LIGO detects gravitational waves for third time

Gravitational waves

Before LIGO, astronomers didn't know that so-called solar mass black holes, which form when stars die, could reach such extreme sizes.

That's when the ghosts of two dead stars - black holes dozens of times more massive than our sun - merged in a far-off corner of the universe.

University of MS researchers involved with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory Scientific Collaboration have confirmed that the global partnership has made a third detection of gravitational waves, demonstrating that a new window in astronomy has been firmly opened.

"He woke us up in the middle of the night", says MIT scientist David Shoemaker, newly elected spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a body of more than 1000 scientists who perform LIGO research together with the European-based Virgo Collaboration.

The best fit turned out to be a pair of merging black holes, which the scientists calculated to be the second most massive stellar-mass binary black hole system, behind GW150914, LIGO's first gravitational wave detection.

A second detection was made in December 2015.

Research on the latest set of gravitational waves were published by a team of 1,000 scientists in the journal Physical Review Letters. That, according to Penn State's B. S. Sathyaprakash, gives them time to interact with the fabric of space in ways that test general relativity. That's because some of the mass gets converted into energy, via Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2. And crucially, the events that can be understood with gravitational waves-such as black hole mergers-are those that cannot be seen through common means of detection, such as light. The first detection revealed a black hole that formed after two merged, the result was a black hole with a solar mass of 62, meaning 62 of our suns could fit within it. LIGO's second detection featured two smaller black holes, 14 and eight times the mass of the sun (SN: 7/9/16, p. 8). The detection took place during LIGO's current observing run, which started in November 2016 and will run through this year's summer. The merging black holes are probably the most distant yet seen, about three billion light-years from Earth.

"The University of MS is so pleased to be a member of this global collaboration of talented scientists and engineers, which is producing such astounding breakthroughs", Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. "Their work is a great example of UM's transformative impact on our understanding of the world". The latter theory prefers that the pair of black holes will both have to have aligned spins.

Eventually, LIGO will also observe other types of cosmic event, but many detections of the same type of event - in this case binary black holes - are crucial to obtaining detailed scientific results. This can shed light on the way the black holes might have formed.

However, the scientists discovered an interesting feature in the newest signal: The spin of at least one of the black holes may have been "antialigned" with the orbital angular momentum - the direction in which the black holes were orbiting each other. The LIGO team has also identified six other candidate events during this run, which they are now analysing.

They are believed to form when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel at the end of their lives. We even now know about so-called intermediate mass black holes weighing as much as thousands of suns. In the previous two events, the paired black holes seemed to have spins that were aligned.

That makes it likely that the black holes originated separately and then later captured each other, possibly when they converged at the heart of a dense cluster of stars.

"Yet when the ripples passed the LIGO detector they made it vibrate by just one attometer, or 0.000000000000000001 metres", Professor Blair said.

And once again, Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity held up. Dispersion is what happens when light passes through a prism to create a rainbow. But Einstein's theory says gravitational waves ought to be immune to this sort of dispersion-and this is exactly what the observations suggest, with this latest black hole merger providing the strongest confirmation so far.

Another line of LIGO evidence supports the idea that globular clusters play a role in the saga of dual heavy black holes. Letizia Sammut, Postdoctoral Researcher at Monash UniversityOne of the most exciting possibilities of gravitational wave astronomy is the detection of gravitational waves from the very early universe nearly immediately after the Big Bang!

Members of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) anxiously await these new data.

The move received in-principle approval from the cabinet in February past year and has made rapid progress towards the plan to join these exciting scientific observations in 2024.

"A squeezed light source will be installed to manipulate the quantum nature of light and make the detectors even more precise measurement devices", she said.

On Jan. 4, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) picked up a barely perceptible signal that scientists quickly determined to be a gravitational wave - a ripple of energy passing through the curvature of spacetime.


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