Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Journey of a Gravitational Wave II: GWs Get Bent

What happens to a gravitational wave between when it is produced and when LIGO can detect it?  It turns out not much, which makes it a key new medium in which to observe the Universe!

Last week, I began discussing what happens to a gravitational wave as it makes its way from its source to Earth; specifically that gravitational wave can travel through matter and come out the other side unchangedToday's post talks about how the gravitational effects of other masses in the Universe can deflect the gravitational wave from its otherwise straight path.


Let's think again about what happens to light on its way to Earth.  We know from the last post that any matter light comes into contact with will reflect or absorb at least part of the light.  There is also another effect called gravitational lensing that causes light to bend around massive objects due to the massive object's gravitational influence.  This is caused by light following its natural path on curved spacetime (or light being bent by a gravitational field since we've previously established that the curvature of spacetime is a representation of the strength of the gravitational field there).  The first thing that pops into my mind that illustrates something following its natural path on a curved surface is miniature golf:

This is hole 13 at Safari Mini Golf in Vero Beach, FL.  This image is taken from a review of this course and can be read here.
Consider the example hole in the above image.  After you get your ball past the three bumps, there is a wonderful bowl-like curved portion behind the target hole (if you look very closely, you can see the hole directly after the last bump and in the center).  If you hit your ball into this area, the ball's trajectory will change from a straight path to a curved one.  If your ball begins its path on the left side of the bowl, it will curve right; if your ball enters the bowl from the right, it will curve left.  The same thing happens for light and gravitational waves that pass by a massive enough object to cause a significant depression in spacetime (i.e. a strong gravitational field):

The bending of light from a star that is really behind the Sun but appears to be to the side of the Sun.
[Credit: Ethan Siegel of Lewis & Clark College, OR]

The the light from a star, galaxy, or other source travels through the depression in spacetime made by a nearby massive object (in the image above it is the Sun).  The path that light takes is curved just like the golf ball in the miniature golf example above.  But our brains are wired to assume that any light that enters our eyes has come to us in a straight line (which is how light usually travels) so we perceive the location of the source to be directly behind where it appears to be.  Therefore, while the star is really behind the Sun (at point A in the image above), it appears to us to be to the side of the Sun (at point B).  This bending effect is called gravitational lensing and it applies to gravitational waves just like it does to light.


The example of gravitational lensing given above was one of the first observational proofs that Einstein's general relativity was correct.  Before relativity, there was already a prediction of the bending of light due to Newtonian gravity (what we use in our everyday life) but Einstein predicted the bending effect should be twice that predicted without relativity.  In 1919, there was a total eclipse of the Sun which would allow those stars that are near the Sun to become visible.  Images of the eclipse were taken and it was seen that the shift in the position of stars near the Sun was indeed twice that of the shift predicted by Newtonian gravity.

There are also kinds of lensing that produce much more dramatic effects than shifting the position of stars!  Things like large galaxies and clusters of galaxies can cause the light from objects behind them to be split up to form multiple, separate, and complete images. 

[Image from NASA]

The image above shows gravitational lensing of a quasar and a galaxy by a distant galaxy cluster SDSS J1004+4112 (SDSS indicates that it was discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey).  Each image of the quasar is of the same single object; the same is true of the galaxy! 

You may notice that each of the images are a little different from each other.  This is due to the distortion that a gravitational lens can cause.  This effect is illustrated well in the simulation below of a black hole creating a gravitational lens as it passes in front of a galaxy:

[Image from Wikipedia]

Note the circular distortion of the light from the galaxy as the black hole passes by.  When the black hole is directly in front of the galaxy, there is a circular halo of lensed light around it.  This halo called an Einstein Ring can can be caused by any extremely massive object (black hole, galaxy, galaxy cluster, etc.).
[Image credited within the image and retrieved from Wikipedia.]


Gravitational lensing affects both light and gravitational waves.  This produces spectacular images of objects using light, but LIGO will not produce images and the sources that produce gravitational waves are more point-like (a black hole, a star exploding, etc.) than large scale objects (like galaxies which are thousands of light-years across).  The effect that will most likely be seen in gravitational waves is their focusing; the bending of gravitational waves can produce more intense gravitational waves from the lensed source (similar to a magnifying glass focusing light to a smaller point).  This paper suggests that the galactic center of the Milky Way could increase the intensity of a source in our galaxy (bur behind the galactic center) up to 4000x.  Also, if a gravitational wave is emitted from a galaxy that has multiple images from lensing, then that gravitational wave will come from each image!

However, most sources will not have appreciable lensing.  While this is something we will always need to consider while conducting gravitational-wave astronomy, it isn't something that is likely to change the information contained on the gravitational wave noticeably (and that's a good thing)!