A bounty of potential gravitational wave events hints at exciting possibilities

Most are probably false alarms, but some could be spacetime ripples that are extra hard to spot

illustration of gravitational waves forming around two black holes spiraling around one another

One way that gravitational waves (shown in this illustration) are stirred up is when two black holes spiral around one another and collide.

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

A new crew of potential ripples in spacetime has just debuted — emphasis on the word “potential.”

By loosening the criteria for what qualifies as evidence for gravitational waves, physicists identified 1,201 possible tremors. Most are probably fakes, spurious jitters in the data that can mimic the cosmic vibrations, the team reports August 2 at arXiv.org. But by allowing in more false alarms, the new tally may also include some weak but genuine signals that would otherwise be missed, potentially revealing exciting new information about the sources of gravitational waves.

Scientists can now look for signs that may corroborate some of the uncertain detections, such as flashes of light in the sky that flared from the cosmic smashups that set off the ripples. Gravitational waves are typically spawned by collisions of dense, massive objects, such as black holes or neutron stars, the remnants of dead stars (SN: 1/21/21).

To come up with the new census, physicists reanalyzed six months of data from the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, and Virgo gravitational wave observatories. Scientists had already identified 39 of the events as likely gravitational waves in earlier analyses.

Eight events that hadn’t been previously identified stand a solid chance of being legitimate — with greater than a 50 percent probability of coming from an actual collision.

The physicists analyzed the data from those eight events to see how they might have occurred. In one, two black holes may have slammed together, melding into a whopper black hole with about 180 times the mass of the sun, which would make it the biggest black hole merger seen yet (SN: 9/2/20). Another event could be a rare sighting of a black hole swallowing a neutron star (SN: 6/29/21).

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