Third gravitational wave detection gives hints on dark matter and black holes

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

For just the third time ever, scientists have picked up gravitational waves, actual ripples in the fabric of space and time that were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago but never observed until past year.

For the third time, a telltale signal of two colliding black holes has been caught by the dual detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Furthermore, the spin-axes of the black holes change, as visible through the colored patch on each black hole horizon, which indicates the north pole.The lower part of the movie shows the two distinct gravitational waves (called "polarizations") that the merger is emitting into the direction of the camera.

For the third time, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations have announced directly detecting the merger of black holes many times the mass of our sun.

Two black holes, which likely were originally far apart, eventually merged into a giant one — 49 times the size of the sun — sending an invisible wave rippling out.

"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", Shoemaker said in a statement. Virgo and the LIGO Scientific Community work together in many areas and have an agreement on the exchange of data. Gravitational waves pass through Earth and can be "heard" by the extremely sensitive LIGO detectors.

Every member of LIGO - more than a thousand scientists worldwide- is listed as an author of the paper. It traveled 3 billion light years until hitting twin detectors in Louisiana and Washington.

More than a year after detecting the first confirmed gravitational waves, researchers were busy at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, La., upgrading the massive instrument.

Research on the latest set of gravitational waves were published by a team of 1,000 scientists in the journal Physical Review Letters.

But this third pair of black holes, discovered on 4 January, is tilted differently with respect to Earth than the other two, says Shoemaker, allowing LIGO to see more about how each black hole is spinning.

"These are collisions that produce more power than is radiated as light by all the stars and galaxies in the universe at any given time", said a LIGO statement.

The recent detection is the farthest yet, with the black holes located about 3 billion light-years from Earth.

Scientists compare readings from the two detectors to make sure that what they're seeing are true gravitational waves rather than one-off anomalies. The sizes of the black holes are increased by a factor of two.

Georgia Tech's Laura Cadonati, deputy spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, told GeekWire that the finding represents "a new tile to put in the puzzle" of black hole formation. The first two mergers observed by the LIGO Scientific Consortium, GW150914 and GW151226, yielded black holes with 62 and 21 solar masses, respectively.

Scientists also disagree about how black holes partner up. The plot had the hallmarks of the accelerating sinusoidal wave that is typical of two objects in the process of merging.

The other model proposes that the black holes are born together, forming when each star in a pair explodes and then, because the original stars were spinning in alignment, the black holes remain aligned. The potentially misaligned black hole LIGO observed somewhat favors the star cluster scenario.

And it turns out at least one of GW170104's black holes wasn't aligned.

What other cool things can we learn from gravitational wave astronomy? "We're looking forward to making additional binary black hole discoveries in that run, but also the possibility of detections that include matter".

The gravitational wave detections confirm a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and mark the beginning of the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy.

Perhaps we'll find evidence of "cosmic strings", hypothesized weird wrinkles in spacetime containing massive amounts of energy. For the first time, researchers at the University of Toronto led the effort to characterize the properties of the colliding black holes - a task that rotates between participating teams in the collaboration in two-week shifts during the experiment's round-the-clock monitoring of the heavens. The great distance of this merger also provides the most rigorous test to date for a specific part of Einstein's general theory of relativity - the lack of dispersion in gravitational waves.

LIGO and Virgo are also working on technical upgrades for LIGO's next run, which is scheduled to begin in late 2018, during which the detectors' sensitivity will be improved.

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 worldwide collaboration involving more than a thousand researchers.

Although LIGO appears to be "uniquely suited" to observing these events, David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said he hopes to see other types of astrophysical events soon.

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