1 A New Window onto the Universe

The last six decades have witnessed a great revolution in astronomy, driven by improvements in observing capabilities across the electromagnetic spectrum: very large optical telescopes, radio antennas and arrays, a host of satellites to explore the infrared, X-ray, and gamma-ray parts of the spectrum, and the development of key new technologies (CCDs, adaptive optics). Each new window of observation has brought new surprises that have dramatically changed our understanding of the universe. These serendipitous discoveries have included:

None of these discoveries was anticipated by the observing team, and in many cases the instruments were built to observe completely different phenomena.

Within a few years another new window on the universe will open up, with the first direct detection of gravitational waves. There is keen interest in observing gravitational waves directly, in order to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity and to observe some of the most exotic objects in nature, particularly black holes. But, in addition, the potential of gravitational wave observations to produce more surprises is very high.

The gravitational wave spectrum is completely distinct from, and complementary to, the electromagnetic spectrum. The primary emitters of electromagnetic radiation are charged elementary particles, mainly electrons; because of overall charge neutrality, electromagnetic radiation is typically emitted in small regions, with short wavelengths, and conveys direct information about the physical conditions of small portions of the astronomical sources. By contrast, gravitational waves are emitted by the cumulative mass and momentum of entire systems, so they have long wavelengths and convey direct information about large-scale regions. Electromagnetic waves couple strongly to charges and so are easy to detect but are also easily scattered or absorbed by material between us and the source; gravitational waves couple extremely weakly to matter, making them very hard to detect but also allowing them to travel to us substantially unaffected by intervening matter, even from the earliest moments of the Big Bang.

These contrasts, and the history of serendipitous discovery in astronomy, all suggest that electromagnetic observations may be poor predictors of the phenomena that gravitational wave detectors will eventually discover. Given that 96% of the mass-energy of the universe carries no charge, gravitational waves provide us with our first opportunity to observe directly a major part of the universe. It might turn out to be as complex and interesting as the charged minor component, the part that we call “normal” matter.

Several long-baseline interferometric gravitational-wave detectors planned over a decade ago [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) [18], GEO [246], VIRGO [110] and TAMA [366]] have begun initial operations [324719] with unprecedented sensitivity levels and wide bandwidths at acoustic frequencies (10 Hz – 10 kHz) [199Jump To The Next Citation Point]. These large interferometers are superseding a world-wide network of narrow-band resonant bar antennas that operated for several decades at frequencies near 1 kHz. Before 2020 the space-based LISA [73] gravitational wave detector may begin observations in the low-frequency band from 0.1 mHz to 0.1 Hz. This suite of detectors can be expected to open up the gravitational wave window for astronomical exploration, and at the same time perform stringent tests of general relativity in its strong-field dynamic sector.

Gravitational wave antennas are essentially omni-directional, with linearly polarized quadrupolar antenna patterns that typically have a response better than 50% of its average over 75% of the sky [199Jump To The Next Citation Point]. Their nearly all-sky sensitivity is an important difference from pointed astronomical antennas and telescopes. Gravitational wave antennas operate as a network, with the aim of taking data continuously. Ground-based interferometers can at present (2008) survey a volume of order 104 Mpc3 for inspiraling compact star binaries – among the most promising sources for these detectors – and plan to enhance their range more than tenfold with two major upgrades (to enhanced and then advanced detectors) during the period 2009 – 2014. For the advanced detectors, there is great confidence that the resulting thousandfold volume increase will produce regular detections. It is this second phase of operation that will be more interesting from the astrophysical point of view, bringing us physical and astrophysical insights into populations of neutron star and black hole binaries, supernovae and formation of compact objects, populations of isolated compact objects in our galaxy, and potentially even completely unexpected systems. Following that, LISA’s ability to survey the entire universe for black hole coalescences at milliHertz frequencies will extend gravitational wave astronomy into the cosmological arena.

However, the present initial phase of observation, or observations after the first enhancements, may very well produce the first detections. Potential sources include coalescences of binaries consisting of black holes at a distance of 100 – 200 Mpc and spinning neutron stars in our galaxy with ellipticities greater than about 10–6. Observations even at this initial level may, of course, also reveal new sources not observable in any other way. These initial detections, though not expected to be frequent, would be important from the fundamental physics point of view and could enable us to directly test general relativity in the strongly nonlinear regime.

Gravitational wave detectors register gravitational waves coherently by following the phase of the wave and not just measuring its intensity. Since the phase is determined by large-scale motions of matter inside the sources, much of the astrophysical information is extracted from the phase. This leads to different kinds of data analysis methods than one normally encounters in astronomy, based on matched filtering and searches over large parameter spaces of potential signals. This style of data analysis requires the input of pre-calculated template signals, which means that gravitational wave detection depends more strongly than most other branches of astronomy on theoretical input. The better the input, the greater the range of the detectors.

The fact that detectors are omni-directional and detect coherently the phase of the incoming wave makes them in many ways more like microphones for sound than like conventional telescopes. The analogy with sound can be helpful, since microphones can be used to monitor environments for disturbances in any location, and since when we listen to sounds our brains do a form of matched filtering to allow us to interpret the sounds we want to understand against a background of noise. In a very real sense, gravitational wave detectors will be listening to the sounds of a restless universe. The gravitational wave “window” will actually be a listening post, a monitor for the most dramatic events that occur in the universe.

 1.1 Birth of gravitational astronomy
 1.2 What this review is about

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