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
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
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?

LIGO Magazine: Issue 7

It is an exciting time time in LIGO. The start of the first observing run (O1) is imminent. I think they just need to sort out a button that is big enough and red enough (or maybe gather a little more calibration data… ), and then it’s all systems go. Making the first direct detection of gravitational waves with LIGO would be an enormous accomplishment, but that’s not all we can hope to achieve: what I’m really interested in is what we can learn from these gravitational waves.

The LIGO Magazine gives a glimpse inside the workings of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, covering everything from the science of the detector to what collaboration members like to get up to in their spare time. The most recent issue was themed around how gravitational-wave science links in with the rest of astronomy. I enjoyed it, as I’ve been recently working on how to help astronomers look for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational-wave signals. It also features a great interview with Joseph Taylor Jr., one of the discoverers of the famous Hulse–Taylor binary pulsar. The back cover features an article I wrote about parameter estimation: an expanded version is below.

How does parameter estimation work?

Detecting gravitational waves is one of the great challenges in experimental physics. A detection would be hugely exciting, but it is not the end of the story. Having observed a signal, we need to work out where it came from. This is a job for parameter estimation!

How we analyse the data depends upon the type of signal and what information we want to extract. I’ll use the example of a compact binary coalescence, that is the inspiral (and merger) of two compact objects—neutron stars or black holes (not marshmallows). Parameters that we are interested in measuring are things like the mass and spin of the binary’s components, its orientation, and its position.

For a particular set of parameters, we can calculate what the waveform should look like. This is actually rather tricky; including all the relevant physics, like precession of the binary, can make for some complicated and expensive-to-calculate waveforms. The first part of the video below shows a simulation of the coalescence of a black-hole binary, you can see the gravitational waveform (with characteristic chirp) at the bottom.

We can compare our calculated waveform with what we measured to work out how well they fit together. If we take away the wave from what we measured with the interferometer, we should be left with just noise. We understand how our detectors work, so we can model how the noise should behave; this allows us to work out how likely it would be to get the precise noise we need to make everything match up.

To work out the probability that the system has a given parameter, we take the likelihood for our left-over noise and fold in what we already knew about the values of the parameters—for example, that any location on the sky is equally possible, that neutron-star masses are around 1.4 solar masses, or that the total mass must be larger than that of a marshmallow. For those who like details, this is done using Bayes’ theorem.

We now want to map out this probability distribution, to find the peaks of the distribution corresponding to the most probable parameter values and also chart how broad these peaks are (to indicate our uncertainty). Since we can have many parameters, the space is too big to cover with a grid: we can’t just systematically chart parameter space. Instead, we randomly sample the space and construct a map of its valleys, ridges and peaks. Doing this efficiently requires cunning tricks for picking how to jump between spots: exploring the landscape can take some time, we may need to calculate millions of different waveforms!

Having computed the probability distribution for our parameters, we can now tell an astronomer how much of the sky they need to observe to have a 90% chance of looking at the source, give the best estimate for the mass (plus uncertainty), or even figure something out about what neutron stars are made of (probably not marshmallow). This is the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy!

Monty and Carla map parameter space

Monty, Carla and the other samplers explore the probability landscape. Nutsinee Kijbunchoo drew the version for the LIGO Magazine.

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.

Marshmallows

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.