In the moments immediately following the Big Bang, the very first gravitational waves rang out. The product of quantum fluctuations in the new soup of primordial matter, these earliest ripples through the fabric of space-time were quickly amplified by inflationary processes that drove the universe to explosively expand.
Primordial gravitational waves, produced nearly 13.8 billion years ago, still echo through the Universe today. But they are drowned out by the crackle of gravitational waves produced by more recent events, such as colliding black holes and neutron stars.
Now a team of international scientists, including reasearchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and OzGrav, has developed a method to tease out the very faint signals of primordial ripples from gravitational-wave data. Their results were published in Physical Review Letters.
Gravitational waves are being detected on an almost daily basis by LIGO and other gravitational-wave detectors, but primordial gravitational signals are several orders of magnitude fainter than what these detectors can register. It’s expected that the next generation of detectors will be sensitive enough to pick up these earliest ripples.
In the next decade, as more sensitive instruments come online, the new method could be applied to dig up hidden signals of the Universe’s first gravitational waves. The pattern and properties of these primordial waves could then reveal clues about the early universe, such as the conditions that drove inflation.
‘If the strength of the primordial signal is within the range of what next-generation detectors can detect, which it might be, then it would be a matter of more or less just turning the crank on the data, using this method we’ve developed,’ says Sylvia Biscoveanu—MIT graduate student and the study’s lead author. ‘These primordial gravitational waves can then tell us about processes in the early Universe that are otherwise impossible to probe.’ OzGrav researchers Colm Talbot, Eric Thrane and Rory Smith were also co-authors of the study.
The hunt for primordial gravitational waves has concentrated mainly on the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, which is thought to be radiation that is leftover from the Big Bang. Scientists believe that when primordial gravitational waves rippled out, they left an imprint on the CMB, in the form of B-modes, a type of subtle polarization pattern.Physicists have looked for signs of B-modes, most famously with the BICEP Array, a series of experiments including BICEP2, which in 2014 scientists believed had detected B-modes; however, the signal turned out to be due to galactic dust.
As scientists continue to look for primordial gravitational waves in the CMB, others are hunting the ripples directly in gravitational-wave data. The general idea has been to try and subtract away the ‘astrophysical foreground’—any gravitational-wave signal that arises from an astrophysical source, such as colliding black holes, neutron stars, and exploding supernovae. Only after subtracting this astrophysical foreground can physicists get an estimate of the quieter, nonastrophysical signals that may contain primordial waves.
The problem with these methods, Biscoveanu says, is that the astrophysical foreground contains weaker signals that are too faint to discern and difficult to estimate in the final subtraction.
In their study, the researchers used a predictive model to describe the more obvious ‘conversations’ of the astrophysical foreground. The team used this more accurate model to create simulated data of gravitational wave patterns and then characterize every astrophysical signal. Once they identified distinct, nonrandom patterns in gravitational-wave data, they were left with more random primordial gravitational-wave signals and instrumental noise specific to each detector. Applying their new methods, the team was able to fit both the foreground and the background at the same time, so the background signal didn’t get contaminated by the residual foreground.
Biscoveanu says she hopes that once more sensitive, next-generation detectors come online, the new method can be used to cross-correlate and analyse data from two different detectors, to sift out the primordial signal. Then, scientists may have a useful thread they can trace back to the conditions of the early Universe.
This article is an edited extract from the original article featured on MIT’s news website written by Jennifer Chu.