Tag Archives: GW170817

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 2: Coming of Age

by Shane L. Larson

Astronomy from your backyard is dominated by naked eye stargazing, and optical telescopes that gather exactly the same kind of light you see with your eyes. There are a few amateurs who ply the skies with radio telescopes, or build cosmic ray detectors in their kitchens, but for the most part it is traditional telescopes. When I first started my studies in astophysics, this was still largely true of professional astronomy, though there were a few advanced experiments that were building the technology needed to survey the Cosmos using astroparticles, and a robust effort to design what would become the world’s first successful gravitational wave detectors.

One of the things that is true of all telescopes, no matter how they are designed to see the Cosmos, you can always build a better instrument that can observe more. In the context of astronomy, “more” means detecting cosmic phenomena that are difficult to perceive, or probing deeper into the distant Universe.

My two current telescopes (both homebuilt). The one on the left is called Equinox (12.5″ f/4.8 Dobsonian Reflector) and the one on the right is called Cosmos Mariner (22″ f/5 Dobsonian Reflector).

For optical telescopes, bigger is better. The larger the mirror, the easier it is for the telescope to capture a few tiny bundles of precious light that arrive on Earth and gather them all together in one place (your eye, or a camera) so there are enough to be bright enough to see. When I first started in backyard astronomy, I had an 8-inch telescope, which is about 30 times larger than the pupil of my eye, and so can gather almost 850 times more light than my eye. That first telescope of mine has been passed down to my daughter as part of her growing interest in backyard astronomy. It has changed its look, but its heart is still the telescope that I spent many hundreds of hours out under the night sky with. I’ve built a new, bigger telescope to replace my old one. Shown above is my telescope called Cosmos Mariner, and has a 22-inch mirror in it. That mirror is about 80 times larger than my pupil, and can gather more than 6000 times the light my eye can!  Mariner can probe deep into the Cosmos, and I use it as often as I can to soak in the wonder of the night sky.

The Hubble Space Telescope. Arguably the most capable and successful telescope ever built by humankind. [Image: NASA]

Professional astronomers have also been building bigger and better telescopes. Shown above is the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990, and is arguably the most successful scientific instrument in history. It’s mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter, but it peers at the Universe from a vantage point high above the atmosphere of Earth. In its three decades of observing, it has seen farther and seen more than any telescope in history. All told, some 10 to 15 thousand papers have been written about what Hubble has seen in the Cosmos. When we build a machine like Hubble, we always have grand plans for it. One of the tasks we had in mind was to use Hubble’s size and vantage point high above the Earth to take a picture of the Cosmos unlike any other before it. We picked a non-descript region of the sky in the constellation Eridanus, and over the course of a decade, asked Hubble to go back and look at that point over and over and over again, until it had stared at that one spot for a total of 23 days. You take all those individual pictures, and you stack them together to make a single new picture.

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field (XDF). [Image: NASA/ESA]

What you find is that in a region of the sky where you thought there was nothing, there is very definitely something. We call this picture the Hubble Extreme Deep Field. This image covers an area on the sky roughly the size of the eye of needle, held at arms length. Within it, virtually every fleck of light and color you see, is another galaxy. All told there are some 5000 individual galaxies in this image, implying that across the entire sky there are several hundred billion galaxies. This is what we mean when we say the Cosmos is vast beyond our wildest imaginations.

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field is a flat, two-dimensional image not unlike other pictures you are used to looking at. But one of the things we can do in modern astronomy is measure the distances to galaxies, so we can make a movie of what it would be like if you could dive into this image, making the impossible journey from Earth to the most distant galaxy in the image. If we launch ourself on that voyage, the first thing we notice is that over most of the journey, we are travelling through nothing at all.

The Universe, on the grandest scales, is mostly empty of any ordinary matter like you and me or stars or galaxies.  As we plunge deeper, we do encounter groups of galaxies — they tend to cluster and grow together, making a vast cosmic web that fills the entire Cosmos. Many of the galaxies we pass look familiar, like we expect galaxies to look. But as we travel farther and farther into the Deep Field, we are looking back farther and farther in time, until we reach the most distant galaxies in the image. These are the youngest galaxies we’ve ever seen, born barely 450 million years after the birth of the Universe. Astronomy is a special kind of time machine — looking back across the Cosmos is looking back in time. We can see how galaxies were long ago, in an effort to understand how our own galaxy might have been long ago as well.

The surface facilities of IceCube at South Pole. [Image: IceCube Collaboration]

Our colleagues in neutrino astronomy have been building their own new generation of observatories as well. Today, the pre-eminent neutrino observatory in the world is located at South Pole Station, and is called IceCube. IceCube is a series of 86 deep cores drilled 1.4 to 2.4 kilometers down into the Antarctic ice. Long strings with camera modules are lowered into the bores on cables, and the ice refreezes around them; all told there are more than 5000 cameras (“Digital Optical Modules”) in the array.  Observing with IceCube is in principle the same as KamiokaNDE — neutrinos pass through the Antarctic ice, and sometimes interact with the atoms of the ice to produce a burst of light that is picked up by the cameras on the strings. 

The IceCube array is encased in the ice underneath the surface station. [L] The long ice cores contain strings with cameras, and when an event passes through the array the light is detected by some of them. [R] The most energetic neutrino event yet detected, on 22 September 2017. [Images: IceCube Collaboration]

In September 2017, IceCube picked up the most energetic neutrino ever observed. It blasted through the array at  20:54:30 UTC (around 2:54pm Central Standard Time), and was detected by a long sequence of camera modules that stretched from one side of the array to the other. Looking at the shape of the data in the array, and in particular which side of the array lit up first in the detection, allowed astronomers to point backward from IceCube to the point on the sky where the neutrino came from.

An artists impression of a blazar, a type of active galactic nucleus with a supermassive black hole at the center, and an energetic jet pointing at the observer (us, on Earth). This is the type of object the IceCube neutrino event was traced back to. [Image: DESY Collaboration]

Using this pointing information, astronomers searched that region of the sky and discovered a blazar called TXS 0506+056. A blazar is a kind of galaxy that has an active galactic nucleus (AGN). AGN are supermassive black holes that have a swirling maelstrom of gas and material around them that slowly feed the black hole. When gas gets close to the black hole, the gravitational attraction propels it onto high speed orbits around the black hole. All of the gas swirling around together interacts strongly with the rest of the gas and as a result gets very hot; hot gas glows brightly, especially in ultra-violet and x-rays, both very energetic forms of light. The bright light can be seen in telescopes from Earth indicating the presence of a supermassive black hole. As the gas swirls ever inward, some of it eventually falls into the black hole, vanishing forever. Some of it, however, is spining so fast it cannot fall onto the black hole, and gets squirted out into an energetic jet, propelled away from the nucleus of the galaxy at enormous speeds. This is characteristic of AGN; a blazar is simply an AGN where the view from Earth is staring directly down the jet.

All the material being ejected down the jet is moving at very high speeds, and still collides with other material making its own way out through the jet. This energetic environment is not unlike our own particle accelerators here on Earth, and at some point along the jet a collision between particles created the neutrino we detected with IceCube.

This is once again multi-messenger astronomy — observing the same astrophysical object, using both astro-particles and telescopes. What is different in this case is the discovery was led by neutrino astronomers, who guided telescopes toward the right place in the sky.

The twin 10-meter Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Now, most of us know what astronomers know: black holes are AWESOME. Active Galactic Nuclei are not the only big black holes in the Cosmos. There is, in fact, a massive black hole much closer to home, in the center of our own Milky Way. Astronomers on the ground have been building bigger and bigger telescopes, and today among the largest telescopes in the world are the twin 10-meter Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. We’ve been using the Keck Telescopes, togther with others around the world, to peer at the exact center of the Milky Way for the past two and a half decades. The telescopes have been able to detect a small cluster of stars we call the “S-Cluster.” We’ve been watching them long enough now that we have not only seen the stars move on their orbits, but we’ve seen some of them complete their orbits.

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

If you remember back to your early classes in physics or astronomy, you may remember that someone like me once told you that if we can measure orbits, the Universal Law of Gravitation (published by Newton in 1687) can be used to discover the size of the mass that is driving the orbit. For the S-Cluster of stars, the size and timing of the orbits says there is a 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the galaxy. How do we know it is a black hole? It is emitting no light, and it is so small it competely fits inside the orbits of the stars!

Among this cluster is a star we call SO-2. It is the star closest to the black hole. Every 16 years, its highly elongated orbit dips down to its closest point (what astronomers call the “periapsis”), and zips around the black hole in a quick slingshot. In just the course of a few months, this 15 solar mass star completely changes the direction it is moving through space. THAT is the power of a massive black hole! In May 2018, we watched SO-2 make the second periapsis pass we’ve seen since observations began (the last was in 2002), giving us the most precise measurements to date of the properties of the black hole. By all accounts, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way has all the properties and behaviours predicted by general relativity.

This story serves to introduce us to one of the emerging wonders of modern astronomy — that we are beginning to understand that we can use gravity itself to probe the Cosmos. In the case of SO-2 we are using the influence of gravity to tell us something about the black hole, an object which by definition emits no light. But a century ago, when general relativity was newly minted and first being pondered by Einstein, he had another notion: perhaps we could observe gravity itself — don’t use telescopes at all, but instead build a machine of some sort that plumbs the Universe with some other sense, a sense that we humans do not posses at all.

This illustrates the basic premise of gravitational wave detection using laser interferometers. [TOP] Imagine a ring of small masses. If a gravitational wave is coming straight out of the screen at you, it distorts and warps the ring, first making it long and skinny, then a bit later making it short and wide, and then back again. [BOTTOM] The idea of detection with an instrument like LIGO or LISA is to use mirrors for three of the masses on the rings. As the distance is warped between the masses, the time it takes a laser to travel between them changes. [Images: Shane L. Larson]

Einstein’s idea was simple. What you and I call “gravity” fills space and can change with time, and so the information about how it is changing must be able to be transmitted from one place in the Cosmos to another at the speed of light or less. That propagating message is what we today call a “gravitational wave.”  It is one thing to deduce that such gravitational signals must exist, and quite another to decide what that means and how to build an instrument to detect them. It took until 1957 for physicists to even come to agreement on what gravitational waves do to the world around us. After much arguing and debating and confusion and aggravation, it was realized that they warp spacetime — they change the proper distance between any two masses in a repeating pattern of stretching the distance out and compressing the distance down.

The effect is extremely tiny, so tiny as to be unnoticeable in everyday life, and so tiny as to be discouragingly small if you want to build an experiment to look for the effect. But physicists are a diligent and resilient bunch, and a few of them began to think about exactly how to build such an experiment. Fast forward to today, and six decades of thinking have culminated in one of the most exquisite astronomical observatories ever built: the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory — LIGO. In 2015, LIGO was the first gravitational-wave observatory that was able to successfully detect gravitational-waves, in that case from two merging stellar-mass black holes. Many more discoveries followed, all of them of black holes, until August of 2017.

Left to Right: LIGO-Hanford (Hanford, Washington), LIGO-Livingston (Livingston, Louisiana), and Virgo (Pisa, Italy).

In late August, people across North America were gearing up for a total solar eclipse that was going to race across the continent from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21. But just four days before, in the early morning hours in North America (7:41am Central Daylight Time), the Universe blasted us with gravitational waves. This particular event was unlike any previous gravitational wave event we had seen. It was accompanied by an almost simultaneous burst of gamma rays, detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope, in orbit high above the Earth. The two LIGO facilities, together with our European colleagues using their Virgo detector outside of Pisa, measured the masses of the event telling us we had just observed the merger of two neutron stars — a kind of dead stellar skeleton that can be left over when stars explode at the end of their lives. LIGO and Virgo were able to pinpoint the location of the event to a small region on the sky. By the end of the day, as the Sun set on professional telescopes around the world, the search was on and the fading light of the event was discovered in a small galaxy known by the name NGC 4993. The light gathered by observatories around the world over the next many months (and continues today) showed that this event was an explosive phenomena known as a kilonova. In less than 24 hours, this single event transformed modern astronomy — literally, in the blink of an eye.

The initial detection resolved a great mystery that had confounded astronomers since the 1970s — short gamma ray bursts (like the one detected by Fermi) were the signature of merging neutron stars (detected in gravitational waves). The continuing observations of the kilonova resolved another great mystery — kilonova are the expanding, cooling shattered remains of merging neutron stars. From that cooling and expanding morass of nuclear material that was once the neutron stars, the stuff of us is made in large quantities — the heavy elements on the periodic table, built from the death of dead stars!  All of these ideas are ones that astronomers have speculated about, imagined, and calculated for many years up to now, but the observation, the multi-messenger detection of gravitational waves and light has, for the first time, shown us that some of our thinking is along the right tracks.

It is remarkable to witness this evolution in our thinking about the Cosmos. When I started in astronomy (both in my backyard and in my professional endeavours), our thinking was dominated by telescopes because those were the instruments we had and the tools we had been successful at building and using. We were just starting to try to expand our toolbox, to develop a new repertoire of machines to unravel the story of the Universe and our place within in. Now, at the middle of my life and career, those idle daydreams, those grand ponderings of what might be possible, have come to fruition. 

Now we turn our eyes to the future, and ask “what next?


This post is the first of three based on a talk I have given many times over the last few years, updating it each time to reflect the latest coolest things. The complete set posts of the series are:

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 1: A Love Affair with the Cosmos

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 2: Coming of Age (this post)

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 3: The End is Just the Beginning

This post was enabled by a new version of the talk done as a Kavli Fulldome Lecture at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The talk was captured in full 360, and you can watch it on YouTube here. If you have GoogleCardboard, click on the Cardboard Icon when the movie starts playing; if you watch it on your phone, moving your phone around will let you look at the entire dome!

I would like to thank all my colleagues at Adler who worked so hard to translate what was in my brain into a story told in the immersive cradle of the Grangier Sky Theater. The talk was given on 9 Nov and 10 Nov 2018.


Songs from the Stellar Graveyard (GW170817)

by Shane L. Larson

Bernie Capax meets Death in Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman.

In Neil Gaiman’s transcendent literary comics series The Sandman,  the Endless are echoes of the patterns of force and existence that define the Universe. Among them is Death, who at the end of our lives, collects us and escorts us from this Universe. As she says to Bernie Capax, who had walked the world for some 15,000 years, “You lived what anybody gets… you got a lifetime.”  (issue 43, contained in the collection “Brief Lives“).

If there is any truth in astronomy that we have learned over the last few centuries, it is that the Universe itself evolves. The stars are born, they live their long lives, and ultimately they perish and decay away. Death waits for them too. The galaxy is littered with the remains of stars that once were. From our vantage point here on Earth, we peer out into the Cosmos and glean what we can with the meager view we have in our telescopes. We have mapped billions of stars, and millions of galaxies. But in the stellar graveyard, we have only seen a handful of objects — we know precious little about the skeletons of the stars, because they simply don’t emit much light.

On 17 August 2017, at 7:41:04 am CDT, a faint whisper from the stellar graveyard washed across the shores of Earth. It showed up first in the LIGO-Virgo gravitational wave network, which was deep in our second observing run (what we call “O2”). At that particular moment, we were all wound up and celebrating because just three days before, we had made our first joint detection with LIGO and Virgo together (a pair of black holes called GW170814). When signals register in our network, the automated software (we call them “pipelines“) generates initial numbers about what the source might be, and that morning we knew we had something special. Our group lead at Northwestern was spinning us all up to start doing computer simulations, and in an early email to us she said what we all knew: this is life changing.

On the first day, we were sending emails that had the inkling already of how important this discovery was.

Why? Because the mass of the objects in the new signal were smaller than anything we had seen in gravitational waves before — all together less than about 3 times the mass of the Sun. Our predisposition from all our years of experience in astronomy said that could mean only one thing: the LIGO-Virgo network had just detected the first binary neutron star merger in history. Today, we call this event GW170817.

Spectrograms show how the frequency of the signal (vertical axis) changes in time (horizontal axis) in each of the three detectors. The long swoop up and to the right is called a chirp. [Image: LIGO-Virgo]

But the story gets better. 1.7 seconds after the gravitational wave signature, the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), in orbit high over the Earth, registered an event — a short gamma-ray burst, now called GRB170817A. This was hugely significant, because we have often speculated about what causes gamma-ray bursts. For short gamma-ray bursts we’ve long thought it must be colliding neutron stars.

The discovery of GRB170817A by Fermi-GBM. [Image: NASA/Fermi]

What are these neutron stars? They are the dead skeletons of stars, one possible outcome of a colossal stellar explosion known as a supernova. They are extreme objects. They have about one and a half times the mass of the Sun packed inside a sphere about 20 kilometers across (about the size of a city). That means they are extraordinarily dense — a tablespoon of neutron star matter would weigh 10 billion tonnesabout 30 times the mass of all the humans on planet Earth. Gravity on the surface is outrageously strong — about 190 billion times the strength of gravity on the surface of the Earth; if you had the misfortune of falling off a 1 millimeter high cliff, you would be travelling almost 220,000 kilometers per hour when you hit bottom (136,000 mph).

A neutron star (diameter 20 km) scaled to the Chicago skyline. [Image: LIGO-Virgo/Daniel Schwen/Northwestern]

One thing we know about the lives of the stars is that many of them live together with a partner, orbiting one another in a fashion similar to the Earth orbiting the Sun. Like human life partners, one star inevitably reaches the end of its life first, and expires in a supernova. Some such stars become neutron stars. Eventually, the second star in the pair also dies, and if it supernovas, then one end state is two neutron stars, left in an orbital dance with the skeleton of their partner. One might think that is the end of the story for such stars, but there is still one final chapter in this tale from the stellar graveyard. The orbit of the two neutron stars can and will shrink over time through emission of gravitational waves. Of course, we’ve detected gravitational waves before (GW150914, GW151226, GW170104, GW170814), but this time it’s different. Why? We’re talking about neutron stars instead of black holes, which means there can be light, and indeed there was.

The collision of the neutron stars smashes all the matter together, and under such energetic circumstances, matter generates light. The gamma-ray burst was only the beginning. The collision sheds matter into a volume around the merging pair. This matter, suddenly free of the strong nuclear forces involved in the dense matter of the neutron star, recombines and makes heavy elements (physicists call this “r-process nucleosynthesis“). This recombination also creates light, and is called a kilonova. Following the gamma-ray burst there is also a long term afterglow, from the energetic jet of the gamma-ray burst blasting through the surrounding interstellar medium.

Different phases of emission of electromagnetic radiation from the binary neutron star merger. (L) The initial gamma ray burst. (C) The kilonova from nucleosynthesis. (R) Long term afterglow from energized material around the event. [Images: NASA-GSFC SVS]

The LIGO error ellipses plotted on a skymap of the Hydra-Virgo region. The galaxy NGC 4993 is visible in amateur telescopes. [Image: S. Larson]

Together, the LIGO and Virgo detectors can determine where on the sky a source comes from, though not perfectly. They can point to a region called the gravitational-wave error ellipse. For Gw170817, the ellipse on the sky was narrowed down to just about 30 square degrees — an area about the size and shape of a small banana held out at arms length. The error ellipse spans the boundary between the constellations Hydra and Virgo, with a little tail that stretches into Corvus. This was a difficult position in the sky because at the time of the discovery in mid-August, it sets very shortly after sunset. Never-the-less, telescopes around the world began an intensive imaging search, and just 10.9 hours after the detection of GW170817 and GRB170817A, an optical signal was discovered by the Swope telescope in Chile — a pinpoint of light on the outer fringes of the galaxy NGC 4993 that was not there before. Over the course of the next 10 days, the kilonova faded away; in the end more than 70 observatories worldwide imaged and measured the kilonova.  It has been a historic discovery and observing campaign. This is the beginning of multi-messenger astronomy with gravitational waves.

An image of the kilonova associated with GW170817; the fuzzy blog is NGC 4993. [Image: TOROS Collaboration, M. Diaz]

So what can you do with gravity and light together? As it turns out, an awesome amount of science! Today there is a virtual raft of papers being published (the first wave of many, I expect) outlining what we have learned so far. There are too many to explain them all here, but let me just outline a few that stand out to me.

Probably the most important outcome is the confirmation of the connection between short gamma-ray bursts and binary neutron star mergers. Gamma-ray bursts have been a mystery for more than 40 years. First discovered in the 1960s by the military using satellites meant to monitor nuclear weapon tests, the discovery that they were of cosmic origin was revealed to the scientific community in the 1970s. Since then many ideas and models to explain their origin and intense energy have been explored, but none have been confirmed because the engines — the astrophysical systems that drive them — are far too tiny to resolve in telescopes. The LIGO-Virgo detection of gravitational waves confirms that neutron star binaries are the progenitor of short gamma-ray bursts.

The result that I’m most excited about is we used GW170817 to measure the expansion of the Universe. The expansion of the Universe was first noted by Hubble in 1929, by measuring the distances to other galaxies. This was being done just 5 years after the discovery that there were other galaxies! Fast forward 88 years to 2017 — we’ve measured the expansion of the Universe independently using the distance to a galaxy with gravitational waves and light from telescopic observations together. This measurement comes just two years after the discovery of gravitational waves!  It gives me no small amount of pleasure to echo that historic discovery so close to the beginning of this new era of astronomy. 🙂

Top shows Hubble’s original 1929 diagram (from PNAS, 168, 73[1929]); bottom shows the location on this diagram of the GW170817 measurements, at the + mark. [Image: W. Farr/LIGO-Virgo]

We try and write public accessible versions of our papers in the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration. If you’d like to explore some of the science we’ve been doing, try out some of our science summaries.

There are of course many things we still don’t know about the discovery. Foremost among them is this: what is the thing that formed after the merger of the two neutron stars? Some of us in the astrophysics community think it might be some kind of exotic super-neutron-star, larger than any neutron star ever detected. Some of us in the astrophysics community think it  might be some kind of exotic light-black-hole, smaller than any black hole ever detected. Whatever it is, it lies within a very fuzzy range of masses that we call the mass gap — a range of masses where we have never seen any stellar remnant. What is the lightest black hole Nature can create in the Universe?  What is the heaviest neutron star Nature allows? These are questions we would very much like to know the answer to. At least for the moment, it seems we may not learn the answer from GW170817, but with future detections of binary neutron star mergers we may.

The masses of known stellar remnants discovered by both electromagnetic and gravitational wave observations. Between the black holes and the neutron stars is the “mass gap.” [Image: LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern]

So here we are. We are all simultaneously exhilarated, relieved, joyous, and eager for more discoveries to be made. We’re very tired from late nights analyzing data, arguing about results, writing papers, and furiously preparing ways to tell our story to the world.

We could all use a nap. And a pizza.

Because this is only the beginning, the culmination of decades of hard work, difficult hardships, and anticipation. And the best is yet to come. I’m so happy that I’ve seen these days. Being tired doesn’t bother me, all the struggles getting to this point don’t bother me either, because I got to watch it unfold. As Death said, we get what anyone gets; we get a lifetime. These are the moments, the discoveries, that are filling that lifetime up.  Onward to the next one.


This post is the latest in a long series that I’ve written about all the LIGO detections up to now.  You can read those previous posts here:

The Harmonies of Spacetime – GW150914

My Brain is Melting – GW150914 (part 2)

The Cosmic Classroom on Boxing Day (GW151226)

New Astronomy at the New Year (GW170104)

Focusing our Gravitational Wave Attention (GW170814)


I have many LIGO and Virgo colleagues who also blog about these kinds of things. You may enjoy some of their posts too!