LIGO and the era of multimessenger astronomy

Multimessenger astronomy is a fairly new buzz word in the science. Dr. Joey Key, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Washington Bothell and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, talked about the concept at last month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Joey Key

Dr. Joey Key of the UW Bothell gave a talk about LIGO and the era of multimessenger astronomy at the Dec. 21 meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Key made the same presentation to the Everett Astronomical Society Jan. 7. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As you probably know LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory—made the first detection of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, back in December 2015 and announced the findings last February. So now what?

“The next big goal for LIGO is to have a gravitational wave detection where we also get an electromagnetic signal from the same source,” Key explained. She noted that various wavelengths of light, from gamma ray to radio, require different types of tools to detect and reveal different things about objects observed. Key said gravitational-wave astronomers refer to such science as “electromagnetic astronomy.” The big hope, then, is to learn even more if there can be an electromagnetic observation as well as a gravitational wave observation of the same event.

“That’s what we would call a multimessgenger source,” Key said.

A difficult search

Einstein never thought gravitational waves could be detected because he figured they would be too small. It took a century of technological advances to prove him right—again. Finding a multimessenger source may be an even more elusive needle in the cosmic haystack.

Key explained that, right now, it’s hard for LIGO to detect with precision from whence a source signal originates. When they detect a source they send an alert to about 60 electromagnetic astronomy partners and give them a general direction in which to look. In addition to the challenge of pinpointing the source, they also don’t really know what to look for. Key said their models aren’t very good, not yet anyway. Light from a source may have already passed, but there could be x-rays, gamma rays, afterglow, or shock waves under certain conditions.

Fortunately, LIGO is getting better. The addition of more Earth-based observatories will help better locate sources and discover collisions of neutron stars or stellar-mass black holes. Project LISA, scheduled to launch in 2029, will look for supermassive black hole collisions and “extreme mass ratio in-spirals” which occur when a little star or black hole falls into a big black hole. Pulsar timing arrays could detect when supermassive black holes collide in galaxy mergers. There’s even study of the cosmic microwave background to try to detect gravitational waves from early universe.

“Just like electromagnetic astronomy, different sources are detected by these different kinds of experiments,” Key said. “We need all these different kinds of gravitational-wave experiments to be able to study the gravitational-wave sky.”

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than a thousand scientists from 15 countries and 90 institutions. Four of the institutions are in Washington: The University of Washington, UW Bothell, Whitman College, and Bellevue College.

Unknown discoveries ahead

Key said it is an interesting time to be involved in the field as LIGO is just into its second observing run.

“We’re really going to be able to map out and explore the population of black holes in our universe,” Key said.

“We don’t know what we’ll discover, and that is always the story of a new astronomy,” she added. ”We do not know very much about black holes in general, and so this is a new way to study the universe and study what is out there. It will be very exciting!”

LIGO could discover new kinds of sources like cosmic strings, study supernovae, and maybe even lead to the detection of dark matter and dark energy.

“We are lucky we live in the era of gravitational-wave astronomy, and we hope soon that it will be the era of multimessenger astronomy,” Key concluded.


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