Ground-based observatories have, since 2015, picked up nearly a hundred signals from the merger of stellar-mass black holes, neutron stars, or combinations of the two.
What if we could see the universe not just through light, but through the ripples it makes in the fabric of space-time? A NASA-led team of astronomers has used simulated data to provide us with a sneak peek, revealing how future space-based gravitational wave observatories will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.
Ground-based observatories have, since 2015, picked up nearly a hundred signals from the merger of stellar-mass black holes, neutron stars, or combinations of the two. These signals, brief and high-pitched, can originate from anywhere in the sky and usually come from systems far outside our galaxy.
“Ultra-compact binaries, which we often find in our Milky Way, likely consist of compact objects like white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes in tight orbits. But to ‘listen’ to them, we must take to space as their gravitational waves resonate at frequencies too low for Earth-bound equipment,” explained Cecilia Chirenti, a researcher at both the University of Maryland, College Park, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
A Glimpse into the Future with LISA
Future observatories, such as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)—a project spearheaded by the European Space Agency in partnership with NASA—are anticipated to detect tens of thousands of these ultra-compact binaries (UCBs). Most UCBs are elusive, dimly visible in ordinary light, and with only a few known to have orbits that last under an hour. One of LISA’s primary goals is to discover many more such UCBs.
The NASA team devised a method to merge simulated data, creating a comprehensive view of the galaxy’s ultra-compact binaries.
“This simulated all-sky image essentially provides us a new lens through which we can see the universe, much like how we view it in different types of light such as X-rays or infrared,” said Goddard astrophysicist Ira Thorpe. “It really highlights the game-changing potential of gravitational waves. I’m looking forward to the day when we can have this kind of cosmic map based on actual LISA data.”
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