MEDIA RELEASE: Searching for elusive continuous gravitational waves from the densest objects in the Universe
Caption: Artist’s impression of continuous gravitational waves generated by a spinning asymmetric neutron star (left) accreting matter from a companion star (right). Credit: Mark Myers, OzGrav-Swinburne University of Technology
Take a star similar in size to the Sun, squash it down to a ball about twenty kilometres across and you’d get a neutron star: the densest object in the known Universe. Now set your neutron star spinning at hundreds of revolutions per second and listen carefully. If your neutron star isn’t perfectly spherical, it will wobble a bit, causing it to continuously send out faint ripples in the fabric of space and time. These ripples are called continuous gravitational waves.
So far, these elusive continuous gravitational waves haven’t been detected; however, in a recent study, an international collaboration of scientists, led by Australian OzGrav researcher Julian Carlin (from the University of Melbourne), searched for them from a specific category of neutron star: accreting millisecond X-ray pulsars (AMXPs).
To break it down, AXMPs are:
As AMXPs accumulate matter from their companion star, they’re likely to send out stronger signals than a lone neutron star. This is because the strength of a neutron star’s signal is proportional to its asymmetry. Astronomers theorise that this build up of matter on the AMXPs could create small mountains on the surface as material is funnelled by the magnetic field onto the magnetic poles. This is illustrated by the artist's impression shown in Figure 1.
This search uses data from the third observing run of LIGO, Virgo, and KAGRA which lasted from April 2019 to March 2020. The team searched for continuous gravitational waves from 20 AMXPs - 14 of which hadn’t been searched before.
The search method used in this work is the result of a collaboration between physicists and engineers at the University of Melbourne. “The methods we are using to search for continuous gravitational waves from spinning neutron stars are similar to those used in speech recognition software!” said Hannah Middleton (an OzGrav postdoc at both the University of Melbourne and Swinburne University).
Unfortunately, continuous gravitational waves were not convincingly detected this time. However, as detector technology and data analysis algorithms keep improving, it’s possible that a detection will be made in the next observing run.
Julian Carlin said: “It may turn out that the weak candidates we’ve spotted here are the first signs of a real signal, and we just need a little bit more data to pull it out of the noise”.
“If a detection were made, it’d allow us to peer into the hearts of neutron stars ━ teaching us how matter behaves in extremely dense environments,” he continues. “Detecting continuous gravitational waves from neutron stars would give us great insights into how these fantastic astronomical clocks really tick.”
“The hunt for continuous gravitational waves is one of the top challenges in gravitational wave science”, said Andrew Melatos, an OzGrav Chief Investigator whose research group at the University of Melbourne has been chasing these tiny signals for more than a decade. “Pulsars are one of Nature’s most bountiful gifts. Their radio signals revolutionised astronomy, shedding new light on everything from the gas between the stars to Einstein’s theory of gravity and the strongest magnetic fields in the Universe. Who knows what surprises their gravitational wave murmurs will reveal?”
Dr. Karl Wette, an OzGrav research fellow at The Australian National University and co-chair of the LIGO continuous wave working group, said: "Gravitational waves are becoming an essential tool for fundamental physics and astronomy. We've now heard the echoes of nearly 100 pairs of black holes and neutron stars smashing into each other. We're keeping our ear to the ground, and hope to pick out the tell-tale hum of a rapidly-spinning neutron star in the coming years. Australia has a strong track record in this area of research, and it's particularly pleasing to see Australian students and junior researchers making important contributions.”
"With improved detectors in the fourth observation run, the number of detections is expected to increase manifold,” said OzGrav PhD student Chayan Chatterjee at the University of Western Australia. “So, it will be extremely exciting to watch out for more continuous gravitational wave candidates as well as other ground-breaking discoveries!"
Read the full scientific article https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.105.022002
Link to the LIGO Science Summary: https://www.ligo.org/science/Publication-O3LMXBsAMXPs/.
In our recently accepted paper, we examined the black hole-neutron star merger called GW200115, second observed by LIGO and Virgo in January 2020. Curiously, GW200115’s black hole could have been spinning rapidly, with its spin misaligned with respect to the orbital motion. This is strange because it implies that the system would have formed in pretty unexpected ways.
So, is there something we’re missing? In our paper we show that the puzzling black hole spin is probably due to something that was added to the LIGO-Virgo measurements instead. It has to do with things called ‘priors’ which encode assumptions about the population of black hole-neutron star binaries based on our current knowledge. We argue that a better explanation for the GW200115 merger is that the black hole was not spinning at all, and consequently, we place tighter constraints on the black hole and neutron star masses.
What is a prior?
Imagine you want to know the probability of having drawn an Ace from a deck of cards, given that the card is red. You’d need to know the separate probabilities of drawing an Ace and a red card. The probability of drawing an Ace, independent of the data (“the card is red”) is the ‘prior’ probability of drawing an Ace. Astronomy is similar to a game of cards: we can think of observed gravitational-wave signals as having been dealt to us randomly by the Universe from a cosmic deck of cards. The prior should express our current best knowledge of this deck before we make a measurement, because it‘s used to calculate the probability of each possible black hole spin. In the LIGO-Virgo analysis of GW200115, it was assumed that all black hole spins are equally likely. This is fine if we have no strong preference for any value, but we do: observation and theory tell us we shouldn’t expect a rapidly spinning black hole to be paired with a neutron star. This information is key to accurately measuring the properties of GW200115.
In our paper, we begin by demonstrating that if GW200115 originated from a black hole-neutron star binary with zero spin, the unrealistic LIGO-Virgo prior (which assumes the black hole can equally likely spin with any magnitude and direction) generates preference for a large misaligned black hole spin. We do this by simulating a gravitational-wave signal from a non-spinning binary, placing it into simulated (but realistic) LIGO-Virgo noise, and inferring its properties assuming any spin value is equally likely. Our simulated experiment yields a similar spin measurement to LIGO-Virgo’s and we’re able to explain analytically why signals from black hole-neutron star binaries with zero spin will generically yield such measurements when very broad spin priors are assumed. While this doesn’t prove that GW200115 is non-spinning, it suggests that the puzzling LIGO-Virgo spin measurement is probably due to their unrealistic priors.
Next, we look to astrophysics to figure out a more realistic prior. We use current theoretical modelling to suggest that there’s roughly a 95% probability that black hole-neutron star binaries do not spin at all, and only around 5% do spin. We use this astrophysical prior to update the LIGO-Virgo measurements of GW200115’s spins and masses. When we do this, we find that there is almost zero probability that the black hole had any spin at all. While this might seem circular at first glance—after all, we’re giving zero-spin almost 20 times more weight than non-zero spin—it’s also a reflection of the fact that the data don’t strongly support a rapidly spinning black hole. Additionally, we show that our prior reduces the uncertainty on the black hole and neutron star masses by a factor of 3. Reassuringly, the mass of the neutron star looks significantly more like those found in double neutron star systems in the Milky Way.
Written by Rory Smith and Ilya Mandel, Monash University
RESEARCH PATHS: Orbital path shapes of colliding dead stars may indicate origin of binary stellar systems
We measured the shapes of the orbits of dead stars by their *eccentricity*: higher eccentricity means the orbital shape is more squashed, while an eccentricity of 0 means that it is circular. The coloured shapes represent the probability of eccentricity for each event, with the widest point of the shape at the highest point of probability. There are two events with their highest point of probability above the detection threshold for eccentricity, which is indicated with a dotted line.
The LIGO-Virgo-KAGRA Collaboration recently announced that the number of times we've seen dead stars crashing into each other on the other side of the Universe has grown to 90. It's clearly not uncommon for these dead stars—most of them black holes—to slam together in violent merger events. But one outstanding mystery pervades these detections: how do two compact stellar remnants find each other in the vast emptiness of space, and go on to merge together? In our recent paper, we found clues to solve this mystery from the orbital path shapes formed by the stellar objects before they collided.
Often, stars are born into binary systems containing two stars that orbit each other. If these binary stars undergo specific evolutionary mechanisms, they can remain close when they die, and their corpses—black holes and/or neutron stars—can collide with each other. This kind of binary should trace a circular orbital path before it merges. However, sometimes stellar remnants meet in more exciting environments, like the cores of star clusters. In this kind of environment, binary stellar remnants can trace orbital paths around each other that look like ‘squashed’ circles—more egg-shaped or sausage-shaped.
Dense clusters of stars can produce binaries in circular orbits; however, about 1 in 25 of the mergers that combine in a dense star cluster are expected to have orbital shapes that are visibly squashed. To map the paths taken by cosmic couples in their pre-merger moments, we studied the space-time ripples produced by the collisions of 36 binary black holes. Two of these collisions—one of them being the monster binary black hole GW190521—contained the distinctive signatures of elongated (squashed) orbits. This means that more than a quarter of the observed collisions may be occurring in dense star clusters, because every squashed-orbit system indicates that 24 more mergers may also have happened in this environment.
While this result is exciting, it’s not conclusive: other dense environments, like the centres of galaxies, can also produce merging stellar remnants with squashed orbital shapes. To distinguish the formation habitats of the observed population, we need to scrutinise the orbital shapes of more colliding stellar remnants. Luckily, the number of detected stellar-remnant collisions is growing quickly, so this merger mystery may be solved soon.
Written by OzGrav PhD student Isobel Romero-Shaw, Monash University