect, but it also means that there’ll happily pass through an entire star. While the material that makes up a star will not affect the passing of a gravitational wave, its gravity will. The mass of a star can lead to gravitational lensing and a slight deflecting, magnification and delaying of a passing gravitational wave. If we can measure this lensing, we can reconstruct the mass of star, and potentially map out its internal structure.

Eclipsing gravitational wave sources

Two types of eclipse: the eclipse of a distant gravitational wave (GW) source by the Sun, and gravitational waves from an accreting millisecond pulsar (MSP) eclipsed by its companion. Either scenario could enable us to see gravitational waves passing through a star. Figure 2 of Marchant et al. (2020).

We proposed looking at gravitational waves for eclipsing sources—where a gravitational wave source is behind a star. As the alignment of the Earth (and our detectors), the star and the source changes, the gravitational wave will travel through different parts of the star, and we will see a different amount of lensing, allowing us to measure the mass of the star at different radii. This sounds neat, but how often will we be lucky enough to see an eclipsing source?

To date, we have only seen gravitational waves from compact binary coalescences (the inspiral and merger of two black holes or neutron stars). These are not a good source for eclipses. The chances that they travel through a star is small (as space is pretty empty) [bonus note]. Furthermore, we might not even be able to work out that this happened. The signal is relatively short, so we can’t compare the signal before and during an eclipse. Another type of gravitational wave signal would be much better: a continuous gravitational wave signal.

How common are eclipsing gravitational wave sources?

Probability of observing at least one eclipsing source amongst a number of observed sources. Compact binary coalescences (CBCs, shown in purple) are the most rare, continuous gravitational waves (CGWs) eclipsed by the Sun (red) or by a companion (red) are more common. Here we assume companions are stars about a tenth the mass of the neutron star. The number of neutron stars with binary companions is estimated using the COSMIC population synthesis code. Results are shown for eclipses where the gravitational waves get within distance b of the centre of the star. Figure 1 of Marchant et al. (2020).

Continuous gravitational waves are produced by rotating neutron stars. They are pretty much perfect for searching for eclipses. As you might guess from their name, continuous gravitational waves are always there. They happily hum away, sticking to pretty much the same note (they’d get pretty annoying to listen to). Therefore, we can measure them before, during and after an eclipse, and identify any changes due to the gravitational lensing. Furthermore, we’d expect that many neutron stars would be in close binaries, and therefore would be eclipsed by their partner. This would happen each time they orbit, potentially giving us lots of juicy information on these stars. All we need to do is measure the continuous gravitational wave…

The effect of the gravitational lensing by a star is small. We performed detailed calculations for our Sun (using MESA), and found that for the effects to be measurable you would need an extremely loud signal. A signal-to-noise ratio would need to be hundreds during the eclipse for measurement precision to be good enough to notice the imprint of lensing. To map out how things changed as the eclipse progressed, you’d need signal-to-noise ratios many times higher than this. As an eclipse by the Sun is only a small fraction of the time, we’re going to need some really loud signals (at least signal-to-noise ratios of 2500) to see these effects. We will need the next generation of gravitational wave detectors.

We are currently thinking about the next generation of gravitational wave detectors [bonus note]. The leading ideas are successors to LIGO and Virgo: detectors which cover a large range of frequencies to detect many different types of source. These will be expensive (billions of dollars, euros or pounds), and need international collaboration to finance. However, I also like the idea of smaller detectors designed to do one thing really well. Potentially these could be financed by a single national lab. I think eclipsing continuous waves are the perfect source for this—instead of needing a detector sensitive over a wide frequency range, we just need to be sensitive over a really narrow range. We will be able to detect continuous waves before we are able to see the impact of eclipses. Therefore, we’ll know exactly what frequency to tune for. We’ll also know exactly when we need to observe. I think it would be really awesome to have a tunable narrowband detector, which could measure the eclipse of one source, and then be tuned for the next one, and the next. By combining many observations, we could really build up a detailed picture of the Sun. I think this would be an exciting experiment—instrumentalists, put your thinking hats on!

Let’s reach for(the centres of) the stars.

arXiv: 1912.04268 [astro-ph.SR]
Journal: Physical Review D; 101(2):024039(15); 2020
Data release: Eclipses of continuous gravitational waves as a probe of stellar structure
CIERA story: Using gravitational waves to see inside stars
Why does the sun really shine? The Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma

Bonus notes

Silver lining

Since signals from compact binary coalescences are so unlikely to be eclipsed by a star, we don’t have to worry that our measurements of the source property are being messed up by this type of gravitational lensing distorting the signal. Which is nice.

Prospects with LISA

If you were wondering if we could see these types of eclipses with the space-based gravitational wave observatory LISA, the answer is sadly no. LISA observes lower frequency gravitational waves. Lower frequency means longer wavelength, so long in fact that the wavelength is larger than the size of the Sun! Since the size of the Sun is so small compared to the gravitational wave, it doesn’t leave a same imprint: the wave effectively skips over the gravitational potential.

GW190425—First discovery from O3

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].

Preliminary sky map for GW190425

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.

Comparison of GW190425 to O1, O2 and start of O3 data

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.

The source

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 1.44^{+0.02}_{-0.02} solar masses (quoting the 90% range for parameters). This is larger than GW170817’s 1.186^{+0.001}_{-0.001} solar masses: we have a heavier binary.

Binary component masses

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 1.621.88 solar masses with the low-spin assumption, and 1.612.52 solar masses with the high-spin assumption; the lighter component has a mass 1.451.69 solar masses with the low-spin assumption, and 1.121.68 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.

Galactic binary neutron stars and GW190425

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: 160^{+70}_{-70}~\mathrm{Mpc}. 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 1102520~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-3}}. Now, adding in the first 50 days of O3, we estimate the rate to be 2502470~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-3}}, 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 1102500~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-3}}, and the GW190425-like rate is lower at 704600~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-3}}. Combining the two (Assuming that binary neutron stars are all one class or the other), gives an overall rate of 2902810~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-3}}, 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.

Future mysteries

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.

Neutron star masses and radii for GW190425

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!

Title: GW190425: Observation of a compact binary coalescence with total mass ~ 3.4 solar masses
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 892(1):L3(24); 2020
arXiv: arXiv:2001.01761 [astro-ph.HE] [bonus note]
Science summary: GW190425: The heaviest binary neutron star system ever seen?
Data release: Gravitational Wave Open Science Center; Parameter estimation results
Rating: 🥇😮🥂🥇

Bonus notes

Exceptional events

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.

Naming conventions

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.

GRB 190425?

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.

EMMA 2019

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.

Signal-to-noise ratio ratios

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.

Detection thresholds

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?

Rates calculations

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.

Paper release

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.

S

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?

Science with the space-based interferometer LISA. V. Extreme mass-ratio inspirals

The space-based observatory LISA will detect gravitational waves from massive black holes (giant black holes residing in the centres of galaxies). One particularly interesting signal will come from the inspiral of a regular stellar-mass black hole into a massive black hole. These are called extreme mass-ratio inspirals (or EMRIs, pronounced emries, to their friends) [bonus note]. We have never observed such a system. This means that there’s a lot we have to learn about them. In this work, we systematically investigated the prospects for observing EMRIs. We found that even though there’s a wide range in predictions for what EMRIs we will detect, they should be a safe bet for the LISA mission.

EMRI spacetime

Artistic impression of the spacetime for an extreme-mass-ratio inspiral, with a smaller stellar-mass black hole orbiting a massive black hole. This image is mandatory when talking about extreme-mass-ratio inspirals. Credit: NASA

LISA & EMRIs

My previous post discussed some of the interesting features of EMRIs. Because of the extreme difference in masses of the two black holes, it takes a long time for them to complete their inspiral. We can measure tens of thousands of orbits, which allows us to make wonderfully precise measurements of the source properties (if we can accurately pick out the signal from the data). Here, we’ll examine exactly what we could learn with LISA from EMRIs [bonus note].

First we build a model to investigate how many EMRIs there could be.  There is a lot of astrophysics which we are currently uncertain about, which leads to a large spread in estimates for the number of EMRIs. Second, we look at how precisely we could measure properties from the EMRI signals. The astrophysical uncertainties are less important here—we could get a revolutionary insight into the lives of massive black holes.

The number of EMRIs

To build a model of how many EMRIs there are, we need a few different inputs:

  1. The population of massive black holes
  2. The distribution of stellar clusters around massive black holes
  3. The range of orbits of EMRIs

We examine each of these in turn, building a more detailed model than has previously been constructed for EMRIs.

We currently know little about the population of massive black holes. This means we’ll discover lots when we start measuring signals (yay), but it’s rather inconvenient now, when we’re trying to predict how many EMRIs there are (boo). We take two different models for the mass distribution of massive black holes. One is based upon a semi-analytic model of massive black hole formation, the other is at the pessimistic end allowed by current observations. The semi-analytic model predicts massive black hole spins around 0.98, but we also consider spins being uniformly distributed between 0 and 1, and spins of 0. This gives us a picture of the bigger black hole, now we need the smaller.

Observations show that the masses of massive black holes are correlated with their surrounding cluster of stars—bigger black holes have bigger clusters. We consider four different versions of this trend: Gültekin et al. (2009); Kormendy & Ho (2013); Graham & Scott (2013), and Shankar et al. (2016). The stars and black holes about a massive black hole should form a cusp, with the density of objects increasing towards the massive black hole. This is great for EMRI formation. However, the cusp is disrupted if two galaxies (and their massive black holes) merge. This tends to happen—it’s how we get bigger galaxies (and black holes). It then takes some time for the cusp to reform, during which time, we don’t expect as many EMRIs. Therefore, we factor in the amount of time for which there is a cusp for massive black holes of different masses and spins.

Colliding galaxies

That’s a nice galaxy you have there. It would be a shame if it were to collide with something… Hubble image of The Mice. Credit: ACS Science & Engineering Team.

Given a cusp about a massive black hole, we then need to know how often an EMRI forms. Simulations give us a starting point. However, these only consider a snap-shot, and we need to consider how things evolve with time. As stellar-mass black holes inspiral, the massive black hole will grow in mass and the surrounding cluster will become depleted. Both these effects are amplified because for each inspiral, there’ll be many more stars or stellar-mass black holes which will just plunge directly into the massive black hole. We therefore need to limit the number of EMRIs so that we don’t have an unrealistically high rate. We do this by adding in a couple of feedback factors, one to cap the rate so that we don’t deplete the cusp quicker than new objects will be added to it, and one to limit the maximum amount of mass the massive black hole can grow from inspirals and plunges. This gives us an idea for the total number of inspirals.

Finally, we calculate the orbits that EMRIs will be on.  We again base this upon simulations, and factor in how the spin of the massive black hole effects the distribution of orbital inclinations.

Putting all the pieces together, we can calculate the population of EMRIs. We now need to work out how many LISA would be able to detect. This means we need models for the gravitational-wave signal. Since we are simulating a large number, we use a computationally inexpensive analytic model. We know that this isn’t too accurate, but we consider two different options for setting the end of the inspiral (where the smaller black hole finally plunges) which should bound the true range of results.

Number of detected EMRIs

Number of EMRIs for different size massive black holes in different astrophysical models. M1 is our best estimate, the others explore variations on this. M11 and M12 are designed to be cover the extremes, being the most pessimistic and optimistic combinations. The solid and dashed lines are for two different signal models (AKK and AKS), which are designed to give an indication of potential variation. They agree where the massive black hole is not spinning (M10 and M11). The range of masses is similar for all models, as it is set by the sensitivity of LISA. We can detect higher mass systems assuming the AKK signal model as it includes extra inspiral close to highly spinning black holes: for the heaviest black holes, this is the only part of the signal at high enough frequency to be detectable. Figure 8 of Babak et al. (2017).

Allowing for all the different uncertainties, we find that there should be somewhere between 1 and 4200 EMRIs detected per year. (The model we used when studying transient resonances predicted about 250 per year, albeit with a slightly different detector configuration, which is fairly typical of all the models we consider here). This range is encouraging. The lower end means that EMRIs are a pretty safe bet, we’d be unlucky not to get at least one over the course of a multi-year mission (LISA should have at least four years observing). The upper end means there could be lots—we might actually need to worry about them forming a background source of noise if we can’t individually distinguish them!

EMRI measurements

Having shown that EMRIs are a good LISA source, we now need to consider what we could learn by measuring them?

We estimate the precision we will be able to measure parameters using the Fisher information matrix. The Fisher matrix measures how sensitive our observations are to changes in the parameters (the more sensitive we are, the better we should be able to measure that parameter). It should be a lower bound on actual measurement precision, and well approximate the uncertainty in the high signal-to-noise (loud signal) limit. The combination of our use of the Fisher matrix and our approximate signal models means our results will not be perfect estimates of real performance, but they should give an indication of the typical size of measurement uncertainties.

Given that we measure a huge number of cycles from the EMRI signal, we can make really precise measurements of the the mass and spin of the massive black hole, as these parameters control the orbital frequencies. Below are plots for the typical measurement precision from our Fisher matrix analysis. The orbital eccentricity is measured to similar accuracy, as it influences the range of orbital frequencies too. We also get pretty good measurements of the the mass of the smaller black hole, as this sets how quickly the inspiral proceeds (how quickly the orbital frequencies change). EMRIs will allow us to do precision astronomy!

EMRI redshifted mass measurements

Distribution of (one standard deviation) fractional uncertainties for measurements of the  massive black hole (redshifted) mass M_z. Results are shown for the different astrophysical models, and for the different signal models.  The astrophysical model has little impact on the uncertainties. M4 shows a slight difference as it assumes heavier stellar-mass black holes. The results with the two signal models agree when the massive black hole is not spinning (M10 and M11). Otherwise, measurements are more precise with the AKK signal model, as this includes extra signal from the end of the inspiral. Part of Figure 11 of Babak et al. (2017).

EMRI spin measurements

Distribution of (one standard deviation) uncertainties for measurements of the massive black hole spin a. The results mirror those for the masses above. Part of Figure 11 of Babak et al. (2017).

Now, before you get too excited that we’re going to learn everything about massive black holes, there is one confession I should make. In the plot above I show the measurement accuracy for the redshifted mass of the massive black hole. The cosmological expansion of the Universe causes gravitational waves to become stretched to lower frequencies in the same way light is (this makes visible light more red, hence the name). The measured frequency is f_z = (1 + z)f where f is the frequency emitted, and z is the redshift (z= 0 for a nearby source, and is larger for further away sources). Lower frequency gravitational waves correspond to higher mass systems, so it is often convenient to work with the redshifted mass, the mass corresponding to the signal you measure if you ignore redshifting. The redshifted mass of the massive black hole is M_z = (1+z)M where M is the true mass. To work out the true mass, we need the redshift, which means we need to measure the distance to the source.

EMRI lumniosity distance measurement

Distribution of (one standard deviation) fractional uncertainties for measurements of the luminosity distance D_\mathrm{L}. The signal model is not as important here, as the uncertainty only depends on how loud the signal is. Part of Figure 12 of Babak et al. (2017).

The plot above shows the fractional uncertainty on the distance. We don’t measure this too well, as it is determined from the amplitude of the signal, rather than its frequency components. The situation is much as for LIGO. The larger uncertainties on the distance will dominate the overall uncertainty on the black hole masses. We won’t be getting all these to fractions of a percent. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still figure out what the distribution of masses looks like!

One of the really exciting things we can do with EMRIs is check that the signal matches our expectations for a black hole in general relativity. Since we get such an excellent map of the spacetime of the massive black hole, it is easy to check for deviations. In general relativity, everything about the black hole is fixed by its mass and spin (often referred to as the no-hair theorem). Using the measured EMRI signal, we can check if this is the case. One convenient way of doing this is to describe the spacetime of the massive object in terms of a multipole expansion. The first (most important) terms gives the mass, and the next term the spin. The third term (the quadrupole) is set by the first two, so if we can measure it, we can check if it is consistent with the expected relation. We estimated how precisely we could measure a deviation in the quadrupole. Fortunately, for this consistency test, all factors from redshifting cancel out, so we can get really detailed results, as shown below. Using EMRIs, we’ll be able to check for really small differences from general relativity!

EMRI measurement of bumpy black hole spacetime

Distribution of (one standard deviation) of uncertainties for deviations in the quadrupole moment of the massive object spacetime \mathcal{Q}. Results are similar to the mass and spin measurements. Figure 13 of Babak et al. (2017).

In summary: EMRIS are awesome. We’re not sure how many we’ll detect with LISA, but we’re confident there will be some, perhaps a couple of hundred per year. From the signals we’ll get new insights into the masses and spins of black holes. This should tell us something about how they, and their surrounding galaxies, evolved. We’ll also be able to do some stringent tests of whether the massive objects are black holes as described by general relativity. It’s all pretty exciting, for when LISA launches, which is currently planned about 2034…

Sometimes, it leads to very little, and it seems like it's not worth it, and you wonder why you waited so long for something so disappointing

One of the most valuable traits a student or soldier can have: patience. Credit: Sony/Marvel

arXiv: 1703.09722 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 477(4):4685–4695; 2018
Conference proceedings: 1704.00009 [astro-ph.GA] (from when work was still in-progress)
Estimated number of Marvel films before LISA launch: 48 (starting with Ant-Man and the Wasp)

Bonus notes

Hyphenation

Is it “extreme-mass-ratio inspiral”, “extreme mass-ratio inspiral” or “extreme mass ratio inspiral”? All are used in the literature. This is one of the advantage of using “EMRI”. The important thing is that we’re talking about inspirals that have a mass ratio which is extreme. For this paper, we used “extreme mass-ratio inspiral”, but when I first started my PhD, I was first introduced to “extreme-mass-ratio inspirals”, so they are always stuck that way in my mind.

I think hyphenation is a bit of an art, and there’s no definitive answer here, just like there isn’t for superhero names, where you can have Iron Man, Spider-Man or Iceman.

Science with LISA

This paper is part of a series looking at what LISA could tells us about different gravitational wave sources. So far, this series covers

  1. Massive black hole binaries
  2. Cosmological phase transitions
  3. Standard sirens (for measuring the expansion of the Universe)
  4. Inflation
  5. Extreme-mass-ratio inspirals

You’ll notice there’s a change in the name of the mission from eLISA to LISA part-way through, as things have evolved. (Or devolved?) I think the main take-away so far is that the cosmology group is the most enthusiastic.

GW170608—The underdog

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!

Family of adorable black holes

The growing family of black holes. From Dawn Finney.

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!

Normalised spectrograms for GW170608

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 \mathcal{M}, the particular combination of the two black hole masses which governs the inspiral, well. For GW170608, the chirp mass is 7.9_{-0.2}^{+0.2} M_\odot. This is the smallest chirp mass we’ve ever measured, the next smallest is GW151226 with 8.9_{-0.3}^{+0.3} M_\odot. 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.

Binary black hole masses

Estimated masses m_1 \geq m_2 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 M and chirp mass \mathcal{M}. 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 \chi_\mathrm{eff}. This is a combination of the spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum. For GW170608 it is 0.07_{-0.09}^{+0.23}, so consistent with zero and leaning towards being small and positive. For GW151226 it was 0.21_{-0.10}^{+0.20}, 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.

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins

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.

Inferred black hole masses

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.

Title: GW170608: Observation of a 19 solar-mass binary black hole coalescence
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 851(2):L35(11); 2017
arXiv: 1711.05578 [gr-qc] [bonus note]
Science summary: GW170608: LIGO’s lightest black hole binary?
Data release: LIGO Open Science Center

If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170608, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.

Bonus notes

Detector engineering

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.

Coupling of angular disturbances to length

Examples of how angular fluctuations can couple to length measurements. Here are examples of how pitch p rotations in the suspension level above the test mass (L3 is the test mass, L2 is the level above) can couple to length measurement l. 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).

Impact of commissioning on Hanford data

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:

  • CALET—a gamma-ray search. This paper includes upper limits for GW151226, GW170104, GW170608, GW170814 and GW170817.
  • DLT40—an optical search designed for supernovae. This paper covers the whole of O2 including GW170104GW170814, GW170817 plus GW170809 and GW170823.
  • 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.

Virgo?

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.

Journal

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.

GW170814—Enter Virgo

On 14 August 2017 a gravitational wave signal (GW170814), originating from the coalescence of a binary black hole system, was observed by the global gravitational-wave observatory network of the two Advanced LIGO detectors and Advanced Virgo.  That’s right, Virgo is in the game!

A new foe appeared

Very few things excite me like unlocking a new character in Smash Bros. A new gravitational wave observatory might come close.

Advanced Virgo joined O2, the second observing run of the advanced detector era, on 1 August. This was a huge achievement. It has not been an easy route commissioning the new detector—it never ceases to amaze me how sensitive these machines are. Together, Advanced Virgo (near Pisa) and the two Advanced LIGO detectors (in Livingston and Hanford in the US) would take data until the end of O2 on 25 August.

On 14 August, we found a signal. A signal that was observable in all three detectors [bonus note]. Virgo is less sensitive than the LIGO instruments, so there is no impressive plot that shows something clearly popping out, but the Virgo data do complement the LIGO observations, indicating a consistent signal in all three detectors [bonus note].

Three different ways of visualising GW170814: an SNR time series, a spectrogram and a waveform reconstruction

A cartoon of three different ways to visualise GW170814 in the three detectors. These take a bit of explaining. The top panel shows the signal-to-noise ratio the search template that matched GW170814. They peak at the time corresponding to the merger. The peaks are clear in Hanford and Livingston. The peak in Virgo is less exceptional, but it matches the expected time delay and amplitude for the signal. The middle panels show time–frequency plots. The upward sweeping chirp is visible in Hanford and Livingston, but less so in Virgo as it is less sensitive. The plot is zoomed in so that its possible to pick out the detail in Virgo, but the chirp is visible for a longer stretch of time than plotted in Livingston. The bottom panel shows whitened and band-passed strain data, together with the 90% region of the binary black hole templates used to infer the parameters of the source (the narrow dark band), and an unmodelled, coherent reconstruction of the signal (the wider light band) . The agreement between the templates and the reconstruction is a check that the gravitational waves match our expectations for binary black holes. The whitening of the data mirrors how we do the analysis, by weighting noise at different frequency by an estimate of their typical fluctuations. The signal does certainly look like the inspiral, merger and ringdown of a binary black hole. Figure 1 of the GW170814 Paper.

The signal originated from the coalescence of two black holes. GW170814 is thus added to the growing family of GW150914, LVT151012, GW151226 and GW170104.

GW170814 most closely resembles GW150914 and GW170104 (perhaps there’s something about ending with a 4). If we compare the masses of the two component black holes of the binary (m_1 and m_2), and the black hole they merge to form (M_\mathrm{f}), they are all quite similar

  • GW150914: m_1 = 36.2^{+5.2}_{-3.8} M_\odot, m_2 = 29.1^{+3.7}_{-4.4} M_\odot, M_\mathrm{f} = 62.3^{+3.7}_{-3.1} M_\odot;
  • GW170104: m_1 = 31.2^{+5.4}_{-6.0} M_\odot, m_2 = 19.4^{+5.3}_{-5.9} M_\odot, M_\mathrm{f} = 48.7^{+5.7}_{-4.6} M_\odot;
  • GW170814: m_1 = 30.5^{+5.7}_{-3.0} M_\odot, m_2 = 25.3^{+2.8}_{-4.2} M_\odot, M_\mathrm{f} = 53.2^{+3.2}_{-2.5} M_\odot.

GW170814’s source is another high-mass black hole system. It’s not too surprising (now we know that these systems exist) that we observe lots of these, as more massive black holes produce louder gravitational wave signals.

GW170814 is also comparable in terms of black holes spins. Spins are more difficult to measure than masses, so we’ll just look at the effective inspiral spin \chi_\mathrm{eff}, a particular combination of the two component spins that influences how they inspiral together, and the spin of the final black hole a_\mathrm{f}

  • GW150914: \chi_\mathrm{eff} = -0.06^{+0.14}_{-0.14}, a_\mathrm{f} = 0.70^{+0.07}_{-0.05};
  • GW170104:\chi_\mathrm{eff} = -0.12^{+0.21}_{-0.30}, a_\mathrm{f} = 0.64^{+0.09}_{-0.20};
  • GW170814:\chi_\mathrm{eff} = 0.06^{+0.12}_{-0.12}, a_\mathrm{f} = 0.70^{+0.07}_{-0.05}.

There’s some spread, but the effective inspiral spins are all consistent with being close to zero. Small values occur when the individual spins are small, if the spins are misaligned with each other, or some combination of the two. I’m starting to ponder if high-mass black holes might have small spins. We don’t have enough information to tease these apart yet, but this new system is consistent with the story so far.

One of the things Virgo helps a lot with is localizing the source on the sky. Most of the information about the source location comes from the difference in arrival times at the detectors (since we know that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light). With two detectors, the time delay constrains the source to a ring on the sky; with three detectors, time delays can narrow the possible locations down to a couple of blobs. Folding in the amplitude of the signal as measured by the different detectors adds extra information, since detectors are not equally sensitive to all points on the sky (they are most sensitive to sources over head or underneath). This can even help when you don’t observe the signal in all detectors, as you know the source must be in a direction that detector isn’t too sensitive too. GW170814 arrived at LIGO Livingston first (although it’s not a competition), then ~8 ms later at LIGO Hanford, and finally ~14 ms later at Virgo.  If we only had the two LIGO detectors, we’d have an uncertainty on the source’s sky position of over 1000 square degrees, but adding in Virgo, we get this down to 60 square degrees. That’s still pretty large by astronomical standards (the full Moon is about a quarter of a square degree), but a fantastic improvement [bonus note]!

Sky localization of GW170814

90% probability localizations for GW170814. The large banana shaped (and banana coloured, but not banana flavoured) curve uses just the two LIGO detectors, the area is 1160 square degrees. The green shows the improvement adding Virgo, the area is just 100 square degrees. Both of these are calculated using BAYESTAR, a rapid localization algorithm. The purple map is the final localization from our full parameter estimation analysis (LALInference), its area is just 60 square degrees! Whereas BAYESTAR only uses the best matching template from the search, the full parameter estimation analysis is free to explore a range of different templates. Part of Figure 3 of the GW170814 Paper.

Having additional detectors can help improve gravitational wave measurements in other ways too. One of the predictions of general relativity is that gravitational waves come in two polarizations. These polarizations describe the pattern of stretching and squashing as the wave passes, and are illustrated below.

Plus and cross polarizations

The two polarizations of gravitational waves: plus (left) and cross (right). Here, the wave is travelling into or out of the screen. Animations adapted from those by MOBle on Wikipedia.

These two polarizations are the two tensor polarizations, but other patterns of squeezing could be present in modified theories of gravity. If we could detect any of these we would immediately know that general relativity is wrong. The two LIGO detectors are almost exactly aligned, so its difficult to get any information on other polarizations. (We tried with GW150914 and couldn’t say anything either way). With Virgo, we get a little more information. As a first illustration of what we may be able to do, we compared how well the observed pattern of radiation at the detectors matched different polarizations, to see how general relativity’s tensor polarizations compared to a signal of entirely vector or scalar radiation. The tensor polarizations are clearly preferred, so general relativity lives another day. This isn’t too surprising, as most modified theories of gravity with other polarizations predict mixtures of the different polarizations (rather than all of one). To be able to constrain all the  mixtures with these short signals we really need a network of five detectors, so we’ll have to wait for KAGRA and LIGO-India to come on-line.

The siz gravitational wave polarizations

The six polarizations of a metric theory of gravity. The wave is travelling in the z direction. (a) and (b) are the plus and cross tensor polarizations of general relativity. (c) and (d) are the scalar breathing and longitudinal modes, and (e) and (f) are the vector x and y polarizations. The tensor polarizations (in red) are transverse, the vector and longitudinal scalar mode (in green) are longitudinal. The scalar breathing mode (in blue) is an isotropic expansion and contraction, so its a bit of a mix of transverse and longitudinal. Figure 10 from (the excellent) Will (2014).

We’ll be presenting a more detailed analysis of GW170814 later, in papers summarising our O2 results, so stay tuned for more.

Title: GW170814: A three-detector observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole coalescence
arXiv: 1709.09660 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 119(14):141101(16) [bonus note]
Data release: LIGO Open Science Center
Science summary: GW170814: A three-detector observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole coalescence

If you’re looking for the most up-to-date results regarding GW170814, check out the O2 Catalogue Paper.

Bonus notes

Signs of paranoia

Those of you who have been following the story of gravitational waves for a while may remember the case of the Big Dog. This was a blind injection of a signal during the initial detector era. One of the things that made it an interesting signal to analyse, was that it had been injected with an inconsistent sign in Virgo compared to the two LIGO instruments (basically it was upside down). Making this type of sign error is easy, and we were a little worried that we might make this sort of mistake when analysing the real data. The Virgo calibration team were extremely careful about this, and confident in their results. Of course, we’re quite paranoid, so during the preliminary analysis of GW170814, we tried some parameter estimation runs with the data from Virgo flipped. This was clearly disfavoured compared to the right sign, so we all breathed easily.

I am starting to believe that God may be a detector commissioner. At the start of O1, we didn’t have the hardware injection systems operational, but GW150914 showed that things were working properly. Now, with a third detector on-line, GW170814 shows that the network is functioning properly. Astrophysical injections are definitely the best way to confirm things are working!

Signal hunting

Our usual way to search for binary black hole signals is compare the data to a bank of waveform templates. Since Virgo is less sensitive the the two LIGO detectors, and would only be running for a short amount of time, these main searches weren’t extended to use data from all three detectors. This seemed like a sensible plan, we were confident that this wouldn’t cause us to miss anything, and we can detect GW170814 with high significance using just data from Livingston and Hanford—the false alarm rate is estimated to be less than 1 in 27000 years (meaning that if the detectors were left running in the same state, we’d expect random noise to make something this signal-like less than once every 27000 years). However, we realised that we wanted to be able to show that Virgo had indeed seen something, and the search wasn’t set up for this.

Therefore, for the paper, we list three different checks to show that Virgo did indeed see the signal.

  1. In a similar spirit to the main searches, we took the best fitting template (it doesn’t matter in terms of results if this is the best matching template found by the search algorithms, or the maximum likelihood waveform from parameter estimation), and compared this to a stretch of data. We then calculated the probability of seeing a peak in the signal-to-noise ratio (as shown in the top row of Figure 1) at least as large as identified for GW170814, within the time window expected for a real signal. Little blips of noise can cause peaks in the signal-to-noise ratio, for example, there’s a glitch about 50 ms after GW170814 which shows up. We find that there’s a 0.3% probability of getting a signal-to-ratio peak as large as GW170814. That’s pretty solid evidence for Virgo having seen the signal, but perhaps not overwhelming.
  2. Binary black hole coalescences can also be detected (if the signals are short) by our searches for unmodelled signals. This was the case for GW170814. These searches were using data from all three detectors, so we can compare results with and without Virgo. Using just the two LIGO detectors, we calculate a false alarm rate of 1 per 300 years. This is good enough to claim a detection. Adding in Virgo, the false alarm rate drops to 1 per 5900 years! We see adding in Virgo improves the significance by almost a factor of 20.
  3. Using our parameter estimation analysis, we calculate the evidence (marginal likelihood) for (i) there being a coherent signal in Livingston and Hanford, and Gaussian noise in Virgo, and (ii) there being a coherent signal in all three detectors. We then take the ratio to calculate the Bayes factor. We find that a coherent signal in all three detectors is preferred by a factor of over 1600. This is a variant of a test proposed in Veitch & Vecchio (2010); it could be fooled if the noise in Virgo is non-Gaussian (if there is a glitch), but together with the above we think that the simplest explanation for Virgo’s data is that there is a signal.

In conclusion: Virgo works. Probably.

Follow-up observations

Adding Virgo to the network greatly improves localization of the source, which is a huge advantage when searching for counterparts. For a binary black hole, as we have here, we don’t expect a counterpart (which would make finding one even more exciting). So far, no counterpart has been reported.

i

Announcement

This is the first observation we’ve announced before being published. The draft made public at time at announcement was accepted, pending fixing up some minor points raised by the referees (who were fantastically quick in reporting back). I guess that binary black holes are now familiar enough that we are on solid ground claiming them. I’d be interested to know if people think that it would be good if we didn’t always wait for the rubber stamp of peer review, or whether they would prefer to for detections to be externally vetted? Sharing papers before publication would mean that we get more chance for feedback from the community, which is would be good, but perhaps the Collaboration should be seen to do things properly?

One reason that the draft paper is being shared early is because of an opportunity to present to the G7 Science Ministers Meeting in Italy. I think any excuse to remind politicians that international collaboration is a good thing™ is worth taking. Although I would have liked the paper to be a little more polished [bonus advice]. The opportunity to present here only popped up recently, which is one reason why things aren’t as perfect as usual.

I also suspect that Virgo were keen to demonstrate that they had detected something prior to any Nobel Prize announcement. There’s a big difference between stories being written about LIGO and Virgo’s discoveries, and having as an afterthought that Virgo also ran in August.

The main reason, however, was to get this paper out before the announcement of GW170817. The identification of GW170817’s counterpart relied on us being able to localize the source. In that case, there wasn’t a clear signal in Virgo (the lack of a signal tells us the source wan’t in a direction wasn’t particularly sensitive to). People agreed that we really need to demonstrate that Virgo can detect gravitational waves in order to be convincing that not seeing a signal is useful information. We needed to demonstrate that Virgo does work so that our case for GW170817 was watertight and bulletproof (it’s important to be prepared).

Perfect advice

Some useful advice I was given when a PhD student was that done is better than perfect. Having something finished is often more valuable than having lots of really polished bits that don’t fit together to make a cohesive whole, and having everything absolutely perfect takes forever. This is useful to remember when writing up a thesis. I think it might apply here too: the Paper Writing Team have done a truly heroic job in getting something this advanced in little over a month. There’s always one more thing to do… [one more bonus note]

One more thing

One point I was hoping that the Paper Writing Team would clarify is our choice of prior probability distribution for the black hole spins. We don’t get a lot of information about the spins from the signal, so our choice of prior has an impact on the results.

The paper says that we assume “no restrictions on the spin orientations”, which doesn’t make much sense, as one of the two waveforms we use to analyse the signal only includes spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum! What the paper meant was that we assume a prior distribution which has an isotopic distribution of spins, and for the aligned spin (no precession) waveform, we assume a prior probability distribution on the aligned components of the spins which matches what you would have for an isotropic distribution of spins (in effect, assuming that we can only measure the aligned components of the spins, which is a good approximation).

Observing run 1—The papers

The second observing run (O2) of the advanced gravitational wave detectors is now over, which has reminded me how dreadfully behind I am in writing about papers. In this post I’ll summarise results from our first observing run (O1), which ran from September 2015 to January 2016.

I’ll add to this post as I get time, and as papers are published. I’ve started off with papers searching for compact binary coalescences (as these are closest to my own research). There are separate posts on our detections GW150914 (and its follow-up papers: set I, set II) and GW151226 (this post includes our end-of-run summary of the search for binary black holes, including details of LVT151012).

Transient searches

The O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper

Title: Upper limits on the rates of binary neutron star and neutron-star–black-hole mergers from Advanced LIGO’s first observing run
arXiv: 1607.07456 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 832(2):L21(15); 2016

Our main search for compact binary coalescences targets binary black holes (binaries of two black holes), binary neutron stars (two neutron stars) and neutron-star–black-hole binaries (one of each). Having announced the results of our search for binary black holes, this paper gives the detail of the rest. Since we didn’t make any detections, we set some new, stricter upper limits on their merger rates. For binary neutron stars, this is 12,600~\mathrm{Gpc}^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-1} .

More details: O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper Paper summary

The O1 Gamma-Ray Burst Paper

Title: Search for gravitational waves associated with gamma-ray bursts during the first Advanced LIGO observing run and implications for the origin of GRB 150906B
arXiv: 1611.07947 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal; 841(2):89(18); 2016
LIGO science summary: What’s behind the mysterious gamma-ray bursts? LIGO’s search for clues to their origins

Some binary neutron star or neutron-star–black-hole mergers may be accompanied by a gamma-ray burst. This paper describes our search for signals coinciding with observations of gamma-ray bursts (including GRB 150906B, which was potentially especially close by). Knowing when to look makes it easy to distinguish a signal from noise. We don’t find anything, so we we can exclude any close binary mergers as sources of these gamma-ray bursts.

More details: O1 Gamma-Ray Burst Paper summary

The O1 Intermediate Mass Black Hole Binary Paper

Title: Search for intermediate mass black hole binaries in the first observing run of Advanced LIGO
arXiv: 1704.04628 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 96(2):022001(14); 2017
LIGO science summary: Search for mergers of intermediate-mass black holes

Our main search for binary black holes in O1 targeted systems with masses less than about 100 solar masses. There could be more massive black holes out there. Our detectors are sensitive to signals from binaries up to a few hundred solar masses, but these are difficult to detect because they are so short. This paper describes our specially designed such systems. This combines techniques which use waveform templates and those which look for unmodelled transients (bursts). Since we don’t find anything, we set some new upper limits on merger rates.

More details: O1 Intermediate Mass Black Hole Binary Paper summary

The O1 Burst Paper

Title: All-sky search for short gravitational-wave bursts in the first Advanced LIGO run
arXiv: 1611.02972 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 95(4):042003(14); 2017

If we only search for signals for which we have models, we’ll never discover something new. Unmodelled (burst) searches are more flexible and don’t assume a particular form for the signal. This paper describes our search for short bursts. We successfully find GW150914, as it is short and loud, and burst searches are good for these type of signals, but don’t find anything else. (It’s not too surprising GW151226 and LVT151012 are below the threshold for detection because they are longer and quieter than GW150914).

More details: O1 Burst Paper summary

The O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper

Synopsis: O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper
Read this if: You want a change from black holes
Favourite part: We’re getting closer to detection (and it’ll still be interesting if we don’t find anything)

The Compact Binary Coalescence (CBC) group target gravitational waves from three different flavours of binary in our main search: binary neutron stars, neutron star–black hole binaries and binary black holes. Before O1, I would have put my money on us detecting a binary neutron star first, around-about O3. Reality had other ideas, and we discovered binary black holes. Those results were reported in the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper; this paper goes into our results for the others (which we didn’t detect).

To search for signals from compact binaries, we use a bank of gravitational wave signals  to match against the data. This bank goes up to total masses of 100 solar masses. We split the bank up, so that objects below 2 solar masses are considered neutron stars. This doesn’t make too much difference to the waveforms we use to search (neutrons stars, being made of stuff, can be tidally deformed by their companion, which adds some extra features to the waveform, but we don’t include these in the search). However, we do limit the spins for neutron stars to less the 0.05, as this encloses the range of spins estimated for neutron star binaries from binary pulsars. This choice shouldn’t impact our ability to detect neutron stars with moderate spins too much.

We didn’t find any interesting events: the results were consistent with there just being background noise. If you read really carefully, you might have deduced this already from the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper, as the results from the different types of binaries are completely decoupled. Since we didn’t find anything, we can set some upper limits on the merger rates for binary neutron stars and neutron star–black hole binaries.

The expected number of events found in the search is given by

\Lambda = R \langle VT \rangle

where R is the merger rate, and \langle VT \rangle is the surveyed time–volume (you expect more detections if your detectors are more sensitive, so that they can find signals from further away, or if you leave them on for longer). We can estimate \langle VT \rangle by performing a set of injections and seeing how many are found/missed at a given threshold. Here, we use a false alarm rate of one per century. Given our estimate for \langle VT \rangle and our observation of zero detections we can, calculate a probability distribution for R using Bayes’ theorem. This requires a choice for a prior distribution of \Lambda. We use a uniform prior, for consistency with what we’ve done in the past.

With a uniform prior, the c confidence level limit on the rate is

\displaystyle R_c = \frac{-\ln(1-c)}{\langle VT \rangle},

so the 90% confidence upper limit is R_{90\%} = 2.30/\langle VT \rangle. This is quite commonly used, for example we make use of it in the O1 Intermediate Mass Black Hole Binary Search. For comparison, if we had used a Jeffrey’s prior of 1/\sqrt{\Lambda}, the equivalent results is

\displaystyle R_c = \frac{\left[\mathrm{erf}^{-1}(c)\right]^2}{\langle VT \rangle},

and hence R_{90\%} = 1.35/\langle VT \rangle, so results would be the same to within a factor of 2, but the results with the uniform prior are more conservative.

The plot below shows upper limits for different neutron star masses, assuming that neutron spins are (uniformly distributed) between 0 and 0.05 and isotropically orientated. From our observations of binary pulsars, we have seen that most of these neutron stars have masses of ~1.35 solar masses, so we can also put a limit of the binary neutron star merger rate assuming that their masses are normally distributed with mean of 1.35 solar masses and standard deviation of 0.13 solar masses. This gives an upper limit of R_{90\%} = 12,100~\mathrm{Gpc}^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-1} for isotropic spins up to 0.05, and R_{90\%} = 12,600~\mathrm{Gpc}^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-1} if you allow the spins up to 0.4.

Upper merger rate limits for binary neutron stars

90% confidence upper limits on the binary neutron star merger rate. These rates assume randomly orientated spins up to 0.05. Results are calculated using PyCBC, one of our search algorithms; GstLAL gives similar results. Figure 4 of the O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper.

For neutron star–black hole binaries there’s a greater variation in possible merger rates because the black holes can have a greater of masses and spins. The upper limits range from about R_{90\%} = 1,200~\mathrm{Gpc}^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-1} to 3,600~\mathrm{Gpc}^{-3}\,\mathrm{yr}^{-1} for a 1.4 solar mass neutron star and a black hole between 30 and 5 solar masses and a range of different spins (Table II of the paper).

It’s not surprising that we didn’t see anything in O1, but what about in future runs. The plots below compare projections for our future sensitivity with various predictions for the merger rates of binary neutron stars and neutron star–black hole binaries. A few things have changed since we made these projections, for example O2 ended up being 9 months instead of 6 months, but I think we’re still somewhere in the O2 band. We’ll have to see for O3. From these, it’s clear that a detection on O1 was overly optimistic. In O2 and O3 it becomes more plausible. This means even if we don’t see anything, we’ll be still be doing some interesting astrophysics as we can start ruling out some models.

Comparison of merger rates

Comparison of upper limits for binary neutron star (BNS; top) and neutron star–black hole binaries (NSBH; bottom) merger rates with theoretical and observational limits. The blue bars show O1 limits, the green and orange bars show projections for future observing runs. Figures 6 and 7 from the O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper.

Binary neutron star or neutron star–black hole mergers may be the sources of gamma-ray bursts. These are some of the most energetic explosions in the Universe, but we’re not sure where they come from (I actually find that kind of worrying). We look at this connection a bit more in the O1 Gamma-Ray Burst Paper. The theory is that during the merger, neutron star matter gets ripped apart, squeezed and heated, and as part of this we get jets blasted outwards from the swirling material. There are always jets in these type of things. We see the gamma-ray burst if we are looking down the jet: the wider the jet, the larger the fraction of gamma-ray bursts we see. By comparing our estimated merger rates, with the estimated rate of gamma-ray bursts, we can place some lower limits on the opening angle of the jet. If all gamma-ray bursts come from binary neutron stars, the opening angle needs to be bigger than 2.3_{-1.7}^{+1.7}~\mathrm{deg} and if they all come from neutron star–black hole mergers the angle needs to be bigger than 4.3_{-1.9}^{+3.1}~\mathrm{deg}.

The O1 Gamma-Ray Burst Paper

Synopsis: O1 Gamma-Ray Burst Paper
Read this if: You like explosions. But from a safe distance
Favourite part: We exclude GRB 150906B from being associated with galaxy NGC 3313

Gamma-ray bursts are extremely violent explosions. They come in two (overlapping) classes: short and long. Short gamma-ray bursts are typically shorter than ~2 seconds and have a harder spectrum (more high energy emission). We think that these may come from the coalescence of neutron star binaries. Long gamma-ray bursts are (shockingly) typically longer than ~2 seconds, and have a softer spectrum (less high energy emission). We think that these could originate from the collapse of massive stars (like a supernova explosion). The introduction of the paper contains a neat review of the physics of both these types of sources. Both types of progenitors would emit gravitational waves that could be detected if the source was close enough.

The binary mergers could be picked up by our templated search (as reported in the O1 Binary Neutron Star/Neutron Star–Black Hole Paper): we have a good models for what these signals look like, which allows us to efficiently search for them. We don’t have good models for the collapse of stars, but our unmodelled searches could pick these up. These look for the same signal in multiple detectors, but since they don’t know what they are looking for, it is harder to distinguish a signal from noise than for the templated search. Cross-referencing our usual searches with the times of gamma-ray bursts could help us boost the significance of a trigger: it might not be noteworthy as just a weak gravitational-wave (or gamma-ray) candidate, but considering them together makes it much more unlikely that a coincidence would happen by chance. The on-line RAVEN pipeline monitors for alerts to minimise the chance that miss a coincidence. As well as relying on our standard searches, we also do targeted searches following up on gamma-ray bursts, using the information from these external triggers.

We used two search algorithms:

  • X-Pipeline is an unmodelled search (similar to cWB) which looks for a coherent signal, consistent with the sky position of the gamma-ray burst. This was run for all the gamma-ray bursts (long and short) for which we have good data from both LIGO detectors and a good sky location.
  • PyGRB is a modelled search which looks for binary signals using templates. Our main binary search algorithms check for coincident signals: a signal matching the same template in both detectors with compatible times. This search looks for coherent signals, factoring the source direction. This gives extra sensitivity (~20%–25% in terms of distance). Since we know what the signal looks like, we can also use this algorithm to look for signals when only one detector is taking data. We used this algorithm on all short (or ambiguously classified) gamma-ray bursts for which we data from at least one detector.

In total we analysed times corresponding to 42 gamma-ray bursts: 41 which occurred during O1 plus GRB 150906B. This happening in the engineering run before the start of O1, and luckily Handord was in a stable observing state at the time. GRB 150906B was localised to come from part of the sky close to the galaxy NGC 3313, which is only 54 megaparsec away. This is within the regime where we could have detected a binary merger. This caused much excitement at the time—people thought that this could be the most interesting result of O1—but this dampened down a week later with the detection of GW150914.

GRB 150906B sky location

Interplanetary Network (IPN) localization for GRB 150906B and nearby galaxies. Figure 1 from the O1 Gamma-Ray Burst Paper.

We didn’t find any gravitational-wave counterparts. These means that we could place some lower limits on how far away their sources could be. We performed injections of signals—using waveforms from binaries, collapsing stars (approximated with circular sine–Gaussian waveforms), and unstable discs (using an accretion disc instability model)—to see how far away we could have detected a signal, and set 90% probability limits on the distances (see Table 3 of the paper). The best of these are ~100–200 megaparsec (the worst is just 4 megaparsec, which is basically next door). These results aren’t too interesting yet, they will become more so in the future, and around the time we hit design sensitivity we will start overlapping with electromagnetic measurements of distances for short gamma-ray bursts. However, we can rule out GRB 150906B coming from NGC 3133 at high probability!

The O1 Intermediate Mass Black Hole Binary Paper

Synopsis: O1 Intermediate Mass Black Hole Binary Paper
Read this if: You like intermediate mass black holes (black holes of ~100 solar masses)
Favourite part: The teamwork between different searches

Black holes could come in many sizes. We know of stellar-mass black holes, the collapsed remains of dead stars, which are a few to a few tens of times the mas of our Sun, and we know of (super)massive black holes, lurking in the centres of galaxies, which are tens of thousands to billions of times the mass of our Sun. Between the two, lie the elusive intermediate mass black holes. There have been repeated claims of observational evidence for their existence, but these are notoriously difficult to confirm. Gravitational waves provide a means of confirming the reality of intermediate mass black holes, if they do exist.

The gravitational wave signal emitted by a binary depends upon the mass of its components. More massive objects produce louder signals, but these signals also end at lower frequencies. The merger frequency of a binary is inversely proportional to the total mass. Ground-based detectors can’t detect massive black hole binaries as they are too low frequency, but they can detect binaries of a few hundred solar masses. We look for these in this search.

Our flagship search for binary black holes looks for signals using matched filtering: we compare the data to a bank of template waveforms. The bank extends up to a total mass of 100 solar masses. This search continues above this (there’s actually some overlap as we didn’t want to miss anything, but we shouldn’t have worried). Higher mass binaries are hard to detect as they as shorter, and so more difficult to distinguish from a little blip of noise, which is why this search was treated differently.

As well as using templates, we can do an unmodelled (burst) search for signals by looking for coherent signals in both detectors. This type of search isn’t as sensitive, as you don’t know what you are looking for, but can pick up short signals (like GW150914).

Our search for intermediate mass black holes uses both a modelled search (with templates spanning total masses of 50 to 600 solar masses) and a specially tuned burst search. Both make sure to include low frequency data in their analysis. This work is one of the few cross-working group (CBC for the templated search, and Burst for the unmodelled) projects, and I was pleased with the results.

This is probably where you expect me to say that we didn’t detect anything so we set upper limits. That is actually not the case here: we did detect something! Unfortunately, it wasn’t what we were looking for. We detected GW150914, which was a relief as it did lie within the range we where searching, as well as LVT151012 and GW151226. These were more of a surprise. GW151226 has a total mass of just ~24 solar masses (as measured with cosmological redshift), and so is well outside our bank. It was actually picked up just on the edge, but still, it’s impressive that the searches can find things beyond what they are aiming to pick up. Having found no intermediate mass black holes, we went and set some upper limits. (Yay!)

To set our upper limits, we injected some signals from binaries with specific masses and spins, and then saw how many would have be found with greater significance than our most significant trigger (after excluding GW150914, LVT151012 and GW151226). This is effectively asking the question of when would we see something as significant as this trigger which we think is just noise. This gives us a sensitive time–volume \langle VT \rangle which we have surveyed and found no mergers. We use this number of events to set 90% upper limits on the merge rates R_{90\%} = 2.3/\langle VT \rangle, and define an effective distance D_{\langle VT \rangle} defined so that \langle VT \rangle = T_a (4\pi D_{\langle VT \rangle}^3/3) where T_a is the analysed amount of time. The plot below show our limits on rate and effective distance for our different injections.

Intermediate mass black hole binary search results

Results from the O1 search for intermediate mass black hole binaries. The left panel shows the 90% confidence upper limit on the merger rate. The right panel shows the effective search distance. Each circle is a different injection. All have zero spin, except two 100+100 solar mass sets, where \chi indicates the spin aligned with the orbital angular momentum. Figure 2 of the O1 Intermediate Mass Black Hole Binary Paper.

There are a couple of caveats associated with our limits. The waveforms we use don’t include all the relevant physics (like orbital eccentricity and spin precession). Including everything is hard: we may use some numerical relativity waveforms in the future. However, they should give a good impression on our sensitivity. There’s quite a big improvement compared to previous searches (S6 Burst Search; S6 Templated Search). This comes form the improvement of Advanced LIGO’s sensitivity at low frequencies compared to initial LIGO. Future improvements to the low frequency sensitivity should increase our probability of making a detection.

I spent a lot of time working on this search as I was the review chair. As a reviewer, I had to make sure everything was done properly, and then reported accurately. I think our review team did a thorough job. I was glad when we were done, as I dislike being the bad cop.

The O1 Burst Paper

Synopsis: O1 Burst Paper
Read this if: You like to keep an open mind about what sources could be out there
Favourite part: GW150914 (of course)

The best way to find a signal is to know what you are looking for. This makes it much easier to distinguish a signal from random noise. However, what about the sources for which we don’t have good models? Burst searches aim to find signals regardless of their shape. To do this, they look for coherent signals in multiple detectors. Their flexibility means that they are less sensitive than searches targeting a specific signal—the signal needs to be louder before we can be confident in distinguishing it from noise—but they could potentially detect a wider number of sources, and crucially catch signals missed by other searches.

This paper presents our main results looking for short burst signals (up to a few seconds in length). Complementary burst searches were done as part of the search for intermediate mass black hole binaries (whose signals can be so short that it doesn’t matter too much if you have  a model or not) and for counterparts to gamma-ray bursts.

There are two-and-a-half burst search pipelines. There is coherent WaveBurst (cWB), Omicron–LALInferenceBurst (oLIB), and BayesWave follow-up to cWB. More details of each are found in the GW150914 Burst Companion Paper.

cWB looks for coherent power in the detectors—it looks for clusters of excess power in time and frequency. The search in O1 was split into a low-frequency component (signals below 1024 Hz) and a high-frequency component (1024 Hz). The low-frequency search was further divided into three classes:

  • C1 for signals which have a small range of frequencies (80% of the power in just a 5 Hz range). This is designed to catch blip glitches, short bursts of transient noise in our detectors. We’re not sure what causes blip glitches yet, but we know they are not real signals as they are seen independently in both detectors.
  • C3 looks for signals which increase in frequency with time—chirps. I suspect that this was (cheekily) designed to find binary black hole coalescences.
  • C2 (no, I don’t understand the ordering either) is everything else.

The false alarm rate is calculated independently for each division using time-slides. We analyse data from the two detectors which has been shifted in time, so that there can be no real coincident signals between the two, and compare this background of noise-only triggers to the no-slid data.

oLIB works in two stages. First (the Omicron bit), data from the individual detectors are searches for excess power. If there is anything interesting, the data from both detectors are analysed coherently. We use a sine–Gaussian template, and compare the probability that the same signal is in both detectors, to there being independent noise (potentially a glitch) in the two. This analysis is split too: there is a high-quality factor vs  low quality-factor split, which is similar to cWB’s splitting off C1 to catch narrow band features (the low quality-factor group catches the blip glitches). The false alarm rate is computed with time slides.

BayesWave is run as follow-up to triggers produced by cWB: it is too computationally expensive to run on all the data. BayesWave’s approach is similar to oLIB’s. It compares three hypotheses: just Gaussian noise, Gaussian noise and a glitch, and Gaussian noise and a signal. It constructs its signal using a variable number of sine–Gaussian wavelets. There are no cuts on its data. Again, time slides are used to estimate the false alarm rate.

The search does find a signal: GW150914. It is clearly found by all three algorithms. It is cWB’s C3, with a false alarm rate of less than 1 per 350 years; it is is oLIB’s high quality-factor bin with a false alarm rate of less than 1 per 230 years, and is found by BayesWave with a false alarm rate of less than 1 per 1000 years. You might notice that these results are less stringent than in the initial search results presented at the time of the detection. This is because only a limited number of time slides were done: we could get higher significance if we did more, but it was decided that it wasn’t worth the extra computing time, as we’re already convinced that GW150914 is a real signal. I’m a little sad they took GW150914 out of their plots (I guess it distorted the scale since it’s such an outlier from the background). Aside from GW150914, there are no detections.

Given the lack of detections, we can set some upper limits. I’ll skip over the limits for binary black holes, since our templated search is more sensitive here. The plot below shows limits on the amount of gravitational-wave energy emitted by a burst source at 10 kpc, which could be detected with a false alarm rate of 1 per century 50% of the time. We use some simple waveforms for this calculation. The energy scales with the inverse distance squared, so at a distance of 20 kpc, you need to increase the energy by a factor of 4.

Upper limits on energy at different frequencies

Gravitational-wave energy at 50% detection efficiency for standard sources at a distance of 10 kpc. Results are shown for the three different algorithms. Figure 2 of the O1 Burst Paper.

Maybe next time we’ll find something unexpected, but it will either need to be really energetic (like a binary black hole merger) or really close by (like a supernova in our own Galaxy)