'Dancing' black holes yield LIGO's third detection of gravitational waves

For the third time in two years, physicists have detected ripples in the fabric of spacetime, called gravitational waves, that Albert Einstein predicted the existence of more than 100 years ago with his theory of general relativity.

Animation of the inspiral and collision of two black holes consistent with the masses and spins of GW170104.

This third merger created a black hole with a mass of about 49 times our sun.

Before LIGO, astronomers didn't know that so-called solar mass black holes, which form when stars die, could reach such extreme sizes.

Three's a party. The LIGO collaboration has made its third observation of gravitational waves emanating from a pair of merging black holes - giving us more insight into how these pairs form and building up our catalogue of them.

No wonder we can detect the shock waves of such a distant event. They collaborate with computer scientists at Northwestern's Image and Video Processing Laboratory, the Zooniverse team at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, human-computer interaction experts at Syracuse University and LIGO scientists at California State University, Fullerton.

After undergoing tune-ups to improve its sensitivity, LIGO began its second observing run on November 30, 2016.

"The University of MS is so pleased to be a member of this worldwide collaboration of talented scientists and engineers, which is producing such astounding breakthroughs", Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. One is in Hanford, Washington and another in Livingston, Louisiana.

ANU scientists designed systems to improve the duty cycle of the LIGO detectors so that more time can be spent searching for gravitational waves.

What is most impressive about the latest detection is that it was made from a distance of about three billion light years, more than double the distances calculated during last year's detections.

Research on the latest set of gravitational waves were published by a team of 1,000 scientists in the journal Physical Review Letters. The black holes were about 3 billion light years away.

With this observation of a black hole spinning in the opposite direction to its orbit, astronomers now have evidence of black holes pairing up after their rotations have been established. In this case, the black holes can spin in any direction relative to their orbital motion.

The Cadmium Zinc Telluride Imager (CZTI) on the Indian space observatory AstroSat conducted the most sensitive search for short duration X-ray flashes associated with this event, but did not find anything. The top part of the movie shows the black hole horizons (surfaces of "no return"). In their final moments, these binary black holes were circling each other hundreds of times per second, as each one spun at 10 times that rate.

Researchers have now confirmed that a third black hole merger was detected on 4 January 2017, earning it the memorable name GW170104. Furthermore, the remnant black hole is "kicked" by the emitted gravitational waves, and moves upward.

Two primary models have developed to explain how binary pairs of black holes can form.

That makes it likely that the black holes originated separately and then later captured each other, possibly when they converged at the heart of a dense cluster of stars.

The theory would require these black holes to have been formed in the early universe, from patches of material- rather than stars - collapsing inwards.

They did not see evidence of dispersion, but if they had, it would have contradicted Einstein's theory. "We'll need more events to be able to statistically disentangle what is happening", said Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and a LIGO member who has worked on the common-envelope scenario. There is a hint of this phenomenon found by LIGO in at least one black hole of the GW170104 system.

The latest data also tested Einstein's theories. This happens when light waves in a physical medium travel at different speeds, depending on their wavelength.

The long-awaited triumph in September 2015 of the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves completed Einstein's vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic. LIGO is an worldwide team of scientists that includes more than a dozen Georgia Tech faculty members, students and postdoctoral fellows.

"As an example, imagine a pair of tornadoes in a clockwise orbit around each other", said Georgia Tech Professor Laura Cadonati, LIGO's deputy spokesperson. And we're not just talking about the heated disc of material swirling around it - the actual mass has angular momentum, meaning the black hole itself rotates on its axis. "We expect that by this summer Virgo, the European interferometer, will expand the network of detectors, helping us to better localize the signals".

These ripples in space-time can only be detected by powerful instruments.

Now, scientists working with LIGO and a sister project based in Europe say they have once again picked up the signal of a pair of black holes that spiralled in toward one another and merged into one.

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