LIGO snags another set of gravitational waves

Spacetime vibrations arrive from black hole collision 3 billion light-years away

illustration of gravitational waves

THREE OF A KIND  Scientists have made a third detection of gravitational waves. A pair of black holes, shown above, fused into one, in a powerful collision about 3 billion light-years from Earth. That smashup churned up ripples in spacetime that were detected by the LIGO experiment.

Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State, MIT, Caltech, LIGO

For a third time, scientists have detected the infinitesimal reverberations of spacetime: gravitational waves.

Two black holes stirred up the spacetime wiggles, orbiting one another and spiraling inward until they fused into one jumbo black hole with a mass about 49 times that of the sun. Ripples from that union, which took place about 3 billion light-years from Earth, zoomed across the cosmos at the speed of light, eventually reaching the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, which detected them on January 4.

“These are the most powerful astronomical events witnessed by human beings,” Michael Landry, head of LIGO’s Hanford, Wash., observatory, said during a news conference May 31 announcing the discovery. As the black holes merged, they converted about two suns’ worth of mass into energy, radiated as gravitational waves. 

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LIGO’s two detectors, located in Hanford and Livingston, La., each consist of a pair of 4-kilometer-long arms. They act as outrageously oversized rulers to measure the stretching of spacetime caused by gravitational waves. According to Einstein’s theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity, massive objects bend the fabric of space and create ripples when they accelerate — for example, when two objects orbit one another. Gravitational ripples are tiny: LIGO is tuned to detect waves that stretch and squeeze the arms by a thousandth of the diameter of a proton. Black hole collisions are one of the few events in the universe that are catastrophic enough to produce spacetime gyrations big enough to detect.

The two black holes that spawned the latest waves were particularly hefty, with masses about 31 and 19 times that of the sun,  scientists report June 1 in Physical Review Letters. LIGO’s first detection, announced in February 2016, came from an even bigger duo: 36 and 29 times the mass of the sun (SN: 3/5/16, p. 6).  Astrophysicists don’t fully understand how such big black holes could have formed. But now, “it seems that these are not so uncommon, so clearly there’s a way to produce these massive black holes,” says physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida in Gainesville. LIGO’s second detection featured two smaller black holes, 14 and eight times the mass of the sun (SN: 7/9/16, p. 8).

Weighty black holes are difficult to explain, because the stars that collapsed to form them must have been even more massive. Typically, stellar winds steadily blow away mass as a star ages, leading to a smaller black hole. But under certain conditions, those winds might be weak — for example, if the stars contain few elements heavier than helium or have intense magnetic fields (SN Online: 12/12/16). The large masses of LIGO’s black holes suggest that they formed in such environments.

Scientists also disagree about how black holes partner up. One theory is that two neighboring stars each explode and produce two black holes, which then spiral inward. Another is that black holes find one another within a dense cluster of stars, as massive black holes sink to the center of the clump (SN Online: 6/19/16).

The new detection provides some support for the star cluster theory: The pattern of gravitational waves LIGO observed hints that one of the black holes might be spinning in the opposite direction from its orbit. Like a cosmic do-si-do, each black hole in a pair twirls on its own axis as it spirals inward. Black holes that pair up as stars are likely to have their spins aligned with their orbits. But if the black holes instead find one another in the chaos of a star cluster, they could spin any which way. The potentially misaligned black hole LIGO observed somewhat favors the star cluster scenario. The measurement is “suggestive, but it’s not definite,” says astrophysicist Avi Loeb of Harvard University.

Scientists will need more data to sort out how the black hole duos form, says physicist Emanuele Berti of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “Probably the truth is somewhere in between.” Various processes could contribute to the formation of  black hole pairs, Berti says.

As with previous detections of gravitational waves, the scientists used their measurements to test general relativity. For example, while general relativity predicts that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, some alternative theories of gravity predict that gravitational waves of different energies travel at different speeds. LIGO scientists found no evidence of such an effect, vindicating Einstein once again.

Now, with three black hole mergers under their belts, scientists are looking forward to a future in which gravitational wave detections become routine. The more gravitational waves scientists detect, the better they can test their theories. “There are already surprises that make people stop and revisit some old ideas,” Will says. “To me that’s very exciting.”

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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