Scientists present largest number of gravitational wave detections to date from black holes and neutron stars
The gravitational-wave Universe is teeming with signals produced by merging black holes and neutron stars. In a new paper released today, an international team of scientists, including Australian OzGrav researchers, present 35 new gravitational wave observations, bringing the total number of detections to 90!
All of these new observations come from the second part of observing run three, called “O3b”, which was an observing period that lasted from November 2019 to March 2020. There were 35 new gravitational wave detections in this period. Of these, 32 are most likely to come from pairs of merging black holes, 2 are likely to come from a neutron star merging with a black hole, and the final event could be either a pair of merging black holes or a neutron star and a black hole. The mass of the lighter object in this final event crosses the divide between the expected masses of black holes and neutron stars and remains a mystery.
Dr Hannah Middleton, postdoctoral researcher at OzGrav, University of Melbourne, and co-author on the study says “Each new observing run brings new discoveries and surprises. The third observing run saw gravitational wave detection becoming an everyday thing, but I still think each detection is exciting!".
Of these 35 new events, here are some notable discoveries (the numbers in the names are the date and time of the observation):
“It’s fascinating that there is such a wide range of properties within this growing collection of black hole and neutron star pairs”, says study co-author and OzGrav PhD student Isobel Romero-Shaw (Monash University). “Properties like the masses and spins of these pairs can tell us how they’re forming, so seeing such a diverse mix raises interesting questions about where they came from.”
Not only can scientists look at individual properties of these binary pairs, they can also study these cosmic events as a large collection - or population. “By studying these populations of black holes and neutron stars we can start to understand the overall trends and properties of these extreme objects and uncover how these pairs came to be” says OzGrav PhD student Shanika Galaudage (Monash University) who was a co-author on a companion publication released today: ‘The population of merging compact binaries inferred using gravitational waves through GWTC-3 P2100239’. In this work, scientists analysed the distributions of mass and spin and looked for features which relate to how and where these extreme object pairs form. Shanika adds, “There are features we are seeing in these distributions which we cannot explain yet, opening up exciting research questions to be explored in the future”.
Detecting gravitational waves: a complicated global effort
Detecting and analysing gravitational-wave signals is a complicated task requiring global efforts. Initial public alerts for possible detections are typically released within a few minutes of the observation. Rapid public alerts are an important way of sharing information with the wider astronomy community, so that telescopes and electromagnetic observatories can be used to search for light from merging events - for example, merging neutron stars can produce detectable light.
Says Dr Aaron Jones, co-author and postdoctoral researcher from The University of Western Australia, “It’s exciting to see 18 of those initial public alerts upgraded to confident gravitational wave events, along with 17 new events”.
After thorough and careful data analysis, scientists then decipher the shortlist of gravitational-wave detections, delving into the properties of the systems that produced these signals. They use parameter estimation, a statistical technique to learn information about the black holes and neutron stars, such as their masses and spins, their location on the sky and their distance from the Earth.
All of these detections were made possible by the global coordinated efforts from the LIGO (USA), Virgo (Italy) and KAGRA (Japan) gravitational-wave observatories.
Between the previous observing runs, the detectors have been continually enhanced in small bursts which improves their overall sensitivity. Says Disha Kapasi, OzGrav student (Australian National University), “Upgrades to the detectors, in particular squeezing and the laser power, have allowed us to detect more binary merger events per year, including the first ever neutron star-black hole binary recorded in the GWTC-3 catalogue. This aids in understanding the dynamics and physics of the immediate universe, and in this exciting era of gravitational wave astronomy, we are constantly testing and prototyping technologies that will help us make the instruments more sensitive.”
The LIGO and Virgo observatories are currently offline for improvements before the upcoming fourth observing run (O4), due to begin in August 2022 or later. The KAGRA observatory will also join O4 for the full run. More detectors in the network help scientists to better localise the origin or potential sources of the gravitational waves.
“As we continue to observe more gravitational-wave signals, we will learn more and more about the objects that produce them, their properties as a population, and continue to put Einstein’s theory of General Relativity to the test,” says Dr Middleton.
There is a lot to look forward to from gravitational-wave astronomy in O4 and beyond. But in the meantime, scientists will continue to analyse and learn from the data, searching for undiscovered types of gravitational waves, including continuous gravitational waves, and of course new surprises!