Emerging branch of observational astronomy using gravitational waves
Binary systems made up of two massive objects orbiting each other are an important source for gravitational-wave astronomy. The system emits gravitational radiation as it orbits, these carry away energy and momentum, causing the orbit to shrink. Shown here is a binary white dwarf system, an important source for space-borne detectors like LISA. The eventual merger of the white dwarfs may result in a supernova, represented by the explosion in the third panel.
Gravitational waves have a solid theoretical basis, founded upon the theory of relativity. They were first predicted by Einstein in 1916; although a specific consequence of general relativity, they are a common feature of all theories of gravity that obey special relativity. However, after 1916 there was a long debate whether the waves were actually physical, or artefacts of coordinate freedom in general relativity; this was not fully resolved until the 1950s. Indirect observational evidence for their existence first came in the late 1980s, from the monitoring of the Hulse–Taylor binary pulsar (discovered 1974); the pulsar orbit was found to evolve exactly as would be expected for gravitational wave emission. Hulse and Taylor were awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.
Ordinary gravitational waves' frequencies are very low and much harder to detect, while higher frequencies occur in more dramatic events and thus have become the first to be observed.
In addition to a merger of black holes, a binary neutron star merger has been directly detected: a gamma-ray burst (GRB) was detected by the orbiting Fermi gamma-ray burst monitor on 2017 August 17 12:41:06 UTC, triggering an automated notice worldwide. Six minutes later a single detector at Hanford LIGO, a gravitational-wave observatory, registered a gravitational-wave candidate occurring 2 seconds before the gamma-ray burst. This set of observations is consistent with a binary neutron star merger, as evidenced by a multi-messenger transient event which was signalled by gravitational-wave, and electromagnetic (gamma-ray burst, optical, and infrared)-spectrum sightings.
In 2015, the LIGO project was the first to directly observe gravitational waves using laser interferometers. The LIGO detectors observed gravitational waves from the merger of two stellar-mass black holes, matching predictions of general relativity. These observations demonstrated the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems, and were the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger. This finding has been characterized as revolutionary to science, because of the verification of our ability to use gravitational-wave astronomy to progress in our search and exploration of dark matter and the big bang.
Gravitational waves provide complementary information to that provided by other means. By combining observations of a single event made using different means, it is possible to gain a more complete understanding of the source's properties. This is known as multi-messenger astronomy. Gravitational waves can also be used to observe systems that are invisible (or almost impossible to detect) by any other means. For example, they provide a unique method of measuring the properties of black holes.
Gravitational waves can be emitted by many systems, but, to produce detectable signals, the source must consist of extremely massive objects moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light. The main source is a binary of two compact objects. Example systems include:
Supermassive black hole binaries, consisting of two black holes with masses of 105–109solar masses. Supermassive black holes are found at the centre of galaxies. When galaxies merge, it is expected that their central supermassive black holes merge too. These are potentially the loudest gravitational-wave signals. The most massive binaries are a source for PTAs. Less massive binaries (about a million solar masses) are a source for space-borne detectors like LISA.
Extreme-mass-ratio systems of a stellar-mass compact object orbiting a supermassive black hole. These are sources for detectors like LISA. Systems with highly eccentric orbits produce a burst of gravitational radiation as they pass through the point of closest approach; systems with near-circular orbits, which are expected towards the end of the inspiral, emit continuously within LISA's frequency band. Extreme-mass-ratio inspirals can be observed over many orbits. This makes them excellent probes of the background spacetime geometry, allowing for precision tests of general relativity.
In addition to binaries, there are other potential sources:
Cosmic strings could also emit gravitational radiation if they do exist. Discovery of these gravitational waves would confirm the existence of cosmic strings.
Gravitational waves interact only weakly with matter. This is what makes them difficult to detect. It also means that they can travel freely through the Universe, and are not absorbed or scattered like electromagnetic radiation. It is therefore possible to see to the center of dense systems, like the cores of supernovae or the Galactic Centre. It is also possible to see further back in time than with electromagnetic radiation, as the early universe was opaque to light prior to recombination, but transparent to gravitational waves.
The ability of gravitational waves to move freely through matter also means that gravitational-wave detectors, unlike telescopes, are not pointed to observe a single field of view but observe the entire sky. Detectors are more sensitive in some directions than others, which is one reason why it is beneficial to have a network of detectors. Directionalization is also poor, due to the small number of detectors.
In cosmic inflation
Cosmic inflation, a hypothesized period when the universe rapidly expanded during the first 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang, would have given rise to gravitational waves; that would have left a characteristic imprint in the polarization of the CMB radiation.
It is possible to calculate the properties of the primordial gravitational waves from measurements of the patterns in the microwave radiation, and use those calculations to learn about the early universe.[how?]
The LIGO Hanford Control Room
As a young area of research, gravitational-wave astronomy is still in development; however, there is consensus within the astrophysics community that this field will evolve to become an established component of 21st century multi-messenger astronomy.
Gravitational-wave observations complement observations in the electromagnetic spectrum. These waves also promise to yield information in ways not possible via detection and analysis of electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves can be absorbed and re-radiated in ways that make extracting information about the source difficult. Gravitational waves, however, only interact weakly with matter, meaning that they are not scattered or absorbed. This should allow astronomers to view the center of a supernova, stellar nebulae, and even colliding galactic cores in new ways.
Ground-based detectors have yielded new information about the inspiral phase and mergers of binary systems of two stellar mass black holes, and merger of two neutron stars. They could also detect signals from core-collapse supernovae, and from periodic sources such as pulsars with small deformations. If there is truth to speculation about certain kinds of phase transitions or kink bursts from long cosmic strings in the very early universe (at cosmic times around 10−25 seconds), these could also be detectable. Space-based detectors like LISA should detect objects such as binaries consisting of two white dwarfs, and AM CVn stars (a white dwarf accreting matter from its binary partner, a low-mass helium star), and also observe the mergers of supermassive black holes and the inspiral of smaller objects (between one and a thousand solar masses) into such black holes. LISA should also be able to listen to the same kind of sources from the early universe as ground-based detectors, but at even lower frequencies and with greatly increased sensitivity.
Detecting emitted gravitational waves is a difficult endeavor. It involves ultra-stable high-quality lasers and detectors calibrated with a sensitivity of at least 2·10−22 Hz−1/2 as shown at the ground-based detector, GEO600. It has also been proposed that even from large astronomical events, such as supernova explosions, these waves are likely to degrade to vibrations as small as an atomic diameter.
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