Einstein's zoo: LIGO and Virgo confirm gravitational waves from 50 cosmic collisions

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These 50 events include the mergers of binary black hole, binary neutron stars and, possibly, neutron star-black holes.

The LIGO and Virgo Collaborations, which includes researchers from the University of Birmingham, have announced a further 39 gravitational-wave events, bringing the total number of confident detections to 50.

These 50 events include the mergers of binary black hole, binary neutron stars and, possibly, neutron star-black holes. The 39 events announced [today], in the release of the Collaboration’s second Gravitational-Wave Transient Catalogue (GWTC-2) also span a wide range of masses and contain a wealth of information on the history and formation of black holes and neutron stars throughout the universe. The events were detected during the first half of the third observing run, between 1 April and 1 October 2019.

The University of Birmingham has been a key member of the Advanced LIGO project since its inception. Researchers from the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy have contributed to the design and construction of the LIGO detectors, have developed accurate models for the gravitational radiation emitted by binary systems and have pioneered the techniques used to mine astrophysical information from the gravitational-wave data. This work allows us to study the physics of binary systems, their astrophysical evolution and perform precision tests of Einstein's theory with gravitational-wave observations. Members of the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy have played a leading role in the analysis and interpretation of the data collected throughout the three observing runs.

Dr Patricia Schmidt, lecturer at the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, says: “Only five years after the very first detection of gravitational waves, we already have 50 events.  Gravitational-wave astronomy is rapidly becoming an indispensable tool for studying some of the most fascinating objects such as black holes and neutron stars as well as the universe as a whole.”

These new observations are a treasure chest to peek into the evolutionary paths of black holes and neutron stars in binary systems. GWTC-2 contains a population of binary black holes that span a much wider mass range than previously observed, from approximately 5 to 85 times the mass of the Sun. The lower end of the range is where theorists expect the lightest black holes to be formed in Nature, a prediction that can now be tested observationally. The higher end of the mass spectrum is too high for standard stellar evolution models to produce a black hole as the end state of massive stars. To find out how and where in the Universe the systems found by LIGO-Virgo were formed, will keep astrophysicists busy for quite some time. 

For the first time, this sample also provides a clear indication that at least some black holes spin and tumble in their death-dance around each other. A small fraction of them, around 20 per cent, seem to like to dance upside-down. Measuring the masses and spins of the binary companions is of extreme importance towards connecting the compact objects to their stellar progenitors, allowing us to solve the puzzle of their formation and evolution which can take many different paths and crucially depends on them.

Riccardo Buscicchio, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham School of Physics and Astronomy and member of the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration says: “It’s like reconstructing the entire history of primates, their origin and migration across the continents only by looking at Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. Except that black holes progenitors are much older, 200 times further in the past than primates’ history on Earth.”

These new gravitational-wave detections provide yet another stress-test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. By comparing the observed gravitational-wave signals to our best theoretical predictions we can search for small deviations from General Relativity: once more Einstein’s theory passes every test unscathed.

Dr Geraint Pratten, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, who played a leading role in the confirmation of Einstein’s theory, says: “Gravitational-wave observations provide us with a unique arena in which we can perform novel tests of fundamental physics. The wealth of observed binary black holes allow us to scrutinise Einstein’s theory of relativity in unprecedented detail, gaining remarkable insights into the astrophysical and fundamental nature of black holes.”

The future of gravitational-wave astronomy seems to be as bright as ever. The analysis of the second half of O3 is currently in progress and will further expand the growing gravitational-wave transient catalog. Following O3, detectors will undergo additional engineering improvements to further increase their astrophysical reach in time for the fourth observing run, currently scheduled to start in 2022. While scientists await instrumental improvements and the construction of even more ambitious detectors, GWTC-2 offers unprecedented opportunities to explore the nature of black holes and neutron stars throughout the universe.

Professor Alberto Vecchio, director of the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy says: “I remember when over 20 years ago I started to devote most of my time to gravitational wave science many of my former PhD colleagues thought I was mad: I would spend my scientific career just staring at terabytes of noise. I am so glad I was foolish enough not to pay much attention to their remarks. Now it’s surprise after surprise in an exhilarating journey across the Universe, and this is just the very beginning.”

Notes to editors:

For media enquiries please contact Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0)121 414 2772: email: r.lockwood@bham.ac.uk

A Highlight of Exceptional Events in GWTC-2:

  • GW190412: a BBH with asymmetric component masses that shows evidence for higher harmonics.
  • GW190425: the second gravitational-wave event consistent with a BNS, following GW170817.
  • GW190426_152155: a low-mass event consistent with either an NSBH or BBH.
  • GW190514_065416: a BBH with the smallest effective aligned spin of all O3a events.
  • GW190517_055101: a BBH with the largest effective aligned spin of all O3a events.
  • GW190521: a BBH with total mass over 150 times the mass of the Sun.
  • GW190814: a highly asymmetric system of ambiguous nature, corresponding to the merger of a 23 solar mass black hole with a 2.6 solar mass compact object, making the latter either the lightest black hole or heaviest neutron star observed in a compact binary.
  • GW190924_021846: likely the lowest-mass BBH, with both black holes exceeding 3 solar masses.

    About the University of Birmingham
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.

Research funding information

LIGO research activities at the University of Birmingham are supported by the U.K.Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Additional funding was received from the NWO (Dutch Research Council), the Royal Society and Wolfson Foundation.

  • Dr Patricia Schmidt is partially funded through a NWO VENI Fellowship
  • Prof Alberto Vecchio is supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Fellowship
  • LIGO research activities at the University of Birmingham are supported by the U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council.

About the gravitational-wave observatories:

LIGO is funded by the NSF and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and lead the project. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council-OzGrav) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. Approximately 1,300 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration. A list of additional partners is available via the LIGO website.

The Virgo Collaboration is currently composed of approximately 520 members from 99 institutes in 11 different countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain. The European Gravitational Observatory (EGO) hosts the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, and is funded by Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy, and Nikhef in the Netherlands. A list of the Virgo Collaboration groups can be found via the Virgo website.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is part of the UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. For more information visit https://www.ukri.org/.

STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories, including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Daresbury Laboratory, as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB, the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more. @STFC_Matters

Publication details

GWTC-2: https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.14527

Tests of General Relativity: https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.14529

Population properties of compact objects: https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.14533

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