Thursday, January 10, 2013

SNEWS and LIGO: Neutrinos Tell of Possible Gravitational Wave

When I start off a tour at the LIGO Observatory, I usually start by talking about how gravitational waves will open a new window to view the Universe.  I've done this so many times that I have the talking point pretty much memorized:
"Up until recently, we've only been able to observe the Universe using light and its different forms.  Visible light, X-rays, and microwaves are just a few different kinds of light and every time we have looked at the Universe in a new way, we discovered something unexpected that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe.

Well, light has the inconvenient property of being fairly easily absorbed or reflected away from its path.  However, the Universe is transparent to gravitational waves; meaning that they can go through matter and come out the other side unchanged.  There is no such thing as a gravitational-wave shadow!"
Note that I start by saying that until recently all of astronomy has used light as its tool.  This is because there is another medium that has been used: neutrinos.  I've talked a bit about neutrinos previously here, namely when I discussed the debunking of the "faster-than-light neutrino" claim last year and how neutrinos are used in multi-messenger astronomy.  Quoting the important part from the multi-messenger astronomy post:
"Today, we can do astronomy with means other than light.  For example, neutrinos.  These are subatomic particles that have no electric charge, have nearly no mass, travel very near the speed of light and are able to pass through matter almost undisturbed.  However, these properties add up to make it very hard to detect neutrinos (did you know that there are billions of neutrinos from the Sun passing through your body every second?!).  Neutrinos are also emitted when a star dies in an explosion called a supernova.  That means we may observe the optical burst of light AND the neutrinos from a single supernova.  Any time that you can observe the same event in multiple ways, you almost always learn more than if you only observed it one way."
- 14 October 2010
What I didn't go into is that LIGO is working to detect gravitational waves from a supernova as well.  While we can do this without complementary detections from traditional and neutrino observatories, having that information from them will make it easier for us to find the signal buried under the detector noise that dominates what LIGO records.  This is done through the Supernova Early Warning System (SNEWS).


Yes, this is pronounced just like you pronounce "snooze".  A SNEWS alert is sent out shortly after neutrinos from a supernova (as opposed to neutrinos from the Sun) are detected.  Since neutrinos and travel through matter with very little disturbance just like gravitational waves, that means that if we saw neutrinos, there is also a good chance that we may see the gravitational waves from that event.  Even more compelling for us in the gravitational wave community is that SNEWS only really expects to see neutrinos from a supernova if it came from within the Milky Way galaxy (or the Magellanic Clouds that are two small galaxies that orbit the Milky Way).  As far as gravitational waves are concerned, that is in our own backyard so any accompanying gravitational waves would likely be large enough for us to detect!   (When searching for gravitational waves in general, we expect that almost all of our sources will come from galaxies outside of the Milky Way.)


The reason that the detection of neutrinos is considered an "early warning system" for a supernova is that the processes that produce these neutrinos happen hours to days before the optical explosion that traditional observatories would be able to see.  The supernova explosion occurs after the mass of the star collapses in on itself; this is called a core collapse.  Neutrinos are normally produced by the nuclear fusions inside the star (our Sun produces MANY all the time), but during the core collapse many more are produced (it is estimated that over 90% of the energy in the collapse is expended as neutrinos).  It is also during the core collapse, when so much of the star's mass is in motion, that gravitational waves are produced.  If there is a SNEWS alert, that means that there is a higher probability of a gravitational wave detection at that time.


First off, let me say that there has not been a SNEWS alert yet since these supernovae in our galaxy are rare (they happen about every 50 years or so that we are aware of).  But if a SNEWS alert comes through while LIGO is looking for gravitational waves, the protocol is quite simple: don't do anything that would cause the quality of the data to be degraded.  More specifically, don't create vibrations.  Don't walk close to the detector (your footsteps appear to be little earthquakes to the detector), don't leave the site in an automobile (any acceleration by that a car or larger vehicle will create a little wave in the ground that will affect the detector).  This has brought up the question of what to do with the FedEx guy if he is on site making a delivery...  While we cannot hold anyone against their will, I am sure that he would be asked to stick around for a while. 

This may sound a little harsh, but considering the rarity of these events and what is to be gained, sitting around isn't all that bad!


First, to the traditional astronomy community (telescopes detecting light), it is exceedingly rare to see a supernova from its beginning and doing so can tell astronomers more about what kind of supernova it is (see this Wikipedia page for more information about the different types of supernovae).

Also, if the gravitational waves from the core collapse of a star were to be detected, this will allow us to "see" what went on inside the star - something that can never be done with traditional astronomy.  Knowing what goes on inside the star will allow us to use the dying star as a nuclear reactor unlike any we could ever create on Earth.  This may be able to tell us more about nuclear physics which could have implications for technology in the future (I have no idea what those may be).


So far, there are only two detected sources of neutrinos other than those produced by nuclear reactions on Earth: those from the Sun and those from the supernova known as SN 1987A.

NASA image of 1987A supernova remnant near the center.  Inset: a close up of the supernova  [Source: Wikipedia]

SN 1987A happened on 23 February 1987 (hence the name) and was located in the (relatively) nearby Large Magellanic Cloud and could be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.  About 2-3 hours before the star exploded (as seen from Earth), neutrinos were detected at 3 different neutrino detectors.  This detection not only was the birth of neutrino astronomy, but also allowed for the early observation of the light from the supernova.

Also, this supernova is thought by some to be the instigator of the LIGO concept.  This was when Joseph Weber made his claims of the first detection of gravitational waves (which was debunked - but that is a discussion for another blog post).  Weber used a method of looking for gravitational waves called a resonant bar gravitational-wave detector (a.k.a. Weber Bar).  Even though there wasn't a gravitational-wave detection, his claims and SN 1987A made scientists begin to consider other way to look for gravitational waves and that the technology needed was within reach.  So, that February day in 1987 was also the birth of LIGO in a way!