by Shane L. Larson
The seas of the Cosmos are vast and deep. From our vantage point here on the shores of Earth, we have seen much that is beautiful, awe-inspiring, frightening, humbling, confusing, and enigmatic. The simple truth of astronomy is that it is a spectator sport. The only thing we can do, is watch the skies and wait for the next Big Thing to happen. We collect events, like bottle-caps or flowers, and add them to our collection. Each new addition is a mystery, a new piece of a puzzle that takes shape ever-so-slowly over time.
On 14 September 2015, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration announced that they had detected the first gravitational waves ever, and that those waves had been created by a pair of merging black holes far across the Cosmos.
Today, we have some more news: LIGO has detected the second gravitational wave event ever, and those waves were also created by a pair of merging black holes far across the Cosmos. But as is often the case with astronomy, we know what we’ve observed, but we still don’t know what it means.
The name of the event is GW151226 (the date of the event), but within the collaboration, we call it “The Boxing Day Event.” On 26 December 2015 (Boxing Day in Europe), the two LIGO detectors responded to the faint ripple of gravitational energy washing across the Earth, the signature of two black holes merging to form a new larger black hole.
LIGO detected the black holes merging at 3:53 UTC in the morning on Boxing Day (it was late in the evening on Christmas Day in the United States, 9:53pm Central Standard Time). The event happened 440 Megaparsecs away — almost 1.4 billion lightyears! As with GW150914 before it, this titanic merger of black holes happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It happened before multi-cellular life had ever arisen on Earth, and for a billion years that information has been sailing through the void, until it washed across our shores.
Learning to do astronomy: We can’t do experiments in astronomy, not the way we all learned to do them in middle school. Experiment. Observe. Fail. Learn. Repeat.In astronomy, all we can do is observe, and hope that when we see something interesting happen, it happens again. Or something similar happens again, so we can start trying to make connections. Since the first LIGO detection, we have been patiently waiting for more detections. It could have been anything: merging neutron stars, a gamma-ray burst with an associated gravitational wave signal, a supernova explosion in the Milky Way, or perhaps other pair of black holes similar to GW150914. As it turns out, it was the merger of black holes, but somewhat different than the one we observed before. Excellent! A chance to learn something new about the Cosmos!
When you look at the pile of gravitational wave events we’ve seen before (it’s a very small pile — there is only one event there, GW150914), we do the most obvious thing you can imagine: we start to compare them.
Strictly in terms numbers, you see that the Boxing Day black holes are less massive than the GW150914 black holes, by a substantial amount. This tells astronomers something very important: black holes can and do come in a variety of masses. That certainly did not have to be the case; there are many instances in the Cosmos where almost every example of an object is similar to every other object. People are all roughly the same height; grains of sand are almost all roughly the same size; yellow-green stars like the Sun (“Type G2” in astronomer speak) are all roughly the same mass. Though we did not expect it to be true, it could have been the case that all black holes were about the same mass; LIGO is happy to report that black holes come in many different masses.
But this, in and of itself, inspires new questions and new mysteries. The question for astronomers now is where do black holes of different sizes come from? The Boxing Day black holes are “normal size” — we think we understand how black holes in this mass range are made in supernovae explosions. The GW150914 black holes are a much grander mystery — they are larger (by a factor of 2 or 3) than any black holes that we expect to form from stars today. We have some interesting ideas about where they may come from, but those ideas can only be tested with more gravitational wave observations.Gravitational wave astronomy: Every observation is different, because every source is different. Every set of waves is a unique fingerprint that encodes the physical properties of the objects that made the waves: their masses, how fast they are spinning, what kind of object they are, how physically big they are, the distance to them, and so on. It’s like looking at the pictures in your high school yearbook — every picture is the same size, and is what we all call a “picture,” but each one uniquely identifies you or your friends. It encodes the color of your hair and eyes, whether you were smiling and wearing braces, the sweater you wore on picture day, and so on. When we look at our data, we don’t usually show pictures. LIGO is not a telescope, so it does not generate images like we are used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. Most “pictures” you see are simulations or realizations of the data. Instead, we show our data as graphs and plots that represent our data in ways that tell astronomers what LIGO is measuring and how that relates to quantities in physics we understand, like orbit size or energy.
One common picture we use is something called a “spectragram” — you may have encountered something like a spectragram on a stereo. The equalizers on your stereo tell you how loud the music in terms of whether it is more treble sounding or bass sounding. In LIGO, we look at our data by looking a spectragram and how it changes over time. The fact that the Boxing Day black holes and GW150914 are different is immediately obvious when comparing their spectragrams — the fine details of the shape and duration is different in the two cases, but they have the same basic swoopy shape to them. Think about your high school yearbook: the pictures are all kind of the same, but different in the details.The difference in the gravitational waves LIGO detected is even more obvious if you look at the waveforms themselves. Imagine you are standing on the beach watching waves roll in and crash on the sand. In between waves, the water is calm and relatively low, but at the moment the wave is washing ashore, the height of the water increases subtantially; if you happen to be standing in the wave as it washes by, you might not be able to stand up because the energy carried by the wave is enough to knock you over. In a very similar way, the waveforms illustrate the strength of the gravitational waves as they wash past the Earth. The size of the “up and down” in the waveforms we plot tells us how strong the waves are. If you compare the Boxing Day black hole waveforms with the GW150914 waveforms, you see they both have a lot of up and down (a measure of strength — they were strong enough for LIGO to detect!), but their overall shape and duration is different. Gravitational wave astronomers at LIGO are most excited about the long chain of up-and-downs in the Boxing Day waveforms. This is a part of the black hole evolution we call the insprial — the long, slow time where the orbit is shrinking, the black holes drawing inexorably closer, creeping toward their ultimate fate: the coalesence into a new, single, spinning black hole. The longer the inspiral is visible to LIGO, the longer we can study the black holes with gravitational waves. Once they merge to form a new black hole, they very quickly become quiet, much like a bell fading into silence after being struck by a hammer. The inspiral, and the merger, are the only chance we have to take the measure of these tremendous astrophysical entities.
What now? LIGO has now made two detections of gravitational waves, both during our first observing run (what we call “O1”). In mid-January 2016, we turned LIGO off and have spent the ensuing months combing over the machine and addressing all the problems and difficulties we encountered in O1. In late summer 2016, we’ll start up for “O2.” We’ll turn up the lasers a little bit, and LIGO will be able to see a bit farther into the Cosmos. If our first stint as gravitational wave astronomers is any indication, we will likely see something new; we don’t know, all we can do is observe. After a few months, we’ll shut down again, tune things up, think hard about how we are working with the machine, and in 2017 expect to come back online with everything at full design specifications. We are like toddlers, learning to walk. We’ve taken our first few steps, and have discovered there is a tremendous world just waiting to be explored. We’re learning to keep our balance and do things right, but in the not too distant future will be confident and excited in our new found ability to observe and discover a Cosmos that up to now, has been completely hidden from us. Carpe infinitum!
Many of my colleagues in the LIGO Virgo Collaboration have also written excellent blog posts about the Boxing Day event, and the work we do to make gravitational wave astronomy a reality. You should visit their blogs!
- Christopher Berry [Birmingham] – The Boxing Day Event
- Mark Hannam [Cardiff] – Black holes rule!
- Matthew Pitkin [Glasgow] – Yes, we’ve found another one
- Amber Stuver [LIGO] – Merry Christmas, LIGO: Another Gravitational Wave!
- Daniel Williams [Glasgow] – The wave that stole Christmas
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Another good post! WOW, this is getting real now – even for a business major like me. I suspect you are a busy boy and I hope all is going well.
A Hui Hou,
Thanks, Wayne! We’ve been calling this “the Detection Era” but some of us are starting to agitate that we should be calling this the “Observation Era”! 🙂
I can see that, the detection ended when the second event confirmed that the first was not a fluke – now you can observe and learn. My congratulations to all involved. Exciting times, job well done.
A Hui Hou,
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