A new study has developed an innovative method to detect colliding supermassive black holes in our Universe. The study has just been published in the Astrophysical Journal and was led by postdoctoral researcher Xingjiang Zhu from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), at Monash University.
At the centre of every galaxy in our Universe lives a supermassive black hole—a black hole that’s millions to billions times the mass of our Sun. Big galaxies are assembled from smaller galaxies merging together, so collisions of supermassive black holes are expected to be common in the cosmos. But merging supermassive black holes remain elusive: no conclusive evidence of their existence has been found so far.
One way to look for these mergers is through their emission of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space and time. A distant merging pair of supermassive black holes emit gravitational waves as they spiral in around each other. Since the black holes are so large, each wave takes many years to pass by Earth. Astronomers use a technique known as pulsar timing array to catch gravitational waves from supermassive binary black holes—so far to no avail.
In parallel, astronomers have been looking for the collision of supermassive black holes with light. A number of candidate sources have been identified by looking for regular fluctuations in the brightness of distant galaxies called “quasars”. Quasars are extremely bright, believed to be powered by the accumulation of gas clouds onto supermassive black holes.
If the centre of a quasar contains two black holes orbiting around each other (instead of a single black hole), the orbital motion might change the gas cloud accumulation and lead to periodic variation in its brightness. Hundreds of candidates have been identified through such searches, but astronomers are yet to find the smoking-gun signal.
‘If we can find a pair of merging supermassive black holes, it will not only tell us how galaxies evolved, but also reveal the expected gravitational-wave signal strength for pulsar watchers,’ says Zhu.
The OzGrav study seeks to settle the debate, determining if any of the identified quasars are likely to be powered by colliding black holes. The verdict? Probably not.
“We’ve developed a new method allowing us to search for a periodic signal and measure quasar noise properties at the same time,” says Zhu. “Therefore, it should produce a reliable estimate of the detected signal’s statistical significance.”
Applying this method to one of the most prominent candidate sources, called PG1302-102, the researchers found strong evidence for periodic variability; however, they argued that the signal is likely to be more complicated than current models.
“The commonly assumed model for quasar noise is wrong,” adds Zhu. “The data reveal additional features in the random fluctuations of gas accumulation onto supermassive black holes.”
“Our results are showing that quasars are complicated,” says collaborator and OzGrav Chief Investigator Eric Thrane. “We’ll need to improve our models if we are going to use them to identify supermassive binary black holes.”
This artist's impression of different mass stars; from the smallest “red dwarfs”, weighing in at about 0.1 solar masses, to massive “blue” stars weighing around 10 to 100 solar masses. While red dwarfs are the most abundant stars in the Universe, it’s the massive blue stars that contribute the most to the evolution of stars clusters and galaxies. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Massive stars are larger than about 10 times the mass of the Sun and are born far less often than their low mass counterparts. However, they contribute the most to the evolution of stars clusters and galaxies. From enriching their surroundings in supernova explosions, to altering the dynamics of their systems, massive stars are the precursors of many vivid and energetic phenomena in the Universe.
The best tool to study massive stars are ‘detailed stellar evolution codes': computer programs which can calculate both the interior structure and the evolution of these stars. Unfortunately, detailed codes are computationally expensive and time-consuming—it can take several hours to compute the evolution of just a single star. For this reason, it’s impractical to use these codes for modelling stars in complex systems, such as globular star clusters, which can contain millions of interacting stars.
To address this problem, a team of scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) developed a stellar evolution code called METhod of Interpolation for Single Star Evolution (METISSE). Interpolation is a method for estimating a quantity based on nearby values, such as estimating the size of a star based on the sizes of stars with similar masses. METISSE uses interpolation to quickly calculate the properties of a star at any instant by using selected stellar models computed with detailed stellar evolution codes.
Lightning fast, METISSE can evolve 10,000 stars in less than 3 minutes. Most importantly, it can use different sets of stellar models to predict the properties of stars—this is extremely important for massive stars. Massive stars are rare, and their complex and short lives make it difficult to accurately determine their properties. Consequently, detailed stellar evolution codes often have to make various assumptions while computing the evolution of these stars. The differences in the assumptions used by the different stellar evolution codes can significantly impact their predictions about the lives and the properties of the massive stars.
In their recently published study, the OzGrav researchers used METISSE with two different sets of state-of-the-art stellar models: one computed by the Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA), and the other by the Bonn Evolutionary Code (BEC).
Poojan Agrawal—OzGrav researcher and the study’s lead author—explains: ‘We interpolated stars that were between 9 and 100 times the mass of the Sun and compared the predictions for the final fates of these stars. For most massive stars in our set, we found that the masses of the stellar remnants (neutron stars or black holes) can vary by up to 20 times the mass of our Sun’.
When the stellar remnants merge, they create gravitational waves—ripples in space and time—that scientists can detect. Therefore, this study’s results will have a huge impact on future predictions in gravitational-wave astronomy.
Agrawal adds: ‘METISSE is just the first step in uncovering the part massive stars play in stellar systems such as star clusters, and already the results are very exciting.’
Black holes are massive, right? The first pair of black holes detected were each about 30 times more massive than the Sun. When they merged, the resulting ‘remnant’ was a black hole that was a whopping 60 times more massive than the Sun.
Today astronomers from the LIGO and Virgo Scientific Collaboration (LVC) have reported the first ever direct observation of the most massive black hole merger to date. Two monster black holes collided to form an even more massive object—an intermediate-mass black hole, about 150 times as heavy as the Sun.
Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) contributed to the detection and used the computing resources of the new Gravitational-Wave Data Centre to infer the masses of the merging black holes.
Juan Calderón Bustillo—co-author and OzGrav postdoctoral researcher at Monash University—reports: ‘This is the first time we’ve observed an intermediate-mass black hole, almost twice as heavy as any other black hole ever observed with gravitational-waves. For this reason, the detected signal is much shorter than those previously observed. In fact, it’s so short that we can barely observe the black hole collision, we can only see its result’.
The online detection team at the University of Western Australia detected the event, GW190521, seconds after the gravitational-wave data were available, and helped generate public alerts for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.
OzGrav PhD student and co-author Manoj Kovalam: ‘We were among the fastest detection programs to report GW190521. Such a heavy system has never been observed before. It’s exciting to be among the first few to identify it in real-time’.
These ‘impossible’ black holes have ‘forbidden’ masses according to what we currently understand about the lives of massive stars. OzGrav postdoctoral researcher Vaishali Adya from Australian National University explains: ‘Stars that are massive enough to make black holes this heavy should blow themselves apart in a dramatic ‘pair instability supernova’. Events like this are now in range due to the improved sensitivity of the instruments compared to the first-generation detectors.’
The rare event has prompted researchers to question how the black hole formed, its origins and how the two black holes found each other in the first place.
OzGrav PhD student and co-author Isobel Romero-Shaw, from Monash University, comments on the perplexing masses: ‘Black holes form when massive stars die, both exploding in a supernova and imploding at the same time. But, when the star has a core mass in a specific range—between approximately 65 and 135 times the mass of the Sun—it usually just blows itself apart, so there’s no leftover black hole. Because of this, we don’t expect to see black holes in this solar mass range, unless some other mechanism is producing them.’
Since gravitational waves directly measure the masses of the colliding black holes, this measurement should be much more robust than the similar mass black hole previously reported by Liu et al. (published in the journal Nature last year). That measurement was based on an interpretation of the spectrum of light from the Galactic star system LB-1, which has since been refuted. Based on this current study’s mass measurements, researchers found that this kind of black hole couldn’t have formed from a collapsing star—instead, it may have formed from a previous black hole collision.
OzGrav postdoctoral researcher and LVC member Simon Stevenson, from Swinburne University of Technology, says: ‘These ‘impossibly’ massive black holes may be made of two smaller black holes which previously merged. If true, we have a big black hole made of smaller black holes, with even smaller black holes inside them—like Russian Dolls.’
We are witnessing the birth of an intermediate mass black hole: a black hole more than 100 times as heavy as the Sun, almost twice as heavy as any black hole previously observed with gravitational-waves. These intermediate mass black holes could be the seeds that grow into the supermassive black holes that reside in the centres of galaxies.
Meg Millhouse, OzGrav Postdoctoral researcher and LVC member from the University of Melbourne, was involved in the discovery paper’s analysis. Millhouse says: ‘We had to use extremely precise and complex models to analyse these heavier black holes compared to previous models used by LIGO for gravitational waves’.
OzGrav Chief Investigator and co-author David Ottaway, from University of Adelaide, says: ‘This is a huge step towards understanding the link between the smaller black holes that have been seen by gravitational-wave detectors and the massive black holes that are found in the centre of galaxies’.
These gravitational waves came from over 15 billion light years away! But isn't the Universe only around 14 billion years old, you ask? It turns out that the Universe was actually around 7 billion years old when these two black holes collided. As the gravitational waves rippled out through the Universe, the Universe was expanding.
Consequently, the measured distance to this collision is now further than the product of the speed of light and the time travelled—mind (and space) bending stuff! This shows gravitational waves are able to probe the ancient history of the Universe, when galaxies were forming stars at a rate around 10 times higher than the present day.
A new study makes a compelling case for the development of "NEMO"—a new observatory in Australia that could deliver on some of the most exciting gravitational-wave science next-generation detectors have to offer, but at a fraction of the cost.
The study, co-authored by the ARC Center of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), coincides with an Astronomy Decadal Plan mid-term review by Australian Academy of Sciences where "NEMO" is identified as a priority goal.
"Gravitational-wave astronomy is reshaping our understanding of the Universe," said one of the study's lead authors OzGrav Chief Investigator Paul Lasky, from Monash University.
"Neutron stars are an end state of stellar evolution," he said. "They consist of the densest observable matter in the Universe, and are believed to consist of a superfluid, superconducting core of matter at supranuclear densities. Such conditions are impossible to produce in the laboratory, and theoretical modeling of the matter requires extrapolation by many orders of magnitude beyond the point where nuclear physics is well understood."
The study presents the design concept and science case for a Neutron Star Extreme Matter Observatory (NEMO): a gravitational-wave interferometer optimized to study nuclear physics with merging neutron stars.
The concept uses high circulating laser power, quantum squeezing and a detector topology specially designed to achieve the high frequency sensitivity necessary to probe nuclear matter using gravitational waves.
The study acknowledges that third-generation observatories require substantial, global financial investment and significant technological development over many years.
According to Monash Ph.D. candidate Francisco Hernandez Vivanco, who also worked on the study, the recent transformational discoveries were only the tip of the iceberg of what the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy could potentially achieve.
"To reach its full potential, new detectors with greater sensitivity are required," Francisco said.
"The global community of gravitational-wave scientists is currently designing the so called 'third-generation gravitational-wave detectors (we are currently in the second generation of detectors; the first generation were the prototypes that got us where we are today)."
Third-generation detectors will increase the sensitivity achieved by a factor of 10, detecting every black hole merger throughout the Universe, and most of the neutron star collisions.
But they have a hefty price tag. At about $1B, they require truly global investment, and are not anticipated to start detecting ripples of gravity until 2035 at the earliest.
In contrast, NEMO would require a budget only under $100M, a considerably shorter timescale for development, and it would provide a test-bed facility for technology development for third-generation instruments.
The paper concludes that further design studies are required detailing specifics of the instrument, as well as a possible scoping study to find an appropriate location for the observatory, a project known as "Finding NEMO."
As featured in The Age, Phys.org and Space Australia
Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that come in many forms. So far, short-duration gravitational wave signals have been observed from colliding black holes and colliding neutron stars, but scientists expect to find other kinds of gravitational waves. Recently published research led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav)studied continuous waves: long-lasting gravitational waves, in this particular case, waves from neutron stars--old dead stars--in specific star systems called low-mass X-ray binaries. Gravitational-wave detectors LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and Virgo provide excellent data to search for continuous waves as their signals are likely to be present in the detector data all the time (compared to gravitational waves from colliding black holes, which last only a second or so).
Neutron stars, which are typically about one and half times the mass of our Sun, are very compact at only 20km across. Some neutron stars are alone, while others are in “binary systems”--the neutron star and a companion star orbit around each other. The OzGrav team focused on looking for continuous waves from spinning neutron stars in "low mass X-ray binaries" (LMXBs). Low mass describes the neutron star's companion which typically has a lower mass than our Sun;they are called X-ray binaries because scientists have observed X-rays from them using X-ray telescopes.
In the study, the team searched for continuous waves from spinning neutron stars by directly targeting five LMXBs, which is a first for these five LMXBs. All the targeted LMXBs have X-ray observations which indicate how fast the neutron star is spinning: its rotation frequency. This is extremely useful information when searching for continuous waves as it’s expected that the frequency of the continuous wave is related to the rotation frequency of the neutron star. This allowed the team to search for each LMXB within a specific frequency range.
Lead author and OzGrav researcher from the University of Melbourne Hannah Middleton says: “We used a search method, developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne,which was previously used to search for another LMXB called Scorpius X-1. Scorpius X-1 is a promising continuous wave source, because its X-rays are very bright, but the X-ray observations were unable to measure Scorpius X-1's rotation frequency. This means that a wide range of frequencies need to be looked at. By taking advantage of the X-ray measurements of rotation frequency for our five LMXBs, we can reduce the computational cost of the search, sometimes by as much as 99 per cent.”
But knowing the rotation frequency is not quite enough:the continuous wave frequency may not equate to the rotation frequency, so the team searched for small frequency ranges around the measured values.
“The continuous wave frequency might even be slowly changing over time, so we need to be able to track it over many months of data,” adds Middleton. “The search uses a technique called a hidden Markov model which is widely used in applications from speech recognition to communication technologies. The resulting search can keep track of a signal even if the frequency changes unpredictably during an observation.”
So, what did the scientists find? After analysing data from the second observing run (over 200 days between November 2016 to August 2017), unfortunately they did not find strong evidence for continuous wave signals from these five LMXBs. But the search continues! LIGO and Virgo's third observation run (from April 2019 to March 2020) has just completed, so the OzGrav scientists have plenty of data analysis and star searching to sink their teeth into.
A cutting-edge vibration sensor may improve the next generation of gravitational-wave detectors to find the tiniest cosmic waves from the background hum of Earth’s motion.
Vibration sensor. Credit: Joris van Heijningen
During his PhD, postdoctoral researcher Joris van Heijningen from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), developed the world’s most sensitive inertial vibration sensor. Now, he proposes a similar design, but 50 times more sensitive, at frequencies below 10 Hz, using cryogenic temperatures.
This new sensor measures vibrations as small as a few femtometre (a millionth of a billionth of a meter) with a 10 to 100 millisecond period (10 Hz to 100 Hz). The paper recently published in IOP’s Journal of Instrumentation reveals a prototype of the next generation of seismic isolation systems with sensitivity down to 1Hz, using cryogenic temperatures—lower than 9.2 degrees and above the absolute zero.
Even though we can’t feel it, our planet is always vibrating a tiny bit due to many different events, both cosmic and earthly; for example, from gravitational waves (miniscule ripples in spacetime); ocean waves crashing on the shore; or human activity. According to Dr van Heijningen, some places vibrate more than others and, if you plot these vibrations, they lie between two lines called the Peterson Low and High Noise Models (LNM/HNM).
‘The best commercial vibration sensors have been developed to have a sensitivity that lies below the LNM. They are sufficiently sensitive to measure all places on Earth with a decent signal-to-noise-ratio,’ says van Heijningen.
To date, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), with its four-kilometre long arms, uses seismic isolation systems to prevent earthly vibrations affecting scientific measurements; however, future gravitational wave-detectors demand more advanced and precise vibration sensors.
Scientists are already working on a third generation of detectors that will have the power to detect hundreds of black-hole mergers each year, measuring their masses and spins—even more than LIGO, or its European equivalent, Virgo, can measure.
In the US, there will be the Cosmic Explorer: a 40-kilometre observatory that will be able to detect hundreds of thousands of black-hole mergers each year. Equally as impressive will be the Einstein Telescope in Europe, with its 10-kilometre armed, triangular configuration built underground.
Future detectors will be able to measure gravitational waves at frequencies lower than the current cut-off ~10 Hz, ‘because that’s where the signals from collisions of black holes are lurking,’ van Heijningen explains. But one of the main issues of these huge detectors is that they need to be extremely stable—the smallest vibration can hamper detections.
‘Essentially getting the system close to zero degrees Kelvin (which is 270 degrees below zero celsius) drastically reduces the so-called thermal noise, which is dominant at low frequencies. Temperature is a vibration of atoms in some sense, and this minuscule vibration causes noise in our sensors and detectors,’ says van Heijningen.
Future detectors will need to cool down to cryogenic temperatures, but it is no easy feat. Once scientists achieve that, exploiting the cryogenic environment will improve sensor performance following this proposal design. At his new position as a research scientist at UCLouvain in Belgium, van Heijningen plans to prototype this sensor design and test its performance for The Einstein Telescope.
On March 12th 2020 a space telescope called Swift, detected a burst of radiation from half-way across the Milky Way. Within a week, the newly discovered X-ray source, named Swift J1818.0–1607, was found to be a magnetar: a rare type of slowly rotating neutron star with one of the most powerful magnetic fields in the Universe.
Spinning once every 1.4 seconds, it’s the fastest spinning magnetar known, and possibly one of the youngest neutron stars in the Milky Way. It also emits radio pulses like those seen from pulsars--another type of rotating neutron star in our galaxy. At the time of this detection, only four other radio-pulse-emitting magnetars were known, making Swift J1818.0–1607 an extremely rare discovery.
In a recently published study led by a team of scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), it was found that the pulses from the magnetar become significantly fainter when going from low to high radio frequencies: it has a ‘steep’ radio spectrum. Its radio emission is not only steeper than the four other radio magnetars, but also steeper than ~90% of all pulsars! Additionally, they found the magnetar had become over 10 times brighter in only two weeks.
Comparatively, the other four radio magnetars have almost constant brightness at different radio frequencies. These observations were made using the Ultra Wideband-Low (UWL) receiver system installed on the Parkes radio telescope, also known as ‘The Dish’. Whereas most telescopes are limited to observing radio waves across very narrow frequency strips, the Parkes UWL receiver can detect radio waves across an extremely wide range of frequencies all at the same time.
After further analysis, the OzGrav team found interesting similarities to a highly energetic radio pulsar called PSR J1119–6127. This pulsar underwent a magnetar-like outburst back in 2016, where it too experienced a rapid increase in brightness and developed a steep radio spectrum. If the outburst of this pulsar and Swift J1818.0–1607 share the same power source, then slowly over time, the magnetar’s spectrum should begin to look like other observed radio magnetars.
The age of the young magnetar (between 240-320 years), was measured from both its rotation period and how quickly it slows down over time; however, this is unlikely to be accurate. The spin-down rates of magnetars are highly variable on year-long timescales, particularly after outbursts, and can lead to incorrect age estimates. This is also backed up by the lack of any supernova remnant—remnants of luminous stellar explosions—at the magnetars position.
Lead author of the study Marcus Lower proposed a theory to explain of the magnetar’s mysterious properties: ‘Swift J1818.0–1607 may have started out life as a more ordinary radio pulsar that obtained the rotational properties of a magnetar over time. This can happen if the magnetic and rotational poles of a neutron star rapidly become aligned, or if supernova material fell back onto the neutron star and buried its magnetic field’.
The buried magnetic field would then slowly emerge back to the surface over thousands of years. Continued observations of Swift J1818.0–1607, over many months to years, are needed to test these theories.
A recent study on ‘pre-supernova’ neutrinos—tiny cosmic particles that are extremely hard to detect—has brought scientists one step closer to understanding what happens to stars before they explode and die. The study, co-authored by postdoctoral researcher Ryosuke Hirai, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) at Monash University, investigated stellar evolution models to test uncertain predictions.
When a star dies, a huge number of neutrinos are emitted which are thought to drive the resulting supernova explosion. The neutrinos flow freely through and out of the star before the explosion reaches the surface of the star. Scientists can then detect neutrinos before the supernova occurs, in fact, a few dozen neutrinos were detected from a supernova that exploded in 1987, several hours before the explosion was seen in light.
The next generation of neutrino detectors are expected to detect about 50,000 neutrinos from a similar kind of supernova. The technology has become so powerful that scientists predict they will detect the weak neutrino signals that come out days before the explosion; just like a supernova forecast, it will give astronomers a heads up to catch the first light of a supernova. It’s also one of the only ways to directly extract information from a star’s core—similar to an X-ray image of your body, except it’s for stars. But an X-ray image is meaningless unless you know what you’re looking at.
Although there is a general understanding of how a massive star evolves and explodes, scientists are still uncertain about the lead up to the supernova explosion. Many physicists have attempted to model these final phases, but the outcomes appear random; there is no way to confirm if they’re correct. Since pre-supernova neutrino detections allow scientists to better assess these models. a team of OzGrav scientists investigated the late stages of stellar evolution models and how that might affect pre-supernova neutrino estimates.
OzGrav researcher and co-author Ryosuke Hirai says: ‘This will help us make the most of the information from future pre-supernova neutrino detections’. In this first study, we explored the uncertainty on a single star that is 15 times the mass of the Sun. The neutrino emission calculated from these stellar models differed greatly in the neutrino luminosity. This means that pre-supernova neutrino estimates are very sensitive to these small details of the stellar model.’
The study revealed the significant uncertainty of pre-supernova neutrino predictions, as well as the relationship between the neutrino features and the star’s properties.
‘The next supernova in our galaxy can happen any day, and scientists are looking forward to detecting pre-supernova neutrinos, but we still don't know what we can learn from it. This study lays out the first steps of how to interpret the data. Eventually, we’ll be able to use pre-supernova neutrinos to understand crucial parts of massive star evolution and the supernova explosion mechanism.’
EVERY YEAR, 2 MILLION BLACK HOLE MERGERS ARE MISSED – AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS WORK OUT HOW TO DETECT THEM, REVEALING A LOST 8 BILLION LIGHT YEARS OF UNIVERSE EVOLUTION.
Last year, the Advanced LIGO-VIRGO gravitational-wave detector network recorded data from 35 merging black holes and neutron stars. A great result – but what did they miss? According to Dr Rory Smith from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Gravitational Wave Discovery at Monash University in Australia – it’s likely there are another 2 million gravitational wave events from merging black holes, “a pair of merging black holes every 200 seconds and a pair of merging neutron stars every 15 seconds” that scientists are not picking up.
Dr Smith and his colleagues, also at Monash University, have developed a method to detect the presence of these weak or “background” events that to date have gone unnoticed, without having to detect each one individually.
The method – which is currently being test driven by the LIGO community – “means that we may be able to look more than 8 billion light years further than we are currently observing,” Dr Smith said.
“This will give us a snapshot of what the early universe looked like while providing insights into the evolution of the universe.”
The paper, recently published in the Royal Astronomical Society journal, details how researchers will measure the properties of a background of gravitational waves from the millions of unresolved black hole mergers.
Binary black hole mergers release huge amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves and are now routinely being detected by the Advanced LIGO-Virgo detector network. According to co-author, Eric Thrane from OzGrav-Monash, these gravitational waves generated by individual binary mergers “carry information about spacetime and nuclear matter in the most extreme environments in the Universe. Individual observations of gravitational waves trace the evolution of stars, star clusters, and galaxies,” he said.
“By piecing together information from many merger events, we can begin to understand the environments in which stars live and evolve, and what causes their eventual fate as black holes. The further away we see the gravitational waves from these mergers, the younger the Universe was when they formed. We can trace the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout cosmic time, back to when the Universe was a fraction of its current age.”
The researchers measure population properties of binary black hole mergers, such as the distribution of black hole masses. The vast majority of compact binary mergers produce gravitational waves that are too weak to yield unambiguous detections – so vast amounts of information is currently missed by our observatories.
“Moreover, inferences made about the black hole population may be susceptible to a ‘selection bias’ due to the fact that we only see a handful of the loudest, most nearby systems. Selection bias means we might only be getting a snapshot of black holes, rather than the full picture,” Dr Smith warned.
The analysis developed by Smith and Thrane is being tested using real world observations from the LIGO-VIRGO detectors with the program expected to be fully operational within a few years, according to Dr Smith.
Gravitational wave detectors are extremely complex instruments of precision measurement. They use interference as the physical mechanism to measure passing gravitational waves (GWs)—ripples in space-time—from different astronomical sources and events, like two neutron stars merging. The passing wave signal gets encoded into a wave of light and is read-out after exiting the interferometer. The issue is that the signal is so weak that any movement from the optical components will degrade the signal strength. For example, the random motion of particles that make up the material called ‘thermal noise’.
In the design of GW detectors, ‘optomechanical’ cavities are used to enhance the signal from GW detectors. These cavities, or ‘resonators’, typically have two, moving-end mirrors which trap and amplify light. There is one problem however: the mirrors can move too much due to thermal noise! If we can minimise the thermal noise of these resonators, it will improve the GW sensitivity.
The Double-End-Mirror-Sloshing (DEMS) cavity—shown in figure 1—is a special type of optomechanical cavity which consists of four mirrors, a transmitting sloshing mirror and a resonator which reflects light from both sides (double-end-mirror). Using the DEMS cavity, the resonator exhibits very low levels of thermal noise through a process called ‘optical dilution’, which works by trapping the resonator in a potential well using radiation pressure. This keeps the resonator tightly bound, so it’s not easily disturbed from the random thermal fluctuations.
In a study led by the OzGrav, researchers explain that, although the optical spring is not unique to the DEMS cavity, the troublesome impact of radiation pressure noise and anti-damping effects are circumvented in the DEMS cavity, but are unavoidable in a two-mirror cavity.
First author and OzGrav research assistant Parris Trahanas explains: ‘The key mechanism that allows the DEMS cavity these qualities is the transmissive sloshing mirror component—it turns the DEMS cavity into a coupled optical resonator, which is the optical equivalent of connecting two spring mass systems together with a third spring.’
The results in Figure 2 show the avoided crossing of the optical resonances which is characteristic of a coupled oscillator—this will be an extremely useful tool for GW detectors, but could be more broadly applied to any field requiring low thermal noise in mechanical resonators.