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.
Most massive stars are born in binaries (and sometimes triples, quadruples, and so on—being single isn’t common for such rock stars!). As stars age, they grow larger in size, and not just a little thickening of the waistline, but a hundred-fold or even thousand-fold expansion! When stars in binaries expand, part of them get close to the other star in the binary, whose gravity can then pull off the outer portions of the expanding star. The result is mass transfer from one star to the other.
Usually mass is transferred gradually. But sometimes, the more mass is transferred, the more mass gets pulled off, in a runaway process. The outer layers of one star completely surround the other in a phase known as the common envelope. During this phase, the dense cores of the two stars orbit each other inside the cloud, or envelope, of gas. The gas drags on the stellar cores, causing them to spiral in; this heats up the common envelope, which may get expelled. The cores may end up more than one hundred times closer than they started.
This common envelope phase is thought to play a crucial role in forming ultra-compact object binaries, including sources of gravitational waves; however, it is also very poorly understood.
In a paper recently accepted to the Astrophysical Journal, Soumi De and collaborators from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) explored the common envelope phase through detailed computer simulations. They used ‘wind-tunnel models’, in which a stellar core, a neutron star or a black hole is buffeted by the ‘wind’ of gas, representing its orbit through the envelope. While this is a simplification of the full three-dimensional physics of the common envelope, the hope is that this approach makes it possible to understand the key features of the problem.
You can watch an animation of one of the models here: https://sde101.expressions.syr.edu/common-envelope-hydrodynamic-simulations/ .
Co-author and OzGrav CI Ilya Mandel explains that ‘the results revealed the drag forces and the rate of accretion onto the black hole. Together, these allow us to predict how much the black hole will grow during the common envelope phase’.
‘While a naive estimate suggests that black holes should gain a lot of mass during this phase, we find that’s not the case, and the black holes do not become much heavier,’ says Mandel. ‘And this has important consequences for understanding the merger rates and mass distributions of gravitational-wave sources.’
Bright explosions or quiet collapses into black holes? Scientists investigate the fate of massive stars
A team of scientists, including Chief Investigator Ilya Mandel from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) at Monash University, recently submitted a paper investigating what happens to rotating massive stars when they reach the end of their lives.
Stars produce energy by fusing lighter elements into heavier ones in their core: hydrogen into helium, then helium into carbon, oxygen, and so on, up to iron. The energy produced by this nuclear fusion also provides pressure support inside the star, which balances the force of gravity and allows the star to remain in equilibrium.
This process stops at iron. Beyond iron, energy is required for fusion rather than being released by fusion. A heavy iron star core contracts under gravity, creating a neutron star or, if it is heavy enough, a black hole. Meanwhile, the outer layers of the star explode in a brilliant flash, observable as a supernova. However, some massive stars seem to completely disappear without any explosion. Theories suggest that these massive stars completely collapse into black holes, but is that possible?
A team led by Ariadna Murguia-Berthier, a PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz, and involving OzGrav Chief Investigator Ilya Mandel, set out to answer this question. They were particularly interested in understanding whether a rotating star could quietly collapse into a black hole.
In their paper submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters, they describe a set of simulations investigating the collapse of a rotating gas cloud into a black hole. It was found that if the gas is rotating too quickly at the beginning, it cannot efficiently collapse; instead, the gas stalls in a donut-like shape around the equator of the black hole.
The team hypothesised that the heat generated from falling gas slamming into this spinning gas donut will unbind the outer layers of the star and create a supernova-like explosion. A small percentage of all stars were also found to rotate slowly enough—below the threshold for this gas stalling to occur—and could indeed collapse into black holes quietly.
“It’s very exciting to bring together general relativity, sophisticated computational techniques, stellar models, and the latest observations to explore the formation of black holes from massive stars!” says Mandel.
Earlier this year, an international team of scientists announced the second detection of a gravitational-wave signal from the collision of two neutron stars. The event, called GW190425, is puzzling: the combined mass of the two neutron stars is greater than any other observed binary neutron star system. The combined mass is 3.4 times the mass of our Sun.
A neutron star binary this massive has never been seen in our Galaxy, and scientists have been mystified by how it could have formed—until now. A team of astrophysicists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) think they might have the answer.
Binary neutron stars emit gravitational waves—ripples in space-time— as they orbit each other, and scientists can detect these waves when the neutron stars merge. The gravitational waves contain information about the neutron stars, including their masses.
The gravitational waves from cosmic event GW190425 tell of a neutron star binary more massive than any neutron star binary previously observed, either through radio-wave or gravitational-wave astronomy. A recent study led by OzGrav PhD student Isobel Romero-Shaw from Monash University proposes a formation channel that explains both the high mass of this binary and the fact that similar systems aren’t observed with traditional radio astronomy techniques.
Romero-Shaw explains: ‘We propose that GW190425 formed through a process called ‘unstable case BB mass transfer’, a procedure that was originally defined in 1981. It starts with a neutron star which has a stellar partner: a helium (He) star with a carbon-oxygen (CO) core. If the helium part of the star expands far enough to engulf the neutron star, this helium cloud ends up pushing the binary closer together before it dissipates. The carbon-oxygen core of the star then explodes in a supernova and collapses to a neutron star’.
Binary neutron stars that form in this way can be significantly more massive than those observed through radio waves. They also merge very fast following the supernova explosion, making them unlikely to be captured in radio astronomy surveys.
‘Our study points out that the process of unstable case BB mass transfer could be how the massive star system formed,’ says Romero-Shaw.
The OzGrav researchers also used a recently-developed technique to measure the eccentricity of the binary—how much the star system’s orbital shape deviates from a circle. Their findings are consistent with unstable case BB mass transfer.
Current ground-based gravitational-wave detectors aren’t sensitive enough to precisely measure the eccentricity; however, future detectors—like space-based detector LISA, due for launch in 2034—will allow scientists to make more accurate conclusions.
In a study recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers Dr Jade Powell and Dr Bernhard Mueller from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) simulated three core-collapse supernovae using supercomputers from across Australia, including the OzSTAR supercomputer at Swinburne University of Technology. The simulation models—which are 39 times, 20 times and 18 times more massive than our Sun— revealed new insights into exploding massive stars and the next generation of gravitational-wave detectors.
Core-collapse supernovae are the explosive deaths of massive stars at the end of their lifetime. They are some of the most luminous objects in the Universe and are the birthplace of black holes and neutron stars. The gravitational waves—ripples in space and time—detected from these supernovae, help scientists better understand the astrophysics of black holes and neutron stars.
Future advanced gravitational-wave detectors, engineered to be more sensitive, could possibly detect a supernova—a core-collapse supernova could be the first object to be observed simultaneously in electromagnetic light, neutrinos and gravitational waves.
To detect a core-collapse supernova in gravitational waves, scientists need to predict what the gravitational wave signal will look like. Supercomputers are used to simulate these cosmic explosions to understand their complicated physics. This allows scientists to predict what the detectors will see when a star explodes and its observable properties.
In the study, the simulations of three exploding massive stars follow the operation of the supernova engine over a long duration—this is important for accurate predictions of the neutron star masses and observable explosion energy.
OzGrav postdoctoral researcher Jade Powell says: ‘Our models are 39 times, 20 times and 18 times more massive than our Sun. The 39-solar mass model is important because it’s rotating very rapidly, and most previous long duration core-collapse supernova simulations do not include the effects of rotation’.
The two most massive models produce energetic explosions powered by the neutrinos, but the smallest model did not explode. Stars that do not explode emit lower amplitude gravitational waves, but the frequency of their gravitational waves lies in the most sensitive range of gravitational wave detectors.
‘For the first time, we showed that rotation changes the relationship between the gravitational-wave frequency and the properties of the newly-forming neutron star,’ explains Powell.
The rapidly rotating model showed large gravitational-wave amplitudes that would make the exploding star detectable almost 6.5 million light years away by the next generation of gravitational-wave detectors, like the Einstein Telescope.
A team of researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave discovery (OzGrav) recently published a study revealing something unexpected about black holes: that intermediate-mass black holes with precessing orbits should be easier to detect than standard ones.
Black holes are regions of space-time from which nothing can escape, not even light. They are the corpses of dead stars that collapsed under their own weight, after running out of fuel. As archaeology helps us to understand how dinosaurs lived, the study of black holes helps us to understand how stars formed, evolved and died.
When two blackholes collide, they release incredible amounts of energy in the form of gravitational-waves (ripples in the fabric of space-time), producing the most powerful space-time storms. By observing these waves, scientists can explore the most fundamental properties of gravity.
Black holes can be classified according to their mass—two different kinds have been identified: black holes with a mass several times bigger than the Sun; and supermassive black holes that lie in the centre of most galaxies (the largest type of black hole), containing a mass billions of times the mass of the Sun.
Intermediate-mass black holes are the elusive missing link; despite the indirect evidence for their existence, scientists have not yet confirmed a conclusive observation of these black holes. Finding them would help to explain the mystery of how stellar mass black holes can evolve into supermassive ones.
The LIGO and Virgo collaboration searched for intermediate-mass black hole collisions during their first and second observing runs, from 2015 to 2018, but were not successful. On the bright side, the lack of a detection allows scientists to confirm how many of these collisions happen in the Universe.
To achieve this in the study researchers including OzGrav Alumnus Juan Calderon Bustillo, first determined the observable distance of these collisions using supercomputer simulations. The gravitational-wave signals generated from the collision were recorded and injected into the data to assess their recovery rate in the search algorithms.
When doing similar studies, scientists have always assumed that two colliding black holes approach each other with a constant orbital plane, like the orbit of the Earth and the Sun. However, there is another possible situation in which the black holes move up and down, describing what is known as a precessing orbit.
The researchers found that this kind of collision can be observed from a further distance, allowing them to better constrain the number of black hole collisions out there. This also means that these black holes may be easier to detect if they follow precessing orbits rather than standard ones, making them better candidates for a first detection of intermediate-mass black holes.