by Jocelyn Read, California State University Fullerton
With several binary black hole mergers observed in the past two years, astronomers and relativists have become familiar with their general features: a quick chirp signal lasting seconds or less, a familiar inspiral-merger-ringdown pattern of waves, and a dark event in a distant galaxy, billions of light-years away.
GW170817 is a little bit different.
We’ve already seen systems like its presumed antecedent in our galaxy, where pulsars with neutron-star companions precisely map out their hours-long orbits with radio blips. We can imagine, then, the last 80 million or so years of GW170817’s source. Two neutron stars, in a galaxy only 40 Mpc away, driven through a slow but steady inspiral by gravitational radiation. For us distant observers, things become more interesting when the increasing orbital frequency sends the emitted gravitational waves into the sensitive range of our ground-based detectors.
I wanted to take this opportunity to give a sense of scale, so consider this a tour of some interesting way-points along the signal’s path through that sensitive range of frequencies. Many thanks to my colleagues in the LIGO and Virgo collaborations who’ve helped lay out these markers over the last weeks – and of course, any remaining errors are my own. Continue reading