It has only been a couple of years since the first historic detection of gravitational waves, but now physicists are already dissecting a handful of signals that emanated hundreds of millions of light-years away to elucidate how some of the most violent events in our universe work.
Most of the gravitational wave signals detected so far involve the merger of black holes, but one signal, detected on Aug. 17, 2017, was special—it was caused by the smashup of two neutron stars. This merger also generated a powerful gamma-ray burst (GRB) that was detected at nearly the same time, linking GRBs with neutron star mergers and highlighting where heavy elements in our universe are forged. A new era of “multimessenger astronomy” had begun.
Now, the signal (designated GW170817) has been reanalyzed to understand what happened after the merger. Analysis that came before suggested that the collision of the two neutron stars would have tipped the mass balance to create a black hole. According to a new study, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, two physicists suggest a contradictory scenario: GW170817 didn’t create a black hole, it produced a hypermassive neutron star, instead.
“We’re still very much in the pioneering era of gravitational wave astronomy. So it pays to look at data in detail,” said Maurice van Putten of Sejong University in South Korea. “For us this really paid off, and we’ve been able to confirm that two neutron stars merged to form a larger one.”
The secret behind this finding focuses on the datasets recorded by the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and Italian Virgo observatory. When gravitational waves are recorded during a black hole or neutron star merger event, their frequency rapidly increases (as the objects orbit one another faster and faster as they get closer and closer) and then abruptly cuts off (when they collide). When turned into an audio file, mergers sound like “chirps.” Apart from sounding like an eerie bird call coming from deep space, physicists have been able to extract surprisingly detailed information from the conditions of the merging objects, such as their mass and rates of spin.
And this is where van Putten’s work comes in.
Working with Massimo della Valle of the Osservatorio Astronomico de Capodimonte in Italy, the duo applied a new analysis technique to these data and detected a 5-second descending “chirp” (as shown by the downward arrow in the graph above). This descending chirp happened immediately after the GRB was detected coming from the same location as the gravitational wave signal’s origin. According to their analysis, the spin-down—from 1 KHz to 49 Hz—was most likely representative of a very massive neutron star and not a black hole.
If corroborated, this discovery could have profound implications for astrophysics. How hypermassive neutron stars (like the one that was created by GW170817) can exist without collapsing into a black hole will likely keep theorists busy for some time and physicists will be hopeful for another gravitational wave event like GW170817.
In 2015, a stellar-mass black hole in a binary star system underwent an accretion event causing it to erupt brightly across the electromagnetic spectrum. Slurping down the plasma from its stellar partner — an unfortunate sun-like star — the eruption became a valuable observation for astronomers and, in a recent study, researchers have used the event to better understand the magnetic environment surrounding the black hole.
The binary system in question is V404 Cygni, located 7,795 light-years from Earth, and that 2015 outburst was an X-ray nova, an eruption that previously occurred in 1989. Detected by NASA’s Swift space observatory and the Japanese Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) on board the International Space Station, the event quickly dimmed, a sign that the black hole had consumed its stellar meal.
Combining these X-ray data with observations by radio, infrared and optical telescopes, an international team of astronomers were able to measure emissions from the plasma close to the black hole’s event horizon as it cooled.
The black hole was formed after a massive star ran out of fuel and exploded as a supernova. Much of the magnetism of the progenitor star would have been retained post-supernova, so by measuring the emissions from the highly charged plasma, astronomers have a tool to probe deep inside the black hole’s “corona.” Like the sun’s corona — which is a magnetically-dominated region where solar plasma interacts with our star’s magnetic field (producing the solar wind and solar flares, for example) — it’s predicted that there should be a powerful interplay between the accreting plasma and the black hole’s coronal magnetism.
As charged particles interact magnetic fields, they experience acceleration radially (i.e. they spin around the magnetic field lines that guide their direction of propagation) and, should the magnetism be extreme (in a solar or, indeed, black hole’s corona), this plasma can be accelerated to relativistic speeds. In this case, synchrotron radiation may be generated. By measuring the radiation across all wavelengths, astronomers can thereby probe the magnetic environment close to a black hole as this radiation is directly related to how powerful a magnetic field is generating it.
The researchers write: “Using simultaneous infrared, optical, x-ray, and radio observations of the Galactic black hole system V404 Cygni, showing a rapid synchrotron cooling event in its 2015 outburst, we present a precise 461 ± 12 gauss magnetic field measurement in the corona. This measurement is substantially lower than previous estimates for such systems, providing constraints on physical models of accretion physics in black hole and neutron star binary systems.”
Black holes are poorly understood, but with the advent of gravitational wave (and “multimessenger”) astronomy and the excitement surrounding the Event Horizon Telescope, in the next few years we’re going to get a lot more intimate with these gravitational enigmas. Why this particular black hole’s magnetic environment is weaker than what would be expected, however, suggests that our theories surrounding black hole evolution are incomplete, so there will likely be some surprises in store.
“We need to understand black holes in general,” said collaborator Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), in a statement. “If we go back to the very earliest point in our universe, just after the Big Bang, there seems to have always been a strong correlation between black holes and galaxies. It seems that the birth and evolution of black holes and galaxies, our cosmic island, are intimately linked. Our results are surprising and one that we’re still trying to puzzle out.”
Imagine the early universe: The first massive stars sparked to life and rapidly consumed their supply of hydrogen. These “metal poor” stars lived hard and died fast, burning quickly and then exploding as powerful supernovas. This first population of stars seeded the universe with heavier elements (i.e. elements heavier than helium, elements known as “metals” by astronomers) and their deaths created the first stellar-mass black holes.
But say if there were black holes bumbling around the universe before the first supernovae? Where the heck did they come from?
Some models of universal evolution suggests that immediately after the Big Bang, some 13.82 billion years ago, quantum fluctuations created pockets of dense matter as the universe started to expand. As inflation occurred and the universe cooled, these density fluctuations formed the vast large-scale structure of the universe that we observe today. These cosmological models suggest the early quantum density fluctuations may have been dramatic enough to create black holes — known as primordial black holes — and these ancient Big Bang remnants may still exist to this day.
The theoretical models surrounding the genesis of primordial black holes, however, are hard to test as observing the universe immediately after the Big Bang is, needless to say, very difficult. But now we know gravitational waves exist and physicists have detected the space-time ripples generated by the collision and merger of stellar-mass black holes and neutron stars, astronomers have an observational tool at their disposal.
Simple Idea, Not-So-Simple Implementation
In a new study published in Physical Review Letters, researchers have proposed that if we have the ability to detect gravitational waves produced before the first stars died, we may be able to carry out astronomical archaeological dig of sorts to possibly find evidence of these ancient black holes.
“The idea is very simple,” said physicist Savvas Koushiappas, of Brown University, in a statement. “With future gravitational wave experiments, we’ll be able to look back to a time before the formation of the first stars. So if we see black hole merger events before stars existed, then we’ll know that those black holes are not of stellar origin.”
Primordial black holes were first theorized by Stephen Hawking and others in the 1970’s, but it’s still unknown if they exist or whether we could even distinguish the primordial ones from the garden variety of stellar-mass black holes (it’s worth noting, however, that primordial black holes would have a range of masses and not restricted to stellar masses). Now we can detect gravitational waves, however, this could change as gravitational wave detector sensitivity increases, scientists will probe more distant (and therefore more ancient) black hole mergers. And, if we can detect gravitational waves originating from black hole mergers younger than 65 million years after the Big Bang, the researchers say, those black holes wouldn’t have a stellar origin as the first stars haven’t yet died — they could have only been born from the quantum mess immediately after the birth of our universe.
Like the infamous “Crasher Squirrel” that launched one of the most prolific memes in online history, “crasher asteroids” have photobombed the Hubble Space Telescope’s otherwise uninterrupted view of the ancient universe.
While carrying out its Frontier Fields survey of a random postage stamp-sized part of the sky in the direction of the galaxy cluster Abell 370, Hubble imaged many galaxies located at different distances over different epochs in time.
Visible in the observation are elliptical galaxies and spiral galaxies. Many are bright and bluish, but the vast majority are dim and reddish. The reddest blobs are the most distant galaxies in our observable universe; their light has been stretched (red-shifted) after traveling for billions of years through an expanding cosmos. These galaxies are the most ancient galaxies that formed within a billion years after the Big Bang.
But mixed in with this Hubble view of ancient light are bright arcs and dashes — tracks carved out by the rocky junk in our own solar system that is drifting in Hubble’s field of view, located a mere 160 million miles from Earth (on average). It’s sobering to think that the light from the reddest galaxies is nearly three times older than these asteroids.*
Abel 370 is located along the solar system’s ecliptic plane, around which the planets orbit the sun and the majority of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter are located. So, like looking through a swarm of bees, Hubble has captured the trails of asteroids in the foreground.
The trails themselves are created not by the motion of the asteroids, however, but by the motion of Hubble. While fixing its gaze on distant galaxies for hours at a time as it orbits Earth, Hubble’s position changes and, through an observational effect known as parallax, the positions of those asteroids appear to trace an arc when compared with the stationary background of galaxies billions of light-years distant.
As Hubble scanned its field of view, it revealed 20 asteroid trails, seven of which are unique objects (some of the asteroid trails were repeated observations of the same object, just captured at different times in Hubble’s orbit). Only two of these asteroids were previously discovered, the other five are newly discovered objects that were too faint for other observatories to detect.
So it goes to show that photobombing asteroids are useful for science and, though Hubble was observing the most distant objects in the cosmos, it was able to see a few of the rocks in our cosmic backyard.
*NOTE: Asteroids formed around the time our solar system first started creating planets, some 4.6 billion years ago. The most ancient galaxies are located over 13 billion light-years away, meaning the ancient light from those galaxies was produced 13 billion years ago.
But the fact that I’m typing this article and you’re reading it, however, suggests that we are here, so something must be awry with our understanding of the physics the universe is governed by.
The universe is the embodiment of an epic battle between matter and antimatter that occurred immediately after the Big Bang, 13.82 billion years ago. Evidently, matter won — because there are galaxies, stars, planets, you, me, hamsters, long walks on sandy beaches and beer — but how matter won is one of the biggest mysteries hanging over physics.
It is predicted that equal amounts of matter and antimatter were produced in the primordial universe (a basic prediction by the Standard Model of physics), but if that’s the case, all matter in the universe should have been annihilated when it came into contact with its antimatter counterpart — a Big Bang followed by a big disappointment.
This physics conundrum focuses on the idea that all particles have their antimatter twin with the same quantum numbers, only the exact opposite. Protons have anti-protons, electrons have positrons, neutrinos have anti-neutrinos etc.; a beautiful example of symmetry in the quantum world. But should one of these quantum numbers be very slightly different between matter and antimatter particles, it might explain why matter became the dominant “stuff” of the universe.
So, in an attempt to measure one of the quantum states of particles, physicists of CERN’s Baryon–Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment (BASE), located near Geneva, Switzerland, have made the most precise measurement of the anti-proton’s magnetic moment. BASE is a complex piece of hardware that can precisely measure the magnetic moments of protons and anti-protons in an attempt to detect an extremely small difference between the two. Should there be a difference, this might explain why matter is more dominant than antimatter.
However, this latest measurement of the magnetic moment of anti-protons has revealed that the magnetic moments of both protons and anti-protons are exactly the same to a record-breaking level of precision. In fact, the anti-proton measurement is even more precise than our measurements of the magnetic moment of a proton — a stunning feat considering how difficult anti-protons are to study.
“It is probably the first time that physicists get a more precise measurement for antimatter than for matter, which demonstrates the extraordinary progress accomplished at CERN’s Antiproton Decelerator,” said physicist Christian Smorra in a CERN statement. The Antiproton Decelerator is a machine that can capture antiparticles (created from particle collisions that occur at CERN’s Proton Synchrotron) and funnel them to other experiments, like BASE.
Antimatter is very tricky to observe and measure. Should these antiparticles come into contact with particles, they annihilate — you can’t simply shove a bunch of anti-protons into a flask and expect them to play nice. So, to prevent antimatter from making contact with matter, physicists have to create magnetic vacuum “traps” that can quarantine anti-protons from touching matter, thereby allowing further study.
A major area of research has been to develop ever more sophisticated magnetic traps; the slightest imperfections in a trap’s magnetic field containing the antimatter can allow particles to leak. The more perfect the magnetic field, the less chance there is of leakage and the longer antimatter remains levitating away from matter. Over the years, physicists have achieved longer and longer antimatter containment records.
In this new study, published in the journal Nature on Oct. 18, researchers used a combination of two cryogenically-cooled Penning traps that held anti-protons in place for a record-breaking 405 days. In that time they were able to apply another magnetic field to the antimatter, forcing quantum jumps in the particles’ spin. By doing this, they could measure their magnetic moments to astonishing accuracy.
According to their study, anti-protons have a magnetic moment of −2.792847344142 μN (where μN is the nuclear magneton, a physical constant). The proton’s magnetic moment is 2.7928473509 μN, almost exactly the same — the slight difference is well within the experiment’s error margin. As a consequence, if there’s a difference between the magnetic moment of protons and anti-protons, it must be much smaller than the experiment can currently detect.
These tiny measurements have huge — you could say: universal — implications.
“All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist,” added Smorra. “An asymmetry must exist here somewhere but we simply do not understand where the difference is.”
Now the plan is to improve methods of capturing antimatter particles, pushing BASE to even higher precision, to see if there really is an asymmetry in magnetic moment between protons and anti-protons. If there’s not, well, physicists will need to find their asymmetry elsewhere.
One hundred and thirty million years ago in a galaxy 130 million light-years away, two neutron stars met their fate, merging as one. Trapped in a gravitational embrace, these two stellar husks spiraled closer and closer until they violently ripped into one another, causing a detonation that reverberated throughout the cosmos.
On August 17, the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Italian Virgo gravitational wave detector felt the faint ripples in spacetime from that ancient neutron star collision washing through our planet. Until now, LIGO and Virgo have only confirmed the collisions and mergers of black holes, so the fact that a nearby (a relative term in this case) neutron star merger had been detected was already historic.
But the implications for this particular neutron star signal, which is comparatively weak in comparison with the black hole mergers that have come before it, are so profound that I’ve been finding it hard to put this grand discovery into words (though I have tried).
Why It Matters
With regards to gravitational waves, I feel I’ve described each gravitational wave discovery as “historic” and “a new era for astronomy” since their first detection on Sept. 15, 2015, but the detection of GW170817 may well trump all that have come before it, even though the signal was generated by neutron stars and not black hole heavyweights.
The thing with black holes is that when they collide and merge, they don’t necessarily produce electromagnetic radiation (i.e. visible light, X-rays or infrared radiation). They can go “bump” in the cosmic night and no intelligent being with a conventional telescope would see it happen. But in the the gravitational domain, black hole mergers echo throughout the universe; their gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, warping spacetime as they propagate. To detect these “invisible” waves, we must build instruments that can “see” the infinitesimal wobbles in the fabric of spacetime itself, and this is where laser interferometry comes in.
Very precise lasers are fired down miles-long tunnels in “L” shaped buildings in the two LIGO detectors (in Washington and Louisiana) and the Virgo detector near Pisa. When gravitational waves travel through us, these laser interferometers can measure the tiny spacetime warps. The more detectors measuring the same signal means a more precise observation and scientists can then work out where (and when) the black hole merger occurred.
There are many more details that can be gleaned from the gravitational wave signal from black hole mergers, of course — including the progenitor black holes’ masses, the merged mass, black hole spin etc. — but for the most part, black hole mergers are purely a gravitational affair.
Neutron stars, however, are a different beast and, on Aug. 17, it wasn’t only gravitational wave detectors that measured a signal from 130 million light-years away; space telescopes on the lookout for gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) also detected a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation in the galaxy of NGC 4993, thereby pinpointing the single event that generated the gravitational waves and the GRB.
And this is the “holy shit” moment.
As Caltech’s David H. Reitze puts it: “This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy.”
What Reitze is referring to is that, for the first time, both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves (across the EM spectrum) have been observed coming from the same astrophysical event. The gravitational waves arrived at Earth slightly before the GRB was detected by NASA’s Fermi and ESA’s INTEGRAL space telescopes. Both space observatories recorded a short gamma-ray burst, a type of high-energy burst that was theorized (before Aug. 17) to be produced by colliding neutron stars.
Now scientists have observational evidence that these types of GRBs are produced by colliding neutron stars as the gravitational wave fingerprint unquestionably demonstrates the in-spiraling and merger of two neutron stars. This is a perfect demonstration of multi-messenger astronomy; where an energetic event can be observed simultaneously in EM and gravitational waves to reveal untold mysteries of the universe’s most energetic events.
Another Nod to Einstein
The fact that the gravitational waves and gamma-rays arrived at approximately the same time is yet another nod to Einstein’s general relativity. The century-old theory predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light and, via this brand spanking new way of doing multi-messenger astronomy, physicists and astronomers have again bolstered relativity with observational evidence.
But why did the gravitational waves arrive slightly before the GRB? Well, NASA’s Fermi team explains: “Fermi’s [Gamma-ray Burst Monitor instrument] saw the gamma-ray burst after the [gravitational wave] detection because the merger happened before the explosion,” they said in a tweet.
In other words, when the two neutron stars collided and merged, the event immediately dissipated energy as gravitational waves that were launched through spacetime at the speed of light — that’s the source of GW170817 — but the GRB was generated shortly after.
Enter the Kilonova
As the neutron stars smashed together, huge quantities of neutron star matter were inevitably blasted into space, creating a superheated, dense volume of free neutrons. Neutrons are subatomic particles that form the building blocks of atoms and if the conditions are right, the neutron star debris will undergo rapid neutron capture process (known as “r-process”) where neutrons combine with one another faster than the newly-formed radioactive particles can decay. This mechanism is responsible for synthesizing elements heavier than iron (elements lighter than iron are formed through stellar nucleosynthesis in the cores of stars).
For decades astronomers have been searching for observational evidence of the r-process in action and now they have it. Soon after the merger, massive amounts of debris erupted in a frenzy of heavy element creation, triggering an energetic eruption known as a “kilonova” that was seen as a short GRB. The GRB was cataloged as “SSS17a.”
The Golden Ticket
Follow-up observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, Gemini Observatory and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope have all detected spectroscopic signatures in the afterglow consistent with the r-process taking place at the site of the kilonova, meaning heavy elements are being formed and, yes, it’s a goldmine. As in: there’s newly-synthesized gold there. And platinum. And all the other elements heavier than iron that aren’t quite so sexy.
And there’s lots of it. Researchers estimate that that single neutron star collision produced hundreds of Earth-masses of gold and platinum and they think that neutron star mergers could be the energetic process that seed the galaxies with heavy elements (with supernovas coming second).
So, yeah, it’s a big, big, BIG discovery that will reverberate for the decades to come.
The best thing is that we now know that our current generation of advanced gravitational wave detectors are sensitive enough to not only detect black holes merging billions of light-years away, but also detect the nearby neutron stars that are busy merging and producing gold. As more detectors are added and as the technology and techniques mature, we’ll be inundated with merging events big and small, each one teaching us something new about our universe.
Streaming LIVE here, today, at 4 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. EDT/11 p.m. GMT
The Perimeter Institute’s public lecture series is back! At 7 p.m. EDT (4 p.m. PDT) today, Erik Verlinde of the University of Amsterdam will ask: Are we standing on the brink of a new scientific revolution that will radically change our views on space, time, and gravity? Specifically, Verlinde will discuss the possibility that gravity may be an emergent phenomena and not a fundamental force of nature. Ohh, interesting.
When the universe’s first black holes appeared is one of the biggest mysteries in astrophysics. Were they born immediately after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago? Or did they pop into existence after the first population of massive stars exploded as supernovas millions of years later?
The origin of primordial black holes isn’t a trivial matter. In our modern universe, the majority of galaxies have supermassive black holes in their cores and we’re having a hard time explaining how they came to be the monsters they are today. For them to grow so big, there must have been a lot of primordial black holes formed early in the universe’s history clumping together to form progressively more massive black holes.
Immediately after the Big Bang, the researchers suggest that a uniform energy field pervaded our baby universe. In all the superheated chaos, long before stars started to form, this energy field condensed as “Q balls” and clumped together. These clumps of quasi-matter collapsed under gravity and the first black holes came to be.
These primordial black holes have been singled out as possible dark matter candidates (classed as massive astrophysical compact halo objects, or “MACHOs”) and they may have coalesced to quickly seed the supermassive black holes. In short: if these things exist, they could explain a few universal mysteries.
It is thought that energetic events in the universe are responsible for the creation for approximately half of elements heavier than iron. Elements lighter than iron (except for hydrogen, helium and lithium) were formed by nuclear fusion inside the cores of stars. But the heavier elements formed via r-process nucleosynthesis are thought to have been sourced via supernova explosions and neutron star collisions. Basically, the neutron-rich debris left behind by these energetic events seeded regions where neutrons could readily fuse, creating heavy elements.
These mechanisms for heavy element production are far from being proven, however.
“Scientists know that these heavy elements exist, but they’re not sure where these elements are being formed,” Kusenko said in a statement. “This has been really embarrassing.”
A cosmic goldmine
So what have primordial black holes got to do with nucleosynthesis?
If we assume the universe is still populated with these ancient black holes, they may collide with spinning neutron stars. When this happens, the researchers suggest that the black holes will drop into the cores of the neutron stars.
Like a parasite eating its host from the inside, material from the neutron star will be consumed by the black hole in its core, causing the neutron star to shrink. As it loses mass, the neutron star will spin faster, causing neutron-rich debris to fling off into space, facilitating (you guessed it) r-process nucleosynthesis, creating the heavy elements we know and love — like gold. The whole process is expected to take about 10,000 years before the neutron star is no more.
So, where are they?
There’s little evidence that primordial black holes exist, so the researchers suggest further astronomical work to study the light of distant stars that may flicker by the passage of invisible foreground black holes. The black holes’ gravitational fields will warp spacetime, causing the starlight to dim and brighten.
It’s certainly a neat theory to think that ancient black holes are diving inside neutron stars to spin them up and create gold in the process, but now astronomers need to prove that primordial black holes are out there, possibly contributing to the dark matter budget of our universe.
The ambitious $100 million Breakthrough Listen project aims to scan a million stars in our galaxy and dozens of nearby galaxies across radio frequencies and visible light in hopes of discovering a bona fide artificial signal that could be attributed to an advanced alien civilization. But in its quest, Breakthrough Listen has studied the signals emanating from FRB 121102 — and recorded 15 bursts — to better understand what might be causing it.
FRBs remain a mystery. First detected by the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, these very brief bursts of radio emissions seemed to erupt from random locations in the sky. But the same location never produced another FRB, making these bizarre events very difficult to understand and impossible to track.
Hypotheses ranged from powerful bursts of energy from supernovae to active galactic nuclei to (you guessed it) aliens, but until FRB 121102 repeated itself in 2015, several of these hypotheses could be ruled out. Supernovae, after all, only have to happen once — this FRB source is repeating, possibly hinting at a periodic energetic phenomenon we don’t yet understand. Also, because FRB 121102 is a repeater, in 2016 astronomers could trace back the location of its source to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth.
Now we ponder the question: What in the universe generates powerful short bursts of radio emissions from inside a dwarf galaxy, repeatedly?
Using the Green Bank Telescope in the West Virginia, scientists of Breakthrough Listen recorded 400 TB of data over a five hour period on Aug. 26. In these data, 15 FRBs were recorded across the 4 to 8 GHz radio frequency band. The researchers noted the characteristic frequency dispersion of these FRBs, caused by the signal traveling through gas between us and the source.
Now that we have dedicated and extremely detailed measurements of this set of FRBs, astrophysicists can get to work trying to understand what natural phenomenon is generating these bursts. This is the story so far, but as we’re talking radio emissions, mysteries and a SETI project, aliens are never far away…
Probably Not Aliens
It may be exciting to talk about the possibility of aliens generating this signal — as a means of communication or, possibly, transportation via beamed energy — but that avenue of speculation is just that: speculation. But to speculate is understandable. FRBs are very mysterious and, so far, astrophysicists don’t have a solid answer.
But this mystery isn’t without precedent.
In 1967, astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish detected strange radio pulses emanating from a point in the sky during a quasar survey to study interplanetary scintillation (IPS). The mysterious pulses had an unnaturally precise period of 1.33 seconds. At the time, nothing like it had been recorded and the researchers were having a hard time explaining the observations. But in the back of their minds, they speculated that, however unlikely, the signal might be produced by an alien intelligence.
“We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem – if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe how does one announce the results responsibly? Who does one tell first? We did not solve the problem that afternoon, and I went home that evening very cross here was I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us.”
This first source was nicknamed “LGM-1” (as in “Little Green Men-1”), but far from being an artificial source, the duo had actually identified the first pulsar — a rapidly-spinning, highly magnetized neutron star that generates powerful emissions from its precessing magnetic poles as it rotates.
This is how science works: An interesting signal is detected and theories are formulated as to how that signal could have been generated.
In the case of LGM-1, it was caused by an as-yet-to-be understood phenomenon involving a rapidly-spinning stellar corpse. In the case of FRB 121102, it is most likely an equally as compelling phenomenon, only vastly more powerful.
The least likely explanation of FRB 121102 makes a LOT of assumptions, namely: aliens that have become so incredibly technologically advanced (think type II or even type III on the Kardashev Scale) that they can fire a (presumably) narrow beam directly at us through intergalactic space over and over again (to explain the repeated FRB detections) — the odds of which would be vanishingly low — unless the signal is omnidirectional, so they’d need to access way more energy to make this happen. Another assumption could be that intelligent, technologically advanced civilizations are common, so it was only a matter of time before we saw a signal like FRB 121102.
Or it could be a supermassive black hole (say) doing something very energetic that science can’t yet explain.
Occam’s razor suggests the latter might be more reasonable.
This isn’t to say aliens don’t exist or that intelligent aliens aren’t transmitting radio signals, it just means the real cause of this particular FRB repeater is being generated by a known phenomenon doing something unexpected, or a new (and potentially more exciting) phenomenon that’s doing something exotic and new. It doesn’t always have to be aliens.
PSA: Things can go bump (or burst!) in the cosmos and be compelling/fascinating/intriguing without being ALIENS!
From crashing black holes to wobbling neutron stars, these cosmic phenomena generate ripples in spacetime and not necessarily emissions in the electromagnetic spectrum. So when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) made its first gravitational wave detection in September 2015, the science world became very excited about the reality of “gravitational wave astronomy” and the prospect of detecting some of the most massive collisions that happen in the dark, billions of light-years away.
Like waves rippling over the surface of the ocean, gravitational waves travel through spacetime, a prediction that was made by Albert Einstein over a century ago. And like those ocean waves, gravitational waves might reveal something about the nature of spacetime.
We’re talking extra-dimensions and a new study suggests that gravitational waves may carry an awful lot more information with them beyond the characteristics of what generated them in the first place.
Our 4-D Playing Field
First things first, remember that we interact only with four-dimensional spacetime: three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. This is our playing field; we couldn’t care less whether there are more dimensions out there.
Unless you’re a physicist, that is.
And physicists are having a hard job describing gravity, to put it mildly. This might seem weird considering how essential gravity is for, well, everything. Without gravity, no stars would form, planets wouldn’t coalesce and the cosmos would be an exceedingly boring place. But gravity doesn’t seem to “fit” with the Standard Model of physics. The “recipe” for the universe is perfect, except it’s missing one vital ingredient: Gravity. (It’s as if a perfect cake recipe is missing one crucial ingredient, like flour.)
There’s another weird thing about gravity: Although it’s very important in our universe (yes, there might be more than one universe, but I’ll get to that later), it is actually the weakest of all forces.
String theory (and, by extension, superstring theory) predicts that the universe is composed of strings that vibrate at different frequencies. These strings form something like a vast, superfine noodle soup and these strings thread through many dimensions (many more than our four-dimensions) creating all the particles and forces that we know and love.
Now, the possible reason why gravity is so weak when compared with the other fundamental forces could be that gravity is interacting with many more dimensions that are invisible to us 4-D beings. Although string theory is a wonderful mathematical tool to describe this possibility, there is little physical evidence to back up this superfine noodly mess, however.
But as already mentioned, if string theory holds true, it would mean that our universe contains many more dimensions than we regularly experience. (The unifying superstring theory, called “M-theory”, predicts a total of 11 dimensions and may provide the framework that unifies the fundamental forces and could be the diving board that launches us into the vast ocean that is the multiverse… but I’ll stop there, I’ve said too much.)
Groovy. But what the heck has this got to do with gravitational waves? As gravitational waves travel through spacetime, they might be imprinted with information about these extra dimensions. Like our wave analogy, as the sea washes over a beach, the frequency of the waves increase as the water becomes shallower — the ocean waves are imprinted with information about how deep the water is. Could gravitational waves washing over (or, more accurately, through) spacetime also create some kind of signature that would reveal the presence of very, very tiny extra-dimensions as predicted by superstring theory?
Possibly, say researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) in Potsdam, Germany.
“Physicists have been looking for extra dimensions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN but up to now this search has yielded no results,” says Gustavo Lucena Gómez, second author of a new study published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. “But gravitational wave detectors might be able to provide experimental evidence.”
The researchers suggest that these extra-dimensions might modify the signal of gravitational waves received by detectors like LIGO and leave a very high-frequency “fingerprint.” But as this frequency would be exceedingly high — of the order of 1000 Hz — it’s not conceivable that the current (and near-future) ground-based gravitational wave detectors will be sensitive enough to even hope to detect these frequencies.
However, extra-dimensions might modify the gravitational waves in a different way. As gravitational waves propagate, they stretch and shrink the spacetime they travel through, like this:
The amount of spacetime warping might therefore be detected as more gravitational wave detectors are added to the global network. Currently, LIGO has two operating observing stations (one in Washington and one in Louisiana) and next year, the European Virgo detector will start taking data.
More detectors are planned elsewhere, so it’s possible that we may, one day, use gravitational waves to not only “see” black holes go bump in the night, we might also “see” the extra-dimensions that form the minuscule tapestry of the fabric beyond spacetime. And if we can do this, perhaps we’ll finally understand why gravity is so weak and how it really fits in with the Standard Model of physics.
Want to know more about gravitational waves? Well, here’s an Astroengine YouTube video on the topic: