By Stacy Palen
LIGO has been busy, and a newly released graphic summarizes many of the exciting discoveries the detector has made in concert with Virgo, its European counterpart.
Summary: Since 2015, the LIGO/Virgo collaboration has detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime caused by rapidly accelerating massive objects—from 10 stellar mass binary black hole mergers and one binary neutron star merger. Black holes and neutron stars are both forms of stellar remnants—the final stage of stellar evolution that a star enters when it has burned through its entire fuel supply. This graphic provides a great jumping off point for discussions about masses in the stellar graveyard.
1. Consider the final masses of the black hole mergers (larger blue circles). What is the smallest merged mass?
Answer: About 19 solar masses.
2. Consider the masses of black holes that have been detected in X-rays (EM Black Holes, in purple). What is the largest black hole mass that has been detected this way?
Answer: About 23 solar masses.
3. Estimate the average mass of the black holes that have been detected in X-rays.
Answer: About 10 solar masses.
4. Estimate the average mass of the black holes that have been detected in gravitational waves.
Answer: This average looks to be about 25 solar masses.
5. Astronomers make the claim that they are detecting a “new population of black holes” with gravitational waves---—that is, that the type of black holes they are detecting now are different than the ones they were detecting before. Based on your answers to questions one through four, explain why they would say this.
Answer: Even though the two groups of black holes overlap in mass, gravitational waves are detecting more massive black holes, on average, than were detected with X-rays in the past.
6. Compare the number of EM black holes to the number of black holes (before merging) discovered with LIGO/Virgo. How much has LIGO/Virgo contributed to the total sample of known black holes?
Answer: LIGO/Virgo has nearly doubled the number of black holes that have been observed.
7. Is it reasonable, then, to compare the two populations (the pre-merger black holes from the LIGO/Virgo data and the X-ray black holes)?
Answer: Yes, statistically speaking, we know of about the same number of objects in each case.
8. Consider the masses of Neutron stars (yellow). What is the largest neutron star mass that has been detected with light (EM)?
Answer: About 2.1 solar masses.
9. Consider the masses of Neutron stars (yellow). What is the average neutron star mass that has been detected with light (EM)?
Answer: About 1.5 solar masses
10. Theorists predict that we would not expect to observe neutron stars with masses above about 2.14 solar masses. Are these observations consistent with that prediction? What do you think astronomers are wondering about the post-merger object resulting from the merger of two neutron stars?
Answer: The neutron stars observed with light are consistent, but the outcome of the neutron star merger is a little bit too massive. As of this writing, astronomers are still trying to figure out the form of that post-merger object. It could be a black hole, a neutron star collapsing to form a black hole, or a stable neutron star. More data are needed!