Inference on gravitational waves from coalescences of stellar-mass compact objects and intermediate-mass black holes

I love collecting things, there’s something extremely satisfying about completing a set. I suspect that this is one of the alluring features of Pokémon—you’ve gotta catch ’em all. The same is true of black hole hunting. Currently, we know of stellar-mass black holes which are a few times the mass of our Sun, up to a few tens of the mass of our Sun (the black holes of GW150914 are the biggest yet to be observed), and we know of supermassive black holes, which are ten thousand to ten billion times the mass our Sun. However, we are missing intermediate-mass black holes which lie in the middle. We have Charmander and Charizard, but where is Charmeleon? The elusive ones are always the most satisfying to capture.

Knitted black hole

Adorable black hole (available for adoption). I’m sure this could be a Pokémon. It would be a Dark type. Not that I’ve given it that much thought…

Intermediate-mass black holes have evaded us so far. We’re not even sure that they exist, although that would raise questions about how you end up with the supermassive ones (you can’t just feed the stellar-mass ones lots of rare candy). Astronomers have suggested that you could spot intermediate-mass black holes in globular clusters by the impact of their gravity on the motion of other stars. However, this effect would be small, and near impossible to conclusively spot. Another way (which I’ve discussed before), would to be to look at ultra luminous X-ray sources, which could be from a disc of material spiralling into the black hole.  However, it’s difficult to be certain that we understand the source properly and that we’re not misclassifying it. There could be one sure-fire way of identifying intermediate-mass black holes: gravitational waves.

The frequency of gravitational waves depend upon the mass of the binary. More massive systems produce lower frequencies. LIGO is sensitive to the right range of frequencies for stellar-mass black holes. GW150914 chirped up to the pitch of a guitar’s open B string (just below middle C). Supermassive black holes produce gravitational waves at too low frequency for LIGO (a space-based detector would be perfect for these). We might just be able to detect signals from intermediate-mass black holes with LIGO.

In a recent paper, a group of us from Birmingham looked at what we could learn from gravitational waves from the coalescence of an intermediate-mass black hole and a stellar-mass black hole [bonus note].  We considered how well you would be able to measure the masses of the black holes. After all, to confirm that you’ve found an intermediate-mass black hole, you need to be sure of its mass.

The signals are extremely short: we only can detect the last bit of the two black holes merging together and settling down as a final black hole. Therefore, you might think there’s not much information in the signal, and we won’t be able to measure the properties of the source. We found that this isn’t the case!

We considered a set of simulated signals, and analysed these with our parameter-estimation code [bonus note]. Below are a couple of plots showing the accuracy to which we can infer a couple of different mass parameters for binaries of different masses. We show the accuracy of measuring the chirp mass \mathcal{M} (a much beloved combination of the two component masses which we are usually able to pin down precisely) and the total mass M_\mathrm{total}.

Measurement of chirp mass

Measured chirp mass for systems of different total masses. The shaded regions show the 90% credible interval and the dashed lines show the true values. The mass ratio q is the mass of the stellar-mass black hole divided by the mass of the intermediate-mass black hole. Figure 1 of Haster et al. (2016).

Measurement of total mass

Measured total mass for systems of different total masses. The shaded regions show the 90% credible interval and the dashed lines show the true values. Figure 2 of Haster et al. (2016).

For the lower mass systems, we can measure the chirp mass quite well. This is because we get a little information from the part of the gravitational wave from when the two components are inspiralling together. However, we see less and less of this as the mass increases, and we become more and more uncertain of the chirp mass.

The total mass isn’t as accurately measured as the chirp mass at low masses, but we see that the accuracy doesn’t degrade at higher masses. This is because we get some constraints on its value from the post-inspiral part of the waveform.

We found that the transition from having better fractional accuracy on the chirp mass to having better fractional accuracy on the total mass happened when the total mass was around 200–250 solar masses. This was assuming final design sensitivity for Advanced LIGO. We currently don’t have as good sensitivity at low frequencies, so the transition will happen at lower masses: GW150914 is actually in this transition regime (the chirp mass is measured a little better).

Given our uncertainty on the masses, when can we conclude that there is an intermediate-mass black hole? If we classify black holes with masses more than 100 solar masses as intermediate mass, then we’ll be able to say to claim a discovery with 95% probability if the source has a black hole of at least 130 solar masses. The plot below shows our inferred probability of there being an intermediate-mass black hole as we increase the black hole’s mass (there’s little chance of falsely identifying a lower mass black hole).

Intermediate-mass black hole probability

Probability that the larger black hole is over 100 solar masses (our cut-off mass for intermediate-mass black holes M_\mathrm{IMBH}). Figure 7 of Haster et al. (2016).

Gravitational-wave observations could lead to a concrete detection of intermediate mass black holes if they exist and merge with another black hole. However, LIGO’s low frequency sensitivity is important for detecting these signals. If detector commissioning goes to plan and we are lucky enough to detect such a signal, we’ll finally be able to complete our set of black holes.

arXiv: 1511.01431 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society457(4):4499–4506; 2016
Birmingham science summary: Inference on gravitational waves from coalescences of stellar-mass compact objects and intermediate-mass black holes (by Carl)
Other collectables: Breakthrough, Gruber, Shaw, Kavli

Bonus notes


The coalescence of an intermediate-mass black hole and a stellar-mass object (black hole or neutron star) has typically been known as an intermediate mass-ratio inspiral (an IMRI). This is similar to the name for the coalescence of a a supermassive black hole and a stellar-mass object: an extreme mass-ratio inspiral (an EMRI). However, my colleague Ilya has pointed out that with LIGO we don’t really see much of the intermediate-mass black hole and the stellar-mass black hole inspiralling together, instead we see the merger and ringdown of the final black hole. Therefore, he prefers the name intermediate mass-ratio coalescence (or IMRAC). It’s a better description of the signal we measure, but the acronym isn’t as good.

Parameter-estimation runs

The main parameter-estimation analysis for this paper was done by Zhilu, a summer student. This is notable for two reasons. First, it shows that useful research can come out of a summer project. Second, our parameter-estimation code installed and ran so smoothly that even an undergrad with no previous experience could get some useful results. This made us optimistic that everything would work perfectly in the upcoming observing run (O1). Unfortunately, a few improvements were made to the code before then, and we were back to the usual level of fun in time for The Event.

The missing link for black holes

There has been some recent excitement about the claimed identification of a 400-solar-mass black hole. A team of scientists have recently published a letter in the journal Nature where they show how X-ray measurements of a source in the nearby galaxy M82 can be interpreted as originating from a black hole with mass of around 400 times the mass of the Sun—from now on I’ll use M_\odot as shorthand for the mass of the Sun (one solar mass). This particular X-ray source is peculiarly bright and has long been suspected to potentially be a black hole with a mass around 100 M_\odot to 1000 M_\odot. If the result is confirmed, then it is the first definite detection of an intermediate-mass black hole, or IMBH for short, but why is this exciting?

Mass of black holes

In principle, a black hole can have any mass. To form a black hole you just need to squeeze mass down into a small enough space. For the something the mass of the Earth, you need to squeeze down to a radius of about 9 mm and for something about the mass of the Sun, you need to squeeze to a radius of about 3 km. Black holes are pretty small! Most of the time, things don’t collapse to form black holes because they materials they are made of are more than strong enough to counter-balance their own gravity.


These innocent-looking marshmallows could collapse down to form black holes if they were squeezed down to a size of about 10−29 m. The only thing stopping this is the incredible strength of marshmallow when compared to gravity.

Stellar-mass black holes

Only very massive things, where gravitational forces are immense, collapse down to black holes. This happens when the most massive stars reach the end of their lifetimes. Stars are kept puffy because they are hot. They are made of plasma where all their constituent particles are happily whizzing around and bouncing into each other. This can continue to happen while the star is undergoing nuclear fusion which provides the energy to keep things hot. At some point this fuel runs out, and then the core of the star collapses. What happens next depends on the mass of the core. The least massive stars (like our own Sun) will collapse down to become white dwarfs. In white dwarfs, the force of gravity is balanced by electrons. Electrons are rather anti-social and dislike sharing the same space with each other (a concept known as the Pauli exclusion principle, which is a consequence of their exchange symmetry), hence they put up a bit of a fight when squeezed together. The electrons can balance the gravitational force for masses up to about 1.4 M_\odot, known as the Chandrasekhar mass. After that they get squeezed together with protons and we are left with a neutron star. Neutron stars are much like giant atomic nuclei. The force of gravity is now balanced by the neutrons who, like electrons, don’t like to share space, but are less easy to bully than the electrons. The maximum mass of a neutron star is not exactly known, but we think it’s somewhere between 2 M_\odot and 3 M_\odot. After this, nothing can resist gravity and you end up with a black hole of a few times the mass of the Sun.

Collapsing stars produce the imaginatively named stellar-mass black holes, as they are about the same mass as stars. Stars lose a lot of mass during their lifetime, so the mass of a newly born black hole is less than the original mass of the star that formed it. The maximum mass of stellar-mass black holes is determined by the maximum size of stars. We have good evidence for stellar-mass black holes, for example from looking at X-ray binaries, where we see a hot disc of material swirling around the black hole.

Massive black holes

We also have evidence for another class of black holes: massive black holes, MBHs to their friends, or, if trying to sound extra cool, supermassive black holes. These may be 10^5 M_\odot to 10^9 M_\odot. The strongest evidence comes from our own galaxy, where we can see stars in the centre of the galaxy orbiting something so small and heavy it can only be a black hole.

We think that there is an MBH at the centre of pretty much every galaxy, like there’s a hazelnut at the centre of a Ferrero Rocher (in this analogy, I guess the Nutella could be delicious dark matter). From the masses we’ve measured, the properties of these black holes is correlated with the properties of their surrounding galaxies: bigger galaxies have bigger MBHs. The most famous of these correlations is the M–sigma relation, between the mass of the black hole (M) and the velocity dispersion, the range of orbital speeds, of stars surrounding it (the Greek letter sigma, \sigma). These correlations tell us that the evolution of the galaxy and it’s central black hole are linked somehow, this could be just because of their shared history or through some extra feedback too.

MBHs can grow by accreting matter (swallowing up clouds of gas or stars that stray too close) or by merging with other MBHs (we know galaxies merge). The rather embarrassing problem, however, is that we don’t know what the MBHs have grown from. There are really huge MBHs already present in the early Universe (they power quasars), so MBHs must be able to grow quickly. Did they grow from regular stellar-mass black holes or some form of super black hole that formed from a giant star that doesn’t exist today? Did lots of stellar-mass black holes collide to form a seed or did material just accrete quickly? Did the initial black holes come from somewhere else other than stars, perhaps they are leftovers from the Big Bang? We don’t have the data to tell where MBHs came from yet (gravitational waves could be useful for this).

Intermediate-mass black holes

However MBHs grew, it is generally agreed that we should be able to find some intermediate-mass black holes: black holes which haven’t grown enough to become IMBHs. These might be found in dwarf galaxies, or maybe in globular clusters (giant collections of stars that formed together), perhaps even in the centre of galaxies orbiting an MBH. Finding some IMBHs will hopefully tell us about how MBHs formed (and so, possibly about how galaxies formed too).

IMBHs have proved elusive. They are difficult to spot compared to their bigger brothers and sisters. Not finding any might mean we’d need to rethink our ideas of how MBHs formed, and try to find a way for them to either be born about a million times the mass of the Sun, or be guaranteed to grow that big. The finding of the first IMBH tells us that things are more like common sense would dictate: black holes can come in the expected range of masses (phew!). We now need to identify some more to learn about their properties as a population.

In conclusion, black holes can come in a range of masses. We know about the smaller stellar-mass ones and the bigger massive black holes. We suspect that the bigger ones grow from smaller ones, and we now have some evidence for the existence of the hypothesised intermediate-mass black holes. Whatever their size though, black holes are awesome, and they shouldn’t worry about their weight.