SCIENTISTS FIND NEW INSIGHTS INTO THE ELUSIVE CONTINUOUS WAVES FROM SPINNING NEUTRON STARS
Five years on from the first discovery of gravitational waves, an international team of scientists, including from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), are continuing the hunt for new discoveries and insights into the Universe. Using the super-sensitive, kilometre-sized LIGO detectors in the United States, and the Virgo detector in Europe, the team have witnessed the explosive collisions of black holes and neutron stars. Recent studies, however, have been looking for something quite different: the elusive signal from a solitary, rapidly-spinning neutron star.
Take a star similar in size to the Sun, squash it down to a ball about twenty kilometres across ━ roughly the distance from Melbourne airport to the city centre ━ 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 about a bit, and you’ll hear a faint “humming” sound. Scientists call this a continuous gravitational wave.
So far, these humming neutron stars have proved elusive. As OzGrav postdoctoral researcher Karl Wette from the Australian National University explains: “Imagine you’re out in the Australian bush listening to the wildlife. The gravitational waves from black hole and neutron star collisions we’ve observed so far are like squawking cockatoos ━ loud and boisterous, they’re pretty easy to spot! A continuous gravitational wave, however, is like the faint, constant buzz of a faraway bee, which is much more difficult to detect. So we’ve got to use a few different strategies. Sometimes we hone in on a particular direction ━ for example, a flowering bush where bees are likely to congregate. Other times, we close our eyes and listen keenly to all the sounds we can hear, and try to pick out any buzzing sounds in the background. So far, we haven’t had any luck, but we’ll keep trying! Once we do hear a continuous gravitational wave, we’ll be able to peer deep into the heart of a neutron star and unravel its mysteries, which is an exciting prospect.”
A recent collaborative study with OzGrav has taken a closer look at the remnants of exploded stars, called supernovae. OzGrav PhD student Lucy Strang from the University of Melbourne explains: “Our search targets fifteen young supernova remnants containing young neutron stars. We use three different pipelines: one optimized for sensitivity, one that can handle a rapidly evolving signal, and one optimized for one likely astrophysical scenario. This is the first LIGO study covering all three of these scenarios, maximising our chance of a continuous wave detection. Continuous gravitational waves are proving very difficult to detect, but the same properties that make them elusive make them appealing targets. The exact form of the signal (i.e. its frequency, how rapidly the frequency changes, how loud it is, etc.) is dependent on what neutron stars are made of. So far, the structure of neutron stars is an open question that draws in all kinds of physicists. Even without a detection, a search allows us to peek behind the curtain at the unknown physics of neutron stars. When we do detect continuous waves, we'll open the curtain and shine a spotlight on new physics. Until then, we can use the information we do have to refine our understanding and improve our search methods.”
OzGrav Associate Investigator Lilli Sun from the Australian National University says: “Young neutron stars in supernova remnants are promising targets to look for those tiny continuous gravitational waves, because they haven't spent a long enough time to relax and smooth out the asymmetries introduced at their birth. In our endeavor to search for continuous waves from these young neutron stars in our third observing run, we take into consideration, for the first time, the possibilities that the interior configuration and structure of the star can result in signals emitted at two different harmonics. Although no signal has been detected in O3, we set interesting constraints on the neutron star properties. If such a signal can be detected in future observations when the detectors are more sensitive, it will shed light on the fascinating structure of a neutron star.”
OzGrav postdoctoral researcher Carl Blair from the University of Western Australia says: “Gravitational waves are being used to probe the most exotic objects in the Universe. Neutron stars ━ composed of matter collapsed in on itself like a giant atomic nuclei ━ have to be one of the most exotic. We don’t know that much about neutron stars because they’re so small and strange. Are they hard or soft? And when they spin fast as they collapse, do they wobble away that energy in the form of gravitational waves? While there is no evidence yet for continuous gravitational waves from neutron stars, limits have been placed on how wobbly a neutron star is from the fact that we haven’t measured gravitational waves from them yet.”
In addition, recent studies announced by the international research team ━ including the U.S./international LIGO Scientific Collaboration, European Virgo Collaboration and Japanese KAGRA Collaboration ━ have focussed on pulsars. These are neutron stars which act as cosmic lighthouses, beaming out copious energy in the form of radio waves. Pulsars are like giant spinning magnets, except they’re billions of times stronger than the ones stuck to your fridge. So strong, in fact, that the magnetic field distorts the shape of the neutron star, and may lead to a tell-tale hum of continuous gravitational waves. While the recent studies did not pick up anything, they found tight constraints on how loud the “hum” could be, which, in some cases, are starting to challenge theoretical predictions.
OzGrav PhD student Deeksha Beniwal from the University of Adelaide says: “Gravitational-wave observation from O3 run of LIGO and Virgo detectors has allowed us to set realistic constraints on signals expected from young pulsars. O3 observations also provide an opportunity to test out different pipelines ━ such as different search methods for continuous wave signals ━ in realistic environments.”
OzGrav postdoctoral researcher Meg Millhouse from the University of Melbourne says: “Continuous gravitational waves from neutron stars are much smaller than the gravitational waves LIGO and Virgo have seen so far. This means we need different techniques to detect them. And, because these are long lasting signals, we need to look at lots of data which can be very difficult computationally. The recent LIGO-Virgo papers published showcase a wide range of these clever approaches to detect continuous gravitational waves. Even though there were no detections in the most recent data analysed, we’re in a good position to keep searching and possibly make a detection when LIGO collects more data.”
Scientists estimate that there are billions of neutron stars in the Milky Way with a faint murmur of continuous gravitational waves. Further studies have therefore taken an “ears wide open” approach, combing through the LIGO and Virgo data for any hint of a signal. The results so far suggest that these murmurings are extremely quiet and out of the detectors’ “ear” range. However, as detector technology becomes more advanced and sensitive, the first ever detection of continuous gravitational waves could soon become a reality.
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Gravitational-wave scientists propose new method to refine the Hubble Constant—the expansion and age of the Universe
A team of international scientists, led by the Galician Institute of High Energy Physics (IGFAE) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), has proposed a simple and novel method to bring the accuracy of the Hubble constant measurements down to 2%, using a single observation of a pair of merging neutron stars.
The Universe is in continuous expansion. Because of this, distant objects such as galaxies move away from us. In fact, the further away they are, the faster they move. Scientists describe this expansion through a famous number known as the Hubble constant, which tells us how fast objects in the Universe recede from us depending on their distance to us. By measuring the Hubble constant in a precise way, we can also determine some of the most fundamental properties of the Universe, including its age.
For decades, scientists have measured Hubble’s constant with increasing accuracy, collecting electromagnetic signals emitted throughout the Universe but arriving at a challenging result: the two current best measurements give inconsistent results. Since 2015, scientists have tried to tackle this challenge with the science of gravitational waves: ripples in the fabric of space-time that travel at the speed of light. Gravitational waves are generated in the most violent cosmic events and provide a new channel of information about the Universe. They’re emitted during the collision of two neutron stars—the dense cores of collapsed stars–and can help scientists dig deeper into the Hubble constant mystery.
Unlike black holes, merging neutron stars produce both gravitational and electromagnetic waves, such as x-rays, radio waves and visible light. While gravitational waves can measure the distance between the neutron-star merger and Earth, electromagnetic waves can measure how fast its whole galaxy is moving away from Earth. This creates a new way to measure the Hubble constant. However, even with the help of gravitational waves, it’s still tricky to measure the distance to neutron-star mergers--that’s, in part, why current gravitational-wave based measurements of the Hubble constant have an uncertainty of ~16%, much larger than existing measurements using other traditional techniques.
In a recently published article in the prestigious journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team of scientists led by ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) and Monash University alumni Prof Juan Calderón Bustillo (now La Caixa Junior Leader and Marie Curie Fellow at the Galician institute of High Energy Physics of the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain), has proposed a simple and novel method to bring the accuracy of these measurements down to 2% using a single observation of a pair of merging neutron stars.
According to Prof Calderón Bustillo, it’s difficult to interpret how far away these mergers occur because ‘currently, we can’t say if the binary is very far away and facing Earth, or if it’s much closer, with the Earth in its orbital plane’. To decide between these two scenarios, the team proposed to study secondary, much weaker components of the gravitational-wave signals emitted by neutron-star mergers, known as higher modes. ‘Just like an orchestra plays different instruments, neutron-star mergers emit gravitational waves through different modes,’ explains Prof Calderón Bustillo. ‘When the merging neutron stars are facing you, you will only hear the loudest instrument. However, if you are close to the merger’s orbital plane, you should also hear the secondary ones. This allows us to determine the inclination of the neutron-star merger, and better measure the distance’.
However, the method is not completely new: ‘We know this works well for the case of very massive black hole mergers because our current detectors can record the merger instant when the higher modes are most prominent. But in the case of neutron stars, the pitch of the merger signal is so high that our detectors can’t record it. We can only record the earlier orbits,’ says Prof Calderón Bustillo.
Future gravitational-wave detectors, like the proposed Australian project NEMO, will be able to access the actual merger stage of neutron stars. ‘When two neutron stars merge, the nuclear physics governing their matter can cause very rich signals that, if detected, could allow us to know exactly where the Earth sits with respect to the orbital plane of the merger,’ says co-author and OzGrav Chief Investigator Dr Paul Lasky, from Monash University. Dr Lasky is also one of the leads on the NEMO project. ‘A detector like NEMO could detect these rich signals,’ he adds.
In their study, the team performed computer simulations of neutron-star mergers that can reveal the effect of the nuclear physics of the stars on the gravitational waves. Studying these simulations, the team determined that a detector like NEMO could measure Hubble’s constant with a precision of 2%.
Co-author of the study Prof Tim Dietrich, from the University of Potsdam, says: ‘We found that fine details describing the way neutrons behave inside the star produce subtle signatures in the gravitational waves that can greatly help to determine the expansion rate of the Universe. It is fascinating to see how effects at the tiniest nuclear scale can infer what happens at the largest possible cosmological one’.
Samson Leong, undergraduate student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-author of the study points out “one of the most exciting things about our result is that we obtained such a great improvement while considering a rather conservative scenario. While NEMO will indeed be sensitive to the emission of neutron-star mergers, more evolved detectors like Einstein Telescope or Cosmic Explorer will be even more sensitive, therefore allowing us to measure the expansion of the Universe with even better accuracy!”.
One of the most outstanding implications of this study is that it could determine if the Universe is expanding uniformly in space as currently hypothesised. 'Previous methods to achieve this level of accuracy rely on combining many observations, assuming that the Hubble constant is the same in all directions and throughout the history of the Universe,’ says Calderón Bustillo. ‘In our case, each individual event would yield a very accurate estimate of “its own Hubble constant”, allowing us to test if this is actually a constant or if it varies throughout space and time.’
Deep space listening: 6000 hours of research to hear continuous gravitational waves
Remember the days before working from home? It's Monday morning, you're running late to beat the traffic, and you can't find your car keys. What do you do? You might try moving from room to room, casting your eye over every flat surface, in the hope of spotting the missing keys. Of course, this assumes that they are somewhere in plain sight; if they're hidden under a newspaper, or fallen behind the sofa, you'll never spot them. Or you might be so convinced that you last saw the keys in the kitchen and search for them there: inside every cupboard, the microwave, dishwasher, back of the fridge, etc. Of course, if you left them on your bedside table, upending the kitchen is doomed to failure. So, which is the best strategy?
Scientists face a similar conundrum in the hunt for gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space and time—from rapidly spinning neutron stars. These stars are the densest objects in the Universe and, provided they're not perfectly spherical, emit a very faint "hum" of continuous gravitational waves. Hearing this "hum" would allow scientists to peer deep inside a neutron star and discover its secrets, yielding new insights into the most extreme states of matter. However, our very sensitive "ears"—4-kilometre-sized detectors using powerful lasers—haven’t heard anything yet.
Part of the challenge is that, like the missing keys, scientists aren’t sure of the best search strategy. Most previous studies have taken the "room-to-room" approach, trying to find continuous gravitational waves in as many different places as possible. But this means you can only spend a limited amount of time listening for the tell-tale "hum" in any one location—in the same way that you can only spend so long staring at your coffee table, trying to discern a key-shaped object. And since the "hum" is very quiet, there's a good chance you won’t even hear it.
In a recently published study, a team of scientists, led by postdoctoral researcher Karl Wette from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) at the Australian National University, tried the "where else could they be but the kitchen?" approach.
Wette explains: “We took an educated guess at a specific location where continuous gravitational waves might be, based in part on what we already know about pulsars—they’re like neutron stars but send out radio waves instead of continuous gravitational waves. We hypothesised that there would be continuous gravitational waves detected near pulsar radio waves.” Just like guessing that your missing keys will probably be close to your handbag or wallet.
Using existing observational data, the team spent a lot of time searching in this location (nearly 6000 days of computer time!) listening carefully for that faint "hum". They also used graphic processing units—specialist electronics normally used for computer games—making their algorithms run super-fast.
“Our search was significantly more sensitive than any previous search for this location,” says Wette. “Unfortunately, we didn't hear anything, so our guess was wrong this time. It’s back to the drawing board for now, but we'll keep listening.”