Scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, have detected the signal from a cataclysmic collision between two black holes that lie 3 billion light-years away – much farther than the previous two discoveries.
The findings, described in a paper accepted to Physical Review Letters, cement the idea that gravitational-wave astronomy – a whole new way to observe some of the most powerful events in the universe – is here to stay.
“We’re really moving from novelty to new observational science — a new astronomy of gravitational waves,” said MIT’s David Shoemaker, spokesman for the LIGO scientific collaboration.
Astronomers document the universe in different wavelengths of light, from visible and infrared all the way to X-rays and gamma rays. But black holes do not emit light as far as we know — making them very difficult to study. By picking up deformations in space-time, LIGO allows scientists to “hear” these mysterious phenomena, even if they can’t see them with telescopes.
“We’re entering a whole new kind of astronomy,” said Clifford Johnson, a theoretical physicist at USC who was not involved in the work. “Every time we find a new way of looking in the sky … we understand our universe in a whole new way, at a whole new level.”
The new signal, called GW170104, was picked up in the early morning hours of Jan. 4 by the twin L-shaped detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La. The ripple was triggered as two black holes, spinning around slowly toward one another, finally succumbed to each other’s gravitational tug — and merged. The collision resulted in the creation of a new, single black hole.
Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, caused by objects accelerating or decelerating through space. Their existence was predicted over a century ago by Albert Einstein as part of his general theory of relativity, but they were thought to be so faint as to be virtually undetectable.
LIGO changed that. Last year the collaboration announced that its twin detectors had picked up a passing distortion in late 2015 caused by two black holes crashing into one another. A second soon followed. With the third confirmed find announced Thursday, scientists are finally moving LIGO’s work from the examination of singular curiosities to demographic studies of the sky’s invisible denizens. And already, this third discovery is revealing that there may be some diversity in this mysterious cosmic population.
This merger between a binary pair of black holes happened around 3 billion light-years away—much farther than the first two finds (which lay around 1.3 and 1.4 billion light-years from us, respectively). The two black holes appear to have held 31.2 and 19.4 solar masses respectively, and when they coalesced the new singularity weighed in at 48.7 solar masses. (The remaining two suns or so of mass were transformed into gravitational waves.)
This puts the merger right in the middle of the same weight class as the previous two black hole mergers – a class that scientists had not originally expected to encounter. Most black holes, they had figured, were the corpses of dead stars and significantly smaller, on the order of a few times the mass of the sun. Others were supermassive, holding millions or even billions of solar masses, and anchored the hearts of galaxies (just as one does at the center of our Milky Way). Many LIGO researchers thought they’d start to see some of those smaller singularities.
These intermediate black holes, however, are starting to look increasingly common.
“It clearly establishes a new population of black holes that were not known before LIGO discovered them,” said LIGO scientific collaboration member Bangalore Sathyaprakash of Penn State and Cardiff University.
The new merger does have one key difference, however. In the previous two events, the paired black holes seemed to have spins that were aligned with their orbital axis. This is consistent with one theory of their formation, the isolated binaries formation mechanism, which assumes that the stars that became these black holes are born, and die, in pairs.
But in the new find, the black holes’ spins were apparently not aligned – favoring another theory, the dynamical capture mechanism, that says the black holes may actually pair up much later in their life histories.
“The isolated binaries formation mechanism is sort of like a simple waltz where two people are dancing, always following each other,” said LIGO Executive Director David Reitze of Caltech. “The dynamical capture model is where you’re looking at this complicated ballet; you could even think about break dancers that are going off and doing their thing in different directions.”
Both theories may explain a slice of the black hole binary population, Reitze said – but the question is how big each slice is. The answer could help scientists understand the complexities of both stellar and black hole formation.
The findings also allowed scientists to probe the limits of Einstein’s theory of general relativity further by looking to see whether the gravitational waves underwent dispersion – a bending of the wavelengths that happens when light passes through a physical medium, which is why light splits into a rainbow of colors when it passes through a prism. Einstein’s theories forbid this from happening to gravitational waves, and so far LIGO’s measurements have yet to contradict them.
For now, LIGO cannot localize where these black holes merge. But as more detectors in Europe and Japan and India start to come online, their collective efforts will allow researchers to better triangulate the sources. Once that happens, LIGO and its fellow detects can serve as pointers for where more traditional telescopes should train their lenses. They might be able to catch signals that they had not previously known were related to black-hole activity. (Though light cannot escape from a black hole once it passes the event horizon, black holes can be detected thanks in part to the superheated matter that collects around them.)
“I think it’ll happen,” said Marc Kamionkowski, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the work. “I don’t have any good reason to think that it’ll happen except that nature always seems to be much more inventive than we are. And usually in this type of astrophysics we tend to get surprised.”
Scientists hope to eventually see more than just black hole mergers, Reitze said. The next big class of events would be binary neutron star mergers – in part because these events could definitely be seen with both LIGO and traditional telescopes.
In the meantime, LIGO is set to wrap up its current observing run in late summer – right around the time that the European Virgo detector is set to go online. With a little bit of overlap between the two runs, and a little bit of luck, the two detectors just might be able to see the same events – which would allow scientists to get even better measurements of these violent cosmic phenomena.
Eventually, scientists might expect to catch a gravitational event once or twice a week, or perhaps even on a daily basis. But for now, the discovery of these gravitational wave events continue to thrill scientists, Kamionkowski said.
“Five or 10 years from now, we’re gonna have another event discovered, and then I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, another gravitational wave event,’” Kamionkowski said. “But I’m still amazed every time they discover every one of these things. The glow from last year is still there.”
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4:20 p.m.: The story was updated with a comment from Clifford Johnson.
1:10 p.m.: The story has been updated with additional information, as well as comments from David Reitze and Marc Kamionkowski.
The story was originally published at 8 a.m.