by Blake Moore
Humankind has been obsessed with circles for a long time. It comes as no surprise then that the modeling of gravitational waves had focused until recently on those emitted by black holes or neutron stars in circular orbits around each other. But in the case of gravitational wave modeling, there is good reason for this obsession. Gravitational waves remove energy and angular momentum from a binary, forcing the eccentricity to decay and the orbit to circularize rapidly. Since the 1960s, the expectation has then been that the gravitational waves that ground-based detectors would observe would correspond to circular binaries.
But as with most things in physics, Nature adores the complex if one looks closely enough. Several astrophysical studies have recently shown that binaries may form with moderate eccentricities at orbital separations at which they would be emitting gravitational waves that ground-based detectors could observe very soon. These binaries would form near a supermassive black hole or in globular clusters, where three- or many-body interactions may source eccentricity. And if they are detected, they could shed light on their true population and formation scenario.