Scientists spot rare gravity waves for the third time

LIGO's third detection hints at how black hole binaries are born

This is an important detail that can teach us more about the dynamics of our universe, and so far we can only detect the spins of black holes using the brand new technique of gravitational wave measurements.

The third detection has been described in a new paper accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. That's the farthest signal yet.

The planned LIGO-India observatory, that received in-principle approval from the Union cabinet in February 2016, has made rapid progress, scientists associated with the project say. Their sizes are in proportion to the black hole masses, with one being twice as massive as the other. The black holes in the first and second detections are 1.3 and 1.4 billion light-years away, respectively. The researchers working on the findings determined the mass is likely 3 billion light years away, further than any other event of this kind ever detected at LIGO.

A second theory holds that black holes form separately and later became gravitationally bound. Think of the black holes as two ice skaters, spinning around each other, but also spinning around their own axis.

The data from the latest event slightly favour this cluster scenario, says LIGO co-deputy spokesperson Laura Cadonati, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

"That's either because heavy black hole spins are small, or because they're tilted, so their net effect cancels out", O'Shaughnessy said. In this case, it took place between black holes with masses of roughly 31.2 times that of the Sun and 19.4 times that of the Sun. Taken together, these observations form the first samples of a black hole census with far-reaching implications. But black holes' have had a shadowy existence because light can not escape their gravitational pull.

This is the first time that we have evidence that the black holes may not be aligned, giving us just a tiny hint that pairs of black holes may form in dense stellar clusters.

"The University of MS is so pleased to be a member of this worldwide collaboration of talented scientists and engineers, which is producing such astounding breakthroughs", Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. But only a small team was tasked with drafting the document.

Scientists added that the latest detection also provides clues about the directions in which the black holes are spinning.

Clark: It was very intense. The first was recorded September 14, 2015, but not confirmed and reported until extensive analyses ruled out other source possibilities in the data.

With a combination of relativistic velocities, huge magnetic fields and densities beyond that of an atomic nucleus, neutron stars are expected to emit gravitational waves of sufficient amplitude to be detectable by Advanced LIGO.

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The LIGO team has done extensive modeling of different mergers, and can match the curves in the data to the properties of the black holes in various models. I want to see those three signals to be consistent, maybe looking identical, maybe looking similar. This un-modeled approach allows us to detect and reconstruct the waveform without relying on potentially incomplete or inaccurate models. But the black hole collision announced this week may yield yet another feather for Einstein's cap. Do you still get excited when there's a detection? That is not the case anymore.

As with the earlier detections, the new event (GW170104) showed up as a series of curves that came to briefly dominate the noise in LIGO's two detectors for a few seconds before fading back into the background.

At least in a figurative sense, gravitational waves let us "listen in" on some of the universe's most violent happenings.

Each new event detected also gives physicists one more opportunity to test general relativity. And it was formed by two objects that are tens of times bigger than our sun, flying against each other at the speed of light.

Clark: Absolutely, yes! It will be hugely exciting to see a wave from a binary neutron system. It's hoped that with even more sensitivity, the facility could start observing gravitational waves from objects other than black holes.

That said, seeing something new will present a new set of challenges.

Astronomers are particularly interested in determining how binary black holes are created.

As astronomer Duncan Brown told Mental Floss last June: "When a nuclear bomb explodes, you're converting about a gram of matter-about the weight of a thumb-tack-into energy". That will lead to theoretical challenges in interpreting it, as well as the observational challenge of being sure that we really have seen something unexpected and it's not just a quirk of the data or algorithms.

Scientists also disagree about how black holes partner up.

Each LIGO observatory features a pair of 2.5-mile-long vacuum tubes arranged in an L shape in which precisely tuned laser beams flash back and forth between multiple mirrors that effectively increase the distance each beam travels to almost 1,000 miles.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), LIGO is operated by MIT and Caltech, which conceived and built the project. More than 1,000 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration.

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