Thursday, January 12, 2017

Merging black holes

We all remember the LIGO discovery: a pair of black holes merging to produce a beautiful gravity wave signal. It was followed shortly thereafter by a smaller pair producing not-so-nice a signal, but good enough.

LIGO didn't take data very long, but got 2 signals in only a few months. (They're starting up again.)

From that rate, Ioka et al estimated how many mergers there have been in our galaxy so far (mostly much smaller ones, and obviously we weren't looking at the time--weren't here for most of that time). (Basically they figure that if LIGO detected really big ones at the range they did, it would have missed the many more smaller ones in the same volume, because it wasn't sensitive enough.)

When two orbiting bodies like that merge, the result has fantastic angular momentum. If you spin a bicycle wheel and grab it, you know that it "doesn't like" being stopped. Imagine if the bicycle wheel were made of lead, and spinning that fast. You might break your hand trying to stop it. Now spin it up faster, and faster. There's a lot of energy in that thing now. There's unimaginably more in the black hole you get from merging two others.

The first direct detections of gravitational waves (GWs) from black hole (BH) mergers, GW150914, GW151226 and LVT151012, give a robust lower limit ∼70000 on the number of merged, highly-spinning BHs in our Galaxy. The total spin energy is comparable to all the kinetic energy of supernovae that ever happened in our Galaxy.

They go on to estimate what kind of activity you can get from interstellar gas falling into these things, which is of interest to people trying to study cosmic rays (like IceCube).

Let me emphasize that most of these black holes aren't very big--only a few solar masses. Still, 70,000 merged black holes in our galaxy--wow.

Of course there are some assumptions that go into that--like assuming that the rate of black hole merger is essentially constant in time. I'm not sure that's realistic. And they may have the distribution of the rate of production of different size black holes wrong. But nobody found any showstopper problems with it at the meeting today.

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