Centre for Theoretical Cosmology News

LIGO and Virgo make first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars

Discovery marks first cosmic event observed in both gravitational waves and light.

Watch the video of the Press Conference: https://www.youtube.com/LIGOVirgo


Artist's impression of the merger of two neutron stars, creating a gamma-ray burst and gravitational waves as well as throwing matter out of the system. (Credit: NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet)

For the first time, scientists have directly detected gravitational waves — ripples in space and time — from the spectacular collision of two neutron stars. This marks the first time that a cosmic event has been viewed in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation

The discovery was made using the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO); the Europe-based Virgo detector; and some 70 ground- and space-based telescopes.

Neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known to exist and are formed when massive stars explode in supernovas. As these two neutron stars spiraled together, they emitted gravitational waves that were detectable for about 100 seconds; when they collided, a flash of light in the form of gamma rays was emitted and seen on Earth about two seconds after the gravitational waves. In the days and weeks following the detection of gravitational waves and gamma rays, other forms of light, or electromagnetic radiation — including X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves — were detected.

The observations have given astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to probe a collision of two neutron stars. For example, observations made by the U.S. Gemini Observatory, the European Very Large Telescope, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal signatures of recently synthesized material, including gold and platinum, solving a decades-long mystery of where about half of all elements heavier than iron are produced.

The LIGO-Virgo results are published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; additional papers from the LIGO and Virgo collaborations and the astronomical community have been either submitted or accepted for publication in various journals.

The LIGO group in Cambridge consists of eight researchers spread across DAMTP, the Cavendish Laboratory and the Institute of Astronomy.

A stellar sign

The gravitational signal, named GW170817, was first detected on Aug. 17 at 1:41 p.m. British Summer Time; the detection was made by the two LIGO detectors, located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The information provided by the third detector, the recently upgraded Virgo, situated near Pisa, Italy, enabled an improvement in localizing the cosmic event.

Each observatory consists of two long tunnels arranged in an L shape, at the joint of which a laser beam is split in two. Light is sent down the length of each tunnel, then reflected back in the direction it came from by a suspended mirror. In the absence of gravitational waves, the laser light in each tunnel should return to the location where the beams were split at precisely the same time. If a gravitational wave passes through the observatory, it will alter each laser beam’s arrival time, creating an almost imperceptible change in the observatory’s output signal.

The LIGO data indicated that two astrophysical objects located at the relatively close distance of about 130 million light-years from Earth had been spiralling in toward each other. It appeared that the objects were not as massive as binary black holes — objects that LIGO and Virgo have previously detected. Instead, the inspiralling objects were estimated to be in a range from around 1.1 to 1.6 times the mass of the sun, in the mass range of neutron stars. A neutron star is about 20 kilometres, or 12 miles, in diameter and is so dense that a teaspoon of neutron star material has a mass of about a billion tons. “These objects are made of matter in its most extreme, dense state, standing on the verge of total gravitational collapse.” says Michalis Agathos, researcher at DAMTP. “By studying subtle effects of matter on the gravitational wave signal, such as the effects of tides that deform the neutron stars, we can infer the properties of matter in these extreme conditions.”

While binary black holes produce “chirps” lasting a fraction of a second in the LIGO detector’s sensitive band, the Aug. 17 chirp lasted approximately 100 seconds and was seen through the entire frequency range of LIGO — about the same range as common musical instruments. Scientists could identify the chirp source as objects that were much less massive than the black holes seen to date. In fact, “these long chirping signals from inspiralling neutron stars are really what many scientists expected LIGO and Virgo to see first,” says Christopher Moore, researcher at CENTRA, IST, Lisbon and member of the DAMTP/Cambridge LIGO group. “The shorter signals produced by the heavier black holes were a spectacular surprise that led to the awarding of the 2017 Nobel prize in physics.”

“It immediately appeared to us the source was likely to be neutron stars, the other coveted source we were hoping to see — and promising the world we would see,” says David Shoemaker, spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and senior research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “From informing detailed models of the inner workings of neutron stars and the emissions they produce, to more fundamental physics such as general relativity, this event is just so rich. It is a gift that will keep on giving.”

Theorists have predicted that when neutron stars collide, they should give off gravitational waves and gamma rays, along with powerful jets that emit light across the electromagnetic spectrum. The gamma-ray burst detected by Fermi is what’s called a short gamma-ray burst; the new observations confirm that at least some short gamma-ray bursts are generated by the merging of neutron stars — something that was only theorized before.

“For decades we’ve suspected short gamma-ray bursts were powered by neutron star mergers,” says Fermi Project Scientist Julie McEnery of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Now, with the incredible data from LIGO and Virgo for this event, we have the answer." But while one mystery appears to be solved, new mysteries have emerged.

The observed short gamma-ray burst was one of the closest to Earth seen so far, yet it was surprisingly weak for its distance. Scientists are beginning to propose models for why this might be, McEnery says, adding that new insights are likely to arise for years to come.

A patch in the sky

Though the LIGO detectors first picked up the gravitational wave in the United States, Virgo, in Italy, played a key role in the story. Due to its orientation with respect to the source at the time of detection, Virgo recovered a small signal; combined with the signal sizes and timing in the LIGO detectors, this allowed scientists to precisely triangulate the position in the sky. After performing a thorough vetting to make sure the signals were not an artefact of instrumentation, scientists concluded that a gravitational wave came from a relatively small patch in the southern sky.

”This event has the most precise sky localization of all detected gravitational waves so far,” says Jo van den Brand of Nikhef (the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics) and VU University Amsterdam, who is the spokesperson for the Virgo collaboration. “This record precision enabled astronomers to perform follow-up observations that led to a plethora of breathtaking results.”

Fermi was able to provide a localization that was later confirmed and greatly refined with the coordinates provided by the combined LIGO-Virgo detection. With these coordinates, a handful of observatories around the world were able, hours later, to start searching the region of the sky where the signal was thought to originate. A new point of light, resembling a new star, was first found by optical telescopes. Ultimately, about 70 observatories on the ground and in space observed the event at their representative wavelengths. “What I am most excited about, personally, is a completely new way of measuring distances across the Universe through combining the gravitational wave and electromagnetic signals. Obviously, this new cartography of the cosmos has just started with this first event, but I just wonder whether this is where we will see major surprises in the future,” says Ulrich Sperhake, head of Cambridge’s gravitational wave group in LIGO.

A fireball and an afterglow

Each electromagnetic observatory will be releasing its own detailed observations of the astrophysical event. In the meantime, a general picture is emerging among all observatories involved that further confirms that the initial gravitational-wave signal indeed came from a pair of inspiralling neutron stars.

Approximately 130 million years ago, the two neutron stars were in their final moments of orbiting each other, separated only by about 300 kilometres, or 200 miles, and gathering speed while closing the distance between them. As the stars spiralled faster and closer together, they stretched and distorted the surrounding space-time, giving off energy in the form of powerful gravitational waves, before smashing into each other.

At the moment of collision, the bulk of the two neutron stars merged into one ultra-dense object, emitting a “fireball” of gamma rays. The initial gamma-ray measurements, combined with the gravitational-wave detection, also provide confirmation for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light.

Theorists have predicted that what follows the initial fireball is a “kilonova” — a phenomenon by which the material that is left over from the neutron star collision, which glows with light, is blown out of the immediate region and far out into space. The new light-based observations show that heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created in these collisions and subsequently distributed throughout the universe. “This is a spectacular discovery, and one of the first of many that we expect to come from combining together information from gravitational wave and electromagnetic observations,” says Nathan Johnson-McDaniel, researcher at DAMTP, who contributed to predictions of the amount of ejected matter using the gravitational wave measurements of the properties of the binary.

In the weeks and months ahead, telescopes around the world will continue to observe the afterglow of the neutron star merger and gather further evidence about its various stages, its interaction with its surroundings, and the processes that produce the heaviest elements in the universe.

LIGO is funded by the NSF, and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. 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) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,200 scientists and some 100 institutions from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian collaboration OzGrav. Additional partners are listed at http://ligo.org/partners.php.

The Virgo collaboration consists of more than 280 physicists and engineers belonging to 20 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the University of Valencia; and the European Gravitational Observatory, EGO, the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, funded by CNRS, INFN, and Nikhef.[c]

Cambridge LIGO members: Michalis Agathos, Michael Hobson, Nathan Johnson-McDaniel, Anthony Lasenby, Deyan Mihaylov, Christopher Moore, Stella Pachidi, and Ulrich Sperhake


Paper: “GW170817: Observation of gravitational waves from a binary neutron star merger.”

** Paper will be available to read online at 15:00 BST on Oct. 16, 2017 on the Physical Review Letters webpage https://journals.aps.org/prl/


Localization of GW170817 on the sky with gravitational wave detectors (LIGO and LIGO-Virgo), space-based gamma-ray observatories (Fermi/GBM and IPN Fermi/INTEGRAL), and ground-based optical telescopes (Swope). The inset shows the discovery image of the optical transient, compared with an image taken with a different telescope (DLT40) prior to the merger. The gravitational wave localization illustrates the improvement due to the addition of Virgo to the network of gravitational-wave detectors. (Credit: B. P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Virgo Collaboration, and Partner Astronomy Groups), Astrophysical Journal Letters, in press. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/aa91c9