Space

Upgraded LIGO hears new tones in the gravitational wave song

Upgraded LIGO hears new tones ...
An artist's impression of two black holes of unequal mass, which collided to give off the unique new gravitational wave signal
An artist's impression of two black holes of unequal mass, which collided to give off the unique new gravitational wave signal
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An artist's impression of two black holes of unequal mass, which collided to give off the unique new gravitational wave signal
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An artist's impression of two black holes of unequal mass, which collided to give off the unique new gravitational wave signal
Simulations of the gravitational wave signal GW190412
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Simulations of the gravitational wave signal GW190412

For the first time, scientists have managed to pick up higher harmonics accompanying the cosmic song that rings out through the universe. The LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors have been listening to this song for years, and after a round of upgrades they’ve extended their range, revealing new details about the events that cause them.

When massive objects collide in space, they send waves rippling through the very fabric of spacetime. These gravitational waves were a prediction of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, but we weren’t able to pick them up until 2015. Since then, signals have come in so regularly that they’ve almost become mundane – to reiterate, measuring distortions in reality itself is no longer news.

That is, unless there’s something special about a given event. And in this case, observers have detected higher frequency waves than ever before.

Last year the LIGO and Virgo observatories began their third observation run, called O3, after a lengthy upgrade process to make them more sensitive. And less than two weeks into O3, they picked up a strange new signal designated GW190412. This detection featured higher harmonics, which are waves with frequencies two or three times higher than the fundamental frequency usually heard.

From this, the researchers were able to infer that the source of the signal was a collision between two black holes with very different masses. One has eight times the mass of the Sun, while the other has 30. In all other black hole collisions detected to date, the mass of the two objects is roughly the same.

Simulations of the gravitational wave signal GW190412
Simulations of the gravitational wave signal GW190412

“For the very first time we have ‘heard’ in GW190412 the unmistakable gravitational-wave hum of a higher harmonic, similar to overtones of musical instruments,” says Frank Ohme, a researcher on the study. “In systems with unequal masses like GW190412 – our first observation of this type – these overtones in the gravitational-wave signal are much louder than in our usual observations. This is why we couldn’t hear them before, but in GW190412, we finally can.”

The researchers say that the unequal masses are clear in the way the gravitational waves ripple through the cosmos, and this can help scientists measure certain properties more accurately, such as how far away the objects are, what angle we’re looking at them from, and how they’re spinning.

The team is now looking at 54 other candidate detections that were spotted over the past year, for further clues.

The research is available on the pre-print server ArXiv, and an animation of the black hole collision can be seen in the video below.

Binary black-hole merger with asymmetric masses and orbital precession (GW190412)

Source: Max Planck

2 comments
Cryptonoetic
I eagerly await the day when LIGO is sensitive enough to detect the wake of warp-drive ships.
Expanded Viewpoint
Unless there has been some kind of disruption in our time track, gravity waves were first detected in the mid 1980s, and NOT 2015. A cylinder made of very thin wall Aluminum was evacuated, and some quartz crystal sensors were glued onto it and it was suspended on thin wires in a frame of steel with the whole thing buried deep in the ground at a college campus. It was so sensitive, it could detect the footsteps of the students walking across the grounds there! So a second unit was made and buried about 30 miles away to filter out the background noise in the signal, and they waited. One day, both detectors recorded the same signal at the exact same time, proving that there was some kind of a disturbance passing through the Earth, and it was declared to be a wave of gravity, as nothing else could account for it. If I'm not mistaken, this was in a magazine called Science News, of which unfortunately, I no longer have that copy. Or, it might have been reported in High Technology Magazine, I'm not sure when they folded their tent.