Scientists spot rare gravity waves for the third time

Delia Watkins
June 2, 2017

More than 1,000 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration.

Because this new black hole binary is about 3 billion light years away - twice as far as the others we've seen - the gravitational wave has to ripple through more space before it reaches Earth.

The crashing together of the two black holes created a new hole that has a mass 49 times that of the Sun.

The long-awaited triumph in September 2015 of the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves completed Einstein's vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic. Like the research center's first two detections, the waves were created by the collision of two black holes that formed a larger ripple in the space-time fabric.

The LIGO team notes that the instrument's observations suggest a "new population of black holes" with masses larger than what had been seen before with X-ray studies alone. It could be the remnants of "primordial" black holes created at the beginning of the universe.

The black holes identified in January were slightly smaller than those in the first detection, but they were much farther away, according to David Shoemaker, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spokesman for LIGO, an global collaboration involving more than 1,000 researchers.

The hint of information about the black holes' spins in the latest event has prompted much dicussion among the collaboration about how much insight could be gleaned from it. "We're really interested in doing a new type of astronomy". "We're making the transition to talking about a population of these objects". As part of its standard procedure, LIGO sent these sky maps out to about 80 partner astronomy groups, each of which has access to imaging tools that span the entire electromagnetic spectrum, as well as neutrinos. Jo van den Brand, the Virgo Collaboration spokesperson, said they expect Virgo to expand the network of detectors by this summer. The measurement is "suggestive, but it's not definite", says astrophysicist Avi Loeb of Harvard University. Sometimes black holes spin in the same overall orbital direction as the pair is moving-what astronomers refer to as aligned spins-and sometimes they spin in the opposite direction of the orbital motion.

The newly observed event began as two black holes neared each other in a death spiral. "We are at the forefront of this fast-moving area". In such an environment, black holes with various spins can eventually pair up in binary systems, simply through gravitational, "dynamic" attraction.

In the latest merger, detailed today in the journal Physical Review Letters, the resulting black hole was about 50 times the mass of our Sun. Before the start of the first Advanced LIGO run, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration had made a decision to test its ability to detect gravitational waves by injecting signals in the detector that only a few people knew about.

If neutron star mergers are happening at an appreciable rate, we should also be able to detect them (and, since they're not black holes, we should also see a signal of the event with photons). LIGO's second detection featured two smaller black holes, 14 and eight times the mass of the sun (SN: 7/9/16, p. 8).

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"We have further confirmation of the existence of stellar-mass black holes that are larger than 20 solar masses - these are objects we didn't know existed before LIGO detected them", said Shoemaker, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such odd and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us".

Ligo was rebooted on November 30 2016 and now, scientists have revealed it detected gravitational waves a little over one month later. When a gravitational wave passes through a LIGO detector, it can slightly stretch one arm and compress the other, thereby altering the measured interference and letting the gravitational wave be measured in real time.

When LIGO gets a hit, the gravitational wave makes a characteristic signal that scientists' call a "chirp" because of the sound it makes once translated into a format human ears can hear.

Still, at a distance of 1.3 billion light-years, by the time those ripples washed over Earth they'd distorted space on a distance of about a proton.

Gravitational waves occur when extremely massive objects interact with the universe around them, such as when orbiting black holes merge with each other.

The recent detection is the farthest yet, with the black holes located about 3 billion light-years from Earth. When the black holes coalesce, the total rotational velocity of the merged black hole can not exceed a certain upper limit. That would imply that the black holes were not born together as stars.

While the detection doesn't tell scientists if these doomed black holes were tilted or not, it does suggest that one of them may have been spinning in the same direction.

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

With this observation of a black hole spinning in the opposite direction to its orbit, astronomers now have evidence of black holes pairing up after their rotations have been established.

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