by Shane L. Larson
Nature guards her secrets jealously, and wresting them from her grasp is an arduous, and frustrating task. One of the great difficulties of the modern world is that knowledge is so easy to pull up, with the flick of a finger across a screen, that we forget how hard it was to obtain that knowledge in the first place. Every bit of knowledge that you and I take for granted was earned, at great cost, by a long line of humans who came before us.For just more than two years now, we have lived in a new astronomical era, where astronomers have the ability to sense minute deviations in the shape of spacetime and use them to discover the secrets of the Cosmos. We call this science gravitational wave astronomy.
This new branch of observational astronomy burst on the scene with much fanfare in early 2016 when it was announced that the two LIGO gravitational wave observatories had detected a pair of black holes merging far across the Cosmos. We knew roughly where it was in the sky, but only roughly in the same sense that “Kansas is roughly in North America.” The physics of how an instrument like LIGO works means detection is easier than pointing — pointing to a gravitational wave source on the sky is hard, because Nature guards her secrets jealously.
We call gravitational wave detectors “observatories“, but they are very different from traditional telescopic facilities that you and I are familiar with. Telescopes work more or less like your eyes — they point in a given direction, and are sensitive to a narrow space in front of them (what astronomers call the “field of view“).By contrast, gravitational wave detectors are largely omnidirectional — they can sense gravitational waves from every direction on the sky, though some directions are easier than others. They are much more like your ears in this way. If you close your eyes, you can hear sounds in front of you, above you, to the sides, or behind you. You can usually point at a source of a sound, but that is because your brain is using both of your ears together to triangulate the position of the source of sound. Here’s an experiment: close your eyes and plug one of your ears. Have one of your friends stand somewhere in the room and sing “The Gambler” (here’s a version I particularly like, by First Aid Kit) and see if you can point to them. It’s not so easy to point with only one ear.
We use this same method of triangulation in gravitational wave astronomy — multiple detectors can point better than single detectors alone. The more detectors, the better a source of gravitational waves can be found on the sky.For the past two decades, at the same time LIGO was being built, our colleagues in Europe were constructing another gravitational wave observatory outside of Pisa, called Virgo. On 1 August 2017, the Advanced Virgo detector joined the two Advanced LIGO detectors in the search for gravitational waves.
There was much celebration in the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration that day, because gravitational wave detectors are not easy to build. Getting to the moment where all three advanced detectors were online together was a tremendous accomplishment, and one that held much promise. With three detectors, we should be able to pinpoint gravitational wave sources on the sky better than ever before. The holy grail of events would be to make a detection, and narrow the skyview to an area so small that one could reasonably point a telescope there and possibly see a simultaneous signal in light.
We held our breath, and dared not hope. That’s the nature of astronomy — it’s a spectator sport. All we can do is turn on our instruments, and sit here on Earth and wait for the Universe to do something awesome.
As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait long for something awesome. On 14 August 2017, all three detectors registered the gravitational wave signature from a pair of merging black holes. At about 5:30am CDT in the United States (10:30:43 UTC), a signal came sailing through the Earth, ringing off each of the three gravitational wave detectors that were diligently collecting data, hour after hour, minute after minute, waiting for the Cosmos to do something. Nature did not let us down. The signal was a strong series of spacetime ripples, with the same pattern, showing up in each of the three detectors. We call the event GW170814 (here is a LIGO-Virgo factsheet on the event), and it brings the total number of events in the gravitational wave catalog to 4.Below, I show a table I keep of events, and it is getting harder to manage! I like to take it out and stare at it sometimes because you can see a story beginning to emerge, and for a scientist there is nothing more exciting. A story is exactly what we’ve been trying to learn from Nature, but you can seldom figure it out from just one astronomical event. It is only the long, slow accumulation of happenings in the Cosmos that lets us begin to see the tantalizing patterns of what is going on. Lots of black holes. We’re beginning to get a sense for some trends in their masses. We’re beginning to figure out how many there might be, and how common they are in the Universe. Scientists, as a general rule, are a cautious lot. It will still be a while before there are definitive statements on Wikipedia or in astronomy textbooks. But buy your favorite gravitational wave astronomer a bag of jelly donuts (I also like Dr. Pepper), and they’ll talk your ear off about what we’re beginning to figure out. But the real story of GW170814, is Virgo. Virgo came roaring on the scene, and transformed our ability to point on the sky. The sky location graphic below shows all of the gravitational wave events seen to date (including one interesting signal, called LVT151012 that wasn’t quite strong enough for us to make out perfectly in the data, but looks an awful lot like a black hole pair). In every previous detection, the source was known to lie in some great banana shaped region of the sky that we call an error ellipse. With the addition of Virgo to the network, and the arrival of GW170814, we see the dramatic and awesome difference it makes, collapsing the giant banana of an error ellipse into a much smaller bubble on the sky. This bubble lies near the southern end of the constellation Eridanus (if you’d like to look at a starmap, it came from an area around RA = 3h 11m, DEC = -44d 47m). At the moment of the event, the source was directly overhead southern Chile. There were no detected signals with light associated with the event, but these were after all, black holes. By definition, black holes emit no light; if there is going to be something for traditional telescopes to see, there is going to have to be some kind of matter involved. And so, we wait for the next one. We can tell we’re on the cusp of a tremendous new era of astronomy. We still haven’t found the holy grail, an event seen with both gravitational waves and light, but we continue to look. With our growing network of detectors, and scientists around the globe, we will eventually make that discovery too.
Until then, my heartfelt congratulations to my colleagues and friends who I work with on LIGO and Virgo — here’s to many more long years of searching the Cosmos. Viva Virgo!
You can read about the previous LIGO detections in my previous posts here: