Onto drafting the gravitational history of the universe

It’s finally happening. As the world turns, as our little lives wear on, gravitational wave detectors quietly eavesdrop on secrets whispered by colliding blackholes and neutron stars in distant reaches of the cosmos, no big deal. It’s going to be just another day.

On November 15, the LIGO scientific collaboration confirmed the detection of the fifth set of gravitational waves, made originally on June 8, 2017, but announced only now. These waves were released by two blackholes of 12 and seven solar masses that collided about a billion lightyears away – a.k.a. about a billion years ago. The combined blackhole weighed 18 solar masses, so one solar mass’s worth of energy had been released in the form of gravitational waves.

The announcement was delayed because the LIGO teams had to work on processing two other, more spectacular detections. One of them involved the VIRGO detector in Italy for the first time; the second was the detection of gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars.

Even though the June 8 is run o’ the mill by now, it is unique because it stands for the blackholes of lowest mass eavesdropped on thus far by the twin LIGO detectors.

LIGO’s significance as a scientific experiment lies in the fact that it can detect collisions of blackholes with other blackholes. Because these objects don’t let any kind of radiation escape their prodigious gravitational pulls, their collisions don’t release any electromagnetic energy. As a result, conventional telescopes that work by detecting such radiation are blind to them. LIGO, however, detects gravitational waves emitted by the blackholes as they collide. Whereas electromagnetic radiation moves over the surface of the spacetime continuum and are thus susceptible to being trapped in blackholes, gravitational waves are ripples of the continuum itself and can escape from blackholes.

Processes involving blackholes of a lower mass have been detected by conventional telescopes because these processes typically involve a light blackhole (5-20 solar masses) and a second object that is not a blackhole but instead usually a star. Mass emitted by the star is siphoned into the blackhole, and this movement releases X-rays that can be spotted by space telescopes like NASA Chandra.

So LIGO’s June 8 detection is unique because it signals a collision involving two light blackholes, until now the demesne of conventional astronomy alone. This also means that multi-messenger astronomy can join in on the fun should LIGO detect a collision of a star and a blackhole in the future. Multi-messenger astronomy is astronomy that uses up to four ‘messengers’, or channels of information, to study a single event. These channels are electromagnetic, gravitational, neutrino and cosmic rays.

The masses of stellar remnants are measured in many different ways. This graphic shows the masses for black holes detected through electromagnetic observations (purple); the black holes measured by gravitational-wave observations (blue); neutron stars measured with electromagnetic observations (yellow); and the masses of the neutron stars that merged in an event called GW170817, which were detected in gravitational waves (orange). GW170608 is the lowest mass of the LIGO/Virgo black holes shown in blue. The vertical lines represent the error bars on the measured masses. Credit: LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern

The masses of stellar remnants are measured in many different ways. This graphic shows the masses for black holes detected through electromagnetic observations (purple); the black holes measured by gravitational-wave observations (blue); neutron stars measured with electromagnetic observations (yellow); and the masses of the neutron stars that merged in an event called GW170817, which were detected in gravitational waves (orange). GW170608 is the lowest mass of the LIGO/Virgo black holes shown in blue. The vertical lines represent the error bars on the measured masses. Credit: LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern

The detection also signals that LIGO is sensitive to such low-mass events. The three other sets of gravitational waves LIGO has observed involved black holes of masses ranging from 20-25 solar masses to 60-65 solar masses. The previous record-holder for lowest mass collision was a detection made in December 2015, of two colliding blackholes weighing 14.2 and 7.5 solar masses.

One of the bigger reasons astronomy is fascinating is its ability to reveal so much about a source of radiation trillions of kilometres away using very little information. The same is true of the June 8 detection. According to the LIGO scientific collaboration’s assessment,

When massive stars reach the end of their lives, they lose large amounts of their mass due to stellar winds – flows of gas driven by the pressure of the star’s own radiation. The more ‘heavy’ elements like carbon and nitrogen that a star contains, the more mass it will lose before collapsing to form a black hole. So, the stars which produced GW170608’s [the official designation of the detection] black holes could have contained relatively large amounts of these elements, compared to the stellar progenitors of more massive black holes such as those observed in the GW150914 merger. … The overall amplitude of the signal allows the distance to the black holes to be estimated as 340 megaparsec, or 1.1 billion light years.

The circumstances of the discovery are also interesting. Quoting at length from a LIGO press release:

A month before this detection, LIGO paused its second observation run to open the vacuum systems at both sites and perform maintenance. While researchers at LIGO Livingston, in Louisiana, completed their maintenance and were ready to observe again after about two weeks, LIGO Hanford, in Washington, encountered additional problems that delayed its return to observing.

On the afternoon of June 7 (PDT), LIGO Hanford was finally able to stay online reliably and staff were making final preparations to once again “listen” for incoming gravitational waves. As part of these preparations, the team at Hanford was making routine adjustments to reduce the level of noise in the gravitational-wave data caused by angular motion of the main mirrors. To disentangle how much this angular motion affected the data, scientists shook the mirrors very slightly at specific frequencies. A few minutes into this procedure, GW170608 passed through Hanford’s interferometer, reaching Louisiana about 7 milliseconds later.

LIGO Livingston quickly reported the possible detection, but since Hanford’s detector was being worked on, its automated detection system was not engaged. While the procedure being performed affected LIGO Hanford’s ability to automatically analyse incoming data, it did not prevent LIGO Hanford from detecting gravitational waves. The procedure only affected a narrow frequency range, so LIGO researchers, having learned of the detection in Louisiana, were still able to look for and find the waves in the data after excluding those frequencies.

But what I’m most excited about is the quiet announcement. All of the gravitational wave detection announcements before this were accompanied by an embargo, lots of hype building up, press releases from various groups associated with the data analysis, and of course reporters scrambling under the radar to get their stories ready. There was none of that this time. This time, the LIGO scientific collaboration published their press release with links to the raw data and the preprint paper (submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters) on November 15. I found out about it when I stumbled upon a tweet from Sean Carroll.

And this is how it’s going to be, too. In the near future, the detectors – LIGO, VIRGO, etc. – are going to be gathering data in the background of our lives, like just another telescope doing its job. The detections are going to stop being a big deal: we know LIGO works the way it should. Fortunately for it, some of its more spectacular detections (colliding intermediary-mass blackholes and colliding neutron stars) were also made early in its life. What we can all look forward to now is reports of first-order derivatives from LIGO data.

In other words, we can stop focusing on Einstein’s theories of relativity (long overdue) and move on to what multiple gravitational wave detections can tell us about things we still don’t know. We can mine patterns out of the data, chart their variation across space, time and their sources, and begin the arduous task of drafting the gravitational history of the universe.

Featured image credit: Lovesevenforty/pixabay.

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