Mysteriously quiet space baffles researchers

Astrophysicists just concluded the most precise search ever for gravitational waves created by supermassive black hole mergers. The results? No signal.

Last week, Lawrence Krauss rumored that the newly updated gravitational wave detector LIGO had seen its first signal. The news spread quickly — and annoyance from the community followed almost as quickly. The new detector still had to be calibrated, as Asantha Cooray pointed out, or it might be a false alert meant as drill.

While this rumor caught everybody’s attention, a surprise find from another gravitational wave experiment almost got drowned in the noise. The Parkes Pulsar Timing Array project just published results from analyzing 11 years’ worth of data in which they expected to find evidence for gravitational waves created by mergers of supermassive black holes. The sensitivity of their experiment is well within the regime where the signal was predicted to be present. But the researchers didn’t find anything. Spacetime, it seems, is eerily quiet.

Image credit: NASA.

The Pulsar Timing Array project uses the 64 m Parkes radio telescope in Australia to monitor regularly flashing light sources in our galaxy. Known as pulsars, such objects are thought to be created in some binary systems, where two stars orbit around a common center. When a neutron star succeeds in accreting mass from the companion star, an accretion disk forms and starts to emit large amounts of particles. Due to the rapid rotation of the system, this emission goes into one particular direction. Since we can only observe the signal when it is aimed at our telescopes, the source seems to turn on and off in regular intervals: A pulsar has been created.

The astrophysicists on the lookout for gravitational waves use the fastest-spinning pulsars as cosmic clocks. These millisecond pulsars rotate so reliably that their pulses get measurably distorted already by minuscule disturbances in spacetime. Much like buoys move with waves on the water, pulsars move with the gravitational waves when space and time is stretched. In this way, the precise arrival times of the pulsars’ signals on Earth gets distorted. The millisecond pulsars in our galaxy are thus nothing but a huge gravitational wave detector that nature has given us for free.

Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Dana Berry.

Take the pulsar with the catchy name PSR J1909–3744. It flashes us every 2.95 milliseconds, or literally a hundred times in the blink of an eye. And, as the new experiment reveals, it does so to a precision within a few microseconds, year after year after year. This tells the researchers that the the noise they expected from supermassive black hole mergers is not there.

The reason for this missing signal is a great puzzle right now. Most known galaxies, including our own, seem to host huge black holes with masses of more than a million times that of our Sun. And in the vastness of space and on cosmological times, galaxies bump into each other regularly. If that happens, they most often combine to a larger galaxy and, after some period of turmoil, the new galaxy will have a supermassive binary black hole at its center. These binary systems emit gravitational waves which should be found throughout the entire universe.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University), K. Noll (STScI), and J. Westphal (Caltech).

The prevalence of gravitational waves from supermassive binary black holes can be estimated from the probability of a galaxy to host a black hole, and the frequency in which galaxies merge. The emission of gravitational waves in these systems is a consequence of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Combine the existing observations with the calculation for the emission, and you get an estimate for the background noise from gravitational waves. The pulsar timing measurements we make from pulsars within our own galaxy should be sensitive to this noise from the gravitational waves. But the new measurement — the null result — is inconsistent with all existing models for the gravitational wave background in this frequency range.

Gravitational waves are one of the key predictions of General Relativity, Einstein’s masterwork which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. They have never been detected directly, but the energy loss that gravitational waves must cause has been observationally confirmed in stellar binary systems. A binary system acts much like a gravitational antenna: it constantly emits a radiation, just that instead of electromagnetic waves it is gravitational waves that the system sends into space. As a consequence of the constant loss of energy, the stars move closer together and the rotation frequency of binary systems increases. In 1993 the Physics Nobel Prize went to Hulse and Taylor for pioneering this remarkable confirmation of General Relativity.

The Nobel Prize winning measurement of the slow change in the rotation period. Image Source: J.M. Weisberg, J.H. Taylor: Relativistic Binary Pulsar B1913+16: Thirty Years of Observations and Analysis, arXiv: astro-ph/0407149v1 Figure 1. For details see here.

Ever since, researchers have tried to find other ways to measure the elusive gravitational waves. The amount of gravitational waves they expect depends on their wavelength — roughly speaking, the longer the wavelength, the more of them should be around. The LIGO experiment is sensitive to wavelengths of the order of thousands of km. The network of pulsars, however is sensitive to wavelengths of several light years, corresponding to 10^16 meters or even more. At these wavelengths astrophysicists expected a much larger background signal.

But that expected signal is now excluded by the recent measurement.

Estimated gravitational wave spectrum. Image Source:

Why the discrepancy with the models? In their paper the researchers offer various possible explanations. To begin with, the estimates for the number of galaxy mergers or supermassive binary black holes could be wrong. Or the supermassive black holes might not be able to form close-enough binary systems in the mergers. Or it could be that the black holes experience an environment full with interstellar gas, which would reduce the time during which they emit gravitational waves. There are many astrophysical scenarios that might explain the observation. An absolutely last resort is to reconsider what General Relativity tells us about gravitational wave emission, and that maybe the theory must be modified.

Only more observations will tell us which explanation is correct. Whichever one it is, though, we are all now witnesses to the birth of a new mystery in physics.