by Shane L. Larson
The fence we walked between the years Did bounce us serene. It was a place half in the sky where In the green of leaf and promising of peach We'd reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky, If we could reach and touch, we said, 'Twould teach us, not to ,never to, be dead. We ached and almost touched that stuff; Our reach was never quite enough. If only we had taller been,
So opens Ray Bradbury’s epic poem, “If Only Taller We Had Been…” He had composed it for a panel discussion on 12 November 1971, just before Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, becoming the first spacecraft to ever orbit another planet (here’s a video of Bradbury reading the poem). Bradbury’s poem is an ode of optimism to the future — smiling gently at our ancestors and their grasping reach which didn’t quite reach us on the first try. It is a grand hope for our posterity that they achieve all that we dare to dream. The future is a murky place, fraught with unknown difficulties and challenges, but illuminated by desire and ambition.
Despite the long years that remain between today and tomorrow, you can image what our future selves might do in our quest to understand the Cosmos. The Universe will not change much between now and then, but our understanding of the Universe will change, and change dramatically. The specific details we cannot know, but we know where the limits of our knowledge are, and we know what the capabilities of our current science experiments are. Scientists already are planning for the future, imagining, designing, and developing the Great Machines of tomorrow. Let’s spin the clocks forward 30 years and take a glimpse of what we expect.In 2048 it is impossible to know what sorts of telescopes amateurs will have. But if history is a teacher, amateurs will have access to bigger telescopes and better technology for capturing light from the sky, whether it be cameras or spectroscopes, or automated robotic mounts, or telescopes that see in light our eyes cannot see. A few amateurs already have such capabilities, and the future will surely make such technology more accessible.
Professional astronomers are also looking ahead toward their next generation of telescopes. On the ground, the next generation of telescopes will be about thirty meters in diameter, three times larger than the current generation and six times larger than the venerable Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar. Thirty years from now, Hubble will be long gone, but its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will have been lofted in its place. Right now, JWST is expected to launch in 2021. It should cast its gaze on the Unvierse for a decade or more, depending on how long its fuel reserves last. As with Hubble, it will see farther and see more than any telescope in history, though we don’t yet know what new things it will teach us. It is a marvel of engineering, designed to fold up and fit inside a rocket for launch, it will unfold like a flower when it arrives in space — 18 hexagonal segments that together comprises a gigantic 6.5 meter diameter mirror that looks out on the Cosmos, all of it sitting in the shade of a multi-layered sun-shield the size of a tennis court. If JWST has a tenure as long and as lustrous as the Hubble Space Telescope’s, then the discoveries in store for us will be extraordinary and transformative for astronomy.Space affords many opportunities to expand our view of the Cosmos, and this is certainly the case in gravitatioanl wave astronomy. In the early 2030s, the European Space Agency and NASA are planning to launch a gravitational wave observatory called LISA — the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. It will operate continuously for a decade or more, well into the 2040s, probing new and exotic phenomena, many of which can only be understood or detected at all with gravitational waves. Like its ground-based cousin, LIGO, LISA is a laser interferometer. It shines lasers back and forth between mirrors, timing how long it takes the laser to make the flight. Small changes in that flight-time, changing in regular undulating patterns, are the hallmark of gravitational waves. So what’s so different about LISA? LISA is about a million times larger than LIGO, which is why it has to be in space. The reason it is so much larger is that the size of a laser interferometer determines the sources of gravitational waves it can detect. Whereas LIGO can detect small stellar skeletons in the last moments of their lives, as they whirl around each other hundreds or thousands of times a second before colliding, LISA is sensitive those same stellar skeletons when they are much farther apart, earlier in their lives when they speed around their orbits only once every thousand seconds or so. Whereas LIGO can detect black holes that have a few to a few tens times the mass of the Sun, LISA can detect black holes that are millions of times the mass of the Sun (“massive” black holes, like the one at the center of the Milky Way). Astronomers say that LISA observes a different part of the gravitational wave spectrum. Just as we have different kinds of “light” telescopes (optical telescopes, radio telescopes, x-ray telescopes), we have different kinds of gravitational-wave “telescopes” (LISA, LIGO, and others).
So what will LISA teach us about the Cosmos? Consider the Milky Way. Like many galaxies, the Milky Way is ancient — 10 billion years old. Comprised of 400 billion stars, many stars in the Milky Way have lived their lives and passed on into the stellar graveyard over the long course of its history. Something you may remember from your astronomy learnings is that many of the stars in the galaxy are not single stars, but binary stars — two stars orbiting around each other the way the Moon orbits the Earth or the planets orbit the Sun. That means when both stars die, their skeletons sometimes stay together, orbiting each other over and over and over and over again. The stellar graveyard is full of not just skeletons, but binary skeletons, and in particular binary white dwarf skeletons.A white dwarf is a particular kind of stellar skeleton, created when an ordinary star reaches the end of its life. Most stars — and our Sun is among them — are not heavy enough to explode upon their deaths. Instead they swell up into a red giant, then compress themselves down into a skeletal remnant of their former selves, about the size of the Earth. These white dwarfs are hot and crystalline, mostly comprised of carbon, and will over the remaining history of the Universe slowly cool and fade. Most stars in the Milky Way are ordinary, average stars like the Sun. That means that most of the stellar skeletons in the Milky Way are white dwarfs, created over the ten billion history of the galaxy. All told, there are some ten to fifty million white dwarf binaries, and all of them are going to be emitting gravitational waves that LISA can see. Part of preparing for astronomy in the future is imagining what you might observe and discover. We simulate the entire life history of the Milky Way on the computer and ask what does the stellar graveyard look like. Where are the white dwarfs, where did they come from, and what do they tell us about the life and history of stars in the Milky Way? When faced with a view of our home galaxy like this, and you imagine all the vast cacophony of gravitational waves from the stellar graveyard? We often describe this as the “lunch-room problem” or the “party problem.” Imagine you are hanging out in the cafeteria or a crowded restaurant at lunchtime. Everyone there is talking, and what you hear is a dull rumble of noise coming from every direction in the room. You can tell it is people talking and laughing, but by and large all of the sound is mixed together and most of the conversations are indistinguishable from one another. Astronomers call this “confusion noise.” Of course you can hear some conversations. You can hear people that are close to you, and you can hear loud people, even if they are far away. You can always hear these close or loud people, no matter what the background noise is. Astronomers call signals that stand out above the confusion “resolved sources.”
Your ears, and mostly your brain (based on what your ears are telling it), are fully capable of separating resolved sources from confusion noise — you do it every time you go out to eat! Our job as future gravitational wave astronomers will be to teach computers how to carefully pour over the LISA data and learn to separate resolved white dwarf binaries that are close or loud. Out of the tens of millions of confused skeletons in the stellar graveyard, tens of of thousands will be resolved and studied by LISA. Encoded in that collection of stars are the tales of how stars like the Sun have lived out their lives, and a deeper understanding of how the birth and death of stars has surged and waned over the long history of the galaxy.
Dead stars aren’t the only thing that LISA will observe; it will also be sensitive to black hole binaries — massive black hole binaries. One of the great astronomical discoveries astronomers have made in the last few decades is that big galaxies harbor massive black holes at their centers, black holes of millions or billions of solar masses. As our telescopes have gotten larger and able to see deeper into the Cosmos, we have also started cataloging galaxies in all their shapes and forms, and discovered that sometimes they collide. So what happens when two galaxies, each harboring a massive black hole, collide?Their stars swarm and merge like a cloud of angry bees, eventually coalescing due to their mutual gravitational attraction and form a new galaxy. Their big black holes slowly sink to the center, where they find one another and begin a slow, spiraling orbit that grows ever shorter as time goes on. When the orbits take only 10,000 seconds or less, they become observable by LISA.
Today, we know galaxies merge, but we know little about the processes that help massive black holes grow. Do they accrete gas? Do they grow by absorbing stars over and over again? Or do they only grow by merging with other black holes? LISA’s observations of massive black holes, together with where in the Cosmos they are found, will begin to provide answers to those questions. We don’t know those answers today, because we’ve seen that galaxies collide but have yet to see massive black holes merge. In lieu of LISA data, which is still more than a decade in the future, we simulate different ways to grow galaxies and black holes on super-computers, and simulate what LISA would observe.
One massive simulation, spanning the entire age of the Universe, is called the Illustris Simulation. The movie below is a visualization of the Illustris simulation from the Big Bang to the present day. The simulation accounts for gas and dark matter int he Universe, and tracks the formation of stars, galaxies, and black holes across Cosmic time. We use the simulation as a model for the actual Universe, and “observe it” with a simulation of LISA. What do we learn from this? That the sky is going to be alive with massive black hole binaries, visible to LISA in every direction and all the way to the edge of the Observable Universe. In the movie below, we show all the mergers that would be detectable by LISA if it were flying at the right times (data simulation be Michael Katz and S. Larson).
You can imagine, and rightfully so, that all the massive black holes just add to the confused cacophony of gravitational waves created by the millions of white dwarfs in the galaxy. The Cosmos is full with the gravitational chorus, and our job as astronomers is to pick out all the melodies, and harmonies, and individual instruments and voices that make it up.
The miracle of the modern age is that we are suddenly aware that the Universe is sending us messages with a multitude of signals — light, particles, and gravitational waves. It’s an intricate, interlaced story that we are just now learning to interpret. Modern, instrument based astronomy began with the invention of the telescope some 400 years ago. Particle astronomy is only 100 years old, and gravitational wave astronomy has only been successful in the last five years. Our ability to probe the Universe carefully and precisely has existed for only the bareest fraction of Cosmic time — a heartbeat in the life of the Cosmos. We’ve used our ingenuity, our curiosity, and our creativity to spin that short experience into a complex and increasingly sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Universe, and our place within it.
This post is the last 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
The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 3: The End is Just the Beginning (this post)
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.