Black Hole Mergers To Be Predicted Years In Advance By The 2030s
“When we detect black hole-black hole events with LIGO, it’s only the last few orbits that have a large enough amplitude to be seen above the background noise. The entirety of the signal’s duration lasts from a few hundred milliseconds to only a couple of seconds. By time a signal is collected, identified, processed, and localized, the critical merger event has already passed. There’s no way to point your telescopes — the ones that could find an electromagnetic counterpart to the signal — quickly enough to catch them from birth. Even inspiraling and merging neutron stars could only last tens of seconds before the critical “chirp” moment arrives. Processing time, even under ideal conditions, makes predicting the particular when-and-where a signal will occur a practical impossibility. But all of this will change with LISA.”
The past few years have ushered in the era of gravitational wave astronomy, turning a once-esoteric and controversial prediction of General Relativity into a robust, observational science. Less than a year ago, with three independent detectors online at once, the first localizations of gravitational wave signals were successfully performed. Multi-messenger astronomy, with gravitational waves and an electromagnetic follow-up, came about shortly thereafter, with the first successful neutron star-neutron star merger. But one prediction still eludes us: the ability to know where and when a merger will occur way in advance.
Thanks to LISA, launching in the 2030s, that’s all going to change. Suddenly, we’ll be able to predict these events weeks, months, or even years in advance! Here’s how.
LIGO-VIRGO Detects The First Three-Detector Gravitational Wave
“When you have a signal appearing in one detector, you can gain a rough estimate of its distance from you (with uncertainties), but with no information about its direction. A second detector not only gives another distance estimate, but the time difference between the two signals gives you some information about distance, allowing you to restrict yourself to an “arc” on the sky. But a third detector, with a third time difference, allows you to pinpoint a single point, albeit with significant uncertainties. This is where the word “triangulation” comes from, since you need three detectors to pinpoint a location-of-origin. That’s exactly what VIRGO was able to give.”
For over a century after the publication of General Relativity, it was uncertain whether gravitational waves were real or not. It wasn’t until their first direct detection less than two years ago, by the LIGO scientific collaboration, that their existence was spectacularly confirmed. With the VIRGO detector in Italy coming online this year to complement the twin LIGO detectors, however, so much more became possible. An actual position in space could be identified for the first time, enabling a possible correlation between the gravitational wave sky and the electromagnetic one. The three-dimensional polarization of a gravitational wave could be measured, and compared with the predictions of Einstein’s theory. And gravitational wave signals can be teased out earlier and measured to smaller amplitudes than ever before. Not only have we just seen our fourth gravitational wave event, we’ve seen it in all three detectors.
This discovery is, indeed, something big, but there’s even bigger science to come in the future! Come see what this first three-detector gravitational wave event has given us!