Gravity 12: Listening for the Whispers of Gravity

by Shane L. Larson

The Cosmos is alive with energetic happenings.  Planets barrel along their orbits, unstoppable by anything short of a collision with another planet.  There is a cluster orbiting the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, with stars being flung and slingshot around their orbits like they were nothing more than ping-pong balls. Massive stars, in a last desperate gasp for attention, explode and spew their guts all around the galaxy, leaving a dark, compact skeleton behind. Billions of light years away, the shredded remains of galaxies slowly coalesce to make a larger elliptical galaxy and their central black holes dance together in a deadly inspiral, spewing jets of energetic material outward to mark their titanic struggle.

Gravitational waves are created by the dynamic motion of mass, a common occurrence in the Cosmos: supermassive black holes mergering or eating stars, stars exploding, and compact interacting binaries are all likely sources.

Gravitational waves are created by the dynamic motion of mass, a common occurrence in the Cosmos: supermassive black holes mergering or eating stars, stars exploding, and compact interacting binaries are all likely sources.

All of these examples have one thing in common: huge masses moving in dynamic ways.  The changing gravitational structure in these systems will manifest itself as gravitational waves propagating across the Cosmos, whispering ripples in the structure of space and time.  Encoded in those waves, if we could detect them, is a previously unheard story for the reading.

The “sticky bead experiment,” worked out at the 1957 Chapel Hill conference, taught us the effect of gravitational waves on the world: they change the distance between points in spacetime. Once we knew what physical effect to look for, physicists began to ask “how do we detect it?”  It was straight-forward to compute the size of the distance change caused by gravitational waves, and it was tiny. But seemingly impossible measurements have never stopped physicists and astronomers from trying to imagine clever and imaginative ways to probe Nature’s secrets.

One of the first people to seriously consider how to measure the extremely tiny stretching effect of gravitational waves was Joseph Weber at the University of Maryland. After the Chapel Hill conference he began to think seriously about the problem of gravitational wave detection, and settled on a clever and imaginative idea: if gravitational waves change the distance between any two points in spacetime, it should stretch a physical object as they pass through it. Once the wave goes by, the inter-atomic forces that hold the object together take over, and try to snap it back into its original shape. This kind of snapback motion would set up acoustic waves — sound waves — in the object. If you could detect those tiny, faint sound waves, it would be an indicator of the passage of a gravitational wave.  Weber fashioned such an experiment from a 0.61 meter diameter, 1.5 meter long cylinder of aluminum that massed 1.5 tons. Such a device is now called a Weber Bar.

(L) Joe Weber instrumenting his bar detector with sensors in the 1960's. (R) You can visit the bar, live and in person, at the LIGO-Hanford Observatory.

(L) Joe Weber instrumenting his bar detector with sensors in the 1960’s. (R) You can visit the bar, live and in person, at the LIGO-Hanford Observatory.

There are, of course, many influences and physical effects that can set off acoustic vibrations in a large aluminum bar. Random acoustic vibrations could be mistaken for a gravitational wave, or more likely, hide the putative effect of a passing gravitational wave. Random signals like this are called noise; filtering noise is one of the foremost problems in any experiment. The solution to this difficulty is to have more than one bar; you set them up and wait to see if both bars ring off at the same time. Since noise is random, it is unlikely to influence both bars identically at the same time, so a common signal is most likely a gravitational wave. Weber’s detection program grew to include a second bar at Argonne National Laboratory that operated in coincidence with the bar he had built in Maryland.

By the late 1960’s, Weber’s analysis of his bar data convinced him he was seeing coincident events, which he dutifully reported to the scientific community.  The ensuing debate has been roundly documented (e.g. in Harry Collin’s book “Gravity’s Shadow”), but that tale is not germane to our discussion here. The important point is this: the scientific community suddenly became cognizant of the idea that gravitational waves could be detected through clever, high precision experiments, and Joe Weber set us on that path.

(Top L) The EXPLORER bar at CERN; (Top R) the AURIGA bar in Italy; (Lower L) The NAUTILUS bar in Italy; (Lower R) The new MiniGRAIL detector at Leiden.

(Top L) The EXPLORER bar at CERN; (Top R) the AURIGA bar in Italy; (Lower L) The NAUTILUS bar in Italy; (Lower R) The new MiniGRAIL detector at Leiden.

In the years following the construction of the Maryland experiment, many other Weber bars were built around the world. These included ALLEGRO at Louisiana State University; EXPLORER at CERN; NAUTILUS in Frascati, Italy; AURIGA at the INFN in Legnaro, Italy; and Niobe in Perth, Australia.  While most of the classic bars have gone offline, new efforts in bar detection technology have turned to spherical detectors, of which MiniGRAIL at Leiden University is the archetype. But still, no gravitational wave signal has been confirmed by any bar.

Given the steadfast absence of confirmed signals in our detectors, why are physicists so confident in the existence of gravitational waves? The answer lies in traditional, telescopic observations of the Cosmos.

The Hulse-Taylor pulsar is located just off the wing of Aquila.

The Hulse-Taylor pulsar is located just off the wing of Aquila.

In 1974, radio astronomers Joseph Taylor and Russel Hulse were observing on the 305 meter diameter Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. They were looking for new pulsars, and discovered one in the constellation of Aquila. Pulsing every 59 milliseconds, the pulsar rotates at a staggering 17 times per second. After studying it for some time, Hulse and Taylor noticed that the pulses varied regularly every 7.75 hours. The explanation? The pulsar was orbiting another neutron star (that was not pulsing)!  Masquerading under the scientific name PSR B1913+16, this remarkable system is more readily known by its common name: the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar, or usually “THE Binary Pulsar.” We can track the arrival time of the pulses from the pulsar in the system, and precisely determine the size and shape of the orbit over time. After 40 years of observations, it is clear that the orbit of the binary pulsar is shrinking, by an amount of roughly 3.5 meters per year. This is exactly the amount of orbital decay astronomers expect to see if gravitational waves were carrying energy away from the system, sucking the energy out of the orbit. If all goes according to Nature’s plan, the orbit will decay to the point of collision in 300 million years (mark your calendars!).

The system has a neutron star that orbits with a pulsar -- the pulsar is a neutron star that sweeps a strong radio beam toward the Earth as it rotates. As they orbit, they emit gravitational waves, causing the orbit to shrink.

The system has a neutron star that orbits with a pulsar — the pulsar is a neutron star that sweeps a strong radio beam toward the Earth as it rotates. As they orbit, they emit gravitational waves, causing the orbit to shrink.

We now know of many systems like the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar, giving astronomers confidence that gravitational waves do, without question, exist. So why haven’t we seen them?  The problem with Weber bars is they are “narrow band” — they are most sensitive to gravitational waves that are close matches to the sound waves that are made in the bar (a condition physicists call “resonant” — the gravitational waves closely match the shape and vibration time of the sound waves, so they reinforce each other). Since it is  unlikely a gravitational wave source will exactly match your bar’s vibration frequency, and because many phenomena generate gravitational waves at all kinds of different frequencies, an ideal detector should be “broad band” — sensitive to a wide range of gravitational waves. One solution is to build a laser interferometer.

Michelson (T) and Morley (B) built one of the first interferometers to make precision measurements.

Michelson (T) and Morley (B) built one of the first interferometers to make precision measurements.

Interferometers have a storied history with relativity and astronomy. The earliest scientific interferometers were made in the 1880’s by Albert A. Michelson, and used by Michelson and his collaborator Edward Morley to examine the propagation of light. The results of their experiments demonstrated to the scientific community that light was not propagated by a “luminiferous aether,” and was in fact able to propagate in pure vacuum. Their conclusions also support the founding postulates of special relativity, namely that all observers measure the speed of light in vacuum to be a constant, irrespective of their state of motion.

In the decades that followed, interferometry became a recognized technique for making precise measurements that could not be obtained in any other way. By the time the first results from Weber bars were being reported, people were thinking about other ways to make precision distance measurements, and laser interferometry was a prime candidate technology. The first laser interferometer designed for gravitational wave detection was a table-top experiment built in 1971 at Hughes Aircraft by Robert Forward, who was a student of Weber’s.

(L) Bob Forward's first gravitational wave interferometer at Hughes Aircraft. (R) Rai Weiss' initial sketch of the components and operation of a laser interferometer like LIGO.

(L) Bob Forward’s first gravitational wave interferometer at Hughes Aircraft. (R) Rai Weiss’ initial sketch of the components and operation of a laser interferometer like LIGO.

A year later, Rai Weiss at MIT published a report outlining in great detail the basic considerations for building what would evolve into modern day gravitational wave interferometers. Those initial musings came to fruition in the 1990s, when kilometer scale interferometers began to be constructed around the world with one intention: to observe the Cosmos in gravitational waves.

In the United States, there are two observatories that are called LIGO: one is in Hanford, Washington and the other is in Livingston, Louisiana. In Europe, a 600 meter interferometer called GEO-600 was built outside Hannover, Germany, and a 3 kilometer interferometer called VIRGO was built outside of Pisa, Italy. The Japanese built a 300 meter prototype in Tokyo called TAMA, but have now embarked on a much more ambitious instrument built underground in the Kamioka Observatory called KAGRA. These instruments are enormous endeavours, on the scale of large particle accelerators in terms of their physical size and in terms of the number of people required to bring the project to fruition. All of them can be seen from space (just fire up Google Earth or Google Maps: LIGO-Hanford from space, LIGO-Livingston from space, VIRGO from space, and GEO-600 from space).

(Top L) LIGO-Hanford; (Top R) LIGO-Livingston; (Lower L) GEO-600; (Lower-R) VIRGO.

(Top L) LIGO-Hanford; (Top R) LIGO-Livingston; (Lower L) GEO-600; (Lower-R) VIRGO.

For the first time, these observatories will show us a view of the Cosmos seen not with light, but with the whisper of gravity. The bread-and-butter source, the thing we expect to detect most often, are the merger of two neutron stars. Viewed from the right seats, such collisions generate tremendous explosions known as gamma ray bursts, but we only see a small fraction of the gamma ray bursts in the Universe because they aren’t all pointing toward us. LIGO and its fellow observatories will have no such difficulties — gravitational waves are emitted in every direction from these cataclysmic mergers.

What will we learn from these events? We hope to learn what the skeletons of exploded stars are like — what is their size and what are they made of? What is the matter at their cores like, and what do they become when they merge? Every detected neutron star merger is a clue in the story of stellar lives, which of course, is part of our story too, because we are all of us descended from the exploded ashes of ancient stars.

The night sky over the Pando Forest in central Utah. Pando is an 80,000 year old aspen grove -- it has seen almost 30 million nights like this one, but very little has changed. The constellations change over thousands of years, but the sky is still full of stars, and the Milky Way still arches over the sky, giving the impression that the Universe is unchanging. [Image: Shane L. Larson]

Where do all these stellar skeletons come from? It’s a curious thing, looking out at the sky. The thing we see the most of are stars, and over the course of a human life, they change little if at all. Night after night, the stars wheel overhead, distant points of light that no human has ever visited, and no human is likely to visit in my and your lifetimes. But over the last few centuries, through a careful application of technology smothered under an insatiable desire to know, we have figured out their story. Like shrewd protégés of Jane Marple, we have pieced together many parts of the the puzzle to discover how stars are born, how they live, and ultimately how they die. Gravitational wave astronomy investigates these final end-states of stellar life. But when we see the stars, we are seeing the snapshot of the stars alive today — where are all the stars that have gone before?

They litter the galaxy — the Milky Way is a vast graveyard of stellar remnants, the burned out stellar husks of those stars that came before. Since only the largest stars produce neutron stars and black holes, and most stars are lighter-weight, like the Sun, astronomers think most of that stellar graveyard is full of white dwarf stars — tens of millions of them.

LIGO can’t see white dwarf stars because they are too big — they never shrink to small enough orbits to make gravitational waves that LIGO can detect. If we want to study this part of the stellar life story, we have to build something new.

lisa_astriumIn the next decade, NASA and ESA hope to fly laser interferometers in space. The LISA gravitational wave observatory will consist of three free flying spacecraft 5 million kilometers apart, using lasers to measure the distance between the three spacecraft. The first step toward flying LISA is a mission called LISA-Pathfinder that will launch in October 2015.

LISA will listen in on the gentle gravitational whispers of tens of millions of white dwarf stars — so many whispers that the galaxy will actually sound like racous party. Like any rowdy party, there will be loud contributors that can always be heard above the noise, perhaps as many as 20,000 that shout out above the cacophony.  These systems are called “ultra-compact binaries”, and orbit each other on orbits so small they would fit between the Earth and the Moon. We think of LISA’s view of the Cosmos as being complementary to LIGO’s — with observations from both observatories, we will be able to construct our first complete picture of the “decomposition phase” of stellar evolution.

But perhaps the most interesting thing LISA will detect are the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. Some of the most fantastic pictures we have taken of the Cosmos show galaxies in collision. Occurring over billions of years, the graceful and delicate spirals are shredded, giving birth to a new, transformed galaxy. How often does this happen? Do all galaxies experience this at some point in their lives, or is it rare? How does it change the kinds of galaxies we see? Does it change the shapes of galaxies irrevocably, or do they return to their whirling spirals of arms?  And perhaps most interesting, what happens to the black holes that once lurked in their cores?

Examples of colliding galaxies. (T) NGC 4676 [the Mice], and (B) NGC 6621

Examples of colliding galaxies. (T) NGC 4676 [the Mice], and (B) NGC 6621

If astronomers are correct, those black holes will sink to the core of the new galaxy that forms, and eventually merge together. When they do, they will emit a wailing burst of gravitational waves that will be visible to LISA all the way to the edge of the Observable Universe. Encoded in that cry will be the birth announcement of a new, bigger black hole, as well as the threads of the story that led to its birth — where they were born, when they were born, and what the Cosmos was like at that time.

These stories and more are contained in the faint whispers of gravity that even now are washing across the shores of Earth. As you are reading this, astronomers and physicists are tuning up our technology to listen closely to those faint messages, and when we finally hear them, they will transform the way we think about the Cosmos.

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This post is part of an ongoing series written for the General Relativity Centennial, celebrating 100 years of gravity (1915-2015).  You can find the first post in the series, with links to the successive posts in this series here: http://wp.me/p19G0g-ru.

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5 responses to “Gravity 12: Listening for the Whispers of Gravity

  1. IMHO, As the Sun is moving through space, towards Orion, rather than a Dyson sphere, seeking to encompass the Sun, we could build Solar array surfaced spheres … a tenth or a quarter the size of the Earth’s moon, orbiting the Sun, but with orbits that traverse above and below the plane of the Sun’s trajectory, as well as the planetary plane. The spheres would not interfere with the Sun’s energy distribution along Sol’s planetary plane, and would provide an angle of attack to direct focused energy from the spheres to any planet or moon.

    Vet67to82

  2. I’d really like to use that color photo of Joe Weber. Can you tell me what the source is?

  3. I’d really like to use that photo of the Milky Way above the forest. Can you tell me what the source is?

    • Shane L. Larson

      Hi Kailey — I took that photo. It’s in the Pando Forest (an 80,000 yr old aspen grove in central Utah). What do you need?

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