Dirichlet Process Gaussian-mixture model: An application to localizing coalescing binary neutron stars with gravitational-wave observations

Where do gravitational waves like GW170817 come from? Using our network of detectors, we cannot pinpoint a source, but we can make a good estimate—the amplitude of the signal tells us about the distance; the time delay between the signal arriving at different detectors, and relative amplitudes of the signal in different detectors tells us about the sky position (see the excellent video by Leo Singer below).

In this paper we look at full three-dimensional localization of gravitational-wave sources; we important a (rather cunning) technique from computer vision to construct a probability distribution for the source’s location, and then explore how well we could localise a set of simulated binary neutron stars. Knowing the source location enables lots of cool science. First, it aids direct follow-up observations with non-gravitational-wave observatories, searching for electromagnetic or neutrino counterparts. It’s especially helpful if you can cross-reference with galaxy catalogues, to find the most probable source locations (this technique was used to find the kilonova associated with GW170817). Even without finding a counterpart, knowing the most probable host galaxy helps us figure out how the source formed (have lots of stars been born recently, or are all the stars old?), and allows us measure the expansion of the Universe. Having a reliable technique to reconstruct source locations is useful!

This was a fun paper to write [bonus note]. I’m sure it will be valuable, both for showing how to perform this type of reconstruction of a multi-dimensional probability density, and for its implications for source localization and follow-up of gravitational-wave signals. I go into details of both below, first discussing our statistical model (this is a bit technical), then looking at our results for a set of binary neutron stars (which have implications for hunting for counterparts) .

Dirichlet process Gaussian mixture model

When we analyse gravitational-wave data to infer the source properties (location, masses, etc.), we map out parameter space with a set of samples: a list of points in the parameter space, with there being more around more probable locations and fewer in less probable locations. These samples encode everything about the probability distribution for the different parameters, we just need to extract it…

For our application, we want a nice smooth probability density. How do we convert a bunch of discrete samples to a smooth distribution? The simplest thing is to bin the samples. However, picking the right bin size is difficult, and becomes much harder in higher dimensions. Another popular option is to use kernel density estimation. This is better at ensuring smooth results, but you now have to worry about the size of your kernels.

Our approach is in essence to use a kernel density estimate, but to learn the size and position of the kernels (as well as the number) from the data as an extra layer of inference. The “Gaussian mixture model” part of the name refers to the kernels—we use several different Gaussians. The “Dirichlet process” part refers to how we assign their properties (their means and standard deviations). What I really like about this technique, as opposed to the usual rule-of-thumb approaches used for kernel density estimation,  is that it is well justified from a theoretical point of view.

I hadn’t come across a Dirchlet process before. Section 2 of the paper is a walkthrough of how I built up an understanding of this mathematical object, and it contains lots of helpful references if you’d like to dig deeper.

In our application, you can think of the Dirichlet process as being a probability distribution for probability distributions. We want a probability distribution describing the source location. Given our samples, we infer what this looks like. We could put all the probability into one big Gaussian, or we could put it into lots of little Gaussians. The Gaussians could be wide or narrow or a mix. The Dirichlet distribution allows us to assign probabilities to each configuration of Gaussians; for example, if our samples are all in the northern hemisphere, we probably want Gaussians centred around there, rather than in the southern hemisphere.

With the resulting probability distribution for the source location, we can quickly evaluate it at a single point. This means we can rapidly produce a list of most probable source galaxies—extremely handy if you need to know where to point a telescope before a kilonova fades away (or someone else finds it).

Gravitational-wave localization

To verify our technique works, and develop an intuition for three-dimensional localizations, we used studied a set of simulated binary neutron star signals created for the First 2 Years trilogy of papers. This data set is well studied now, it illustrates performance it what we anticipated to be the first two observing runs of the advanced detectors, which turned out to be not too far from the truth. We have previously looked at three-dimensional localizations for these signals using a super rapid approximation.

The plots below show how well we could localise the sources of our binary neutron star sources. Specifically, the plots show the size of the volume which has a 90% probability of containing the source verses the signal-to-noise ratio (the loudness) of the signal. Typically, volumes are 10^410^5~\mathrm{Mpc}^3, which is about 10^{68}10^{69} Olympic swimming pools. Such a volume would contain something like 1001000 galaxies.

Volume verses signal-to-noise ratio

Localization volume as a function of signal-to-noise ratio. The top panel shows results for two-detector observations: the LIGO-Hanford and LIGO-Livingston (HL) network similar to in the first observing run, and the LIGO and Virgo (HLV) network similar to the second observing run. The bottom panel shows all observations for the HLV network including those with all three detectors which are colour coded by the fraction of the total signal-to-noise ratio from Virgo. In both panels, there are fiducial lines scaling inversely with the sixth power of the signal-to-noise ratio. Adapted from Fig. 4 of Del Pozzo et al. (2018).

Looking at the results in detail, we can learn a number of things

  1. The localization volume is roughly inversely proportional to the sixth power of the signal-to-noise ratio [bonus note]. Loud signals are localized much better than quieter ones!
  2. The localization dramatically improves when we have three-detector observations. The extra detector improves the sky localization, which reduces the localization volume.
  3. To get the benefit of the extra detector, the source needs to be close enough that all the detectors could get a decent amount of the signal-to-noise ratio. In our case, Virgo is the least sensitive, and we see the the best localizations are when it has a fair share of the signal-to-noise ratio.
  4. Considering the cases where we only have two detectors, localization volumes get bigger at a given signal-to-noise ration as the detectors get more sensitive. This is because we can detect sources at greater distances.

Putting all these bits together, I think in the future, when we have lots of detections, it would make most sense to prioritise following up the loudest signals. These are the best localised, and will also be the brightest since they are the closest, meaning there’s the greatest potential for actually finding a counterpart. As the sensitivity of the detectors improves, its only going to get more difficult to find a counterpart to a typical gravitational-wave signal, as sources will be further away and less well localized. However, having more sensitive detectors also means that we are more likely to have a really loud signal, which should be really well localized.

Using our localization volumes as a guide, you would only need to search one galaxy to find the true source in about 7% of cases with a three-detector network similar to at the end of our second observing run. Similarly, only ten would need to be searched in 23% of cases. It might be possible to get even better performance by considering which galaxies are most probable because they are the biggest or the most likely to produce merging binary neutron stars. This is definitely a good approach to follow.

Three-dimensional localization with galaxy catalgoue

Galaxies within the 90% credible volume of an example simulated source, colour coded by probability. The galaxies are from the GLADE Catalog; incompleteness in the plane of the Milky Way causes the missing wedge of galaxies. The true source location is marked by a cross [bonus note]. Part of Figure 5 of Del Pozzo et al. (2018).

arXiv: 1801.08009 [astro-ph.IM]
Journal: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; 479(1):601–614; 2018
Code: 3d_volume
Buzzword bingo: Interdisciplinary (we worked with computer scientist Tom Haines); machine learning (the inference involving our Dirichlet process Gaussian mixture model); multimessenger astronomy (as our results are useful for following up gravitational-wave signals in the search for counterparts)

Bonus notes


We started writing this paper back before the first observing run of Advanced LIGO. We had a pretty complete draft on Friday 11 September 2015. We just needed to gather together a few extra numbers and polish up the figures and we’d be done! At 10:50 am on Monday 14 September 2015, we made our first detection of gravitational waves. The paper was put on hold. The pace of discoveries over the coming years meant we never quite found enough time to get it together—I’ve rewritten the introduction a dozen times. It’s extremely satisfying to have it done. This is a shame, as it meant that this study came out much later than our other three-dimensional localization study. The delay has the advantage of justifying one of my favourite acknowledgement sections.

Sixth power

We find that the localization volume \Delta V is inversely proportional to the sixth power of the signal-to-noise ration \varrho. This is what you would expect. The localization volume depends upon the angular uncertainty on the sky \Delta \Omega, the distance to the source D, and the distance uncertainty \Delta D,

\Delta V \sim D^2 \Delta \Omega \Delta D.

Typically, the uncertainty on a parameter (like the masses) scales inversely with the signal-to-noise ratio. This is the case for the logarithm of the distance, which means

\displaystyle \frac{\Delta D}{D} \propto \varrho^{-1}.

The uncertainty in the sky location (being two dimensional) scales inversely with the square of the signal-to-noise ration,

\Delta \Omega \propto \varrho^{-2}.

The signal-to-noise ratio itself is inversely proportional to the distance to the source (sources further way are quieter. Therefore, putting everything together gives

\Delta V \propto \varrho^{-6}.


We all know that treasure is marked by a cross. In the case of a binary neutron star merger, dense material ejected from the neutron stars will decay to heavy elements like gold and platinum, so there is definitely a lot of treasure at the source location.


Prospects for observing and localizing gravitational-wave transients with Advanced LIGO, Advanced Virgo and KAGRA

This paper, known as the Observing Scenarios Document with the Collaboration, outlines the observing plans of the ground-based detectors over the coming decade. If you want to search for electromagnetic or neutrino signals from our gravitational-wave sources, this is the paper for you. It is a living review—a document that is continuously updated.

This is the second published version, the big changes since the last version are

  1. We have now detected gravitational waves
  2. We have observed our first gravitational wave with a mulitmessenger counterpart [bonus note]
  3. We now include KAGRA, along with LIGO and Virgo

As you might imagine, these are quite significant updates! The first showed that we can do gravitational-wave astronomy. The second showed that we can do exactly the science this paper is about. The third makes this the first joint publication of the LIGO Scientific, Virgo and KAGRA Collaborations—hopefully the first of many to come.

I lead both this and the previous version. In my blog on the previous version, I explained how I got involved, and the long road that a collaboration must follow to get published. In this post, I’ll give an overview of the key details from the new version together with some behind-the-scenes background (working as part of a large scientific collaboration allows you to do amazing science, but it can also be exhausting). If you’d like a digest of this paper’s science, check out the LIGO science summary.

Commissioning and observing phases

The first section of the paper outlines the progression of detector sensitivities. The instruments are incredibly sensitive—we’ve never made machines to make these types of measurements before, so it takes a lot of work to get them to run smoothly. We can’t just switch them on and have them work at design sensitivity [bonus note].

Possible advanced detector sensitivity

Target evolution of the Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo detectors with time. The lower the sensitivity curve, the further away we can detect sources. The distances quoted are binary neutron star (BNS) ranges, the average distance we could detect a binary neutron star system. The BNS-optimized curve is a proposal to tweak the detectors for finding BNSs. Figure 1 of the Observing Scenarios Document.

The plots above show the planned progression of the different detectors. We had to get these agreed before we could write the later parts of the paper because the sensitivity of the detectors determines how many sources we will see and how well we will be able to localize them. I had anticipated that KAGRA would be the most challenging here, as we had not previously put together this sequence of curves. However, this was not the case, instead it was Virgo which was tricky. They had a problem with the silica fibres which suspended their mirrors (they snapped, which is definitely not what you want). The silica fibres were replaced with steel ones, but it wasn’t immediately clear what sensitivity they’d achieve and when. The final word was they’d observe in August 2017 and that their projections were unchanged. I was sceptical, but they did pull it out of the bag! We had our first clear three-detector observation of a gravitational wave 14 August 2017. Bravo Virgo!

LIGO, Virgo and KAGRA observing runs

Plausible time line of observing runs with Advanced LIGO (Hanford and Livingston), advanced Virgo and KAGRA. It is too early to give a timeline for LIGO India. The numbers above the bars give binary neutron star ranges (italic for achieved, roman for target); the colours match those in the plot above. Currently our third observing run (O3) looks like it will start in early 2019; KAGRA might join with an early sensitivity run at the end of it. Figure 2 of the Observing Scenarios Document.

Searches for gravitational-wave transients

The second section explain our data analysis techniques: how we find signals in the data, how we work out probable source locations, and how we communicate these results with the broader astronomical community—from the start of our third observing run (O3), information will be shared publicly!

The information in this section hasn’t changed much [bonus note]. There is a nice collection of references on the follow-up of different events, including GW170817 (I’d recommend my blog for more on the electromagnetic story). The main update I wanted to include was information on the detection of our first gravitational waves. It turned out to be more difficult than I imagined to come up with a plot which showed results from the five different search algorithms (two which used templates, and three which did not) which found GW150914, and harder still to make a plot which everyone liked. This plot become somewhat infamous for the amount of discussion it generated. I think we ended up with something which was a good compromise and clearly shows our detections sticking out above the background of noise.

CBC and burst search results

Offline transient search results from our first observing run (O1). The plot shows the number of events found verses false alarm rate: if there were no gravitational waves we would expect the points to follow the dashed line. The left panel shows the results of the templated search for compact binary coalescences (binary black holes, binary neutron stars and neutron star–black hole binaries), the right panel shows the unmodelled burst search. GW150914, GW151226 and LVT151012 are found by the templated search; GW150914 is also seen in the burst search. Arrows indicate bounds on the significance. Figure 3 of the Observing Scenarios Document.

Observing scenarios

The third section brings everything together and looks at what the prospects are for (gravitational-wave) multimessenger astronomy during each observing run. It’s really all about the big table.

Ranges, binary neutron star detections, and localization precesion

Summary of different observing scenarios with the advanced detectors. We assume a 70–75% duty factor for each instrument (including Virgo for the second scenario’s sky localization, even though it only joined our second observing run for the final month). Table 3 from the Observing Scenarios Document.

I think there are three really awesome take-aways from this

  1. Actual binary neutron stars detected = 1. We did it!
  2. Using the rates inferred using our observations so far (including GW170817), once we have the full five detector network of LIGO-Hanford, LIGO-Livingston, Virgo, KAGRA and LIGO-India, we could be detected 11–180 binary neutron stars a year. That something like between one a month to one every other day! I’m kind of scared…
  3. With the five detector network the sky localization is really good. The median localization is about 9–12 square degrees, about the area the LSST could cover in a single pointing! This really shows the benefit of adding more detector to the network. The improvement comes not because a source is much better localized with five detectors than four, but because when you have five detectors you almost always have at least three detectors(the number needed to get a good triangulation) online at any moment, so you get a nice localization for pretty much everything.

In summary, the prospects for observing and localizing gravitational-wave transients are pretty great. If you are an astronomer, make the most of the quiet before O3 begins next year.

arXiv: 1304.0670 [gr-qc]
Journal: Living Reviews In Relativity21:3(57); 2018
Science summary: A Bright today and brighter tomorrow: Prospects for gravitational-wave astronomy With Advanced LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and KAGRA
Prospects for the next update:
 After two updates, I’ve stepped down from preparing the next one. Wooh!

Bonus notes

GW170817 announcement

The announcement of our first multimessenger detection came between us submitting this update and us getting referee reports. We wanted an updated version of this paper, with the current details of our observing plans, to be available for our astronomer partners to be able to cite when writing their papers on GW170817.

Predictably, when the referee reports came back, we were told we really should include reference to GW170817. This type of discovery is exactly what this paper is about! There was avalanche of results surrounding GW170817, so I had to read through a lot of papers. The reference list swelled from 8 to 13 pages, but this effort was handy for my blog writing. After including all these new results, it really felt like this was version 2.5 of the Observing Scenarios, rather than version 2.

Design sensitivity

We use the term design sensitivity to indicate the performance the current detectors were designed to achieve. They are the targets we aim to achieve with Advanced LIGO, Advance Virgo and KAGRA. One thing I’ve had to try to train myself not to say is that design sensitivity is the final sensitivity of our detectors. Teams are currently working on plans for how we can upgrade our detectors beyond design sensitivity. Reaching design sensitivity will not be the end of our journey.

Binary black holes vs binary neutron stars

Our first gravitational-wave detections were from binary black holes. Therefore, when we were starting on this update there was a push to switch from focusing on binary neutron stars to binary black holes. I resisted on this, partially because I’m lazy, but mostly because I still thought that binary neutron stars were our best bet for multimessenger astronomy. This worked out nicely.

GW170817—The papers

After three months (and one binary black hole detection announcement), I finally have time to write about the suite of LIGO–Virgo papers put together to accompany GW170817.

The papers

There are currently 9 papers in the GW170817 family. Further papers, for example looking at parameter estimation in detail, are in progress. Papers are listed below in order of arXiv posting. My favourite is the GW170817 Discovery Paper. Many of the highlights, especially from the Discovery and Multimessenger Astronomy Papers, are described in my GW170817 announcement post.

Keeping up with all the accompanying observational results is a task not even Sisyphus would envy. I’m sure that the details of these will be debated for a long time to come. I’ve included references to a few below (mostly as [citation notes]), but these are not guaranteed to be complete (I’ll continue to expand these in the future).

0. The GW170817 Discovery Paper

Title: GW170817: Observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star inspiral
 1710.05832 [gr-qc]
 Physical Review Letters; 119(16):161101(18); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 GW170817: Observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star inspiral

This is the paper announcing the gravitational-wave detection. It gives an overview of the properties of the signal, initial estimates of the parameters of the source (see the GW170817 Properties Paper for updates) and the binary neutron star merger rate, as well as an overview of results from the other companion papers.

I was disappointed that “the era of gravitational-wave multi-messenger astronomy has opened with a bang” didn’t make the conclusion of the final draft.

More details: The GW170817 Discovery Paper summary

−1. The Multimessenger Astronomy Paper

Title: Multi-messenger observations of a binary neutron star merger
 1710.05833 [astro-ph.HE]
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 848(2):L12(59); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 The dawn of multi-messenger astrophysics: observations of a binary neutron star merger

I’ve numbered this paper as −1 as it gives an overview of all the observations—gravitational wave, electromagnetic and neutrino—accompanying GW170817. I feel a little sorry for the neutrino observers, as they’re the only ones not to make a detection. Drawing together the gravitational wave and electromagnetic observations, we can confirm that binary neutron star mergers are the progenitors of (at least some) short gamma-ray bursts and kilonovae.

Do not print this paper, the author list stretches across 23 pages.

More details: The Multimessenger Astronomy Paper summary

1. The GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper

Title: Gravitational waves and gamma-rays from a binary neutron star merger: GW170817 and GRB 170817A
 1710.05834 [astro-ph.HE]
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 848(2):L13(27); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 Gravitational waves and gamma-rays from a binary neutron star merger: GW170817 and GRB 170817A

Here we bring together the LIGO–Virgo observations of GW170817 and the Fermi and INTEGRAL observations of GRB 170817A. From the spatial and temporal coincidence of the gravitational waves and gamma rays, we establish that the two are associated with each other. There is a 1.7 s time delay between the merger time estimated from gravitational waves and the arrival of the gamma-rays. From this, we make some inferences about the structure of the jet which is the source of the gamma rays. We can also use this to constrain deviations from general relativity, which is cool. Finally, we estimate that there be 0.3–1.7 joint gamma ray–gravitational wave detections per year once our gravitational-wave detectors reach design sensitivity!

More details: The GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper summary

2. The GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper

Title: A gravitational-wave standard siren measurement of the Hubble constant [bonus note]
 1710.05835 [astro-ph.CO]
 Nature; 551(7678):85–88; 2017 [bonus note]
LIGO science summary:
 Measuring the expansion of the Universe with gravitational waves

The Hubble constant quantifies the current rate of expansion of the Universe. If you know how far away an object is, and how fast it is moving away (due to the expansion of the Universe, not because it’s on a bus or something, that is important), you can estimate the Hubble constant. Gravitational waves give us an estimate of the distance to the source of GW170817. The observations of the optical transient AT 2017gfo allow us to identify the galaxy NGC 4993 as the host of GW170817’s source. We know the redshift of the galaxy (which indicates how fast its moving). Therefore, putting the two together we can infer the Hubble constant in a completely new way.

More details: The GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper summary

3. The GW170817 Kilonova Paper

Title: Estimating the contribution of dynamical ejecta in the kilonova associated with GW170817
 1710.05836 [astro-ph.HE]
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 850(2):L39(13); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 Predicting the aftermath of the neutron star collision that produced GW170817

During the coalescence of two neutron stars, lots of neutron-rich matter gets ejected. This undergoes rapid radioactive decay, which powers a kilonova, an optical transient. The observed signal depends upon the material ejected. Here, we try to use our gravitational-wave measurements to predict the properties of the ejecta ahead of the flurry of observational papers.

More details: The GW170817 Kilonova Paper summary

4. The GW170817 Stochastic Paper

Title: GW170817: Implications for the stochastic gravitational-wave background from compact binary coalescences
 1710.05837 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 120(9):091101(12); 2018
LIGO science summary: The background symphony of gravitational waves from neutron star and black hole mergers

We can detect signals if they are loud enough, but there will be many quieter ones that we cannot pick out from the noise. These add together to form an overlapping background of signals, a background rumbling in our detectors. We use the inferred rate of binary neutron star mergers to estimate their background. This is smaller than the background from binary black hole mergers (black holes are more massive, so they’re intrinsically louder), but they all add up. It’ll still be a few years before we could detect a background signal.

More details: The GW170817 Stochastic Paper summary

5. The GW170817 Progenitor Paper

Title: On the progenitor of binary neutron star merger GW170817
 1710.05838 [astro-ph.HE]
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 850(2):L40(18); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 Making GW170817: neutron stars, supernovae and trick shots (I’d especially recommend reading this one)

We know that GW170817 came from the coalescence of two neutron stars, but where did these neutron stars come from? Here, we combine the parameters inferred from our gravitational-wave measurements, the observed position of AT 2017gfo in NGC 4993 and models for the host galaxy, to estimate properties like the kick imparted to neutron stars during the supernova explosion and how long it took the binary to merge.

More details: The GW170817 Progenitor Paper summary

6. The GW170817 Neutrino Paper

Title: Search for high-energy neutrinos from binary neutron star merger GW170817 with ANTARES, IceCube, and the Pierre Auger Observatory
 1710.05839 [astro-ph.HE]
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 850(2):L35(18); 2017

This is the search for neutrinos from the source of GW170817. Lots of neutrinos are emitted during the collision, but not enough to be detectable on Earth. Indeed, we don’t find any neutrinos, but we combine results from three experiments to set upper limits.

More details: The GW170817 Neutrino Paper summary

7. The GW170817 Post-merger Paper

Title: Search for post-merger gravitational waves from the remnant of the binary neutron star merger GW170817
 1710.09320 [astro-ph.HE]
 Astrophysical Journal Letters; 851(1):L16(13); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 Searching for the neutron star or black hole resulting from GW170817

After the two neutron stars merged, what was left? A larger neutron star or a black hole? Potentially we could detect gravitational waves from a wibbling neutron star, as it sloshes around following the collision. We don’t. It would have to be a lot closer for this to be plausible. However, this paper outlines how to search for such signals; the GW170817 Properties Paper contains a more detailed look at any potential post-merger signal.

More details: The GW170817 Post-merger Paper summary

8. The GW170817 Properties Paper

Title: Properties of the binary neutron star merger GW170817
 1805.11579 [gr-qc]

In the GW170817 Discovery Paper we presented initial estimates for the properties of GW170817’s source. These were the best we could do on the tight deadline for the announcement (it was a pretty good job in my opinion). Now we have had a bit more time we can present a new, improved analysis. This uses recalibrated data and a wider selection of waveform models. We also fold in our knowledge of the source location, thanks to the observation of AT 2017gfo by our astronomer partners, for our best results. if you want to know the details of GW170817’s source, this is the paper for you!

More details: The GW170817 Properties Paper summary

9. The GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper

Title: GW170817: Measurements of neutron star radii and equation of state
 1805.11581 [gr-qc]

Neutron stars are made of weird stuff: nuclear density material which we cannot replicate here on Earth. Neutron star matter is often described in terms of an equation of state, a relationship that explains how the material changes at different pressures or densities. A stiffer equation of state means that the material is harder to squash, and a softer equation of state is easier to squish. This means that for a given mass, a stiffer equation of state will predict a larger, fluffier neutron star, while a softer equation of state will predict a more compact, denser neutron star. In this paper, we assume that GW170817’s source is a binary neutron star system, where both neutron stars have the same equation of state, and see what we can infer about neutron star stuff™.

More details: The GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper summary

The GW170817 Discovery Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Discovery Paper
Read this if: You want all the details of our first gravitational-wave observation of a binary neutron star coalescence
Favourite part: Look how well we measure the chirp mass!

GW170817 was a remarkable gravitational-wave discovery. It is the loudest signal observed to date, and the source with the lowest mass components. I’ve written about some of the highlights of the discovery in my previous GW170817 discovery post.

Binary neutron stars are one of the principal targets for LIGO and Virgo. The first observational evidence for the existence of gravitational waves came from observations of binary pulsars—a binary neutron star system where (at least one) one of the components is a pulsar. Therefore (unlike binary black holes), we knew that these sources existed before we turned on our detectors. What was less certain was how often they merge. In our first advanced-detector observing run (O1), we didn’t find any, allowing us to estimate an upper limit on the merger rate of 12600~\mathrm{Gpc^{-1}\,yr^{-1}}. Now, we know much more about merging binary neutron stars.

GW170817, as a loud and long signal, is a highly significant detection. You can see it in the data by eye. Therefore, it should have been a easy detection. As is often the case with real experiments, it wasn’t quite that simple. Data transfer from Virgo had stopped over night, and there was a glitch (a non-stationary and non-Gaussian noise feature) in the Livingston detector, which meant that this data weren’t automatically analysed. Nevertheless, GstLAL flagged something interesting in the Hanford data, and there was a mad flurry to get the other data in place so that we could analyse the signal in all three detectors. I remember being sceptical in these first few minutes until I saw the plot of Livingston data which blew me away: the chirp was clearly visible despite the glitch!

Normalised spectrograms for GW170817

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

Using data from both of our LIGO detectors (as discussed for GW170814, our offline algorithms searching for coalescing binaries only use these two detectors during O2), GW170817 is an absolutely gold-plated detection. GstLAL estimates a false alarm rate (the rate at which you’d expect something at least this signal-like to appear in the detectors due to a random noise fluctuation) of less than one in 1,100,000 years, while PyCBC estimates the false alarm rate to be less than one in 80,000 years.

Parameter estimation (inferring the source properties) used data from all three detectors. We present a (remarkably thorough given the available time) initial analysis in this paper (updated results are given in the GW170817 Properties Paper). This signal is challenging to analyse because of the glitch and because binary neutron stars are made of stuff™, which can leave an imprint on the waveform. We’ll be looking at the effects of these complications in more detail in the future. Our initial results are

  • The source is localized to a region of about 28~\mathrm{deg^2} at a distance of 40^{+8}_{-14}~\mathrm{Mpc} (we typically quote results at the 90% credible level). This is the closest gravitational-wave source yet.
  • The chirp mass is measured to be 1.188_{-0.002}^{+0.004} M_\odot, much lower than for our binary black hole detections.
  • The spins are not well constrained, the uncertainty from this means that we don’t get precise measurements of the individual component masses. We quote results with two choices of spin prior: the astrophysically motivated limit of 0.05, and the more agnostic and conservative upper bound of 0.89. I’ll stick to using the low-spin prior results be default.
  • Using the low-spin prior, the component masses are m_1 = 1.361.60 M_\odot and m_2 = 1.171.36 M_\odot. We have the convention that m_1 \geq m_2, which is why the masses look unequal; there’s a lot of support for them being nearly equal. These masses match what you’d expect for neutron stars.

As mentioned above, neutron stars are made of stuff™, and the properties of this leave an imprint on the waveform. If neutron stars are big and fluffy, they will get tidally distorted. Raising tides sucks energy and angular momentum out of the orbit, making the inspiral quicker. If neutron stars are small and dense, tides are smaller and the inspiral looks like that for tow black holes. For this initial analysis, we used waveforms which includes some tidal effects, so we get some preliminary information on the tides. We cannot exclude zero tidal deformation, meaning we cannot rule out from gravitational waves alone that the source contains at least one black hole (although this would be surprising, given the masses). However, we can place a weak upper limit on the combined dimensionless tidal deformability of \tilde{\Lambda} \leq 900. This isn’t too informative, in terms of working out what neutron stars are made from, but we’ll come back to this in the GW170817 Properties Paper and the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.

Given the source masses, and all the electromagnetic observations, we’re pretty sure this is a binary neutron star system—there’s nothing to suggest otherwise.

Having observed one (and one one) binary neutron star coalescence in O1 and O2, we can now put better constraints on the merger rate. As a first estimate, we assume that component masses are uniformly distributed between 1 M_\odot and 2 M_\odot, and that spins are below 0.4 (in between the limits used for parameter estimation). Given this, we infer that the merger rate is 1540_{-1220}^{+3200}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, safely within our previous upper limit [citation note].

There’s a lot more we can learn from GW170817, especially as we don’t just have gravitational waves as a source of information, and this is explained in the companion papers.

The Multimessenger Paper

Synopsis: Multimessenger Paper
Read this if: Don’t. Use it too look up which other papers to read.
Favourite part: The figures! It was a truly amazing observational effort to follow-up GW170817

The remarkable thing about this paper is that it exists. Bringing together such a diverse (and competitive) group was a huge effort. Alberto Vecchio was one of the editors, and each evening when leaving the office, he was convinced that the paper would have fallen apart by morning. However, it hung together—the story was too compelling. This paper explains how gravitational waves, short gamma-ray bursts, kilonovae all come from a single source [citation note]. This is the greatest collaborative effort in the history of astronomy.

The paper outlines the discoveries and all of the initial set of observations. If you want to understand the observations themselves, this is not the paper to read. However, using it, you can track down the papers that you do want. A huge amount of care went in to trying to describe how discoveries were made: for example, Fermi observed GRB 170817A independently of the gravitational-wave alert, and we found GW170817 without relying on the GRB alert, however, the communication between teams meant that we took everything much seriously and pushed out alerts as quickly as possible. For more on the history of observations, I’d suggest scrolling through the GCN archive.

The paper starts with an overview of the gravitational-wave observations from the inspiral, then the prompt detection of GRB 170817A, before describing how the gravitational-wave localization enabled discovery of the optical transient AT 2017gfo. This source, in nearby galaxy NGC 4993, was then the subject of follow-up across the electromagnetic spectrum. We have huge amount of photometric and spectroscopy of the source, showing general agreement with models for a kilonova. X-ray and radio afterglows were observed 9 days and 16 days after the merger, respectively [citation note]. No neutrinos were found, which isn’t surprising.

The GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper
Read this if: You’re interested in the jets from where short gamma-ray bursts originate or in tests of general relativity
Favourite part: How much science come come from a simple time delay measurement

This joint LIGO–Virgo–FermiINTEGRAL paper combines our observations of GW170817 and GRB 170817A. The result is one of the most contentful of the companion papers.

Gravitational-wave chirp and short gamma-ray burst

Detection of GW170817 and GRB 170817A. The top three panels show the gamma-ray lightcurves (first: GBM detectors 1, 2, and 5 for 10–50 keV; second: GBM data for 50–300 keV ; third: the SPI-ACS data starting approximately at 100 keV and with a high energy limit of least 80 MeV), the red line indicates the background.The bottom shows the a time–frequency representation of coherently combined gravitational-wave data from LIGO-Hanford and LIGOLivingston. Figure 2 of the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.

The first item on the to-do list for joint gravitational-wave–gamma-ray science, is to establish that we are really looking at the same source.

From the GW170817 Discovery Paper, we know that its source is consistent with being a binary neutron star system. Hence, there is matter around which can launch create the gamma-rays. The Fermi-GBM and INTEGRAL observations of GRB170817A indicate that it falls into the short class, as hypothesised as the result of a binary neutron star coalescence. Therefore, it looks like we could have the right ingredients.

Now, given that it is possible that the gravitational waves and gamma rays have the same source, we can calculate the probability of the two occurring by chance. The probability of temporal coincidence is 5.0 \times 10^{-6}, adding in spatial coincidence too, and the probability becomes 5.0 \times 10^{-8}. It’s safe to conclude that the two are associated: merging binary neutron stars are the source of at least some short gamma-ray bursts!

Testing gravity

There is a \sim1.74\pm0.05~\mathrm{s} delay time between the inferred merger time and the gamma-ray burst. Given that signal has travelled for about 85 million years (taking the 5% lower limit on the inferred distance), this is a really small difference: gravity and light must travel at almost exactly the same speed. To derive exact limit you need to make some assumptions about when the gamma-rays were created. We’d expect some delay as it takes time for the jet to be created, and then for the gamma-rays to blast their way out of the surrounding material. We conservatively (and arbitrarily) take a window of the delay being 0 to 10 seconds, this gives

\displaystyle -3 \times 10^{-15} \leq \frac{v_\mathrm{GW} - v_\mathrm{EM}}{v_\mathrm{EM}} \leq 7 \times 10^{-16}.

That’s pretty small!

General relativity predicts that gravity and light should travel at the same speed, so I wasn’t too surprised by this result. I was surprised, however, that this result seems to have caused a flurry of activity in effectively ruling out several modified theories of gravity. I guess there’s not much point in explaining what these are now, but they are mostly theories which add in extra fields, which allow you to tweak how gravity works so you can explain some of the effects attributed to dark energy or dark matter. I’d recommend Figure 2 of Ezquiaga & Zumalacárregui (2017) for a summary of which theories pass the test and which are in trouble.

Viable and non-viable scalar–tensor theories

Table showing viable (left) and non-viable (right) scalar–tensor theories after discovery of GW170817/GRB 170817A. The theories are grouped as Horndeski theories and (the more general) beyond Horndeski theories. General relativity is a tensor theory, so these models add in an extra scalar component. Figure 2 of Ezquiaga & Zumalacárregui (2017).

We don’t discuss the theoretical implications of the relative speeds of gravity and light in this paper, but we do use the time delay to place bounds for particular on potential deviations from general relativity.

  1. We look at a particular type of Lorentz invariance violation. This is similar to what we did for GW170104, where we looked at the dispersion of gravitational waves, but here it is for the case of \alpha = 2, which we couldn’t test.
  2. We look at the Shapiro delay, which is the time difference travelling in a curved spacetime relative to a flat one. That light and gravity are effected the same way is a test of the weak equivalence principle—that everything falls the same way. The effects of the curvature can be quantified with the parameter \gamma, which describes the amount of curvature per unit mass. In general relativity \gamma_\mathrm{GW} = \gamma_\mathrm{EM} = 1. Considering the gravitational potential of the Milky Way, we find that -2.6 \times 10^{-7} \leq \gamma_\mathrm{GW} - \gamma_\mathrm{EM} \leq 1.2 \times 10 ^{-6} [citation note].

As you’d expect given the small time delay, these bounds are pretty tight! If you’re working on a modified theory of gravity, you have some extra checks to do now.

Gamma-ray bursts and jets

From our gravitational-wave and gamma-ray observations, we can also make some deductions about the engine which created the burst. The complication here, is that we’re not exactly sure what generates the gamma rays, and so deductions are model dependent. Section 5 of the paper uses the time delay between the merger and the burst, together with how quickly the burst rises and fades, to place constraints on the size of the emitting region in different models. The papers goes through the derivation in a step-by-step way, so I’ll not summarise that here: if you’re interested, check it out.

Energy and luminosity distribution of gamma-ray bursts

Isotropic energies (left) and luminosities (right) for all gamma-ray bursts with measured distances. These isotropic quantities assume equal emission in all directions, which gives an upper bound on the true value if we are observing on-axis. The short and long gamma-ray bursts are separated by the standard T_{90} = 2~\mathrm{s} duration. The green line shows an approximate detection threshold for Fermi-GBM. Figure 4 from the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper; you may have noticed that the first version of this paper contained two copies of the energy plot by mistake.

GRB 170817A was unusually dim [citation note]. The plot above compares it to other gamma-ray bursts. It is definitely in the tail. Since it appears so dim, we think that we are not looking at a standard gamma-ray burst. The most obvious explanation is that we are not looking directly down the jet: we don’t expect to see many off-axis bursts, since they are dimmer. We expect that a gamma-ray burst would originate from a jet of material launched along the direction of the total angular momentum. From the gravitational waves alone, we can estimate that the misalignment angle between the orbital angular momentum axis and the line of sight is \leq 55~\mathrm{deg} (adding in the identification of the host galaxy, this becomes \leq 28~\mathrm{deg} using the Planck value for the Hubble constant and 36~\mathrm{deg} with the SH0ES value), so this is consistent with viewing the burst off-axis (updated numbers are given in the GW170817 Properties Paper). There are multiple models for such gamma-ray emission, as illustrated below. We could have a uniform top-hat jet (the simplest model) which we are viewing from slightly to the side, we could have a structured jet, which is concentrated on-axis but we are seeing from off-axis, or we could have a cocoon of material pushed out of the way by the main jet, which we are viewing emission from. Other electromagnetic observations will tell us more about the inclination and the structure of the jet [citation note].

GRB 170817A jet structure and viewing angle

Cartoon showing three possible viewing geometries and jet profiles which could explain the observed properties of GRB 170817A. Figure 5 of the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.

Now that we know gamma-ray bursts can be this dim, if we observe faint bursts (with unknown distances), we have to consider the possibility that they are dim-and-close in addition to the usual bright-and-far-away.

The paper closes by considering how many more joint gravitational-wave–gamma-ray detections of binary neutron star coalescences we should expect in the future. In our next observing run, we could expect 0.1–1.4 joint detections per year, and when LIGO and Virgo get to design sensitivity, this could be 0.3–1.7 detections per year.

The GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper
Read this if: You have an interest in cosmology
Favourite part: In the future, we may be able to settle the argument between the cosmic microwave background and supernova measurements

The Universe is expanding. In the nearby Universe, this can be described using the Hubble relation

v_H = H_0 D,

where v_H is the expansion velocity, H_0 is the Hubble constant and D is the distance to the source. GW170817 is sufficiently nearby for this relationship to hold. We know the distance from the gravitational-wave measurement, and we can estimate the velocity from the redshift of the host galaxy. Therefore, it should be simple to combine the two to find the Hubble constant. Of course, there are a few complications…

This work is built upon the identification of the optical counterpart AT 2017gfo. This allows us to identify the galaxy NGC 4993 as the host of GW170817’s source: we calculate that there’s a 4 \times 10^{-5} probability that AT 2017gfo would be as close to NGC 4993 on the sky by chance. Without a counterpart, it would still be possible to infer the Hubble constant statistically by cross-referencing the inferred gravitational-wave source location with the ensemble of compatible galaxies in a catalogue (you assign a probability to the source being associated with each galaxy, instead of saying it’s definitely in this one). The identification of NGC 4993 makes things much simpler.

As a first ingredient, we need the distance from gravitational waves. For this, a slightly different analysis was done than in the GW170817 Discovery Paper. We fix the sky location of the source to match that of AT 2017gfo, and we use (binary black hole) waveforms which don’t include any tidal effects. The sky position needs to be fixed, because for this analysis we are assuming that we definitely know where the source is. The tidal effects were not included (but precessing spins were) because we needed results quickly: the details of spins and tides shouldn’t make much difference to the distance. From this analysis, we find the distance is 41^{+6}_{-13}~\mathrm{Mpc} if we follow our usual convention of quoting the median at symmetric 90% credible interval; however, this paper primarily quotes the most probable value and minimal (not-necessarily symmmetric) 68.3% credible interval, following this convention, we write the distance as 44^{+3}_{-7}~\mathrm{Mpc}.

While NGC 4993 being close by makes the relationship for calculating the Hubble constant simple, it adds a complication for calculating the velocity. The motion of the galaxy is not only due to the expansion of the Universe, but because of how it is moving within the gravitational potentials of nearby groups and clusters. This is referred to as peculiar motion. Adding this in increases our uncertainty on the velocity. Combining results from the literature, our final estimate for the velocity is v_H= 3017 \pm 166~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}}.

We put together the velocity and the distance in a Bayesian analysis. This is a little more complicated than simply dividing the numbers (although that gives you a similar result). You have to be careful about writing things down, otherwise you might implicitly assume a prior that you didn’t intend (my most useful contribution to this paper is probably a whiteboard conversation with Will Farr where we tracked down a difference in prior assumptions approaching the problem two different ways). This is all explained in the Methods, it’s not easy to read, but makes sense when you work through. The result is H_0 = 70^{+12}_{-8}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} (quoted as maximum a posteriori value and 68% interval, or 74^{+33}_{-12}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} in the usual median-and-90%-interval convention). An updated set of results is given in the GW170817 Properties Paper: H_0 = 70^{+19}_{-8}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} (68% interval using the low-spin prior). This is nicely (and diplomatically) consistent with existing results.

The distance has considerable uncertainty because there is a degeneracy between the distance and the orbital inclination (the angle of the normal to the orbital plane relative to the line of sight). If you could figure out the inclination from another observation, then you could tighten constraints on the Hubble constant, or if you’re willing to adopt one of the existing values of the Hubble constant, you can pin down the inclination. Data (updated data) to help you try this yourself are available [citation note].

GW170817 Hubble constant vs inclination

Two-dimensional posterior probability distribution for the Hubble constant and orbital inclination inferred from GW170817. The contours mark 68% and 95% levels. The coloured bands are measurements from the cosmic microwave background (Planck) and supernovae (SH0ES). Figure 2 of the GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper.

In the future we’ll be able to combine multiple events to produce a more precise gravitational-wave estimate of the Hubble constant. Chen, Fishbach & Holz (2017) is a recent study of how measurements should improve with more events: we should get to 4% precision after around 100 detections.

The GW170817 Kilonova Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Kilonova Paper
Read this if: You want to check our predictions for ejecta against observations
Favourite part: We might be able to create all of the heavy r-process elements—including the gold used to make Nobel Prizes—from merging neutron stars

When two neutron stars collide, lots of material gets ejected outwards. This neutron-rich material undergoes nuclear decay—now no longer being squeezed by the strong gravity inside the neutron star, it is unstable, and decays from the strange neutron star stuff™ to become more familiar elements (elements heavier than iron including gold and platinum). As these r-process elements are created, the nuclear reactions power a kilonova, the optical (infrared–ultraviolet) transient accompanying the merger. The properties of the kilonova depends upon how much material is ejected.

In this paper, we try to estimate how much material made up the dynamical ejecta from the GW170817 collision. Dynamical ejecta is material which escapes as the two neutron stars smash into each other (either from tidal tails or material squeezed out from the collision shock). There are other sources of ejected material, such as winds from the accretion disk which forms around the remnant (whether black hole or neutron star) following the collision, so this is only part of the picture; however, we can estimate the mass of the dynamical ejecta from our gravitational-wave measurements using simulations of neutron star mergers. These estimates can then be compared with electromagnetic observations of the kilonova [citation note].

The amount of dynamical ejecta depends upon the masses of the neutron stars, how rapidly they are rotating, and the properties of the neutron star material (described by the equation of state). Here, we use the masses inferred from our gravitational-wave measurements and feed these into fitting formulae calibrated against simulations for different equations of state. These don’t include spin, and they have quite large uncertainties (we include a 72% relative uncertainty when producing our results), so these are not precision estimates. Neutron star physics is a little messy.

We find that the dynamical ejecta is 10^{-3}10^{-2} M_\odot (assuming the low-spin mass results). These estimates can be feed into models for kilonovae to produce lightcurves, which we do. There is plenty of this type of modelling in the literature as observers try to understand their observations, so this is nothing special in terms of understanding this event. However, it could be useful in the future (once we have hoverboards), as we might be able to use gravitational-wave data to predict how bright a kilonova will be at different times, and so help astronomers decide upon their observing strategy.

Finally, we can consider how much r-process elements we can create from the dynamical ejecta. Again, we don’t consider winds, which may also contribute to the total budget of r-process elements from binary neutron stars. Our estimate for r-process elements needs several ingredients: (i) the mass of the dynamical ejecta, (ii) the fraction of the dynamical ejecta converted to r-process elements, (iii) the merger rate of binary neutron stars, and (iv) the convolution of the star formation rate and the time delay between binary formation and merger (which we take to be \propto t^{-1}). Together (i) and (ii) give the mass of r-process elements per binary neutron star (assuming that GW170817 is typical); (iii) and (iv) give total density of mergers throughout the history of the Universe, and combining everything together you get the total mass of r-process elements accumulated over time. Using the estimated binary neutron star merger rate of 1540_{-1220}^{+3200}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, we can explain the Galactic abundance of r-process elements if more than about 10% of the dynamical ejecta is converted.

Binary neutron star merger rate, ejecta mass and r-process element abundance

Present day binary neutron star merger rate density versus dynamical ejecta mass. The grey region shows the inferred 90% range for the rate, the blue shows the approximate range of ejecta masses, and the red band shows the band where the Galactic elemental abundance can be reproduced if at least 50% of the dynamical mass gets converted. Part of Figure 5 of the GW170817 Kilonova Paper.

The GW170817 Stochastic Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Stochastic Paper
Read this if: You’re impatient for finding a background of gravitational waves
Favourite part: The background symphony

For every loud gravitational-wave signal, there are many more quieter ones. We can’t pick these out of the detector noise individually, but they are still there, in our data. They add together to form a stochastic background, which we might be able to detect by correlating the data across our detector network.

Following the detection of GW150914, we considered the background due to binary black holes. This is quite loud, and might be detectable in a few years. Here, we add in binary neutron stars. This doesn’t change the picture too much, but gives a more accurate picture.

Binary black holes have higher masses than binary neutron stars. This means that their gravitational-wave signals are louder, and shorter (they chirp quicker and chirp up to a lower frequency). Being louder, binary black holes dominate the overall background. Being shorter, they have a different character: binary black holes form a popcorn background of short chirps which rarely overlap, but binary neutron stars are long enough to overlap, forming a more continuous hum.

The dimensionless energy density at a gravitational-wave frequency of 25 Hz from binary black holes is 1.1_{-0.7}^{+1.2} \times 10^{-9}, and from binary neutron stars it is 0.7_{-0.6}^{+1.5} \times 10^{-9}. There are on average 0.06_{-0.04}^{+0.06} binary black hole signals in detectors at a given time, and 15_{-12}^{+31} binary neutron star signals.

Simulated background of overlapping binary signals

Simulated time series illustrating the difference between binary black hole (green) and binary neutron star (red) signals. Each chirp increases in amplitude until the point at which the binary merges. Binary black hole signals are short, loud chirps, while the longer, quieter binary neutron star signals form an overlapping background. Figure 2 from the GW170817 Stochastic Paper.

To calculate the background, we need the rate of merger. We now have an estimate for binary neutron stars, and we take the most recent estimate from the GW170104 Discovery Paper for binary black holes. We use the rates assuming the power law mass distribution for this, but the result isn’t too sensitive to this: we care about the number of signals in the detector, and the rates are derived from this, so they agree when working backwards. We evolve the merger rate density across cosmic history by factoring in the star formation rate and delay time between formation and merger. A similar thing was done in the GW170817 Kilonova Paper, here we used a slightly different star formation rate, but results are basically the same with either. The addition of binary neutron stars increases the stochastic background from compact binaries by about 60%.

Detection in our next observing run, at a moderate significance, is possible, but I think unlikely. It will be a few years until detection is plausible, but the addition of binary neutron stars will bring this closer. When we do detect the background, it will give us another insight into the merger rate of binaries.

The GW170817 Progenitor Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Progenitor Paper
Read this if: You want to know about neutron star formation and supernovae
Favourite part: The Spirography figures

The identification of NGC 4993 as the host galaxy of GW170817’s binary neutron star system allows us to make some deductions about how it formed. In this paper, we simulate a large number of binaries, tracing the later stages of their evolution, to see which ones end up similar to GW170817. By doing so, we learn something about the supernova explosion which formed the second of the two neutron stars.

The neutron stars started life as a pair of regular stars [bonus note]. These burned through their hydrogen fuel, and once this is exhausted, they explode as a supernova. The core of the star collapses down to become a neutron star, and the outer layers are blasted off. The more massive star evolves faster, and goes supernova first. We’ll consider the effects of the second supernova, and the kick it gives to the binary: the orbit changes both because of the rocket effect of material being blasted off, and because one of the components loses mass.

From the combination of the gravitational-wave and electromagnetic observations of GW170817, we know the masses of the neutron star, the type of galaxy it is found in, and the position of the binary within the galaxy at the time of merger (we don’t know the exact position, just its projection as viewed from Earth, but that’s something).

Post-supernova orbits in model NGC 4993

Orbital trajectories of simulated binaries which led to GW170817-like merger. The coloured lines show the 2D projection of the orbits in our model galaxy. The white lines mark the initial (projected) circular orbit of the binary pre-supernova, and the red arrows indicate the projected direction of the supernova kick. The background shading indicates the stellar density. Figure 4 of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper; animated equivalents can be found in the Science Summary.

We start be simulating lots of binaries just before the second supernova explodes. These are scattered at different distances from the the centre of the galaxy, have different orbital separations, and have different masses of the pre-supernova star. We then add the effects of the supernova, adding in a kick. We fix then neutron star masses to match those we inferred from the gravitational wave measurements. If the supernova kick is too big, the binary flies apart and will never merge (boo). If the binary remains bound, we follow its evolution as it moves through the galaxy. The structure of the galaxy is simulated as a simple spherical model, a Hernquist profile for the stellar component and a Navarro–Frenk–White profile for the dark matter halo [citation note], which are pretty standard. The binary shrinks as gravitational waves are emitted, and eventually merge. If the merger happens at a position which matches our observations (yay), we know that the initial conditions could explain GW170817.

Inferred supernova kick, progenitor stellar mass, pre-supernova orbital separation and supernova galactic radius

Inferred progenitor properties: (second) supernova kick velocity, pre-supernova progenitor mass, pre-supernova binary separation and galactic radius at time of the supernova. The top row shows how the properties vary for different delay times between supernova and merger. The middle row compares all the binaries which survive the second supernova compared with the GW170817-like ones. The bottom row shows parameters for GW170817-like binaries with different galactic offsets than the 1.8~\mathrm{kpc} to 2.2~\mathrm{kpc} range used for GW1708017. The middle and bottom rows assume a delay time of at least 1~\mathrm{Gyr}. Figure 5 of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper; to see correlations between parameters, check out Figure 8 of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper.

The plot above shows the constraints on the progenitor’s properties. The inferred second supernova kick is V_\mathrm{kick} \simeq 300_{-200}^{+250}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}}, similar to what has been observed for neutron stars in the Milky Way; the per-supernova stellar mass is M_\mathrm{He} \simeq 3.0_{-1.5}^{+3.5} M_\odot (we assume that the star is just a helium core, with the outer hydrogen layers having been stripped off, hence the subscript); the pre-supernova orbital separation was R_\odot \simeq 3.5_{-1.5}^{+5.0} R_\odot, and the offset from the the centre of the galaxy at the time of the supernova was 2.0_{-1.5}^{+4.0}~\mathrm{kpc}. The main strongest constraints come from keeping the binary bound after the supernova; results are largely independent of the delay time once this gets above 1~\mathrm{Gyr} [citation note].

As we collect more binary neutron star detections, we’ll be able to deduce more about how they form. If you’re interested more in the how to build a binary neutron star system, the introduction to this paper is well referenced; Tauris et al. (2017) is a detailed (pre-GW170817) review.

The GW170817 Neutrino Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Neutrino Paper
Read this if: You want a change from gravitational wave–electromagnetic multimessenger astronomy
Favourite part: There’s still something to look forward to with future detections—GW170817 hasn’t stolen all the firsts. Also this paper is not Abbot et al.

This is a joint search by ANTARES, IceCube and the Pierre Auger Observatory for neutrinos coincident with GW170817. Knowing both the location and the time of the binary neutron star merger makes it easy to search for counterparts. No matching neutrinos were detected.

GW170817 localization and neutrino candidates

Neutrino candidates at the time of GW170817. The map is is in equatorial coordinates. The gravitational-wave localization is indicated by the red contour, and the galaxy NGC 4993 is indicated by the black cross. Up-going and down-going regions for each detector are indicated, as detectors are more sensitive to up-going neutrinos, as the Cherenkov detectors are subject to a background from cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere. Figure 1 from the GW170817 Neutrino Paper.

Using the non-detections, we can place upper limits on the neutrino flux. These are summarised in the plots below. Optimistic models for prompt emission from an on axis gamma-ray burst would lead to a detectable flux, but otherwise theoretical predictions indicate that a non-detection is expected. From electromagnetic observations, it doesn’t seem like we are on-axis, so the story all fits together.

Neutrino upper limits

90% confidence upper limits on neutrino spectral fluence F per flavour (electron, muon and tau) as a function of energy E in \pm 500~\mathrm{s} window (top) about the GW170817 trigger time, and a 14~\mathrm{day} window following GW170817 (bottom). IceCube is also sensitive to MeV neutrinos (none were detected). Fluences are the per-flavour sum of neutrino and antineutrino fluence, assuming equal fluence in all flavours. These are compared to theoretical predictions from Kimura et al. (2017) and Fang & Metzger (2017), scaled to a distance of 40 Mpc. The angles labelling the models are viewing angles in excess of the jet opening angle. Figure 2 from the GW170817 Neutrino paper.

Super-Kamiokande have done their own search for neutrinos, form 3.5~\mathrm{MeV} to around 100~\mathrm{PeV} (Abe et al. 2018). They found nothing in either the \pm 500~\mathrm{s} window around the event or the 14~\mathrm{day} window following it.

The only post-detection neutrino modelling paper I’ve seen is Biehl, Heinze, &Winter (2017). They model prompt emission from the same source as the gamma-ray burst and find that neutrino fluxes would be 10^{-4} of current sensitivity.

The GW170817 Post-merger Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Post-merger Paper
Read this if: You are an optimist
Favourite part: We really do check everywhere for signals

Following the inspiral of two black holes, we know what happens next: the black holes merge to form a bigger black hole, which quickly settles down to its final stable state. We have a complete model of the gravitational waves from the inspiral–merger–ringdown life of coalescing binary black holes. Binary neutron stars are more complicated.

The inspiral of two binary neutron stars is similar to that for black holes. As they get closer together, we might see some imprint of tidal distortions not present for black holes, but the main details are the same. It is the chirp of the inspiral which we detect. As the neutron stars merge, however, we don’t have a clear picture of what goes on. Material gets shredded and ejected from the neutron stars; the neutron stars smash together; it’s all rather messy. We don’t have a good understanding of what should happen when our neutron stars merge, the details depend upon the properties of the stuff™ neutron stars are made of—if we could measure the gravitational-wave signal from this phase, we would learn a lot.

There are four plausible outcomes of a binary neutron star merger:

  1. If the total mass is below the maximum mass for a (non-rotating) neutron star (M < M^\mathrm{Static}), we end up with a bigger, but still stable neutron star. Given our inferences from the inspiral (see the plot from the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper below), this is unlikely.
  2. If the total mass is above the limit for a stable, non-rotating neutron star, but can still be supported by uniform rotation (M^\mathrm{Static} < M < M^\mathrm{Uniform}), we have a supramassive neutron star. The rotation will slow down due to the emission of electromagnetic and gravitational radiation, and eventually the neutron star will collapse to a black hole. The time until collapse could take something like 105 \times 10^4~\mathrm{s}; it is unclear if this is long enough for supramassive neutron stars to have a mid-life crisis.
  3. If the total mass is above the limit for support from uniform rotation, but can still be supported through differential rotation and thermal gradients(M^\mathrm{Uniform} < M < M^\mathrm{Differential}), then we have a hypermassive neutron star. The hypermassive neutron star cools quickly through neutrino emission, and its rotation slows through magnetic braking, meaning that it promptly collapses to a black hole in \lesssim 1~\mathrm{s}.
  4. If the total mass is big enough(M^\mathrm{Differential} < M), the merging neutron stars collapse down to a black hole.

In the case of the collapse to a black hole, we get a ringdown as in the case of a binary black hole merger. The frequency is around 6~\mathrm{kHz}, too high for us to currently measure. However, if there is a neutron star, there may be slightly lower frequency gravitational waves from the neutron star matter wibbling about. We’re not exactly sure of the form of these signals, so we perform an unmodelled search for them (knowing the position of GW170817’s source helps for this).

Maximum neutron star masses

Comparison of inferred component masses with critical mass boundaries for different equations of state. The left panel shows the maximum mass of a non-rotating neutron star compared to the initial baryonic mass (ignoring material ejected during merger and gravitational binding energy); the middle panel shows the maximum mass for a uniformly rotating neutron star; the right panel shows the maximum mass of a non-rotating neutron star compared of the gravitational mass of the heavier component neutron star. Figure 3 of the GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.

Several different search algorithms were used to hunt for a post-merger signal:

  1. coherent WaveBurst (cWB) was used to look for short duration (< 1~\mathrm{s}) bursts. This searched a 2~\mathrm{s} window including the merger time and covering the 1.7~\mathrm{s} delay to the gamma-ray burst detection, and frequencies of 10244096~\mathrm{Hz}. Only LIGO data were used, as Virgo data suffered from large noise fluctuations above 2.5~\mathrm{kHz}.
  2. cWB was used to look for intermediate duration (< 500~\mathrm{s}) bursts. This searched a 1000~\mathrm{s} window from the merger time, and frequencies 242048~\mathrm{Hz}. This used LIGO and Virgo data.
  3. The Stochastic Transient Analysis Multi-detector Pipeline (STAMP) was also used to look for intermediate duration signals. This searched the merger time until the end of O2 (in 500~\mathrm{s} chunks), and frequencies 244000~\mathrm{Hz}. This used only LIGO data. There are two variations of STAMP: Zebragard and Lonetrack, and both are used here.

Although GEO is similar to LIGO and Virgo and the searched high-frequencies, its data were not used as we have not yet studied its noise properties in enough detail. Since the LIGO detectors are the most sensitive, their data is most important for the search.

No plausible candidates were found, so we set some upper limits on what could have been detected. From these, it is not surprising that nothing was found, as we would need pretty much all of the mass of the remnant to somehow be converted into gravitational waves to see something. Results are shown in the plot below. An updated analysis which puts upper limits on the post-merger signal is given in the GW170817 Properties Paper.

Detector sensitivities and search upper limits

Noise amplitude spectral density \sqrt{S_n} for the four detectors, and search upper limits h_\mathrm{rss} as a function of frequency. The noise amplitude spectral densities compare the sensitivities of the detectors. The search upper limits are root-sum-squared strain amplitudes at 50% detection efficiency. The colour code of the upper-limit markers indicates the search algorithm and the shape indicates the waveform injected to set the limits (the frequency is the average for this waveform). The bar mode waveform come from the rapid rotation of the supramassive neutron star leading to it becoming distorted (stretched) in a non-axisymmetric way (Lasky, Sarin & Sammut 2017); the magnetar waveform assumes that the (rapidly rotating) supramassive neutron star’s magnetic field generates significant ellipticity (Corsi & Mészáros 2009); the short-duration merger waveforms are from a selection of numerical simulations (Bauswein et al. 2013; Takami et al. 2015; Kawamura et al. 2016; Ciolfi et al. 2017). The open squares are merger waveforms scaled to the distance and orientation inferred from the inspiral of GW170817. The dashed black lines show strain amplitudes for a narrow-band signal with fixed energy content: the top line is the maximum possible value for GW170817. Figure 1 of the GW170817 Post-merger Paper.

We can’t tell the fate of GW170817’s neutron stars from gravitational waves alone [citation note]. As high-frequency sensitivity is improved in the future, we might be able to see something from a really close by binary neutron star merger.

The GW170817 Properties Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Properties Paper
Read this if: You want the best results for GW170817’s source, our best measurement of the Hubble constant, or limits on the post-merger signal
Favourite part: Look how tiny the uncertainties are!

As time progresses, we often refine our analyses of gravitational-wave data. This can be because we’ve had time to recalibrate data from our detectors, because better analysis techniques have been developed, or just because we’ve had time to allow more computationally intensive analyses to finish. This paper is our first attempt at improving our inferences about GW170817. The results use an improved calibration of Virgo data, and analyses more of the signal (down to a low frequency of 23 Hz, instead of 30 Hz, which gives use about an extra 1500 cycles), uses improved models of the waveforms, and includes a new analysis looking at the post-merger signal. The results update those given in the GW170817 Discovery Paper, the GW170817 Hubble Constant Paper and the GW170817 Post-merger Paper.


Our initial analysis was based upon quick to calculate post-Newtonian waveform known as TaylorF2. We thought this should be a conservative choice: any results with more complicated waveforms should give tighter results. This worked out. We try several different waveform models, each based upon the point particle waveforms we use for analysing binary black hole signals with extra bits to model the tidal deformation of neutron stars. The results are broadly consistent, so I’ll concentrate on discussing our preferred results calculated using IMRPhenomPNRT waveform (which uses IMRPhenomPv2 as a base and adds on numerical-relativity calibrated tides). As in the GW170817 Discovery Paper, we perform the analysis with two priors on the binary spins, one with spins up to 0.89 (which should safely encompass all possibilities for neutron stars), and one with spins of up to 0.05 (which matches observations of binary neutron stars in our Galaxy).

The first analysis we did was to check the location of the source. Reassuringly, we are still perfectly consistent with the location of AT 2017gfo (phew!). The localization is much improved, the 90% sky area is down to just 16~\mathrm{deg^2}! Go Virgo!

Having established that it still makes sense that AT 2017gfo pin-points the source location, we use this as the position in subsequent analyses. We always use the sky position of the counterpart and the redshift of the host galaxy (Levan et al. 2017), but we don’t typically use the distance. This is because we want to be able to measure the Hubble constant, which relies on using the distance inferred from gravitational waves.

We use the distance from Cantiello et al. (2018) [citation note] for one calculation: an estimation of the inclination angle. The inclination is degenerate with the distance (both affect the amplitude of the signal), so having constraints on one lets us measure the other with improved precision. Without the distance information, we find that the angle between the binary’s total angular momentum and the line of sight is 152^{+21}_{-27}~\mathrm{deg} for the high-spin prior and 146^{+25}_{-27}~\mathrm{deg} with the low-spin prior. The difference between the two results is because of the spin angular momentum slightly shifts the direction of the total angular momentum. Incorporating the distance information, for the high-spin prior the angle is 153^{+15}_{-11}~\mathrm{deg} (so the misalignment angle is 27^{+11}_{-15}~\mathrm{deg}), and for the low-spin prior it is 151^{+15}_{-11}~\mathrm{deg} (misalignment 29^{+11}_{-15}~\mathrm{deg}) [citation note].

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins

Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins. The left pair is for the high-spin prior and so magnitudes extend to 0.89, and the right pair are for the low-spin prior and extend to 0.05. In each, the distribution for the more massive component is on the left, and for the smaller component on the right. The probability is binned into areas which have uniform prior probabilities. The low-spin prior truncates the posterior distribution, but this is less of an issue for the high-spin prior. Results are shown at a point in the inspiral corresponding to a gravitational-wave frequency of 100~\mathrm{Hz}. Parts of Figure 8 and 9 of the GW170817 Properties Paper.

Main results include:

  • The luminosity distance is 38.7^{+14.3}_{-7.4}~\mathrm{Mpc} with the the los-spin prior and 40.8^{+12.3}_{-5.6}~\mathrm{Mpc} with the high-spin prior. The difference is a for the same reason as the difference in inclination measurements. The results are consistent with the distance to NGC 4993 [citation note].
  • The chirp mass redshifted to the detector-frame is measured to be 1.1975^{+0.0001}_-{0.0001} M_\odot with the low-spin prior and 1.1976^{+0.0001}_-{0.0001} M_\odot with the high-spin. This corresponds to a physical chirp mass of 1.186_{-0.001}^{+0.001} M_\odot.
  • The spins are not well constrained. We get the best measurement along the direction of the orbital angular momentum. For the low-spin prior, this is enough to disfavour the spins being antialigned, but that’s about it. For the high-spin prior, we rule out large spins aligned or antialigned, and very large spins in the plane. The aligned components of the spin are best described by the effective inspiral spin parameter \chi_\mathrm{eff}, for the low-spin prior it is 0.00^{+0.02}_{-0.01} and for the high-spin prior it is 0.02^{+0.08}_{-0.02}.
  • Using the low-spin prior, the component masses are m_1 = 1.361.60 M_\odot and m_2 = 1.161.36 M_\odot, and for the high-spin prior they are m_1 = 1.361.89 M_\odot and m_2 = 1.001.36 M_\odot.

These are largely consistent with our previous results. There are small shifts, but the biggest change is that the errors are a little smaller.

Binary neutron star masses

Estimated masses for the two neutron stars in the binary using the high-spin (left) and low-spin (right) priors. The two-dimensional plot follows a line of constant chirp mass which is too narrow to resolve on this scale. Results are shown for four different waveform models. TaylorF2 (used in the initial analysis), IMRPhenomDNRT and SEOBNRT have aligned spins, while IMRPhenomPNRT includes spin precession. IMRPhenomPNRT is used for the main results.Figure 5 of the GW170817 Properties Paper.

For the Hubble constant, we find H_0 = 70^{+19}_{-8}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} with the low-spin prior and H_0 = 70^{+13}_{-7}~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}\,Mpc^{-1}} with the high-spin prior. Here, we quote maximum a posterior value and narrowest 68% intervals as opposed to the the usual median and symmetric 90% credible interval. You might think its odd that the uncertainty is smaller when using the wider high-spin prior, but this is just another consequence of the difference in the inclination measurements. The values are largely in agreement with our initial values.

The best measured tidal parameter is the combined dimensionless tidal deformability \tilde{\Lambda}. With the high-spin prior, we can only set an upper bound of \tilde{\Lambda} < 630 . With the low-spin prior, we find that we are still consistent with zero deformation, but the distribution peaks away from zero. We have \tilde{\Lambda} = 300^{+500}_{-190} using the usual median and symmetric 90% credible interval, and \tilde{\Lambda} = 300^{+420}_{-230} if we take the narrowest 90% interval. This looks like we have detected matter effects, but since we’ve had to use the low-spin prior, which is only appropriate for neutron stars, this would be a circular argument. More details on what we can learn about tidal deformations and what neutron stars are made of, under the assumption that we do have neutron stars, are given in the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.


Previously, in the GW170817 Post-merger Paper, we searched for a post-merger signal. We didn’t find anything. Now, we try to infer the shape of the signal, assuming it is there (with a peak within 250~\mathrm{ms} of the coalescence time). We still don’t find anything, but now we set much tighter upper limits on what signal there could be there.

For this analysis, we use data from the two LIGO detectors, and from GEO 600! We don’t use Virgo data, as it is not well behaved at these high frequencies. We use BayesWave to try to constrain the signal.

Detector sensitivities and signal strain upper limits

Noise amplitude spectral density for the detectors used, prior and posterior strain upper limits, and selected numerical simulations as a function of frequency. The signal upper limits are Bayesian 90% credible bounds for the signal in Hanford, but is derived from a coherent analysis of all three indicated detectors. Figure 13 of the GW170817 Properties Paper.

While the upper limits are much better, they are still about 12–215 times larger than expectations from simulations. Therefore, we’d need to improve our detector sensitivity by about a factor of 3.5–15 to detect a similar signal. Fingers crossed!

The GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper

Synopsis: GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper
Read this if: You want to know what neutron stars are made of
Favourite part: The beautiful butterfly plots

Usually in our work, we like to remain open minded and not make too many assumptions. In our analysis of GW170817, as presented in the GW170817 Properties Paper, we have remained agnostic about the components of the binary, seeing what the data tell us. However, from the electromagnetic observations, there is solid evidence that the source is a binary neutron star system. In this paper, we take it as granted that the source is made of two neutron stars, and that these neutron stars are made of similar stuff™, to see what we can learn about the properties of neutron stars.

When a two neutron stars get close together, they become distorted by each other’s gravity. Tides are raised, kind of like how the Moon creates tides on Earth. Creating tides takes energy out of the orbit, causing the inspiral to proceed faster. This is something we can measure from the gravitational wave signal. Tides are larger when the neutron stars are bigger. The size of neutron stars and how easy they are the stretch and squash depends upon their equation of state. We can use the measurements of the neutron star masses and amount of tidal deformation to infer their size and their equation of state.

The signal is analysed as in the GW170817 Properties Paper (IMRPhenomPNRT waveform, low-spin prior, position set to match AT 2017gfo). However, we also add in some information about the composition of neutron stars.

Calculating the behaviour of this incredibly dense material is difficult, but there are some relations between the tidal deformability of neutron stars and their radii which are insensitive to the details of the equation of state. One relates symmetric and antisymmetric combinations of the tidal deformations of the two neutron stars as a function of the mass ratio, allows us to calculate consistent tidal deformations. Another relates the tidal deformation to the compactness (mass divided by radius) allows us to convert tidal deformations to radii. The analysis includes the uncertainty in these relations.

In addition to this, we also use a parametric model of the equation of state to model the tidal deformations. By sampling directly in terms of the equation of state, it is easy to impose constraints on the allowed values. For example, we impose that the speed of sound inside the neutron star is less than the speed of light, that the equation of state can support neutron stars of that mass, that it is possible to explain the most massive confirmed neutron star (we use a lower limit for this mass of 1.97 M_\odot), as well as it being thermodynamically stable. Accommodating the most massive neutron star turns out to be an important piece of information.

The plot below shows the inferred tidal deformation parameters for the two neutron stars. The two techniques, using the equation-of-state insensitive relations and using the parametrised equation-of-state model without included the constraint of matching the 1.97 M_\odot neutron star, give similar results. For a 1.4 M_\odot neutron star, these results indicate that the tidal deformation parameter would be \Lambda_{1.4} = 190^{+390}_{-120}. We favour softer equations of state over stiffer ones [citation note]. I think this means that neutron stars are more huggable.

Tidal deformations assuming neutron star components for GW170817's source

Probability distributions for the tidal parameters of the two neutron stars. The tidal deformation of the more massive neutron star \Lambda_1 must be greater than that for the smaller neutron star \Lambda_2. The green shading and (50% and 90%) contours are calculated using the equation-of-state insensitive relations. The blue contours are for the parametrised equation-of-state model. The orange contours are from the GW170817 Properties Paper, where we don’t assume a common equation of state. The black lines are predictions from a selection of different equations of state Figure 1 of the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.

We can translate our results into estimates on the size of the neutron stars. The plots below show the inferred radii. The results for the parametrised equation-of-state model now includes the constraint of accommodating a 1.97 M_\odot neutron star, which is the main reason for the difference in the plots. Using the equation-of-state insensitive relations we find that the radius of the heavier (m_1 = 1.361.62M_\odot) neutron star is R_1 = 10.8^{+2.0}_{-1.7}~\mathrm{km} and the radius of the lighter (m_2 = 1.151.36M_\odot) neutron star is R_2 = 10.7^{+2.1}_{-1.5}~\mathrm{km}. With the parametrised equation-of-state model, the radii are R_1 = 11.9^{+1.4}_{-1.4}~\mathrm{km} (m_1 = 1.361.58M_\odot) and R_2 = 11.9^{+1.4}_{-1.4}~\mathrm{km} (m_2 = 1.181.36M_\odot).

Neutron star masses and radii

Posteriro probability distributions for neutron star masses and radi (blue for the more massive neutron star, orange for the lighter)i. The left plot uses the equation-of-state insensitive relations, and the right uses the parametrised equation-of-state model. In the one-dimensional plots, the dashed lines indicate the priors. The lines in the top left indicate the size of a Schwarzschild Black hole and the Buchadahl limit for the collapse of a neutron star. Figure 3 of the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.

When I was an undergraduate, I remember learning that neutron stars were about 15~\mathrm{km} in radius. We now know that’s not the case.

If you want to investigate further, you can download the posterior samples from these analyses.

Bonus notes

Standard sirens

In astronomy, we often use standard candles, objects like type IA supernovae of known luminosity, to infer distances. If you know how bright something should be, and how bright you measure it to be, you know how far away it is. By analogy, we can infer how far away a gravitational-wave source is by how loud it is. It is thus not a candle, but a siren. Sean Carrol explains more about this term on his blog.


I know… Nature published the original Schutz paper on measuring the Hubble constant using gravitational waves; therefore, there’s a nice symmetry in publishing the first real result doing this in Nature too.

Globular clusters

Instead of a binary neutron star system forming from a binary of two stars born together, it is possible for two neutron stars to come close together in a dense stellar environment like a globular cluster. A significant fraction of binary black holes could be formed this way. Binary neutron stars, being less massive, are not as commonly formed this way. We wouldn’t expect GW170817 to have formed this way. In the GW170817 Progenitor Paper, we argue that the probability of GW170817’s source coming from a globular cluster is small—for predicted rates, see Bae, Kim & Lee (2014).

Levan et al. (2017) check for a stellar cluster at the site of AT 2017gfo, and find nothing. The smallest 30% of the Milky Way’s globular clusters would evade this limit, but these account for just 5% of the stellar mass in globular clusters, and a tiny fraction of dynamical interactions. Therefore, it’s unlikely that a cluster is the source of this binary.

Citation notes

Merger rates

From our gravitational-wave data, we estimate the current binary neutron star merger rate density is 1540_{-1220}^{+3200}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. Several electromagnetic observers performed their own rate estimates from the frequency of detection (or lack thereof) of electromagnetic transients.

Kasliwal et al. (2017) consider transients seen by the Palomar Transient Factory, and estimate a rate density of approximately 320~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} (3-sigma upper limit of 800~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}), towards the bottom end of our range, but their rate increases if not all mergers are as bright as AT 2017gfo.

Siebert et al. (2017) works out the rate of AT 2017gfo-like transients in the Swope Supernova Survey. They obtain an upper limit of 16000~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. They use to estimate the probability that AT 2017gfo and GW170817 are just a chance coincidence and are actually unrelated. The probability is 9 \times 10^{-6} at 90% confidence.

Smartt et al. (2017) estimate the kilonova rate from the ATLAS survey, they calculate a 95% upper limit of 30000~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, safely above our range.

Yang et al. (2017) calculates upper limits from the DLT40 Supernova survey. Depending upon the reddening assumed, this is between 93000^{+16000}_{-18000}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}} and 109000^{+28000}_{-18000}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. Their figure 3 shows that this is well above expected rates.

Finally, Zhang et al. (2017) is interested in the rate of gamma-ray bursts. If you know the rate of short gamma-ray bursts and of binary neutron star mergers, you can learn something about the beaming angle of the jet. The smaller the jet, the less likely we are to observe a gamma-ray burst. In order to do this, they do their own back-of-the-envelope for the gravitational-wave rate. They get 1100_{-910}^{+2500}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. That’s not too bad, but do stick with our result.

If you’re interested in the future prospects for kilonova detection, I’d recommend Scolnic et al. (2017). Check out their Table 2 for detection rates (assuming a rate of 1000~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}): LSST and WFIRST will see lots, about 7 and 8 per year respectively.

The electromagnetic story

Some notes on an incomplete overview of papers describing the electromagnetic discovery. A list of the first wave of papers was compiled by Maria Drout, Stefano Valenti, and Iair Arcavi as a starting point for further reading.

Independently of our gravitational-wave detection, a short gamma-ray burst GRB 170817A was observed by Fermi-GBM (Goldstein et al. 2017). Fermi-LAT did not see anything, as it was offline for crossing through the South Atlantic Anomaly. At the time of the merger, INTEGRAL was following up the location of GW170814, fortunately this meant it could still observe the location of GW170817, and following the alert they found GRB 170817A in their data (Savchenko et al. 2017).

Following up on our gravitational-wave localization, an optical transient AT 2017gfo was discovered. The discovery was made by the One-Meter Two-Hemisphere (1M2H) collaboration using the Swope telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile; they designated the transient as SSS17a (Coulter et al. 2017). That same evening, several other teams also found the transient within an hour of each other:

  • The Distance Less Than 40 Mpc (DLT40) search found the transient using the PROMPT 0.4-m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile; they designated the transient DLT17ck (Valenti et al. 2017).
  • The VINROUGE collaboration (I think, they don’t actually identify themselves in their own papers) found the transient using VISTA at the European Southern Observatory in Chile (Tanvir et al. 2017). Their paper also describes follow-up observations with the Very Large Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Nordic Optical Telescope and the Danish 1.54-m Telescope, and has one of my favourite introduction sections of the discovery papers.
  • The MASTER collaboration followed up with their network of global telescopes, and it was their telescope at the San Juan National University Observatory in Argentina which found the transient (Lipunov et al. 2017); they, rather catchily denote the transient as OTJ130948.10-232253.3.
  • The Dark Energy Survey and the Dark Energy Camera GW–EM (DES and DECam) Collaboration found the transient with the DECam on the Blanco 4-m telescope, which is also at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (Soares-Santos et al. 2017).
  • The Las Cumbres Observatory Collaboration used their global network of telescopes, with, unsurprisingly, their 1-m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile first imaging the transient (Arcavi et al. 2017). Their observing strategy is described in a companion paper (Arcavi et al. 2017), which also describes follow-up of GW170814.

From these, you can see that South America was the place to be for this event: it was night at just the right time.

There was a huge amount of follow-up across the infrared–optical–ultraviolet range of AT 2017gfo. Villar et al. (2017) attempts to bring these together in a consistent way. Their Figure 1 is beautiful.

Ultraviolet–infrared lightcurves

Assembled lightcurves from ultraviolet, optical and infrared observations of AT 2017gfo. The data points are the homogenized data, and the lines are fitted kilonova models. The blue light initially dominates but rapidly fades, while the red light undergoes a slower decay. Figure 1 of Villar et al. (2017).

AT 2017gfo was also the target of observations across the electromagnetic spectrum. An X-ray afterglow was observed 9 days post merger, and 16 days post merger, just as we thought the excitement was over, a radio afterglow was found:

The afterglow will continue to brighten for a while, so we can expect a series of updates:

  • Pooley, Kumar & Wheeler (2017) observed with Chandra 108 and 111 days post merger. Ruan et al. (2017) observed with Chandra 109 days post merger. The large gap in the the X-ray observations from the initial observations is because the Sun got in the way.
  • Mooley et al. (2017) update the GROWTH radio results up to 107 days post merger (the largest span whilst still pre-empting new X-ray observations), observing with the Very Large Array, Australia Telescope Compact Array and Giant Meterewave Radio Telescope.

Excitingly, the afterglow has also now been spotted in the optical:

  • Lyman et al. (2018) observed with Hubble 110 (rest-frame) days post-merger (which is when the Sun was out of the way for Hubble). At this point the kilonova should have faded away, but they found something, and this is quite blue. The conclusion is that it’s the afterglow, and it will peak in about a year.
  • Margutti et al. (2018) brings together Chandra X-ray observations, Very Large Array radio observations and Hubble optical observations. The Hubble observations are 137 days post merger, and the Chandra observations are 153 days and 163 days post-merger. They find that they all agree (including the tentative radio signal at 10 days post-merger). They argue that the emission disfavours on-axis jets and spherical fireballs.
Evolution of radio, optical and X-ray fluxes to 160 days

Evolution of radio, optical and X-ray spectral energy density of the counterpart to GW170817. The radio and X-ray are always dominated by the afterglow, as indicated by them following the same power law. At early times, the optical is dominated by the kilonova, but as this fades, the afterglow starts to dominate. Figure. 1 of Margutti et al. (2018).

The afterglow is now starting to fade.

  • D’Avanzo et al. (2018) observed in X-ray 135 days post-merger with XMM-Newton. They find that the flux is faded compared to the previous trend. They suggest that we’re just at the turn-over, so this is consistent with the most recent Hubble observations.
  • Resmi et al. (2018) observed at low radio frequencies with the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope. They saw the signal at 1390~\mathrm{MHz} after 67 days post-merger, but this evolves little over the duration of their observations (to day 152 post-merger), also suggesting a turn-over.
  • Dobie et al. (2018) observed in radio 125–200 days post-merger with the Very Large Array and Australia Telescope Compact Array, and they find that the afterglow is starting to fade, with a peak at 149 ± 2 days post-merger.
  • Nynka et al. (2018) made X-ray observations at 260 days post-merger. They conclude the afterglow is definitely fading, and that this is not because of passing of the synchrotron cooling frequency.

The story isn’t over yet!

Shapiro delay

Using the time delay between GW170817 and GRB 170817A, a few other teams also did their own estimation of the Shapiro delay before they knew what was in our GW170817 Gamma-ray Burst Paper.

Our estimate of -2.6 \times 10^{-7} \leq \gamma_\mathrm{GW} - \gamma_\mathrm{EM} \leq 1.2 \times 10 ^{-6} is the most conservative.

Comparison to other gamma-ray bursts

Are the electromagnetic counterparts to GW170817 similar to what has been observed before? Yue et al. (2017) compare GRB 170817A with other gamma-ray bursts. It is low luminosity, but it may not be alone. There could be other bursts like it (perhaps GRB 070923, GRB 080121 and GRB 090417A), if indeed they are from nearby sources. They suggest that GRB 130603B may be the on-axis equivalent of GRB 170817A [citation note]; however, the non-detection of kilonovae for several bursts indicates that there needs to be some variation in their properties too. This agree with the results of Gompertz et al. (2017), who compares the GW170817 observations with other kilonovae: it is fainter than the other candidate kilonovae (GRB 050709, GRB 060614, GRB 130603B and tentatively GRB 160821B), but equally brighter than upper limits from other bursts. There must be a diversity in kilonovae observations. Fong et al. (2017) look at the diversity of afterglows (across X-ray to radio), and again find GW170817’s counterpart to be faint. This is probably because we are off-axis. Future observations will help unravel how much variation there is from viewing different angles, and how much intrinsic variation there is from the source—perhaps some short gamma-ray bursts come from neutron star–black hole binaries?

Inclination, jets and ejecta

Pretty much every observational paper has a go at estimating the properties of the ejecta, the viewing angle or something about the structure of the jet. I may try to pull these together later, but I’ve not had time yet as it is a very long list! Most of the inclination measurements assumed a uniform top-hat jet, which we now know is not a good model.

In my non-expert opinion, the later results seem more interesting. With very-long baseline interferometry radio observations to 230 days post-merger, Mooley et al. (2018) claim that while the early radio emission was powered by the wide cocoon of a structured jet, the later emission is dominated by a narrow, energetic jet. There was a successful jet, so we would have seen something like a regular short gamma-ray burst on axis. They estimate that the jet opening angle is < 5~\mathrm{deg}, and that we are viewing it at an angle of 20 \pm 5~\mathrm{deg}.

Hubble constant and misalignment

Guidorzi et al. (2017) try to tighten the measurement of the Hubble constant by using radio and X-ray observations. Their modelling assumes a uniform jet, which doesn’t look like a currently favoured option [citation note], so there is some model-based uncertainty to be included here. Additionally, the jet is unlikely to be perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum, which may add a couple of degrees more uncertainty.

Mandel (2018) works the other way and uses the recent Dark Energy Survey Hubble constant estimate to bound the misalignment angle to less than 28~\mathrm{deg}, which (unsurprisingly) agrees pretty well with the result we obtained using the Planck value. Finstad et al. (2018) uses the luminosity distance from Cantiello et al. (2018) [citation note] as a (Gaussian) prior for an analysis of the gravitational-wave signal, and get a misalignment 32^{+10}_{-13}\pm 2~\mathrm{deg} (where the errors are statistical uncertainty and an estimate of systematic error from calibration of the strain).

Hotokezaka et al. (2018) use the inclination results from Mooley et al. (2018) [citation note] (together with the updated posterior samples from the GW170817 Properties Paper) to infer a value of h = 0.689^{+0.047}_{-0.046} (quoting median and 68% symmetric credible interval). Using different jet models changes their value for the Hubble constant a little; the choice of spin prior does not (since we get basically all of the inclination information from their radio observations). The results is still consistent with Planck and SH0ES, but is closer to the Planck value.

GW170817 Hubble constant with inclination measurements

Posterior probability distribution for the Hubble constant inferred from GW170817 using only gravitational waves (GWs), and folding in models for the power-law jet (PLJ) model and very-long baseline interferometry (VLBI) radio observations. The lines symmetric mark 68% intervals. The coloured bands are measurements from the cosmic microwave background (Planck) and supernovae (SH0ES). Figure 2 of Hotokezaka et al. (2018)

NGC 4993 properties

In the GW170817 Progenitor Paper we used component properties for NGC 4993 from Lim et al. (2017): a stellar mass of (10^{10.454}/h^2) M_\odot and a dark matter halo mass of (10^{12.2}/h) M_\odot, where we use the Planck value of h = 0.679 (but conclusions are similar using the SH0ES value for this).

Blanchard et al. (2017) estimate a stellar mass of about \log(M_\ast/M_\odot) = 10.65^{+0.03}_{-0.03}. They also look at the star formation history, 90% were formed by 6.8^{+2.2}_{-0.8}~\mathrm{Gyr} ago, and the median mass-weighted stellar age is 13.2^{+0.5}_{-0.9}~\mathrm{Gyr}. From this they infer a merger delay time of 6.813.6~\mathrm{Gyr}. From this, and assuming that the system was born close to its current location, they estimate that the supernova kick V_\mathrm{kick} \leq 200~\mathrm{km\,s^{-1}}, towards the lower end of our estimate. They use h = 0.677.

Im et al. (2017) find a mean stellar mass of 0.31.2 \times 10^{11} M_\odot and the mean stellar age is greater than about 3~\mathrm{Gyr}. They also give a luminosity distance estimate of 38.4 \pm 8.9~\mathrm{Mpc}, which overlaps with our gravitational-wave estimate. I’m not sure what value of h they are using.

Levan et al. (2017) suggest a stellar mass of around 1.4 \times 10^{11} M_\odot. They find that 60% of stars by mass are older than 5~\mathrm{Gyr} and that less than 1% are less than 0.5~\mathrm{Gyr} old. Their Figure 5 has some information on likely supernova kicks, they conclude it was probably small, but don’t quantify this. They use h = 0.696.

Pan et al. (2017) find \log(M_\ast/M_\odot) = 10.49^{+0.08}_{-0.20}. They calculate a mass-weighted mean stellar age of 10.97~\mathrm{Gyr} and a likely minimum age for GW170817’s source system of 2.8~\mathrm{Gyr}. They use h = 0.7.

Troja et al. (2017) find a stellar mass of \log(M_\ast/M_\odot) \sim 10.88, and suggest an old stellar population of age > 2~\mathrm{Gyr}.

Ebrová & Bílek (2018) assume a distance of 41.0~\mathrm{kpc} and find a halo mass of 1.939 \times 10^{12} M_\odot. They suggest that NGC 4993 swallowed a smaller late-type galaxy somewhere between 0.2~\mathrm{Gyr} and 1~\mathrm{Gyr} ago, most probably around 0.4~\mathrm{Gyr} ago.

The consensus seems to be that the stellar population is old (and not much else). Fortunately, the conclusions of the GW170817 Progenitor Paper are pretty robust for delay times longer than 1~\mathrm{Gyr} as seems likely.

A couple of other papers look at the distance of the galaxy:

The values are consistent with our gravitational-wave estimates.

The remnant’s fate

We cannot be certain what happened to the merger remnant from gravitational-wave observations alone. However, electromagnetic observations do give some hints here.

Evans et al. (2017) argue that their non-detection of X-rays when observing with Swift and NuSTAR indicates that there is no neutron star remnant at this point, meaning we must have collapsed to form a black hole by 0.6 days post-merger. This isn’t too restricting in terms of the different ways the remnant could collapse, but does exclude a stable neutron star remnant. MAXI also didn’t detect any X-rays 4.6 hours after the merger (Sugita et al. 2018).

Pooley, Kumar & Wheeler (2017) consider X-ray observations of the afterglow. They calculate that if the remnant was a hypermassive neutron star with a large magnetic field, the early (10 day post-merger) luminosity would be much higher (and we could expect to see magnetar outbursts). Therefore, they think it is more likely that the remnant is a black hole.

Kasen et al. (2017) use the observed red component of the kilonova to argue that the remnant must have collapsed to a black hole in < 10~\mathrm{ms}. A neutron star would irradiate the ejecta with neutrinos, lower the neutron fraction and making the ejecta bluer. Since it is red, the neutrino flux must have been shut off, and the neutron star must have collapsed. We are in case b in their figure below.

Kilonova ejecta compoents

Cartoon of the different components of matter ejected from neutron star mergers. Red colours show heavy r-process elements and blue colours light r-process elements. There is a tidal tail of material forming a torus in the orbital plane, roughly spherical winds from the accretion disk, and material squeezed into the polar reasons during the collision. In case a, we have a long-lived neutron star, and its neutrino irradiation leads to blue ejecta. In case b the neutron star collapses, cutting off the neutrino flux. In case c, there is a neutron star–black hole merger, and we don’t have the polar material from the collision. Figure 1 of Kasen et al. (2017); also see Figure 1 of Margalit & Metzger (2017).

Ai et al. (2018) find that there are some corners of parameter space for certain equations of state where a long-lived neutron star is possible, even given the observations. Therefore, we should remain open minded.

Margalit & Metzger (2017) and Bauswein et al. (2017) note that the relatively large amount of ejecta inferred from observations [citation note] is easier to explain when there is delayed (on timescales of > 10~\mathrm{ms}). This is difficult to resolve unless neutron star radii are small (\lesssim 11~\mathrm{km}). Metzger, Thompson & Quataert (2018) derive how this tension could be resolved if the remnant was a rapidly spinning magnetar with a life time of 0.11~\mathrm{s}Matsumoto et al. (2018), suggest that the optical emission is powered by the the jet and material accreting onto the central object, rather than r-process decay, and this permits much smaller amounts of ejecta, which could also solve the issue. Yu & Dai (2017) suggest that accretion onto a long-lived neutron star could power the emission, and would only require a single opacity for the ejecta. Li et al. (2018) put forward a similar theory, arguing that both the high ejecta mass and low opacity are problems for the standard r-process explanation, but fallback onto a neutron star could work. However, Margutti et al. (2018) say that X-ray emission powered by a central engine is disfavoured at all times.

In conclusion, it seems that we ended up with a black hole, and we had an a unstable neutron star for a short time after merger, but I don’t think it’s yet settled how long this was around.

Neutron star equation of state

Several papers have explored what we can deduce about the nature of neutron star stuff™ from gravitational wave or electromagnetic observations the neutron star coalescence. It is quite a tricky problem. Below are some investigations into the radii of neutron stars and their tidal deformations; these seem compatible with the radii inferred in the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper.

Bauswein et al. (2017) argue that the amount of ejecta inferred from the kilonova is too large for there to have been a prompt collapse to a black hole [citation note]. Using this, they estimate that the radius of a non-rotating neutron star of mass 1.6~\mathrm{M_\odot} has a radius of at least 10.68_{-0.04}^{+0.15}~\mathrm{km}. They also estimate that the radius for the maximum mass nonrotating neutron star must be greater than 9.60_{-0.03}^{+0.14}~\mathrm{km}.

Annala et al. (2018) combine our initial measurement of the tidal deformation, with the requirement hat the equation of state supports a 2 M_\odot neutron star (which they argue requires that the tidal deformation of a 1.4 M_\odot neutron star is at least 120). They argue that the latter condition implies that the radius of a 1.4 M_\odot neutron star is at least 9.9~\mathrm{km} and the former that it is less than 13.6~\mathrm{km}.

Radice et al. (2018) combine together observations of the kilonova (the amount of ejecta inferred) with gravitational-wave measurements of the masses to place constraints on the tidal deformation. From their simulations, they argue that to explain the ejecta, the combined dimensionless tidal deformability must be \tilde{\Lambda} > 400. This is consistent with results in the GW170817 Properties Paper, but would eliminate the main peak of the distribution we inferred from gravitational waves alone.

Lim & Holt (2018) perform some equation-of-state calculations. They find that their particular method (chiral effective theory) is already in good agreement with estimates of the maximum neutron star mass and tidal deformations. Which is nice. Using their models, they predict that for GW170817’s chirp mass \tilde{\Lambda} = 532^{+106}_{-119}.

Raithel, Özel & Psaltis (2018) argue that for a given chirp mass,\tilde{\Lambda} is only a weak function of component masses, and depends mostly on the radii. Therefore, from our initial inferred value, they put a 90% upper limit on the radii of 13~\mathrm{km}.

Most et al. (2018) consider a wide range of parametrised equations of state. They consider both hadronic (made up of particles like neutrons and protons) equation of states, and ones where they undergo phase transitions (with hadrons breaking into quarks), which could potentially mean that the two neutron stars have quite different properties. A number of different constraints are imposed, to give a selection of potential radius ranges. Combining the requirement that neutron stars can be up to 20.1 M_\odot (Antoniadis et al. 2013), the maximum neutron star mass of 2.17 M_\odot inferred by Margalit & Metzger (2017), our initial gravitational-wave upper limit on the tidal deformation and the lower limit from Radice et al. (2018), they estimate that the radius of a 1.4 M_\odot neutron star is 12.0013.45~\mathrm{km} for the hadronic equation of state. For the equation of state with the phase transition, they do the same, but without the tidal deformation from Radice et al. (2018), and find the radius of a 1.4 M_\odot neutron star is 8.5313.74~\mathrm{km}.

Paschalidis et al. (2018) consider in more detail the idea equations of state with hadron–quark phase transitions, and the possibility that one of the components of GW170817’s source was a hadron–quark hybrid star. They find that the initial tidal measurements are consistent with this.

Burgio et al. (2018) further explore the possibility that the two binary components have different properties. They consider both there being a hadron–quark phase transition, and also that one star is hardonic and the other is a quark star (made up of deconfined quarks, rather than ones packaged up inside hadrons). X-ray observations indicate that neutron stars have radii in the range 9.911.2~\mathrm{km}, whereas most of the radii inferred for GW170817’s components are larger. This paper argues that this can be resolved if one of the components of GW170817’s source was a hadron–quark hybrid star or a quark star.

De et al. (2018) perform their own analysis of the gravitational signal, with a variety of different priors on the component masses. They assume that the two neutron stars have the same radii. In the GW170817 Equation-of-state Paper we find that the difference can be up to about 2~\mathrm{km}, which I think makes this an OKish approximation; Zhao & Lattimer (2018) look at this in more detail. Within their approximation, they estimate the neutron stars to have a common radius of 8.913.2~\mathrm{km}.

Malik et al. (2018) use the initial gravitational-wave upper bound on tidal deformation and the lower bound from Radice et al. (2018) in combination with several equations of state (calculated using relativistic mean field and of Skyrme Hartree–Fock recipes, which sound delicious). For a 1.4 M_\odot neutron star, they obtain a tidal defomation in the range 344859 and the radius in the range 11.8213.72~\mathrm{km}.

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

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

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


The second observing run (O2) of the advanced gravitational-wave detectors started on 30 November 2016. The first detection came in January—GW170104. I was heavily involved in the analysis and paper writing for this. We finally finished up in June, at which point I was thoroughly exhausted. I took some time off in July [bonus note], and was back at work for August. With just one month left in the observing run, it would all be downhill from here, right?

August turned out to be the lava-filled, super-difficult final level of O2. As we have now announced, on August 14, we detected a binary black hole coalescence—GW170814. This was the first clear detection including Virgo, giving us superb sky localization. This is fantastic for astronomers searching for electromagnetic counterparts to our gravitational-wave signals. There was a flurry of excitement, and we thought that this was a fantastic conclusion to O2. We were wrong, this was just the save point before the final opponent. On August 17, we met the final, fire-ball throwing boss.

At 1:58 pm BST my phone buzzed with a text message, an automated alert of a gravitational-wave trigger. I was obviously excited—I recall that my exact thoughts were “What fresh hell is this?” I checked our online event database and saw that it was a single-detector trigger, it was only seen by our Hanford instrument. I started to relax, this was probably going to turn out to be a glitch. The template masses, were low, in the neutron star range, not like the black holes we’ve been finding. Then I saw the false alarm rate was better than one in 9000 years. Perhaps it wasn’t just some noise after all—even though it’s difficult to estimate false alarm rates accurately online, as especially for single-detector triggers, this was significant! I kept reading. Scrolling down the page there was an external coincident trigger, a gamma-ray burst (GRB 170817A) within a couple of seconds…


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

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

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

Signal and glitch

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

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

Overlapping localizations for GW170817's source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Normalised spectrograms for GW170817

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

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

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

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

Binary neutron star masses

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

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

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

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

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

GW170817 Hubble constant

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

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


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

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

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

Bonus notes

Inbox zero

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

Worst case scenario

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

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

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

Parameter estimation rota

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

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

Especially made

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

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

Nobel medal

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

Going the distance: Mapping host galaxies of LIGO and Virgo sources in three dimensions using local cosmography and targeted follow-up

GW150914 claimed the title of many firsts—it was the first direct observation of gravitational waves, the first observation of a binary black hole system, the first observation of two black holes merging, the first time time we’ve tested general relativity in such extreme conditions… However, there are still many firsts for gravitational-wave astronomy yet to come (hopefully, some to be accompanied by cake). One of the most sought after, is the first is signal to have a clear electromagnetic counterpart—a glow in some part of the spectrum of light (from radio to gamma-rays) that we can observe with telescopes.

Identifying a counterpart is challenging, as it is difficult to accurately localise a gravitational-wave source. electromagnetic observers must cover a large area of sky before any counterparts fade. Then, if something is found, it can be hard to determine if that is from the same source as the gravitational waves, or some thing else…

To help the search, it helps to have as much information as possible about the source. Especially useful is the distance to the source. This can help you plan where to look. For nearby sources, you can cross-reference with galaxy catalogues, and perhaps pick out the biggest galaxies as the most likely locations for the source [bonus note]. Distance can also help plan your observations: you might want to start with regions of the sky where the source would be closer and so easiest to spot, or you may want to prioritise points where it is further and so you’d need to observe longer to detect it (I’m not sure there’s a best strategy, it depends on the telescope and the amount of observing time available). In this paper we describe a method to provide easy-to-use distance information, which could be supplied to observers to help their search for a counterpart.

Going the distance

This work is the first spin-off from the First 2 Years trilogy of papers, which looked a sky localization and parameter estimation for binary neutron stars in the first two observing runs of the advance-detector era. Binary neutron star coalescences are prime candidates for electromagnetic counterparts as we think there should be a bigger an explosion as they merge. I was heavily involved in the last two papers of the trilogy, but this study was led by Leo Singer: I think I mostly annoyed Leo by being a stickler when it came to writing up the results.

3D localization with the two LIGO detectors

Three-dimensional localization showing the 20%, 50%, and 90% credible levels for a typical two-detector early Advanced LIGO event. The Earth is shown at the centre, marked by \oplus. The true location is marked by the cross. Leo poetically described this as looking like the seeds of the jacaranda tree, and less poetically as potato chips. Figure 1 of Singer et al. (2016).

The idea is to provide a convenient means of sharing a 3D localization for a gravitational wave source. The full probability distribution is rather complicated, but it can be made more manageable if you break it up into pixels on the sky. Since astronomers need to decide where to point their telescopes, breaking up the 3D information along different lines of sight, should be useful for them.

Each pixel covers a small region of the sky, and along each line of sight, the probability distribution for distance D can be approximated using an ansatz

\displaystyle p(D|\mathrm{data}) \propto D^2\exp\left[-\frac{(D - \mu)^2}{2\sigma}\right],

where \mu and \sigma are calculated for each pixel individually.  The form of this ansatz can be understood as the posterior probability distribution is proportional to the product of the prior and the likelihood. Our prior is that sources are uniformly distributed in volume, which means \propto D^2, and the likelihood can often be well approximated as a Gaussian distribution, which gives the other piece [bonus note].

The ansatz doesn’t always fit perfectly, but it performs well on average. Considering the catalogue of binary neutron star signals used in the earlier papers, we find that roughly 50% of the time sources are found within the 50% credible volume, 90% are found in the 90% volume, etc. We looked at a more sophisticated means of constructing the localization volume in a companion paper.

The 3D localization is easy to calculate, and Leo has worked out a cunning way to evaluate the ansatz with BAYESTAR, our rapid sky-localization code, meaning that we can produce it on minute time-scales. This means that observers should have something to work with straight-away, even if we’ll need to wait a while for the full, final results. We hope that this will improve prospects for finding counterparts—some potential examples are sketched out in the penultimate section of the paper.

If you are interested in trying out the 3D information, there is a data release and the supplement contains a handy Python tutorial. We are hoping that the Collaboration will use the format for alerts for LIGO and Virgo’s upcoming observing run (O2).

arXiv: 1603.07333 [astro-ph.HE]; 1605.04242 [astro-ph.IM]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 829(1):L15(7); 2016; Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series; 226(1):10(8); 2016
Data release: Going the distance
Favourite crisp flavour: Salt & vinegar
Favourite jacaranda: Jacaranda mimosifolia

Bonus notes

Catalogue shopping

The Event’s source has a luminosity distance of around 250–570 Mpc. This is sufficiently distant that galaxy catalogues are incomplete and not much use when it comes to searching. GW151226 and LVT151012 have similar problems, being at around the same distance or even further.

The gravitational-wave likelihood

For the professionals interested in understanding more about the shape of the likelihood, I’d recommend Cutler & Flanagan (1994). This is a fantastic paper which contains many clever things [bonus bonus note]. This work is really the foundation of gravitational-wave parameter estimation. From it, you can see how the likelihood can be approximated as a Gaussian. The uncertainty can then be evaluated using Fisher matrices. Many studies have been done using Fisher matrices, but it important to check that this is a valid approximation, as nicely explained in Vallisneri (2008). I ran into a case when it didn’t during my PhD.


As a reminder that smart people make mistakes, Cutler & Flanagan have a typo in the title of arXiv posting of their paper. This is probably the most important thing to take away from this paper.

Search for transient gravitational waves in coincidence with short-duration radio transients during 2007–2013

Gravitational waves give us a new way of observing the Universe. This raises the possibility of multimessenger astronomy, where we study the same system using different methods: gravitational waves, light or neutrinos. Each messenger carries different information, so by using them together we can build up a more complete picture of what’s going on. This paper looks for gravitational waves that coincide with radio bursts. None are found, but we now have a template for how to search in the future.

On a dark night, there are two things which almost everyone will have done: wondered at the beauty of the starry sky and wondered exactly what was it that just went bump… Astronomers do both. Transient astronomy is about figuring out what are the things which go bang in the night—not the things which make suspicious noises, but objects which appear (and usually disappear) suddenly in the sky.

Most processes in astrophysics take a looooong time (our Sun is four-and-a-half billion years old and is just approaching middle age). Therefore, when something happens suddenly, flaring perhaps over just a few seconds, you know that something drastic must be happening! We think that most transients must be tied up with a violent event such as an explosion. However, because transients are so short, it can difficult to figure out exactly where they come from (both because they might have faded by the time you look, and because there’s little information to learn from a blip in the first place).

Radio transients are bursts of radio emission of uncertain origin. We’ve managed to figure out that some come from microwave ovens, but the rest do seem to come from space. This paper looks at two types: rotating radio transients (RRATs) and fast radio bursts (FRBs). RRATs look like the signals from pulsars, except that they don’t have the characteristic period pattern of pulsars. It may be that RRATs come from dying pulsars, flickering before they finally switch off, or it may be that they come from neutron stars which are not normally pulsars, but have been excited by a fracturing of their crust (a starquake). FRBs last a few milliseconds, they could be generated when two neutron stars merge and collapse to form a black hole, or perhaps from a highly-magnetised neutron star. Normally, when astronomers start talking about magnetic fields, it means that we really don’t know what’s going on [bonus note]. That is the case here. We don’t know what causes radio transients, but we are excited to try figuring it out.

This paper searches old LIGO, Virgo and GEO data for any gravitational-wave signals that coincide with observed radio transients. We use a catalogue of RRATs and FRBs from the Green Bank Telescope and the Parkes Observatory, and search around these times. We use a burst search, which doesn’t restrict itself to any particular form of gravitational-wave; however, the search was tuned for damped sinusoids and sine–Gaussians (generic wibbles), cosmic strings (which may give an indication of how uncertain we are of where radio transients could come from), and coalescences of binary neutron stars or neutron star–black hole binaries. Hopefully the search covers all plausible options. Discovering a gravitational wave coincident with a radio transient would give us much welcomed information about the source, and perhaps pin down their origin.

Results from search for gravitational waves conicident with radio transients

Search results for gravitational waves coincident with radio transients. The probabilities for each time containing just noise (blue) match the expected background distribution (dashed). This is consistent with a non-detection.

The search discovered nothing. Results match what we would expect from just noise in the detectors. This is not too surprising since we are using data from the first-generation detectors. We’ll be repeating the analysis with the upgraded detectors, which can find signals from larger distances. If we are lucky, multimessenger astronomy will allow us to figure out exactly what needs to go bump to create a radio transient.

arXiv: 1605.01707 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122008(14); 2016
Science summary: Searching for gravitational wave bursts in coincidence with short duration radio bursts
Favourite thing that goes bump in the night: Heffalumps and Woozles [probably not the cause of radio transients]

Bonus note

Magnetism and astrophysics

Magnetic fields complicate calculations. They make things more difficult to model and are therefore often left out. However, we know that magnetic fields are everywhere and that they do play important roles in many situations. Therefore, they are often invoked as an explanation of why models can’t explain what’s going on. I learnt early in my PhD that you could ask “What about magnetic fields?” at the end of almost any astrophysics seminar (it might not work for some observational talks, but then you could usually ask “What about dust?” instead). Handy if ever you fall asleep…

Prospects for observing and localizing gravitational-wave transients with Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo

The week beginning February 8th was a big one for the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. You might remember something about a few papers on the merger of a couple of black holes; however, those weren’t the only papers we published that week. In fact, they are not even (currently) the most cited

Prospects for Observing and Localizing Gravitational-Wave Transients with Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo is known within the Collaboration as the Observing Scenarios Document. It has a couple of interesting aspects

  • Its content is a mix of a schedule for detector commissioning and an explanation of data analysis. It is a rare paper that spans both the instrumental and data-analysis sides of the Collaboration.
  • It is a living review: it is intended to be periodically updated as we get new information.

There is also one further point of interest for me: I was heavily involved in producing this latest version.

In this post I’m going to give an outline of the paper’s content, but delve a little deeper into the story of how this paper made it to print.

The Observing Scenarios

The paper is divided up into four sections.

  1. It opens, as is traditional, with the introduction. This has no mentions of windows, which is a good start.
  2. Section 2 is the instrumental bit. Here we give a possible timeline for the commissioning of the LIGO and Virgo detectors and a plausible schedule for our observing runs.
  3. Next we talk about data analysis for transient (short) gravitational waves. We discuss detection and then sky localization.
  4. Finally, we bring everything together to give an estimate of how well we expect to be able to locate the sources of gravitational-wave signals as time goes on.

Packaged up, the paper is useful if you want to know when LIGO and Virgo might be observing or if you want to know how we locate the source of a signal on the sky. The aim was to provide a guide for those interested in multimessenger astronomy—astronomy where you rely on multiple types of signals like electromagnetic radiation (light, radio, X-rays, etc.), gravitational waves, neutrinos or cosmic rays.

The development of the detectors’ sensitivity is shown below. It takes many years of tweaking and optimising to reach design sensitivity, but we don’t wait until then to do some science. It’s just as important to practise running the instruments and analysing the data as it is to improve the sensitivity. Therefore, we have a series of observing runs at progressively higher sensitivity. Our first observing run (O1), featured just the two LIGO detectors, which were towards the better end of the expected sensitivity.

Possible advanced detector sensitivity

Plausible evolution of the Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo detectors with time. The lower the sensitivity curve, the further away we can detect sources. The distances quoted are ranges we could observe binary neutrons stars (BNSs) to. The BNS-optimized curve is a proposal to tweak the detectors for finding BNSs. Fig. 1 of the Observing Scenarios Document.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how the detectors will progress (we’re doing many things for the first time ever), but the plot above shows our current best plan.

I’ll not go into any more details about the science in the paper as I’ve already used up my best ideas writing the LIGO science summary.

If you’re particularly interested in sky localization, you might like to check out the data releases for studies using (simulated) binary neutron star and burst signals. The binary neutron star analysis is similar to that we do for any compact binary coalescence (the merger of a binary containing neutron stars or black holes), and the burst analysis works more generally as it doesn’t require a template for the expected signal.

The path to publication

Now, this is the story of how a Collaboration paper got published. I’d like to take a minute to tell you how I became responsible for updating the Observing Scenarios…

In the beginning

The Observing Scenarios has its origins long before I joined the Collaboration. The first version of the document I can find is from July 2012. Amongst the labyrinth of internal wiki pages we have, the earliest reference I’ve uncovered was from August 2012 (the plan was to have a mature draft by September). The aim was to give a road map for the advanced-detector era, so the wider astronomical community would know what to expect.

I imagine it took a huge effort to bring together all the necessary experts from across the Collaboration to sit down and write the document.

Any document detailing our plans would need to be updated regularly as we get a better understanding of our progress on commissioning the detectors (and perhaps understanding what signals we will see). Fortunately, there is a journal that can cope with just that: Living Reviews in Relativity. Living Reviews is designed so that authors can update their articles so that they never become (too) out-of-date.

A version was submitted to Living Reviews early in 2013, around the same time as a version was posted to the arXiv. We had referee reports (from two referees), and were preparing to resubmit. Unfortunately, Living Reviews suspended operations before we could. However, work continued.

Updating sky localization

I joined the LIGO Scientific Collaboration when I started at the University of Birmingham in October 2013. I soon became involved in a variety of activities of the Parameter Estimation group (my boss, Alberto Vecchio, is the chair of the group).

Sky localization was a particularly active area as we prepared for the first runs of Advanced LIGO. The original version of the Observing Scenarios Document used a simple approximate means of estimating sky localization, using just timing triangulation (it didn’t even give numbers for when we only had two detectors running). We knew we could do better.

We had all the code developed, but we needed numbers for a realistic population of signals. I was one of the people who helped running the analyses to get these. We had the results by the summer of 2014; we now needed someone to write up the results. I have a distinct recollection of there being silence on our weekly teleconference. Then Alberto asked me if I would do it? I said yes: it would probably only take me a week or two to write a short technical note.

Saying yes is a slippery slope.

That note became Parameter estimation for binary neutron-star coalescences with realistic noise during the Advanced LIGO era, a 24-page paper (it considers more than just sky localization).

Numbers in hand, it was time to update the Observing Scenarios. Even if things were currently on hold with Living Reviews, we could still update the arXiv version. I thought it would be easiest if I put them in, with a little explanation, myself. I compiled a draft and circulated in the Parameter Estimation group. Then it was time to present to the Data Analysis Council.

The Data Analysis Council either sounds like a shadowy organisation orchestrating things from behind the scene, or a place where people bicker over trivial technical issues. In reality it is a little of both. This is the body that should coordinate all the various bits of analysis done by the Collaboration, and they have responsibility for the Observing Scenarios Document. I presented my update on the last call before Christmas 2014. They were generally happy, but said that the sky localization on the burst side needed updating too! There was once again a silence on the call when it came to the question of who would finish off the document. The Observing Scenarios became my responsibility.

(I had though that if I helped out with this Collaboration paper, I could take the next 900 off. This hasn’t worked out.)

The review

With some help from the Burst group (in particular Reed Essick, who had lead their sky localization study), I soon had a new version with fully up-to-date sky localization. This was ready for our March Collaboration meeting. I didn’t go (I was saving my travel budget for the summer), so Alberto presented on my behalf. It was now agreed that the document should go through internal review.

It’s this which I really want to write about. Peer review is central to modern science. New results are always discussed by experts in the community, to try to understand the value of the work; however, peer review is formalised in the refereeing of journal articles, when one or more (usually anonymous) experts examine work before it can be published. There are many ups and down with this… For Collaboration papers, we want to be sure that things are right before we share them publicly. We go through internal peer review. In my opinion this is much more thorough than journal review, and this shows how seriously the Collaboration take their science.

Unfortunately, setting up the review was also where we hit a hurdle—it took until July. I’m not entirely sure why there was a delay: I suspect it was partly because everyone was busy assembling things ahead of O1 and partly because there were various discussions amongst the high-level management about what exactly we should be aiming for. Working as part of a large collaboration can mean that you get to be involved in wonderful science, but it can means lots of bureaucracy and politics. However, in the intervening time, Living Reviews was back in operation.

The review team consisted of five senior people, each of whom had easily five times as much experience as I do, with expertise in each of the areas covered in the document. The chair of the review was Alan Weinstein, head of the Caltech LIGO Laboratory Astrophysics Group, who has an excellent eye for detail. Our aim was to produce the update for the start of O1 in September. (Spolier: We didn’t make it)

The review team discussed things amongst themselves and I got the first comments at the end of August. The consensus was that we should not just update the sky localization, but update everything too (including the structure of the document). This precipitated a flurry of conversations with the people who organise the schedules for the detectors, those who liaise with our partner astronomers on electromagnetic follow-up, and everyone who does sky localization. I was initially depressed that we wouldn’t make our start of O1 deadline; however, then something happened that altered my perspective.

On September 14, four days before the official start of O1, we made a detection. GW150914 would change everything.

First, we could no longer claim that binary neutron stars were expected to be our most common source—instead they became the source we expect would most commonly have an electromagnetic counterpart.

Second, we needed to be careful how we described engineering runs. GW150914 occurred in our final engineering run (ER8). Practically, there was difference between the state of the detector then and in O1. The point of the final engineering run was to get everything running smoothly so all we needed to do at the official start of O1 was open the champagne. However, we couldn’t make any claims about being able to make detections during engineering runs without being krass and letting the cat out of the bag. I’m rather pleased with the sentence

Engineering runs in the commissioning phase allow us to understand our detectors and analyses in an observational mode; these are not intended to produce astrophysical results, but that does not preclude the possibility of this happening.

I don’t know if anyone noticed the implication. (Checking my notes, this was in the September 18 draft, which shows how quickly we realised the possible significance of The Event).

Finally, since the start of observations proved to be interesting, and because the detectors were running so smoothly, it was decided to extend O1 from three months to four so that it would finish in January. No commissioning was going to be done over the holidays, so it wouldn’t affect the schedule. I’m not sure how happy the people who run the detectors were about working over this period, but they agreed to the plan. (No-one asked if we would be happy to run parameter estimation over the holidays).

After half-a-dozen drafts, the review team were finally happy with the document. It was now October 20, and time to proceed to the next step of review: circulation to the Collaboration.

Collaboration papers go through a sequence of stages. First they are circulated to the everyone for comments. This can be pointing out typos, suggesting references or asking questions about the analysis. This lasts two weeks. During this time, the results must also be presented on a Collaboration-wide teleconference. After comments are addressed, the paper is sent for examination Executive Committees of the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. After approval from them (and the review team check any changes), the paper is circulated to the Collaboration again for any last comments and checking of the author list. At the same time it is sent to the Gravitational Wave International Committee, a group of all the collaborations interested in gravitational waves. This final stage is a week. Then you can you can submit the paper.

Peer review for the journal doesn’t seem to arduous in comparison does it?

Since things were rather busy with all the analysis of GW150914, the Observing Scenario took a little longer than usual to clear all these hoops. I presented to the Collaboration on Friday 13 November. (This was rather unlucky as I was at a workshop in Italy and I had to miss the tour of the underground Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso). After addressing comments from everyone (the Executive Committees do read things carefully), I got the final sign-off to submit December 21. At least we made it before the end of O1.

Good things come…

This may sound like a tale of frustration and delay. However, I hope that it is more than that, and it shows how careful the Collaboration is. The Observing Scenarios is really a review: it doesn’t contain new science. The updated sky localization results are from studies which have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, and are based upon codes that have been separately reviewed. Despite this, every statement was examined and every number checked and rechecked, and every member of the Collaboration had opportunity to examine the results and comment on the document.

I guess this attention to detail isn’t surprising given that our work is based on measuring a change in length of one part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Since this is how we treat review articles, can you imagine how much scrutiny the Discovery Paper had? Everything had at least one extra layer of review, every number had to be signed-off individually by the appropriate review team, and there were so many comments on the paper that the editors had to switch to using a ticketing system we normally use for tracking bugs in our software. This level of oversight helped me to sleep a little more easily: there are six numbers in the abstract alone I could have potentially messed up.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean we can’t make mistakes…

Looking forward

The Living Reviews version was accepted January 22, just after the end of O1. We made had to make a couple of tweaks to correct tenses. The final version appeared February 8, in time to be the last paper of the pre-discovery era.

It is now time to be thinking about the next update! There are certainly a few things on the to-do list (perhaps even some news on LIGO-India). We are having a Collaboration meeting in a couple of weeks’ time, so hopefully I can start talking to people about it then. Perhaps it’ll be done by the start of O2? [update]


arXiv: 1304.0670 [gr-qc]
Journal: Living Reviews In Relativity; 19:1(39); 2016
Science summary: Planning for a Bright Tomorrow: Prospects for Gravitational-wave Astronomy with Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo
Bonus fact:
 This is the only paper whose arXiv ID I know by heart [update].

arXiv IDs

Papers whose arXiv numbers I know by heart are: 1304.0670, 1602.03840 (I count to other GW150914 companion papers from here), 1606.04856 and 1706.01812. These might tell you something about my reading habits.

The next version

Despite aiming for the start of O2, the next version wasn’t ready for submission until just after the end of O2, in September 2017. It was finally published (after an excpetionally long time in type-setting) in April 2018.

GW150914—The papers

In 2015 I made a resolution to write a blog post for each paper I had published. In 2016 I’ll have to break this because there are too many to keep up with. A suite of papers were prepared to accompany the announcement of the detection of GW150914 [bonus note], and in this post I’ll give an overview of these.

The papers

As well as the Discovery Paper published in Physical Review Letters [bonus note], there are 12 companion papers. All the papers are listed below in order of arXiv posting. My favourite is the Parameter Estimation Paper.

Subsequently, we have produced additional papers on GW150914, describing work that wasn’t finished in time for the announcement.

0. The Discovery Paper

Title: Observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger
 1602.03837 [gr-qc]
 Physical Review Letters; 116(6):061102(16); 2016
LIGO science summary:
 Observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger

This is the central paper that announces the observation of gravitational waves. There are three discoveries which are describe here: (i) the direct detection of gravitational waves, (ii) the existence of stellar-mass binary black holes, and (iii) that the black holes and gravitational waves are consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. That’s not too shabby in under 11 pages (if you exclude the author list). Coming 100 years after Einstein first published his prediction of gravitational waves and Schwarzschild published his black hole solution, this is the perfect birthday present.

More details: The Discovery Paper summary

1. The Detector Paper

Title: GW150914: The Advanced LIGO detectors in the era of first discoveries
 1602.03838 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(13):131103(12); 2016
LIGO science summary: GW150914: The Advanced LIGO detectors in the era of the first discoveries

This paper gives a short summary of how the LIGO detectors work and their configuration in O1 (see the Advanced LIGO paper for the full design). Giant lasers and tiny measurements, the experimentalists do some cool things (even if their paper titles are a little cheesy and they seem to be allergic to error bars).

More details: The Detector Paper summary

2. The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper

Title: GW150914: First results from the search for binary black hole coalescence with Advanced LIGO
 1602.03839 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122003(21); 2016
LIGO science summary: How we searched for merging black holes and found GW150914

Here we explain how we search for binary black holes and calculate the significance of potential candidates. This is the evidence to back up (i) in the Discovery Paper. We can potentially detect binary black holes in two ways: with searches that use templates, or with searches that look for coherent signals in both detectors without assuming a particular shape. The first type is also used for neutron star–black hole or binary neutron star coalescences, collectively known as compact binary coalescences. This type of search is described here, while the other type is described in the Burst Paper.

This paper describes the compact binary coalescence search pipelines and their results. As well as GW150914 there is also another interesting event, LVT151012. This isn’t significant enough to be claimed as a detection, but it is worth considering in more detail.

More details: The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper summary

3. The Parameter Estimation Paper

Title: Properties of the binary black hole merger GW150914
 1602.03840 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(24):241102(19); 2016
LIGO science summary: The first measurement of a black hole merger and what it means

If you’re interested in the properties of the binary black hole system, then this is the paper for you! Here we explain how we do parameter estimation and how it is possible to extract masses, spins, location, etc. from the signal. These are the results I’ve been most heavily involved with, so I hope lots of people will find them useful! This is the paper to cite if you’re using our best masses, spins, distance or sky maps. The masses we infer are so large we conclude that the system must contain black holes, which is discovery (ii) reported in the Discovery Paper.

More details: The Parameter Estimation Paper summary

4. The Testing General Relativity Paper

Title: Tests of general relativity with GW150914
 1602.03841 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(22):221101(19); 2016
LIGO science summary:
 Was Einstein right about strong gravity?

The observation of GW150914 provides a new insight into the behaviour of gravity. We have never before probed such strong gravitational fields or such highly dynamical spacetime. These are the sorts of places you might imagine that we could start to see deviations from the predictions of general relativity. Aside from checking that we understand gravity, we also need to check to see if there is any evidence that our estimated parameters for the system could be off. We find that everything is consistent with general relativity, which is good for Einstein and is also discovery (iii) in the Discovery Paper.

More details: The Testing General Relativity Paper summary

5. The Rates Paper

Title: The rate of binary black hole mergers inferred from Advanced LIGO observations surrounding GW150914
 1602.03842 [astro-ph.HE]1606.03939 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 833(1):L1(8); 2016; Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series; 227(2):14(11); 2016
LIGO science summary: The first measurement of a black hole merger and what it means

Given that we’ve spotted one binary black hole (plus maybe another with LVT151012), how many more are out there and how many more should we expect to find? We answer this here, although there’s a large uncertainty on the estimates since we don’t know (yet) the distribution of masses for binary black holes.

More details: The Rates Paper summary

6. The Burst Paper

Title: Observing gravitational-wave transient GW150914 with minimal assumptions
arXiv: 1602.03843 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122004(20); 2016

What can you learn about GW150914 without having to make the assumptions that it corresponds to gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger (as predicted by general relativity)? This paper describes and presents the results of the burst searches. Since the pipeline which first found GW150914 was a burst pipeline, it seems a little unfair that this paper comes after the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper, but I guess the idea is to first present results assuming it is a binary (since these are tightest) and then see how things change if you relax the assumptions. The waveforms reconstructed by the burst models do match the templates for a binary black hole coalescence.

More details: The Burst Paper summary

7. The Detector Characterisation Paper

Title: Characterization of transient noise in Advanced LIGO relevant to gravitational wave signal GW150914
arXiv: 1602.03844 [gr-qc]
Journal: Classical & Quantum Gravity; 33(13):134001(34); 2016
LIGO science summary:
How do we know GW150914 was real? Vetting a Gravitational Wave Signal of Astrophysical Origin
CQG+ post: How do we know LIGO detected gravitational waves? [featuring awesome cartoons]

Could GW150914 be caused by something other than a gravitational wave: are there sources of noise that could mimic a signal, or ways that the detector could be disturbed to produce something that would be mistaken for a detection? This paper looks at these problems and details all the ways we monitor the detectors and the external environment. We can find nothing that can explain GW150914 (and LVT151012) other than either a gravitational wave or a really lucky random noise fluctuation. I think this paper is extremely important to our ability to claim a detection and I’m surprised it’s not number 2 in the list of companion papers. If you want to know how thorough the Collaboration is in monitoring the detectors, this is the paper for you.

More details: The Detector Characterisation Paper summary

8. The Calibration Paper

Title: Calibration of the Advanced LIGO detectors for the discovery of the binary black-hole merger GW150914
 1602.03845 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 95(6):062003(16); 2017
LIGO science summary:
 Calibration of the Advanced LIGO detectors for the discovery of the binary black-hole merger GW150914

Completing the triumvirate of instrumental papers with the Detector Paper and the Detector Characterisation Paper, this paper describes how the LIGO detectors are calibrated. There are some cunning control mechanisms involved in operating the interferometers, and we need to understand these to quantify how they effect what we measure. Building a better model for calibration uncertainties is high on the to-do list for improving parameter estimation, so this is an interesting area to watch for me.

More details: The Calibration Paper summary

9. The Astrophysics Paper

Title: Astrophysical implications of the binary black-hole merger GW150914
 1602.03846 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 818(2):L22(15); 2016
LIGO science summary:
 The first measurement of a black hole merger and what it means

Having estimated source parameters and rate of mergers, what can we say about astrophysics? This paper reviews results related to binary black holes to put our findings in context and also makes statements about what we could hope to learn in the future.

More details: The Astrophysics Paper summary

10. The Stochastic Paper

Title: GW150914: Implications for the stochastic gravitational wave background from binary black holes
 1602.03847 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(13):131102(12); 2016
LIGO science summary: Background of gravitational waves expected from binary black hole events like GW150914

For every loud signal we detect, we expect that there will be many more quiet ones. This paper considers how many quiet binary black hole signals could add up to form a stochastic background. We may be able to see this background as the detectors are upgraded, so we should start thinking about what to do to identify it and learn from it.

More details: The Stochastic Paper summary

11. The Neutrino Paper

Title: High-energy neutrino follow-up search of gravitational wave event GW150914 with ANTARES and IceCube
 1602.05411 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122010(15); 2016
LIGO science summary: Search for neutrinos from merging black holes

We are interested so see if there’s any other signal that coincides with a gravitational wave signal. We wouldn’t expect something to accompany a black hole merger, but it’s good to check. This paper describes the search for high-energy neutrinos. We didn’t find anything, but perhaps we will in the future (perhaps for a binary neutron star merger).

More details: The Neutrino Paper summary

12. The Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper

Title: Localization and broadband follow-up of the gravitational-wave transient GW150914
arXiv: 1602.08492 [astro-ph.HE]; 1604.07864 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 826(1):L13(8); 2016; Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series; 225(1):8(15); 2016

As well as looking for coincident neutrinos, we are also interested in electromagnetic observations (gamma-ray, X-ray, optical, infra-red or radio). We had a large group of observers interesting in following up on gravitational wave triggers, and 25 teams have reported observations. This companion describes the procedure for follow-up observations and discusses sky localisation.

This work split into a main article and a supplement which goes into more technical details.

More details: The Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper summary

The Discovery Paper

Synopsis: Discovery Paper
Read this if: You want an overview of The Event
Favourite part: The entire conclusion:

The LIGO detectors have observed gravitational waves from the merger of two stellar-mass black holes. The detected waveform matches the predictions of general relativity for the inspiral and merger of a pair of black holes and the ringdown of the resulting single black hole. These observations demonstrate the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems. This is the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger.

The Discovery Paper gives the key science results and is remarkably well written. It seems a shame to summarise it: you should read it for yourself! (It’s free).

The Detector Paper

Synopsis: Detector Paper
Read this if: You want a brief description of the detector configuration for O1
Favourite part: It’s short!

The LIGO detectors contain lots of cool pieces of physics. This paper briefly outlines them all: the mirror suspensions, the vacuum (the LIGO arms are the largest vacuum envelopes in the world and some of the cleanest), the mirror coatings, the laser optics and the control systems. A full description is given in the Advanced LIGO paper, but the specs there are for design sensitivity (it is also heavy reading). The main difference between the current configuration and that for design sensitivity is the laser power. Currently the circulating power in the arms is 100~\mathrm{kW}, the plan is to go up to 750~\mathrm{kW}. This will reduce shot noise, but raises all sorts of control issues, such as how to avoid parametric instabilities.

Noise curves

The noise amplitude spectral density. The curves for the current observations are shown in red (dark for Hanford, light for Livingston). This is around a factor 3 better than in the final run of initial LIGO (green), but still a factor of 3 off design sensitivity (dark blue). The light blue curve shows the impact of potential future upgrades. The improvement at low frequencies is especially useful for high-mass systems like GW150914. Part of Fig. 1 of the Detector Paper.

The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper

Synopsis: Compact Binary Coalescence Paper
Read this if: You are interested in detection significance or in LVT151012
Favourite part: We might have found a second binary black hole merger

There are two compact binary coalescence searches that look for binary black holes: PyCBC and GstLAL. Both match templates to the data from the detectors to look for anything binary like, they then calculate the probability that such a match would happen by chance due to a random noise fluctuation (the false alarm probability or p-value [unhappy bonus note]). The false alarm probability isn’t the probability that there is a gravitational wave, but gives a good indication of how surprised we should be to find this signal if there wasn’t one. Here we report the results of both pipelines on the first 38.6 days of data (about 17 days where both detectors were working at the same time).

Both searches use the same set of templates to look for binary black holes [bonus note]. They look for where the same template matches the data from both detectors within a time interval consistent with the travel time between the two. However, the two searches rank candidate events and calculate false alarm probabilities using different methods. Basically, both searches use a detection statistic (the quantity used to rank candidates: higher means less likely to be noise), that is based on the signal-to-noise ratio (how loud the signal is) and a goodness-of-fit statistic. They assess the significance of a particular value of this detection statistic by calculating how frequently this would be obtained if there was just random noise (this is done by comparing data from the two detectors when there is not a coincident trigger in both). Consistency between the two searches gives us greater confidence in the results.

PyCBC’s detection statistic is a reweighted signal-to-noise ratio \hat{\rho}_c which takes into account the consistency of the signal in different frequency bands. You can get a large signal-to-noise ratio from a loud glitch, but this doesn’t match the template across a range of frequencies, which is why this test is useful. The consistency is quantified by a reduced chi-squared statistic. This is used, depending on its value, to weight the signal-to-noise ratio. When it is large (indicating inconsistency across frequency bins), the reweighted signal-to-noise ratio becomes smaller.

To calculate the background, PyCBC uses time slides. Data from the two detectors are shifted in time so that any coincidences can’t be due to a real gravitational wave. Seeing how often you get something signal-like then tells you how often you’d expect this to happen due to random noise.

GstLAL calculates the signal-to-noise ratio and a residual after subtracting the template. As a detection statistic, it uses a likelihood ratio \mathcal{L}: the probability of finding the particular values of the signal-to-noise ratio and residual in both detectors for signals (assuming signal sources are uniformly distributed isotropically in space), divided by the probability of finding them for noise.

The background from GstLAL is worked out by looking at the likelihood ratio fro triggers that only appear in one detector. Since there’s no coincident signal in the other, these triggers can’t correspond to a real gravitational wave. Looking at their distribution tells you how frequently such things happen due to noise, and hence how probable it is for both detectors to see something signal-like at the same time.

The results of the searches are shown in the figure below.

Search results for GW150914

Search results for PyCBC (left) and GstLAL (right). The histograms show the number of candidate events (orange squares) compare to the background. The black line includes GW150914 in the background estimate, the purple removes it (assuming that it is a signal). The further an orange square is above the lines, the more significant it is. Particle physicists like to quote significance in terms of \sigma and for some reason we’ve copied them. The second most significant event (around 2\sigma) is LVT151012. Fig. 7 from the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper.

GW150914 is the most significant event in both searches (it is the most significant PyCBC event even considering just single-detector triggers). They both find GW150914 with the same template values. The significance is literally off the charts. PyCBC can only calculate an upper bound on the false alarm probability of < 2 \times 10^{-7}. GstLAL calculates a false alarm probability of 1.4 \times 10^{-11}, but this is reaching the level that we have to worry about the accuracy of assumptions that go into this (that the distribution of noise triggers in uniform across templates—if this is not the case, the false alarm probability could be about 10^3 times larger). Therefore, for our overall result, we stick to the upper bound, which is consistent with both searches. The false alarm probability is so tiny, I don't think anyone doubts this signal is real.

There is a second event that pops up above the background. This is LVT151012. It is found by both searches. Its signal-to-noise ratio is 9.6, compared with GW150914’s 24, so it is quiet. The false alarm probability from PyCBC is 0.02, and from GstLAL is 0.05, consistent with what we would expect for such a signal. LVT151012 does not reach the standards we would like to claim a detection, but it is still interesting.

Running parameter estimation on LVT151012, as we did for GW150914, gives beautiful results. If it is astrophysical in origin, it is another binary black hole merger. The component masses are lower, m_1^\mathrm{source} = 23^{+18}_{-5} M_\odot and m_2^\mathrm{source} 13^{+4}_{-5} M_\odot (the asymmetric uncertainties come from imposing m_1^\mathrm{source} \geq m_2^\mathrm{source}); the chirp mass is \mathcal{M} = 15^{+1}_{-1} M_\odot. The effective spin, as for GW150914, is close to zero \chi_\mathrm{eff} = 0.0^{+0.3}_{-0.2}. The luminosity distance is D_\mathrm{L} = 1100^{+500}_{-500}~\mathrm{Mpc}, meaning it is about twice as far away as GW150914’s source. I hope we’ll write more about this event in the future; there are some more details in the Rates Paper.

Trust LIGO

Is it random noise or is it a gravitational wave? LVT151012 remains a mystery. This candidate event is discussed in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper (where it is found), the Rates Paper (which calculates the probability that it is extraterrestrial in origin), and the Detector Characterisation Paper (where known environmental sources fail to explain it).

The Parameter Estimation Paper

Synopsis: Parameter Estimation Paper
Read this if: You want to know the properties of GW150914’s source
Favourite part: We inferred the properties of black holes using measurements of spacetime itself!

The gravitational wave signal encodes all sorts of information about its source. Here, we explain how we extract this information  to produce probability distributions for the source parameters. I wrote about the properties of GW150914 in my previous post, so here I’ll go into a few more technical details.

To measure parameters we match a template waveform to the data from the two instruments. The better the fit, the more likely it is that the source had the particular parameters which were used to generate that particular template. Changing different parameters has different effects on the waveform (for example, changing the distance changes the amplitude, while changing the relative arrival times changes the sky position), so we often talk about different pieces of the waveform containing different pieces of information, even though we fit the whole lot at once.

Waveform explained

The shape of the gravitational wave encodes the properties of the source. This information is what lets us infer parameters. The example signal is GW150914. I made this explainer with Ban Farr and Nutsinee Kijbunchoo for the LIGO Magazine.

The waveform for a binary black hole merger has three fuzzily defined parts: the inspiral (where the two black holes orbit each other), the merger (where the black holes plunge together and form a single black hole) and ringdown (where the final black hole relaxes to its final state). Having waveforms which include all of these stages is a fairly recent development, and we’re still working on efficient ways of including all the effects of the spin of the initial black holes.

We currently have two favourite binary black hole waveforms for parameter estimation:

  • The first we refer to as EOBNR, short for its proper name of SEOBNRv2_ROM_DoubleSpin. This is constructed by using some cunning analytic techniques to calculate the dynamics (known as effective-one-body or EOB) and tuning the results to match numerical relativity (NR) simulations. This waveform only includes the effects of spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum of the binary, so it doesn’t allow us to measure the effects of precession (wobbling around caused by the spins).
  • The second we refer to as IMRPhenom, short for IMRPhenomPv2. This is constructed by fitting to the frequency dependence of EOB and NR waveforms. The dominant effects of precession of included by twisting up the waveform.

We’re currently working on results using a waveform that includes the full effects of spin, but that is extremely slow (it’s about half done now), so those results won’t be out for a while.

The results from the two waveforms agree really well, even though they’ve been created by different teams using different pieces of physics. This was a huge relief when I was first making a comparison of results! (We had been worried about systematic errors from waveform modelling). The consistency of results is partly because our models have improved and partly because the properties of the source are such that the remaining differences aren’t important. We’re quite confident that we’ve most of the parameters are reliably measured!

The component masses are the most important factor for controlling the evolution of the waveform, but we don’t measure the two masses independently.  The evolution of the inspiral is dominated by a combination called the chirp mass, and the merger and ringdown are dominated by the total mass. For lighter mass systems, where we gets lots of inspiral, we measure the chirp mass really well, and for high mass systems, where the merger and ringdown are the loudest parts, we measure the total mass. GW150914 is somewhere in the middle. The probability distribution for the masses are shown below: we can compensate for one of the component masses being smaller if we make the other larger, as this keeps chirp mass and total mass about the same.

Binary black hole masses

Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary. Results are shown for the EOBNR waveform and the IMRPhenom: both agree well. The Overall results come from averaging the two. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The sharp diagonal line cut-off in the two-dimensional plot is a consequence of requiring m_1^\mathrm{source} \geq m_2^\mathrm{source}.  Fig. 1 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

To work out these masses, we need to take into account the expansion of the Universe. As the Universe expands, it stretches the wavelength of the gravitational waves. The same happens to light: visible light becomes redder, so the phenomenon is known as redshifting (even for gravitational waves). If you don’t take this into account, the masses you measure are too large. To work out how much redshift there is you need to know the distance to the source. The probability distribution for the distance is shown below, we plot the distance together with the inclination, since both of these affect the amplitude of the waves (the source is quietest when we look at it edge-on from the side, and loudest when seen face-on/off from above/below).

Distance and inclination

Estimated luminosity distance and binary inclination angle. An inclination of \theta_{JN} = 90^\circ means we are looking at the binary (approximately) edge-on. Results are shown for the EOBNR waveform and the IMRPhenom: both agree well. The Overall results come from averaging the two. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals.  Fig. 2 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

After the masses, the most important properties for the evolution of the binary are the spins. We don’t measure these too well, but the probability distribution for their magnitudes and orientations from the precessing IMRPhenom model are shown below. Both waveform models agree that the effective spin \chi_\mathrm{eff}, which is a combination of both spins in the direction of the orbital angular momentum) is small. Therefore, either the spins are small or are larger but not aligned (or antialigned) with the orbital angular momentum. The spin of the more massive black hole is the better measured of the two.

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins

Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins from the precessing IMRPhenom model. The magnitude is between 0 and 1 and is perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum if the angle is 0. The distribution for the more massive black hole is on the left, and for the smaller black hole on the right. Part of Fig. 5 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

The Testing General Relativity Paper

Synopsis: Testing General Relativity Paper
Read this if: You want to know more about the nature of gravity.
Favourite part: Einstein was right! (Or more correctly, we can’t prove he was wrong… yet)

The Testing General Relativity Paper is one of my favourites as it packs a lot of science in. Our first direct detection of gravitational waves and of the merger of two black holes provides a new laboratory to test gravity, and this paper runs through the results of the first few experiments.

Before we start making any claims about general relativity being wrong, we first have to check if there’s any weird noise present. You don’t want to have to rewrite the textbooks just because of an instrumental artifact. After taking out a good guess for the waveform (as predicted by general relativity), we find that the residuals do match what we expect for instrumental noise, so we’re good to continue.

I’ve written about a couple of tests of general relativity in my previous post: the consistency of the inspiral and merger–ringdown parts of the waveform, and the bounds on the mass of the graviton (from evolution of the signal). I’ll cover the others now.

The final part of the signal, where the black hole settles down to its final state (the ringdown), is the place to look to check that the object is a black hole and not some other type of mysterious dark and dense object. It is tricky to measure this part of the signal, but we don’t see anything odd. We can’t yet confirm that the object has all the properties you’d want to pin down that it is exactly a black hole as predicted by general relativity; we’re going to have to wait for a louder signal for this. This test is especially poignant, as Steven Detweiler, who pioneered a lot of the work calculating the ringdown of black holes, died a week before the announcement.

We can allow terms in our waveform (here based on the IMRPhenom model) to vary and see which values best fit the signal. If there is evidence for differences compared with the predictions from general relativity, we would have evidence for needing an alternative. Results for this analysis are shown below for a set of different waveform parameters \hat{p}_i: the \varphi_i parameters determine the inspiral, the \alpha_i parameters determine the merger–ringdown and the \beta_i parameters cover the intermediate regime. If the deviation \delta \hat{p}_i is zero, the value coincides with the value from general relativity. The plot shows what would happen if you allow all the variable to vary at once (the multiple results) and if you tried just that parameter on its own (the single results).

Testing general relativity bounds

Probability distributions for waveform parameters. The single analysis only varies one parameter, the multiple analysis varies all of them, and the J0737-3039 result is the existing bound from the double pulsar. A deviation of zero is consistent with general relativity. Fig. 7 from the Testing General Relativity Paper.

Overall the results look good. Some of the single results are centred away from zero, but we think that this is just a random fluctuate caused by noise (we’ve seen similar behaviour in tests, so don’t panic yet). It’s not surprising the \varphi_3, \varphi_4 and \varphi_{5l} all show this behaviour, as they are sensitive to similar noise features. These measurements are much tighter than from any test we’ve done before, except for the measurement of \varphi_0 which is better measured from the double pulsar (since we have lots and lots of orbits of that measured).

The final test is to look for additional polarizations of gravitational waves. These are predicted in several alternative theories of gravity. Unfortunately, because we only have two detectors which are pretty much aligned we can’t say much, at least without knowing for certain the location of the source. Extra detectors will be useful here!

In conclusion, we have found no evidence to suggest we need to throw away general relativity, but future events will help us to perform new and stronger tests.

The Rates Paper

Synopsis: Rates Paper
Read this if: You want to know how often binary black holes merge (and how many we’ll detect)
Favourite part: There’s a good chance we’ll have ten detections by the end of our second observing run (O2)

Before September 14, we had never seen a binary stellar-mass black hole system. We were therefore rather uncertain about how many we would see. We had predictions based on simulations of the evolution of stars and their dynamical interactions. These said we shouldn’t be too surprised if we saw something in O1, but that we shouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see anything for many years either. We weren’t really expecting to see a black hole system so soon (the smart money was on a binary neutron star). However, we did find a binary black hole, and this happened right at the start of our observations! What do we now believe about the rate of mergers?

To work out the rate, you first need to count the number of events you have detected and then work out how sensitive you are to the population of signals (how many could you see out of the total).

Counting detections sounds simple: we have GW150914 without a doubt. However, what about all the quieter signals? If you have 100 events each with a 1% probability of being real, then even though you can’t say with certainty that anyone is an actual signal, you would expect one to be so. We want to work out how many events are real and how many are due to noise. Handily, trying to tell apart different populations of things when you’re not certain about individual members is a common problem is astrophysics (where it’s often difficult to go and check what something actually is), so there exists a probabilistic framework for doing this.

Using the expected number of real and noise events for a given detection statistic (as described in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper), we count the number of detections and as a bonus, get a probability that each event is of astrophysical origin. There are two events with more than a 50% chance of being real: GW150914, where the probability is close to 100%, and LVT151012, where to probability is 84% based on GstLAL and 91% based on PyCBC.

By injecting lots of fake signals into some data and running our detection pipelines, we can work out how sensitive they are (in effect, how far away can they find particular types of sources). For a given number of detections, the more sensitive we are, the lower the actual rate of mergers should be (for lower sensitivity we would miss more, while there’s no hiding for higher sensitivity).

There is one final difficulty in working out the total number of binary black hole mergers: we need to know the distribution of masses, because our sensitivity depends on this. However, we don’t yet know this as we’ve only seen GW150914 and (maybe) LVT151012. Therefore, we try three possibilities to get an idea of what the merger rate could be.

  1. We assume that binary black holes are either like GW150914 or like LVT151012. Given that these are our only possible detections at the moment, this should give a reasonable estimate. A similar approach has been used for estimating the population of binary neutron stars from pulsar observations [bonus note].
  2. We assume that the distribution of masses is flat in the logarithm of the masses. This probably gives more heavy black holes than in reality (and so a lower merger rate)
  3. We assume that black holes follow a power law like the initial masses of stars. This probably gives too many low mass black holes (and so a higher merger rate)

The estimated merger rates (number of binary black hole mergers per volume per time) are then: 1. 83^{+168}_{-63}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}; 2. 61^{+124}_{-48}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, and 3. 200^{+400}_{-160}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. There is a huge scatter, but the flat and power-law rates hopefully bound the true value.

We’ll pin down the rate better after a few more detections. How many more should we expect to see? Using the projected sensitivity of the detectors over our coming observing runs, we can work out the probability of making N more detections. This is shown in the plot below. It looks like there’s about about a 10% chance of not seeing anything else in O1, but we’re confident that we’ll have 10 more by the end of O2, and 35 more by the end of O3! I may need to lie down…

Expected number of detections

The percentage chance of making 0, 10, 35 and 70 more detections of binary black holes as time goes on and detector sensitivity improves (based upon our data so far). This is a simplified version of part of Fig. 3 of the Rates Paper taken from the science summary.

The Burst Paper

Synopsis: Burst Paper
Read this if: You want to check what we can do without a waveform template
Favourite part: You don’t need a template to make a detection

When discussing what we can learn from gravitational wave astronomy, you can almost guarantee that someone will say something about discovering the unexpected. Whenever we’ve looked at the sky in a new band of the electromagnetic spectrum, we found something we weren’t looking for: pulsars for radio, gamma-ray burst for gamma-rays, etc. Can we do the same in gravitational wave astronomy? There may well be signals we weren’t anticipating out there, but will we be able to detect them? The burst pipelines have our back here, at least for short signals.

The burst search pipelines, like their compact binary coalescence partners, assign candidate events a detection statistic and then work out a probability associated with being a false alarm caused by noise. The difference is that the burst pipelines try to find a wider range of signals.

There are three burst pipelines described: coherent WaveBurst (cWB), which famously first found GW150914; omicron–LALInferenceBurst (oLIB), and BayesWave, which follows up on cWB triggers.

As you might guess from the name, cWB looks for a coherent signal in both detectors. It looks for excess power (indicating a signal) in a time–frequency plot, and then classifies candidates based upon their structure. There’s one class for blip glitches and resonance lines (see the Detector Characterisation Paper), these are all thrown away as noise; one class for chirp-like signals that increase in frequency with time, this is where GW150914 was found, and one class for everything else. cWB’s detection statistic \eta_c is something like a signal-to-noise ratio constructed based upon the correlated power in the detectors. The value for GW150914 was \eta_c = 20, which is higher than for any other candidate. The false alarm probability (or p-value), folding in all three search classes, is 2\times 10^{-6}, which is pretty tiny, even if not as significant as for the tailored compact binary searches.

The oLIB search has two stages. First it makes a time–frequency plot and looks for power coincident between the two detectors. Likely candidates are then followed up by matching a sine–Gaussian wavelet to the data, using a similar algorithm to the one used for parameter estimation. It’s detection statistic is something like a likelihood ratio for the signal verses noise. It calculates a false alarm probability of about 2\times 10^{-6} too.

BayesWave fits a variable number of sine–Gaussian wavelets to the data. This can model both a signal (when the wavelets are the same for both detectors) and glitches (when the wavelets are independent). This is really clever, but is too computationally expensive to be left running on all the data. Therefore, it follows up on things highlighted by cWB, potentially increasing their significance. It’s detection statistic is the Bayes factor comparing the signal and glitch models. It estimates the false alarm probability to be about 7 \times 10^{-7} (which agrees with the cWB estimate if you only consider chirp-like triggers).

None of the searches find LVT151012. However, as this is a quiet, lower mass binary black hole, I think that this is not necessarily surprising.

cWB and BayesWave also output a reconstruction of the waveform. Reassuringly, this does look like binary black hole coalescence!

Estimated waveforms from different models

Gravitational waveforms from our analyses of GW150914. The wiggly grey line are the data from Hanford (top) and Livinston (bottom); these are analysed coherently. The plots show waveforms whitened by the noise power spectral density. The dark band shows the waveform reconstructed by BayesWave without assuming that the signal is from a binary black hole (BBH). The light bands show the distribution of BBH template waveforms that were found to be most probable from our parameter-estimation analysis. The two techniques give consistent results: the match between the two models is 94^{+2}_{-3}\%. Fig. 6 of the Parameter Estimation Paper.

The paper concludes by performing some simple fits to the reconstructed waveforms. For this, you do have to assume that the signal cane from a binary black hole. They find parameters roughly consistent with those from the full parameter-estimation analysis, which is a nice sanity check of our results.

The Detector Characterisation Paper

Synopsis: Detector Characteristation Paper
Read this if: You’re curious if something other than a gravitational wave could be responsible for GW150914 or LVT151012
Favourite part: Mega lightning bolts can cause correlated noise

The output from the detectors that we analyses for signals is simple. It is a single channel that records the strain. To monitor instrumental behaviour and environmental conditions the detector characterisation team record over 200,000 other channels. These measure everything from the alignment of the optics through ground motion to incidence of cosmic rays. Most of the data taken by LIGO is to monitor things which are not gravitational waves.

This paper examines all the potential sources of noise in the LIGO detectors, how we monitor them to ensure they are not confused for a signal, and the impact they could have on estimating the significance of events in our searches. It is amazingly thorough work.

There are lots of potential noise sources for LIGO. Uncorrelated noise sources happen independently at both sites, therefore they can only be mistaken for a gravitational wave if by chance two occur at the right time. Correlated noise sources effect both detectors, and so could be more confusing for our searches, although there’s no guarantee that they would cause a disturbance that looks anything like a binary black hole merger.

Sources of uncorrelated noise include:

  • Ground motion caused by earthquakes or ocean waves. These create wibbling which can affect the instruments, even though they are well isolated. This is usually at low frequencies (below 0.1~\mathrm{Hz} for earthquakes, although it can be higher if the epicentre is near), unless there is motion in the optics around (which can couple to cause higher frequency noise). There is a network of seismometers to measure earthquakes at both sites. There where two magnitude 2.1 earthquakes within 20 minutes of GW150914 (one off the coast of Alaska, the other south-west of Seattle), but both produced ground motion that is ten times too small to impact the detectors. There was some low frequency noise in Livingston at the time of LVT151012 which is associated with a period of bad ocean waves. however, there is no evidence that these could be converted to the frequency range associated with the signal.
  • People moving around near the detectors can also cause vibrational or acoustic disturbances. People are kept away from the detectors while they are running and accelerometers, microphones and seismometers monitor the environment.
  • Modulation of the lasers at 9~\mathrm{MHz} and 45~\mathrm{MHz} is done to monitor and control several parts of the optics. There is a fault somewhere in the system which means that there is a coupling to the output channel and we get noise across 10~\mathrm{Hz} to 2~\mathrm{kHz}, which is where we look for compact binary coalescences. Rai Weiss suggested shutting down the instruments to fix the source of this and delaying the start of observations—it’s a good job we didn’t. Periods of data where this fault occurs are flagged and not included in the analysis.
  • Blip transients are a short glitch that occurs for unknown reasons. They’re quite mysterious. They are at the right frequency range (30~\mathrm{Hz} to 250~\mathrm{Hz}) to be confused with binary black holes, but don’t have the right frequency evolution. They contribute to the background of noise triggers in the compact binary coalescence searches, but are unlikely to be the cause of GW150914 or LVT151012 since they don’t have the characteristic chirp shape.

    Normalised spectrogram of a blip transient.

    A time–frequency plot of a blip glitch in LIGO-Livingston. Blip glitches are the right frequency range to be confused with binary coalescences, but don’t have the chirp-like structure. Blips are symmetric in time, whereas binary coalescences sweep up in frequency. Fig. 3 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.

Correlated noise can be caused by:

  • Electromagnetic signals which can come from lightning, solar weather or radio communications. This is measured by radio receivers and magnetometers, and its extremely difficult to produce a signal that is strong enough to have any impact of the detectors’ output. There was one strong  (peak current of about 500~\mathrm{kA}) lightning strike in the same second as GW150914 over Burkino Faso. However, the magnetic disturbances were at least a thousand times too small to explain the amplitude of GW150914.
  • Cosmic ray showers can cause electromagnetic radiation and particle showers. The particle flux become negligible after a few kilometres, so it’s unlikely that both Livingston and Hanford would be affected, but just in case there is a cosmic ray detector at Hanford. It has seen nothing suspicious.

All the monitoring channels give us a lot of insight into the behaviour of the instruments. Times which can be identified as having especially bad noise properties (where the noise could influence the measured output), or where the detectors are not working properly, are flagged and not included in the search analyses. Applying these vetoes mean that we can’t claim a detection when we know something else could mimic a gravitational wave signal, but it also helps us clean up our background of noise triggers. This has the impact of increasing the significance of the triggers which remain (since there are fewer false alarms they could be confused with). For example, if we leave the bad period in, the PyCBC false alarm probability for LVT151012 goes up from 0.02 to 0.14. The significance of GW150914 is so great that we don’t really need to worry about the effects of vetoes.

At the time of GW150914 the detectors were running well, the data around the event are clean, and there is nothing in any of the auxiliary channels that record anything which could have caused the event. The only source of a correlated signal which has not been rules out is a gravitational wave from a binary black hole merger. The time–frequency plots of the measured strains are shown below, and its easy to pick out the chirps.

Normalised spectrograms for GW150914

Time–frequency plots for GW150914 as measured by Hanford (left) and Livingston (right). These show the characteristic increase in frequency with time of the chirp of a binary merger. The signal is clearly visible above the noise. Fig. 10 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.

The data around LVT151012 are significantly less stationary than around GW150914. There was an elevated noise transient rate around this time. This is probably due to extra ground motion caused by ocean waves. This low frequency noise is clearly visible in the Livingston time–frequency plot below. There is no evidence that this gets converted to higher frequencies though. None of the detector characterisation results suggest that LVT151012 has was caused by a noise artifact.

Normalised spectrograms for LVT151012

Time–frequency plots for LVT151012 as measured by Hanford (left) and Livingston (right). You can see the characteristic increase in frequency with time of the chirp of a binary merger, but this is mixed in with noise. The scale is reduced compared with for GW150914, which is why noise features appear more prominent. The band at low frequency in Livingston is due to ground motion; this is not present in Hanford. Fig. 13 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.

If you’re curious about the state of the LIGO sites and their array of sensors, you can see more about the physical environment monitors at pem.ligo.org.

The Calibration Paper

Synopsis: Calibration Paper
Read this if: You like control engineering or precision measurement
Favourite part: Not only are the LIGO detectors sensitive enough to feel the push from a beam of light, they are so sensitive that you have to worry about where on the mirrors you push

We want to measure the gravitational wave strain—the change in length across our detectors caused by a passing gravitational wave. What we actually record is the intensity of laser light out the output of our interferometer. (The output should be dark when the strain is zero, and the intensity increases when the interferometer is stretched or squashed). We need a way to convert intensity to strain, and this requires careful calibration of the instruments.

The calibration is complicated by the control systems. The LIGO instruments are incredibly sensitive, and maintaining them in a stable condition requires lots of feedback systems. These can impact how the strain is transduced into the signal readout by the interferometer. A schematic of how what would be the change in the length of the arms without control systems \Delta L_\mathrm{free} is changed into the measured strain h is shown below. The calibration pipeline build models to correct for the effects of the control system to provide an accurate model of the true gravitational wave strain.

Calibration control system schematic

Model for how a differential arm length caused by a gravitational wave \Delta L_\mathrm{free} or a photon calibration signal x_\mathrm{T}^\mathrm{(PC)} is converted into the measured signal h. Fig. 2 from the Calibration Paper.

To measure the different responses of the system, the calibration team make several careful measurements. The primary means is using photon calibration: an auxiliary laser is used to push the mirrors and the response is measured. The spots where the lasers are pointed are carefully chosen to minimise distortion to the mirrors caused by pushing on them. A secondary means is to use actuators which are parts of the suspension system to excite the system.

As a cross-check, we can also use two auxiliary green lasers to measure changes in length using either a frequency modulation or their wavelength. These are similar approaches to those used in initial LIGO. These go give consistent results with the other methods, but they are not as accurate.

Overall, the uncertainty in the calibration of the amplitude of the strain is less than 10\% between 20~\mathrm{Hz} and 1~\mathrm{kHz}, and the uncertainty in phase calibration is less than 10^\circ. These are the values that we use in our parameter-estimation runs. However, the calibration uncertainty actually varies as a function of frequency, with some ranges having much less uncertainty. We’re currently working on implementing a better model for the uncertainty, which may improve our measurements. Fortunately the masses, aren’t too affected by the calibration uncertainty, but sky localization is, so we might get some gain here. We’ll hopefully produce results with updated calibration in the near future.

The Astrophysics Paper

Synopsis: Astrophysics Paper
Read this if: You are interested in how binary black holes form
Favourite part: We might be able to see similar mass binary black holes with eLISA before they merge in the LIGO band [bonus note]

This paper puts our observations of GW150914 in context with regards to existing observations of stellar-mass black holes and theoretical models for binary black hole mergers. Although it doesn’t explicitly mention LVT151012, most of the conclusions would be just as applicable to it’s source, if it is real. I expect there will be rapid development of the field now, but if you want to catch up on some background reading, this paper is the place to start.

The paper contains lots of references to good papers to delve into. It also highlights the main conclusion we can draw in italics, so its easy to skim through if you want a summary. I discussed the main astrophysical conclusions in my previous post. We will know more about binary black holes and their formation when we get more observations, so I think it is a good time to get interested in this area.

The Stochastic Paper

Synopsis: Stochastic Paper
Read this if: You like stochastic backgrounds
Favourite part: We might detect a background in the next decade

A stochastic gravitational wave background could be created by an incoherent superposition of many signals. In pulsar timing, they are looking for a background from many merging supermassive black holes. Could we have a similar thing from stellar-mass black holes? The loudest signals, like GW150914, are resolvable, they stand out from the background. However, for every loud signal, there will be many quiet signals, and the ones below our detection threshold could form a background. Since we’ve found that binary black hole mergers are probably plentiful, the background may be at the high end of previous predictions.

The background from stellar-mass black holes is different than the one from supermassive black holes because the signals are short. While the supermassive black holes produce an almost constant hum throughout your observations, stellar-mass black hole mergers produce short chirps. Instead of having lots of signals that overlap in time, we have a popcorn background, with one arriving on average every 15 minutes. This might allow us to do some different things when it comes to detection, but for now, we just use the standard approach.

This paper calculates the energy density of gravitational waves from binary black holes, excluding the contribution from signals loud enough to be detected. This is done for several different models. The standard (fiducial) model assumes parameters broadly consistent with those of GW150914’s source, plus a particular model for the formation of merging binaries. There are then variations on the the model for formation, considering different time delays between formation and merger, and adding in lower mass systems consistent with LVT151012. All these models are rather crude, but give an idea of potential variations in the background. Hopefully more realistic distributions will be considered in the future. There is some change between models, but this is within the (considerable) statistical uncertainty, so predictions seems robust.

Models for a binary black hole stochastic background

Different models for the stochastic background of binary black holes. This is plotted in terms of energy density. The red band indicates the uncertainty on the fiducial model. The dashed line indicates the sensitivity of the LIGO and Virgo detectors after several years at design sensitivity. Fig. 2 of the Stochastic Paper.

After a couple of years at design sensitivity we may be able to make a confident detection of the stochastic background. The background from binary black holes is more significant than we expected.

If you’re wondering about if we could see other types of backgrounds, such as one of cosmological origin, then the background due to binary black holes could make detection more difficult. In effect, it acts as another source of noise, masking the other background. However, we may be able to distinguish the different backgrounds by measuring their frequency dependencies (we expect them to have different slopes), if they are loud enough.

The Neutrino Paper

Synopsis: Neutrino Paper
Read this if: You really like high energy neutrinos
Favourite part: We’re doing astronomy with neutrinos and gravitational waves—this is multimessenger astronomy without any form of electromagnetic radiation

There are multiple detectors that can look for high energy neutrinos. Currently, LIGO–Virgo Observations are being followed up by searches from ANTARES and IceCube. Both of these are Cherenkov detectors: they look for flashes of light created by fast moving particles, not the neutrinos themselves, but things they’ve interacted with. ANTARES searches the waters of the Mediterranean while IceCube uses the ice of Antarctica.

Within 500 seconds either side of the time of GW150914, ANTARES found no neutrinos and IceCube found three. These results are consistent with background levels (you would expect on average less than one and 4.4 neutrinos over that time from the two respectively). Additionally, none of the IceCube neutrinos are consistent with the sky localization of GW150914 (even though the sky area is pretty big). There is no sign of a neutrino counterpart, which is what we were expecting.

Subsequent non-detections have been reported by KamLAND, the Pierre Auger ObservatorySuper-Kamiokande and Borexino.

The Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper

Synopsis: Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper
Read this if: You are interested in the search for electromagnetic counterparts
Favourite part: So many people were involved in this work that not only do we have to abbreviate the list of authors (Abbott, B.P. et al.), but we should probably abbreviate the list of collaborations too (LIGO Scientific & Virgo Collaboration et al.)

This is the last of the set of companion papers to be released—it took a huge amount of coordinating because of all the teams involved. The paper describes how we released information about GW150914. This should not be typical of how we will do things going forward (i) because we didn’t have all the infrastructure in place on September 14 and (ii) because it was the first time we had something we thought was real.

The first announcement was sent out on September 16, and this contained sky maps from the Burst codes cWB and LIB. In the future, we should be able to send out automated alerts with a few minutes latency.

For the first alert, we didn’t have any results which assumed the the source was a binary, as the searches which issue triggers at low latency were only looking for lower mass systems which would contain a neutron star. I suspect we’ll be reprioritising things going forward. The first information we shared about the potential masses for the source was shared on October 3. Since this was the first detection, everyone was cautious about triple-checking results, which caused the delay. Revised false alarm rates including results from GstLAL and PyCBC were sent out October 20.

The final sky maps were shared January 13. This is when we’d about finished our own reviews and knew that we would be submitting the papers soon [bonus note]. Our best sky map is the one from the Parameter Estimation Paper. You might it expect to be more con straining than the results from the burst pipelines since it uses a proper model for the gravitational waves from a binary black hole. This is the case if we ignore calibration uncertainty (which is not yet included in the burst codes), then the 50% area is 48~\mathrm{deg}^2 and the 90% area is 150~\mathrm{deg^2}. However, including calibration uncertainty, the sky areas are 150~\mathrm{deg^2} and 590~\mathrm{deg^2} at 50% and 90% probability respectively. Calibration uncertainty has the largest effect on sky area. All the sky maps agree that the source is in in some region of the annulus set by the time delay between the two detectors.

Sky map

The different sky maps for GW150914 in an orthographic projection. The contours show the 90% region for each algorithm. The faint circles show lines of constant time delay \Delta t_\mathrm{HL} between the two detectors. BAYESTAR rapidly computes sky maps for binary coalescences, but it needs the output of one of the detection pipelines to run, and so was not available at low latency. The LALInference map is our best result. All the sky maps are available as part of the data release. Fig. 2 of the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.

A timeline of events is shown below. There were follow-up observations across the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma-rays and X-rays through the optical and near infra-red to radio.

EM follow-up timeline

Timeline for observations of GW15014. The top (grey) band shows information about gravitational waves. The second (blue) band shows high-energy (gamma- and X-ray) observations. The third and fourth (green) bands show optical and near infra-red observations respectively. The bottom (red) band shows radio observations. Fig. 1 from the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.

Observations have been reported (via GCN notices) by

Together they cover an impressive amount of the sky as shown below. Many targeted the Large Magellanic Cloud before the knew the source was a binary black hole.

Follow-up observations

Footprints of observations compared with the 50% and 90% areas of the initially distributed (cWB: thick lines; LIB: thin lines) sky maps, also in orthographic projection. The all-sky observations are not shown. The grey background is the Galactic plane. Fig. 3 of the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.

Additional observations have been done using archival data by XMM-Newton and AGILE.

We don’t expect any electromagnetic counterpart to a binary black hole. No-one found anything with the exception of Fermi GBM. This has found a weak signal which may be coincident. More work is required to figure out if this is genuine (the statistical analysis looks OK, but some times you do have a false alarm). It would be a surprise if it is, so most people are sceptical. However, I think this will make people more interested in following up on our next binary black hole signal!

Bonus notes

Naming The Event

GW150914 is the name we have given to the signal detected by the two LIGO instruments. The “GW” is short for gravitational wave (not galactic worm), and the numbers give the date the wave reached the detectors (2015 September 14). It was originally known as G184098, its ID in our database of candidate events (most circulars sent to and from our observer partners use this ID). That was universally agreed to be terrible to remember. We tried to think of a good nickname for the event, but failed to, so rather by default, it has informally become known as The Event within the Collaboration. I think this is fitting given its significance.

LVT151012 is the name of the most significant candidate after GW150914, it doesn’t reach our criteria to claim detection (a false alarm rate of less than once per century), which is why it’s not GW151012. The “LVT” is short for LIGO–Virgo trigger. It took a long time to settle on this and up until the final week before the announcement it was still going by G197392. Informally, it was known as The Second Monday Event, as it too was found on a Monday. You’ll have to wait for us to finish looking at the rest of the O1 data to see if the Monday trend continues. If it does, it could have serious repercussions for our understanding of Garfield.

Publishing in Physical Review Letters

Several people have asked me if the Discovery Paper was submitted to Science or Nature. It was not. The decision that any detection would be submitted to Physical Review was made ahead of the run. As far as I am aware, there was never much debate about this. Physical Review had been good about publishing all our non-detections and upper limits, so it only seemed fair that they got the discovery too. You don’t abandon your friends when you strike it rich. I am glad that we submitted to them.

Gaby González, the LIGO Spokesperson, contacted the editors of Physical Review Letters ahead of submission to let them know of the anticipated results. They then started to line up some referees to give confidential and prompt reviews.

The initial plan was to submit on January 19, and we held a Collaboration-wide tele-conference to discuss the science. There were a few more things still to do, so the paper was submitted on January 21, following another presentation (and a long discussion of whether a number should be a six or a two) and a vote. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of submission.

We got the referee reports back on January 27, although they were circulated to the Collaboration the following day. This was a rapid turnaround! From their comments, I suspect that Referee A may be a particle physicist who has dealt with similar claims of first detection—they were most concerned about statistical significance; Referee B seemed like a relativist—they made comments about the effect of spin on measurements, knew about waveforms and even historical papers on gravitational waves, and I would guess that Referee C was an astronomer involved with pulsars—they mentioned observations of binary pulsars potentially claiming the title of first detection and were also curious about sky localization. While I can’t be certain who the referees were, I am certain that I have never had such positive reviews before! Referee A wrote

The paper is extremely well written and clear. These results are obviously going to make history.

Referee B wrote

This paper is a major breakthrough and a milestone in gravitational science. The results are overall very well presented and its suitability for publication in Physical Review Letters is beyond question.

and Referee C wrote

It is an honor to have the opportunity to review this paper. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the most enjoyable paper I’ve ever read. […] I unreservedly recommend the paper for publication in Physical Review Letters. I expect that it will be among the most cited PRL papers ever.

I suspect I will never have such emphatic reviews again [happy bonus note][unhappy bonus note].

Publishing in Physical Review Letters seems to have been a huge success. So much so that their servers collapsed under the demand, despite them adding two more in anticipation. In the end they had to quintuple their number of servers to keep up with demand. There were 229,000 downloads from their website in the first 24 hours. Many people remarked that it was good that the paper was freely available. However, we always make our papers public on the arXiv or via LIGO’s Document Control Center [bonus bonus note], so there should never be a case where you miss out on reading a LIGO paper!

Publishing the Parameter Estimation Paper

The reviews for the Parameter Estimation Paper were also extremely positive. Referee A, who had some careful comments on clarifying notation, wrote

This is a beautiful paper on a spectacular result.

Referee B, who commendably did some back-of-the-envelope checks, wrote

The paper is also very well written, and includes enough background that I think a decent fraction of it will be accessible to non-experts. This, together with the profound nature of the results (first direct detection of gravitational waves, first direct evidence that Kerr black holes exist, first direct evidence that binary black holes can form and merge in a Hubble time, first data on the dynamical strong-field regime of general relativity, observation of stellar mass black holes more massive than any observed to date in our galaxy), makes me recommend this paper for publication in PRL without hesitation.

Referee C, who made some suggestions to help a non-specialist reader, wrote

This is a generally excellent paper describing the properties of LIGO’s first detection.

Physical Review Letters were also kind enough to publish this paper open access without charge!

Publishing the Rates Paper

It wasn’t all clear sailing getting the companion papers published. Referees did give papers the thorough checking that they deserved. The most difficult review was of the Rates Paper. There were two referees, one astrophysics, one statistics. The astrophysics referee was happy with the results and made a few suggestions to clarify or further justify the text. The statistics referee has more serious complaints…

There are five main things which I think made the statistics referee angry. First, the referee objected to our terminology

While overall I’ve been impressed with the statistics in LIGO papers, in one respect there is truly egregious malpractice, but fortunately easy to remedy. It concerns incorrectly using the term “false alarm probability” (FAP) to refer to what statisticians call a p-value, a deliberately vague term (“false alarm rate” is similarly misused). […] There is nothing subtle or controversial about the LIGO usage being erroneous, and the practice has to stop, not just within this paper, but throughout the LIGO collaboration (and as a matter of ApJ policy).

I agree with this. What we call the false alarm probability is not the probability that the detection is a false alarm. It is not the probability that the given signal is noise rather that astrophysical, but instead it is the probability that if we only had noise that we would get a detection statistic as significant or more so. It might take a minute to realise why those are different. The former (the one we should call p-value) is what the search pipelines give us, but is less useful than the latter for actually working out if the signal is real. The probabilities calculated in the Rates Paper that the signal is astrophysical are really what you want.

p-values are often misinterpreted, but most scientists are aware of this, and so are cautious when they come across them

As a consequence of this complaint, the Collaboration is purging “false alarm probability” from our papers. It is used in most of the companion papers, as they were published before we got this report (and managed to convince everyone that it is important).

Second, we were lacking in references to existing literature

Regarding scholarship, the paper is quite poor. I take it the authors have written this paper with the expectation, or at least the hope, that it would be read […] If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am.

This is fair enough. The referee made some good suggestions to work done on inferring the rate of gamma-ray bursts by Loredo & Wasserman (Part I, Part II, Part III), as well as by Petit, Kavelaars, Gladman & Loredo on trans-Neptunian objects, and we made sure to add as much work as possible in revisions. There’s no excuse for not properly citing useful work!

Third, the referee didn’t understand how we could be certain of the distribution of signal-to-noise ratio \rho without also worrying about the distribution of parameters like the black hole masses. The signal-to-noise ratio is inversely proportional to distance, and we expect sources to be uniformly distributed in volume. Putting these together (and ignoring corrections from cosmology) gives a distribution for signal-to-noise ratio of p(\rho) \propto \rho^{-4} (Schulz 2011).  This is sufficiently well known within the gravitational-wave community that we forgot that those outside wouldn’t appreciate it without some discussion. Therefore, it was useful that the referee did point this out.

Fourth, the referee thought we had made an error in our approach. They provided an alternative derivation which

if useful, should not be used directly without some kind of attribution

Unfortunately, they were missing some terms in their expressions. When these were added in, their approach reproduced our own (I had a go at checking this myself). Given that we had annoyed the referee on so many other points, it was tricky trying to convince them of this. Most of the time spent responding to the referees was actually working on the referee response and not on the paper.

Finally, the referee was unhappy that we didn’t make all our data public so that they could check things themselves. I think it would be great, and it will happen, it was just too early at the time. Sorry folks!

LIGO Document Control Center

Papers in the LIGO Document Control Center are assigned a number starting with P (for “paper”) and then several digits. The Discover Paper’s reference is P150914. I only realised why this was the case on the day of submission.

The überbank

The set of templates used in the searches is designed to be able to catch binary neutron stars, neutron star–black hole binaries and binary neutron stars. It covers component masses from 1 to 99 solar masses, with total masses less than 100 solar masses. The upper cut off is chosen for computational convenience, rather than physical reasons: we do look for higher mass systems in a similar way, but they are easier to confuse with glitches and so we have to be more careful tuning the search. Since bank of templates is so comprehensive, it is known as the überbank. Although it could find binary neutron stars or neutron star–black hole binaries, we only discuss binary black holes here.

The template bank doesn’t cover the full parameter space, in particular it assumes that spins are aligned for the two components. This shouldn’t significantly affect its efficiency at finding signals, but gives another reason (together with the coarse placement of templates) why we need to do proper parameter estimation to measure properties of the source.

Alphabet soup

In the calculation of rates, the probabilistic means for counting sources is known as the FGMC method after its authors (who include two Birmingham colleagues and my former supervisor). The means of calculating rates assuming that the population is divided into one class to match each observation is also named for the initial of its authors as the KKL approach. The combined FGMCKKL method for estimating merger rates goes by the name alphabet soup, as that is much easier to swallow.

Multi-band gravitational wave astronomy

The prospect of detecting a binary black hole with a space-based detector and then seeing the same binary merger with ground-based detectors is especially exciting. My officemate Alberto Sesana (who’s not in LIGO) has just written a paper on the promise of multi-band gravitational wave astronomy. Black hole binaries like GW150914 could be spotted by eLISA (if you assume one of the better sensitivities for a detector with three arms). Then a few years to weeks later they merge, and spend their last moments emitting in LIGO’s band. The evolution of some binary black holes is sketched in the plot below.

Binary black hole mergers across the eLISA and LIGO frequency bands

The evolution of binary black hole mergers (shown in blue). The eLISA and Advanced LIGO sensitivity curves are shown in purple and orange respectively. As the black holes inspiral, they emit gravitational waves at higher frequency, shifting from the eLISa band to the LIGO band (where they merge). The scale at the top gives the approximate time until merger. Fig. 1 of Sesana (2016).

Seeing the signal in two bands can help in several ways. First it can increase our confidence in detection, potentially picking out signals that we wouldn’t otherwise. Second, it gives us a way to verify the calibration of our instruments. Third, it lets us improve our parameter-estimation precision—eLISA would see thousands of cycles, which lets it pin down the masses to high accuracy, these results can be combined with LIGO’s measurements of the strong-field dynamics during merger to give a fantastic overall picture of the system. Finally, since eLISA can measure the signal for a considerable time, it can well localise the source, perhaps just to a square degree; since we’ll also be able to predict when the merger will happen, you can point telescopes at the right place ahead of time to look for any electromagnetic counterparts which may exist. Opening up the gravitational wave spectrum is awesome!

The LALInference sky map

One of my jobs as part of the Parameter Estimation group was to produce the sky maps from our parameter-estimation runs. This is a relatively simple job of just running our sky area code. I had done it many times while were collecting our results, so I knew that the final versions were perfectly consistent with everything else we had seen. While I was comfortable with running the code and checking the results, I was rather nervous uploading the results to our database to be shared with our observational partners. I somehow managed to upload three copies by accident. D’oh! Perhaps future historians will someday look back at the records for G184098/GW150914 and wonder what was this idiot Christopher Berry doing? Probably no-one would every notice, but I know the records are there…