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.
Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) reveal an alternative explanation of the recently announce black hole merger. The paper was just accepted by Astrophysical Journal Letters.
On the 12th of April 2019, the LIGO and Virgo observatories detected gravitational waves—ripples in space and time—from an unusual cosmic event of two black holes merging. Unlike the ten previously reported black hole mergers, in which the two black holes may have had equal or nearly-equal masses, this event, called GW190412, definitely had two very unequal black holes, with the heavier one possibly three or four times more massive than the lighter one.
In addition, the discovery paper (released in Australia on 19 April 2020) reported that at least one of the merging black holes had to be spinning: rotating around its axis. However, gravitational waves do not allow accurate measurement of individual spins. Only a specific spin combination can be measured. Therefore, to infer individual spins, assumptions must be made based on scientific models. The LIGO and Virgo collaborations assumed that the heavier, first-born black hole could be spinning, and reported that it had a moderate spin in the gravitational-wave discovery paper.
Within 24 hours of the discovery’s announcement, OzGrav Chief Investigator Ilya Mandel, from Monash University, and collaborator Tassos Fragos, from the University of Geneva, wrote a follow-up paper which has just been accepted by Astrophysical Journal Letters. Motivated by the best current models of the evolution of massive stars in binaries, Mandel and Fragos argued that the more massive, or ‘heavier’, black hole in the event is very slowly spinning; whereas the ‘lighter’ black hole is spinning very fast, in the same direction as the orbital motion.
Mandel and Fragos state that if isolated pairs of stars orbiting around each other give birth to merging black holes, they naturally make first-born, heavier black holes that spin very slowly. Before a star forms a black hole, it evolves into a giant with a gaseous envelope. When it does so, it slows down, like a spinning figure skater extending her arms. When this envelope is stripped off by extreme tidal forces exerted by the other star in the binary, a slowly rotating central core is left behind, which ultimately collapses into a slowly spinning black hole.
The same process should typically apply to the second-born, lighter star, which eventually collapses into the lighter black hole. However, when the second star loses its gaseous envelope, the binary separation can be sufficiently small enough to allow the naked star core to spin up through ‘tidal locking’.
Mandel explains: ‘Tidal locking occurs when tides from an orbiting companion forces an object’s period of rotation—the time it takes it to spin around its axis—to equal the time it takes for a full orbit of the binary system. For example, tidal locking of the Moon to the Earth sets the Moon to rotate the same 28 days equal to its orbital period around the Earth. This explains why we never get to see the dark side of the Moon—except when listening to Pink Floyd.’
So, sometimes the second black hole can spin up and rapidly rotate. Mandel and Fragos find this to be the case in the GW190412 event. Such systems should also merge soon after their formation, since tidal locking will only happen in very tight binaries.
Although it’s difficult to confirm this interpretation, future detections of black hole mergers will allow for more accurate testing of this model.
Gravitational-wave astronomy provides a unique new way to study the expansion history of the Universe. On 17 August 2017, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations first detected gravitational waves from a pair of neutron stairs merging. The gravitational wave signal was accompanied by a range of counterparts identified with electromagnetic telescopes. This multi-messenger discovery allowed astronomers to directly measure the Hubble constant, which tells us how fast the Universe is expanding. A recent study by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) led by researchers Zhiqiang You and Xingjiang Zhu, studied an alternative way to do cosmology with gravitational-wave observations.
In comparison to neutron star mergers, black hole mergers are much more abundant sources of gravitational waves. Whereas there have been only two neutron star mergers detected so far, LIGO and Virgo collaborations have published 10 binary black hole merger events and dozens more candidates have been reported.
Unfortunately, no electromagnetic emission is expected from black hole mergers. Theoretical modeling of supernovae—powerful and luminous stellar explosions—suggests that there is a gap in the masses of black holes around 45-60 times the mass of our Sun. Some inconclusive evidence that supports this mass gap was found in observations made in the first two observing runs of LIGO and Virgo. The new OzGrav research shows that this unique feature in the black hole mass spectrum can help determine the expansion history of our Universe using gravitational-wave data alone.
OzGrav PhD student and first author Zhiqiang You says: ‘Our work studied the prospect with third-generation gravitational-wave detectors, which will allow us to see every binary black hole merger in the Universe’.
Apart from the Hubble constant—a unit that describes how fast the Universe is expanding—there are other factors that can affect how black hole masses are distributed. For example, scientists are still uncertain about the exact location of the black hole mass gap and how the number of black hole mergers evolves over the cosmic history. The new study demonstrates that it is possible to simultaneously measure black hole masses along with the Hubble constant. It was found that a third-generation detector like the Einstein Telescope or the Cosmic Explorer should measure the Hubble constant to better than one percent within one-year’s operation. Moreover, with merely one-week observation, the study revealed it is possible to distinguish the standard dark energy-dark matter cosmology with its simple alternatives.
Pulsars are dead stars that spin remarkably steadily – they are some of the most regularly ticking clocks in the Universe! However, every few years some pulsars ‘glitch’, and speed up a tiny amount almost instantaneously. Understanding what causes these glitches may unveil what’s really happening inside these super-dense dead stars.
Detailed theoretical and computer models are hard to connect to real observations, so instead PhD student Julian Carlin and Chief Investigator Andrew Melatos, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), built a ‘meta-model’ in a paper recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The meta-model relies on the idea that ‘stress’ builds up inside the pulsar until it reaches a threshold, and then some of this stress is released as a glitch. The interesting thing about this meta-model is that the stress increases by taking a ‘random walk’ upwards: like an intoxicated person returning home from the pub who might take two steps forward, one step back, then three steps forward. The randomness in how the stress builds is supported by some theoretical models, as well as a recent study of a glitch-in-action led by OzGrav researchers Greg Ashton, Paul Lasky, and others.
Meta-models make predictions about what we should see in the long term from glitching pulsars.
‘This meta-model predicts that there should always be a correlation between big glitches and the time until the next glitch: if a lot of stress is released, it takes longer on average for the pulsar to build up enough stress for another glitch,’ explains Carlin.
Using this prediction, Carlin and Melatos tried to falsify the meta-model, asking the question: ‘Are there long-term observations that can’t be explained?’. The answer depends on the pulsar. Some are well-explained by the meta-model, while others don’t quite match the predictions.
‘We need to see more glitches before this question can be answered for certain, but this work shows a way to answer it for many theoretical models, all at the same time,’ says Carlin.