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.

Top 2016 gravitational wave papers

2016 was a busy year for gravitational-wave astronomy. I wrote many blog posts about the papers I have been involved with (I still have a back log). Therefore, as a change, I thought I’d start 2017 looking at my favourite papers written by other people published in 2016. Here are my top three.

Prospects for multiband gravitational-wave astronomy after GW150914

Author: Sesana, A.
arXiv:
 1602.06951 [gr-qc]
Journal:
 Physical Review Letters; 116(23):231102(6); 2016

I wrote about this paper previously when discussing the papers released to coincide the the announcement of the observation of GW150914. It suggests that we will be able to observe binary black holes months to years before they’re detectable with ground-based detectors with a space-borne detector like LISA. With this multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy, we could be able to learn even more about black holes

The concept of multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy is not actually new. I believe it was first suggested for LIGO and LISA detecting intermediate-mass black hole binaries (binaries with black holes about 100 times the mass of our Sun); it has also been suggested for combining LISA and pulsar timing measurements to look at supermassive black hole binaries (tens of millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun). However, this paper was to first to look at what we could really learn from these observations. We should be able to get a good sky localization (less than a square degree) ahead of the merger, meaning we can point telescopes ahead of time to try to catch any flash that might accompany it; we’ll also know when the merger should happen, so that we don’t need to worry about misidentifying any explosions we might spot.  LISA would be able to provide good constraints of the black hole masses, measuring the chirp mass to an accuracy of less than 0.01%!

This paper created some real enthusiasm for multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy. Vitale (2016) considered how the combined measurements could help us test general relativity. Breivik et al. (2016) and Nishizawa et al. (2106) looked at how LISA could measure the eccentricity of these binaries (which is practically impossible by the time they are observable with ground-based detectors) to figure out how they form. I think these will be fruitful avenues of research in the future.

The excitement surrounding LISA is well timed. A mission proposal has just been submitted to ESA for their upcoming Gravitational Universe science theme. NASA has also stated interest in rejoining the mission.

Astrophysical constraints on massive black hole binary evolution from pulsar timing arrays

Authors: Middleton, H.; Del Pozzo, W.; Farr, W.M.; Sesana, A. & Vecchio, A.
arXiv:
 1507.00992 [astro-ph.CO]
Journal:
 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters; 455(1):L72–L76; 2016

This is a really neat paper studying what we could learn form pulsar timing arrays. Pulsar timing arrays are sensitive to very low frequency gravitational waves, those from supermassive black hole binaries (millions to billions the times the mass of our Sun). Lots of work has been invested in trying to detect a signal. There are three consortia currently working towards this, collaborating together as part of the International Pulsar Timing Array , but I suspect secretly hoping that they can get there first. This papers looks at what we’ll actually be able to infer about the supermassive black holes when we do make a detection.

They find, unsurprisingly, that using our current upper limits on the background of gravitational waves, we can place some constraints on the number of mergers, but not say much else. If the upper limit was to improve by an order of magnitude, we’d start to learn something about the mass distribution but we wouldn’t learn much about the shape. When we do make a detection, we get more information, but still not a lot. We would know that some binaries are merging, but not which ones: there are degeneracies between the merger rate and the mass distribution. This means that even with a detection, pulsar timing will not be able to pin down the distribution of supermassive black holes, we’ll have to fold in other observations too!

Gravitational waves might be cool, but they can’t tell us everything.

Theoretical physics implications of the binary black-hole mergers GW150914 and GW151226

Authors: Yunes, N.; Yagi,  K. & Pretorius, F.
arXiv:
 1603.08955 [gr-qc]
Journal:
 Physical Review D; 94(8):084002(42); 2016

After a LISA paper and a pulsar-timing array paper, we’ll round off the trio with a LIGO paper. This paper takes an exhaustive view of the all the ways that the observations of gravitational-wave events so far constrain theories of gravity. It’s an impressive work, made even more so considering that they revised the paper following the announcement of GW151226. I would have been tempted to write a second paper on that. At 42 pages, this is heavy ready (it’s the least fun of my top 3), so it is perhaps best just to dip in to find out about your favourite alternative theories of gravity.

This paper highlights how the first observations of gravitational waves change the game when it comes to testing gravity. We now have a wealth of information on gravitational-wave generation, gravitational-wave propagation and the structure of black holes. This is great for cutting down the range of possible theories. However, as the authors point out, to really test other theories of gravity, we need predictions for their behaviour in the extreme and dynamic conditions of a binary black hole coalescence. There is still a huge amount of work to do.

I especially like this paper as it is an example of how results from LIGO and Virgo can be taken forward and put to good use by those outside of the Collaboration. I hope there will be more of this in the future.