Eärendel star

Eärendel is found in Norse mythology and Tolkien’s books (morning star).

Eärendel is found in old Norse mythology as a star created by Thor out of one of the toes of Aurvandill. Eärendel was later adopted by Tolkien to refer to the morning star. This reference to an early star is appropriate to talk about Eärendel, the farthest star ever observed.

EärendelThe first stars are expected to form when the universe is between 50 and 100 million years old. Although this may sound as a big number, in reality the universe was still very young at this point. If we compare the universe today (13700 million years old) with a person of 80 years of age, the first 100 million years in the universe would be similar to the first six months of the 80 year old person. That is, still a baby universe. These first stars were expected to be very massive (up to 1000 times the mass of the Sun) and luminous, and composed of basically two elements, Hydrogen and Helium (with traces of Lithium). Given the large size of these stars, they burn very rapidly (like a big fire) and do not live very long (compared with smaller stars like the Sun). After several millions of years these stars die. The death of stars represents one of the most important events for life, since it is then when elements such as Carbon, Oxygen, Iron etc are formed. Eärendel is not one of these first stars, but it could be a star formed from the ashes of these first stars after mixing with more Hydrogen. Eärendel is so far that the light we see from it now started its journey when the universe was still an infant (in Cosmological terms). If we compare again the age of the universe today with an 80 year old person, the light we see today from Eärendel was created when the universe was 5 years old, a universe coming out of its toddler years. The light from Eärendel has been traveling for almost 13000 million years before reaching our telescope (the Hubble Space Telescope to be more precise).

Eärendel and Gravitational Lensing

In its journey toward us, the light from Eärendel has crossed several structures. One such structure is the galaxy cluster WHL0137–08, at approximately 1/4 the distance between us and Eärendel. This cluster is a large collection of galaxies, gas and dark matter, and is so massive that it can bend the space around it. This bending of space makes the light traveling through the cluster to bend as well. The effect is known as gravitational lensing, and is similar to the bending of light when it crosses a dense transparent medium, such as a lens made of glass.

Eärendel is the small dot marked with an arrow. The arc where Eärendel is found is being magnified by a galaxy cluster.

This effect was predicted by Einstein and has been observed many times around very massive objects, like galaxy clusters. The gravitational lensing effect can significantly amplify the light of distant objects, making them detectable with current telescopes. This is exactly what is happening with Eärendel. Without he gravitational lensing effect, we could not have observed Eärendel, but thanks to the amplification from the galaxy cluster, we observe Eärendel thousands of times brighter than what we would have observed without this effect. Other stars at smaller (but still incredibly large) distances have been observed in the past thanks to this effect as well. In the past we have discussed the case of Icarus and more recently Godzilla. All these stars have in common the fact that we are seeing them thanks to the extra magnification provided by gravitational lensing that effectively transforms a relatively small telescope like Hubble into a much larger telescope with a mirror size typically 30 to 70 times larger. Telescopes of this size are impossible to build with current technology, even less if they have to operate from space, but gravitational lensing makes it possible to experience having such a gigantic telescope.

Stars like Eärendel, Icarus and Godzilla are extremely bright and rare but are offering unique opportunities to study the evolution of stars in the earlier epochs of the universe. Future telescopes like JWST working in conjunction with gravitational lenses will push the limits even further and will discover stars even more distant than Eärendel, reaching perhaps the first stars mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Link to research article in Nature and Press releases

A highy magnified star at redshift 6.2

Press release NASA

Press release ESA

Godzilla, a Monster Star

Godzilla is probably a star similar Eta Carinae, but much bigger and brighter.

Big stars are rare but make themselves obvious since they are very luminous. In our Galaxy, there are some massive and superluminous stars. For example Eta Cariane, shown in the illustration above, is a very massive star and among the most luminous in our Galaxy. The explosion-like appearance of Eta Carinae is the result of dramatic episodes in the past, where the star chokes on its own massive energy production and ejects large amounts of matter at great speeds from the outer layers in the star. One such eruption took place in the mid 19th century and is known as the Great Eruption. The eruption did not destroy the star which is still producing large amounts of energy. Other eruptions had taken place in the past. Typically every 300 years Eta Carinae has one of this epileptic episodes. During the last Great Eruption, Eta Carinae become one of the brightest stars in the sky for several years. Even though it is still one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way, due to its large distance to us, nowadays it appears much fainter than it was in the mid 19th century. It is expected that Eta Carinae will go through another violent episode like the Great Eruption, maybe the last one, hopefully not with a gamma ray burst associated to it and pointing to us, which would jeopardize life here on Earth. But that is another bed-night story…

Today we talk about another star like Eta Carinae, but which is much, much, much farther away. We name this star Godzilla because it truly is a Monster Star. At the moment of writing this post, Godzilla is in fact the farthest star ever observed by humans (that has been published in arxiv). This record will not last long, as in a couple of weeks we will announce the discovery of another star that is even further away (look for a press release by NASA/ESA on March 31st). But is fair to say that Godzilla is the most luminous star we have ever observed, and this record may hold for quite a long time.

Godzilla has been observed with several telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This star is in the famous Sunburst galaxy, at redshift 2.37, or in layman terms, this galaxy is almost at half the distance (comovil) to the edge of the observable universe (defined by the cosmic microwave background). Alternatively, the light from Godzilla took 10900 millions of years to reach us and the universe was 20% of its age when the light we see today left the surface of Godzilla. Since massive stars are like rock stars (live fast and die young), Godzilla is long dead, but we still see its light since it takes very long to reach us (10900 millions of years as mentioned above).

Godzilla is a unique star for several reasons. It’s luminosity is brighter but still comparable to that of Eta Carinae during the Great Eruption. That is, the light we are receiving now from Godzilla was emitted when Godzilla had an eruption, and temporarily increased its luminosity by a factor ~100 during a period of several years or decades. Since the universe is expanding, if a distant event has a duration of 1 year, when we observe it the duration is increased by a factor (1+z), where z is the redshift (z=2.37 for Godzilla). Hence, if the eruption in Godzilla lasts 10 years in Godzilla’s time, for us the same event will last almost 34 years. This effect is called time dilation, and you can experience it by yourself the next time you go to the airport. When you see one of the moving ways at the airport, walk (or better run) in the direction opposite to where the moving way moves. It will take you longer to reach the other end than if you cover the same distance walking (or running) outside the moving way. For light traveling through an expanding universe, the effect is somewhat similar since as the light travels (at the speed of light) the distance between Godzilla and the telescope increases.

The fact that Godzilla is so luminous is unique in its own way, but that alone would not make Godzilla the special star it is. We estimate there must be millions of stars like Godzilla in the universe but at the distances of Godzilla, these stars would still be too faint to be detected, even with powerful telescopes such as HST. In order to see them, one would need much larger telescopes. Building such enormous telescopes is beyond the reach of current technology but nature can be playful some times, and has offered us a way to emulate gigantic telescopes and tease our curiosity.

Godzilla. King of the Stars during an “episode” of intense activity

A giant natural telescope

Godzilla was discovered thanks to a natural gigantic telescope that happens to be perfectly aligned with our solar system. Pointing a telescope like Hubble towards this gigantic telescope allows us to see what lies behind with incredible resolution. The natural telescope is a gravitational lens, which works thanks to the bending of space predicted by Albert Einstein around massive object. This massive object is a big galaxy cluster with a mass many trillions of times the mass of the Sun. The galaxy cluster can amplify the light of objects which are placed in particular positions behind the cluster, the same way a regular magnifying glass magnifies more the objects which are closer to the central part of the lens. Godzilla happens to be placed in one of this very special locations and we estimate the magnification from the cluster is approximately a factor x3000. When observing with the Hubble telescope, the combined effect of Hubble plus the cluster is similar to having a telescope ~50 times larger, i.e a space telescope with a diameter of 120 meters! The largest telescope on Earth has a diameter of approximately 10 meters, and the largest telescope in space is the new JWST with a diameter of 6.5 meters. The next generation largest telescope planned for the next decade is the ELT with a diameter of 40 meters. The opportunities offered by these natural telescopes, or gravitational lenses, will not be matched by our technology for many decades. Hence they can offer a glimpse of portions of the distant universe with unprecedented detail. Godzilla happens to be in one of these very special positions so we can look through a pinhole of the vast cosmos where nature has placed one of this natural telescopes for us to take a pick.

Godzilla is just the first of many examples of Monster Stars with temporary eruptions that will be discovered through a similar technique. Other stars have been discovered in the past thanks to similar lucky alignments of natural telescopes (see for instance Icarus, the first of such stars) but Godzilla is an even more rare star due to its current activity. Exploiting the possibility offered by natural telescopes, we will soon discover more stars like Godzilla and start to study them in their different phases in order to understand how they evolve and eventually die (sometimes with a very energetic phenomena like a SN).

Link to the research article: https://arxiv.org/abs/2203.08158

Godzilla Poem I, by ChatGPT

In the vast expanse of space,
Where stars and galaxies race,
A creature awakens with a roar,
Its name, the mighty Godzilla.

With scales as tough as titanium,
And a strength that defies quantum,
This king of monsters stands tall,
Ready to fight and conquer all.

But amidst the starry sky,
Something catches its fiery eye,
A starburst cluster of light and heat,
A spectacle that’s hard to beat.

As Godzilla draws near,
He sees something that’s not quite clear,
A lens that warps the star’s bright flare,
A cosmic wonder beyond compare.

The monster gazes in awe,
At this breathtaking scene he saw,
A reminder that in the grand scheme,
Even he’s small, just a single beam.

And so Godzilla moves on,
His heart filled with wonder and song,
For even a creature so grand and bold,
Can still be humbled by the universe’s hold

Godzilla Poem II, by Bard

Godzilla star,

Lens of the Sunburst galaxy,

So bright and far.

Your light travels through time,

Reaching us from 10.9 billion light years away.

We are but a fleeting glimpse of your past.

Your sunburst glows,

A beacon of hope in the darkness of space.

We are drawn to your light, Like moths to a flame.

Godzilla star, We are grateful for your presence.

You remind us of the vastness of the universe,

And the beauty that can be found in the darkness.

The importance of Prior-itizing

The quest for lensed gravitational waves

We are all subject to personal biases, even when we try not to be biased. In Science, a popular tool to select among a variety of models is inspired on Bayesian theory. According to this theory, the most likely model is the one that offers the best description to the current data (i.e fits the data), and given by its likelihood, but also is consistent with previous knowledge on some of the parameters that are being fitted. Previous information is accounted for by a term known as the prior. Good priors result in fairs results. Biased priors often lead to the wrong conclusion.

In a recent paper, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration (LVC) studies the possibility that gravitational waves (GW) are being strongly lensed. If lensing is taking place, a fundamental prediction from gravitational lensing theory is that multiple occurrences of the same GW should take place, with a time separation between them of typically days to months. LVC presents a series of candidates which show high consistency with the lensing hypothesis, or in the Bayesian terminology, have a good likelihood of being pairs of images of the same GW. All these pairs are later discarded as possible lensed images based on the prior term, that heavily penalizes pairs of GWs separated by more than a few weeks. They finally concluded that lensing of GWs is unlikely, based on their final score.

Distribution of time delays of observed lensed quasars (orange) and gravitational waves (red)

This is however a conclusion that is obtained after adopting potentially bad priors. The LVC does not provide sufficient information regarding their prior, but in a recent study we show how the prior used by LVC is in tension with observations of time delays from real gravitationally lensed pairs of images. In fact, the distribution of time delays between the pairs of gravitational waves which LVC found to be good candidates to be strongly lensed, is consistent with the known distribution of time delays from quasars and from analytical models.

LVC finds that approximately half the events published in the O3 catalog can form pairs of lensed GW events (that is, there is another GW which shows high consistency in terms of GW parameters and sky localization, as predicted by lensing). As shown in the image accompanying this post, the separation in time between the two GWs forming the pair (solid red curve) is consistent with the known distribution of time delays (dashed orange curve). In the LVC analysis, pairs of GWs with time separations of approx 4 months are directly assigned a probability of zero, contradicting real observations where such time delays are possible. LVC concludes that none of their candidates to be pairs of gravitationally lensed GWs favours the lensing hypothesis, but this conclusion is biased by the adoption of a prior that intrinsically negates the possibility that realistic time delays are possible.

The use of a better (unbiased) prior does not necessarily mean that the opposite conclusion is true (ie. that lensing is favored), but it begs the question of whether the conclusions from LVC could have been reversed.

If you want to find more about this discussion you can check our latest work, or our earlier work where we present a model that predicts that gravitational lensing of GWs has already been observed.

The Kaleidoscopic Universe

In very few scientific fields, color matters more than in Astronomy. First photographic plates, and later CCDs, capture the light of distant objects by integrating during long exposures. When photons hit the CCD, small electric currents record the light intensity. Current CCDs working in the optical, UV and NIR range are basically insensitive to the “color” of the arriving light and filters need to be placed in front of the CCD to select the spectral range, or color, that wants to be studied. Often, these filters are “wide” in the sense that they allow a generous amount of light to go through (since distant objects tend to be faint), and the entire optical spectrum can be covered with 3 filters. However, their are situations where much narrower filters would be desirable. Astronomical objects tend to emit light in a combination of continuum (free-electrons being captured by the atoms) and spectral lines (electrons jumping between atomic levels). The spectral lines carry very valuable information about the conditions (like temperature and metallicity or abundance of elements heavier than Helium) that get diluted when observing the objects with wide bands. On the other hand, sufficiently narrow bands can resolve these spectral features.

Today (July 7th 2020) we published the first results of the J-PAS survey pathfinder (or miniJPAS). J-PAS is a narrow band survey of 15% of the sky, with an unprecedented number of narrow band filters (54). The image below shows the 54 narrow-band filters, plus 5 of the wide-band filters.

Using the narrow-band filters, J-PAS can identify features as the H-alpha line, or the 4000 Angstrom break, allowing for precise SED fittings and photometric redshifts of all galaxies in the catalog.

J-PAS will be particularly powerful at detecting rare objects with string emission lines. Chief among these, high redshift quasars, where the bright Lyman-alpha gets redshifted into the J-PAS spectral range, allowing for unambiguous estimation of the quasar redshifts. Earlier estimations suggest that J-PAS will be capable of detecting half a million quasars in the surveyed area.

The superior power of J-PAS to estimate photometric redshifts will open the door also to do tomographic studies and unveil the 3D structure of the galaxy distribution to unprecedented detail. Stay tunned for more. First light of the full scientific survey is expected to take place in late 2020 or early 2021. You can also find the first data release in J-PAS website and explore the images directly from your browser using the Sky Navigator

You can find the paper below and in this link https://arxiv.org/pdf/2007.01910.pdf

Is LIGO really seeing Mass Gap events?

The recent publication by LIGO of two events (GW190412 and GW190814) with high mass ratios, and with one of the masses close to the mass gap (that is, a mass between 3 and 5 solar masses which are difficult to explain with standard models) has created an intense debate on the nature of these objects. If confirmed, the implications of these observations are important since they can give us information about the equation of state of neutron stars (where one can study exotic forms of matter, such as axions or hyperons), or reveal a new type of black hole, including a leading dark matter candidate, primordial black holes.

However, a simpler alternative could be that these events are strongly lensed. Gravitational lensing can amplify the signal of observed gravitational waves, allowing their observation from much farther distances (and hence much larger volumes). In earlier work, we showed that if the rate of mergers (that produce gravitational waves) at redshift z>1 is sufficently high, observation of these distant events by LIGO is not only possible, but unavoidable. On fact, for rates larger than a few times 10^4 mergers per year and Gpc^3, lensed events will dominate over not-lensed events, in a similar fashion as lensed gravitational lensed IR galaxies dominated over not-lensed IR galaxies in the bright end of Herschel observations.

The left plot shows the prediction from our lensing model (colored circles) compared with the observations (squares and diamonds with error bars). All events concentrate around two locus regions. BBH and NSBH. Note how observations match perfectly the prediction.


Lensed gravitational waves get stretched due to cosmic expansion as they travel from their originating source to the detector. The farther the source is, the lager the stretch. The stretch is proportional to (1+z), where z is the redshift if the source. Higher z translates into gravitational waves that, when observed, appear as having a longer wavelength. If the gravitational wave is being magnified by strong lensing, and this magnification goes unnoticed (there is no way a priori to know if a gravitational wave is being magnified), the longer wavelength will be missinterpreted as being due to a larger mass of the two compact objects that ar causing the gravitational wave. For instance, if a neutron star with a mass of 1.3 solar masses is merging with a black hole of 12 solar masses (these are the typical masses found in our Galaxy for these objects) at redhift z=1, the observed gravitational wave will appear identical as the one from a much closer merger (z =0) with a neutron star of 2.6 solar masses and a blackhole with 24 solar masses. This example is not arbitrary since it was chosen to match the observed masses of the latest published gravitational wave event , GW190814, interpreted as being a local event (z=0), but which based on our interpretation could be also a lensed event at z=1 or z>1.

The lensing model interpretauon makes a series of interesting predictions, but among these, it is interesting to pay attention to the predicted mass ratio for binary black holes and neutron star black hole mergers. As shown in the figure illustrating this blog, lensing predicts these type of events will appear in the M1-M2 plane in two well defined regions. Interestingly, all observed data points so far agree remarkably well with this prediction. The two possible mass gap events are marked with a big yellow circle and follow well the predicted locus for lensed NSBH events. If confirmed, our lensing model would offer a simple solution to the mass gap problem, and would imply a much higher rate of events at z>1 that previously thought. 

You can see our full work below. A Fun Fact about this paper is that it was put “On Hold” by arxiv moderators after being submitted to arxiv on June 19 (Friday). After requesting an explanation from arxiv, none was given. At the time of our original submission, we where unaware of the upcoming publication, by the LIGO team, of the GW190814 “Mass Gap” event. The following week, in June 24 we saw in arxiv the LIGO paper with the values of M1 and M2 for GW190814. The same day, the “Hold” on our paper was lifted and we where able to just add the new data point to our figure (see point marked GW190814 in the figure above), before it appeared on arxiv the following day (June 25). I do understand (and support) the need for moderation in arxiv, but this process is far from transparent. The lack of communication and explanation of why papers are being put on hold, inhebitably leads to one suspect foul play, which is something that should be avoided at all cost, specially in portals such as arxiv, that makes research freely available. 


Link to paper https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.13219.pdf

Click to access 2006.13219.pdf

A Universe of extremes



Ever wondered how space looks like? This apparently silly question is actually one of the most fundamental questions in Science. Space (and time), the framework where everything we experience happens has some unknown structure on its most fundamental scale which we do not understand yet. On larger scales, the General Theory of Relativity tell us that space time and matter are closely interconnected.   One of the most revolutionary concepts of the 20th century was Esintein’s realization that the geometry of space is determined by the energy content of the Universe.

Thus, a very massive object can curve space around itself. If the object is massive enough, the curvature of space around it can be large enough so it can be measured. Nowadays, the curvature of space has been measured on scales ranging from planet solar system scales to the size of the observable Universe. On the largest scales, the Universe appears as having very small or no curvature. This is what one would expect if the size of the Universe were much larger than the size of the portion of the Universe we can actually observe. Think of yourself at a boat in the middle of the ocean and with a clear view of the horizon. If you measure the curvature of your portion of the Universe (that is, everything around you up to the horizon) you will conclude that the space is flat but if you were able to jump on a spaceship conveniently stored in your boat you will see that as you go higher and higher you can start to see the curvature of Earth. In a similar fashion, our limited view of a small portion of the Universe makes us erroneously believe that we live in a  flat Universe.

On the other hand, if you were to look from your boat not at the horizon but at the surface of the water, you would see waves in the water and conclude that on small scales, the water (the Universe) is not flat but it has regions with positive curvature and regions with negative curvature.  Similarly, the Universe on small scale has ripples in space, like the waves, that can be measured. But how?

Imagine now that you jump from the boat and go scuba diving. In your journey to the bottom of the  Ocean you look up and see a bright spot of light, the Sun. But the Sun looks different now. It does appear  to fade for an instant and then get brighter, and it repeats the same pattern of fading and brightening,  again, and again, and again.  This change in brightness of the Sun is a consequence of the curvature of the water (the waves) that, as they move on the surface, act as lenses focusing the light into your eyes during a small instant where you see a brighter Sun and one instant after the focus moves away from your eyes so you see the Sun fade. You have to wait for another wave to align with your eyes so they focus again the light into your eyes and so on. In theory, you could learn a lot from the waves by simply looking at the change in brightness of the Sun. By measuring how many times the Sun brightens every minute, you could estimate the number of waves (and their speed) that pass through a given point per minute. By measuring how much brighter the Sun is during a maximum than during a minimum,  you could say something about the shape of the waves. Are they tall waves that give you big differences between the maxima and minima or are they small waves where the change in flux is much smaller?

The curvature of space can be measured in a similar way. By looking at a bright distant object, if a massive object (a lens) moves between us and the bright object, it will curve the space around the massive object, the same way the wave curves the surface of the Ocean. The massive object will act as a lens (we call them gravitational lenses since the curvature of the space is proportional to the gravitational force of the object acting as a lens) and the bright object may brighten or fade as the massive object moves between us and the bright object. This technique is known as gravitational lensing. By measuring the change in brightness of the bright object we can learn things about the massive object acting as a lens. In particular, we can estimate the mass of that massive object.

Now, this is where things become more interesting. Having a reliable method to measure masses of distant objects is (one of ) the holy grail(s) in Astrophysics in general, and Cosmology in particular.  One of the biggest mysteries of Science (actually the biggest for some of my colleagues) is to understand the nature of dark matter. What is it made of? Is it even real or just a (huge) flaw in our models? One candidate for dark matter, which is  discussed in some of my earlier posts, is Primordial Black Holes (see this post for instance) or PBH for sort. If PBH account for a significant fraction of dark matter, they should be producing ripples in space that could be measured using the gravitational lensing technique mentioned above. In particular, as discussed in the post mentioned earlier, PBH with masses about 20 to 50 times the mass of the Sun are particularly interesting 1) because this is pretty much the only range of masses where PBH have not been excluded yet and 2) because LIGO is finding a surprisingly large  number of PBH in this mass range. Could it be that dark matter is made (at least part of it) of PBH? If enough PBH are moving around in the Universe, occasionally they may align with a bright object in the background so  the gravitational lensing effect would produce a change in the brightness of the object that could be used to measure the mass of the PBH. The chance of these alignments is however very small and it is very unlikely to witness one of these alignments (they can last a relatively sort period of time of a few days or weeks). However, we, astronomers, are great at gambling though, because we always cheat.

Instead of waiting for one of these rare alignments looking at a random bright object far away, we can search for these alignments in a place where we know the odds of observing one alignment are much bigger. These places are the caustics of large lenses, generally groups of galaxies or clusters of galaxies. In the Ocean analogy, imagine that while you are scuba diving and looking up at the Sun, a Tsunami moves on the surface of the Ocean. The Tsunami creates a giant wave extending over hundreds of meters. The giant wave acts as a giant lens collecting light from hundreds of meters and focusing all the light into a narrow line  that moves together with the Tsunami.This line is called a caustic (for its similarity with the caustics produced by regular lenses). When this line (or caustic) passes by you, you will see the Sun much brighter (in fact, it might blind you) than when the much smaller waves were focusing the lights. But if you look closer, you will see that the caustic is not a perfect line. Instead, the surface of the Tsunami is not perfectly smooth but it still contains small ripples (or microcaustics) caused by the smaller waves riding the Tsunami. If you count the number of microcaustics that travekl surrounding the big caustic of the Tsunami, you will find that the density of microcaustics is very high. The Tsunami is concentrating also the light from all the ripples (microcaustics) extending hundreds of meters into a small region near the caustic of the Tsunami. All the sudden, the odds of having one of those microcaustics aligning with your eyes is much higher when you look at the Sun through the Tsunami. In a real observation, the Tsunami would be a very massive object like a group or cluster of galaxies and the small waves, or ripples, would be the PBH (or other type of small objects like regular stars, stellar black holes or neutron stars). In 2016 we witnessed the first example of an alignment of a very bright star at a cosmic distance being magnified by a star or black hole in a galaxy cluster (see this previous post). Only a few days ago (June 5 2018) the same star went through another ripple and we expect more in the near future. By measuring the frequency of these alignments and studying in detail the way the brightness of the star changes as it moves through the ripple we expect to learn more about dark matter or at the very least, put a cross in another model as an invalid one.

The image accompanying this post shows a crowded field of microcaustics at the position were the caustic of cluster would be if there were no microlenses. If microlenses (PBH for instance) were not included in this simulation, there would be simple a horizontal bright line, the  caustic of the cluster of galaxies. In a recent paper we discuss this result in detail and estimate the probability of having this type of alignments using as bright background objects supernovae, very bright stars including Pop III stars and gravitational waves.

Follow this link to read the paper

Did LIGO really see massive black holes?

GW being emitted by a pair of black holes

The LIGO (and now Virgo) experiment has opened a new window to explore one of the most mysterious objects in nature, black holes (BH). When two black holes merge, they create a cataclysmic event that sends waves through the fabric of space itself and can travel cosmic distances. This is similar to an earthquake shaking Earth. These waves are known as gravitational waves (GW) and until 2015 they were just pure speculation as no experiment was ever able to detect them. Despite the tremendous amount of energy released when two BH merge (a binary BH merger), these waves, or ripples in space-time, are incredibly difficult to observe. The distortion  that a binary BH merger  in a nearby galaxy induces in space-time is minuscule when it reaches Earth. So minuscule that LIGO need to measure tiny shifts in the relative position between two mirrors which are several orders of magnituude smaller than the size of the smallest atom. This is an incredible achievement.  LIGO’s first detections of GW have brought a few surprises though. And they started with a bang!

The first event detected by LIGO in 2015 was interpreted as a heavier than expected binary BH merging in a  closer than expected galaxy. Similar events have been observed since raising several questions. Are these events more common than previously thought? Why have not we see them farther away if they are stringer than expected?  The mass of the individual black holes forming the binary BH were inferred to be approximately 30 solar masses each. Note that I say inferred because these masses could not be measured directly. What LIGO can measure with relative high precision is what is known as the observed chirp mass.  The intrinsic chirp mass is some combination of the two masses of the binary black hole. If both masses are similar, the chirp mass is similar to those masses as well. If the two masses of the binary BH are very different, the chirp mass will be a value in between these two masses (but closer to the mass of the lightest component). The observed chirp mass is related with the intrinsic chirp mass by the factor (1+z) where z is the redshift of the binary BH. The redshift is a measure of the distance so more distant objects have a larger redshift (our redshift is zero).  In other words, what LIGO can measure with good precision is Mo=Mc*(1+z) where Mc is the intrinsic chirp mass. Mo determines the frequency at which the GW is oscillating, a number that LIGO can estimate quite well. For that very first event, LIGO found that Mo had to be approximately 30 solar masses and that the distance was relatively small, that is z was close to zero. Hence, the intrinsic chirp mass (and mass of the individual BH before they merged)  had to be also close to 30 solar masses. This came as a surprise since many predictions made years earlier anticipated that such high values for Mo should be very rare. In fact, what was expected was to find values for Mo between 7 and 15 solar masses. This was in part motivated by observations of X-ray binary stars in our Galaxy, for which  it is possible to estimate the mass of the BH. An X-ray binary is a pair of closely orbiting  objects where one is a star and the other one is either a neutron star or BH. In this article we consider only the BH case. Roughly speaking, by measuring the amount of light emitting by the gas (from the star) spiraling towards the BH one can measure the mass of the BH.  In our Galaxy, the mass of about a dozen BH has been measured using this technique. The results show that the BH masses are between ~7 and ~14 solar masses. So far, no BH with a mass higher than 20 solar masses has been found in our Galaxy raising another, even more fundamental, question. Is our Galaxy special or is there something else we are missing regarding the BH masses and distances inferred by LIGO?

This is the question we address in our latest work. Owing to the degeneracy with the redshift described above, would it be possible that the intrinsic chirp mass was smaller if the redshift was higher? If the redshift is, let’s say z=1, instead of z~0 then, the intrinsic chirp mass could be a factor of two times smaller than the value inferred by LIGO (while keeping the observed chirp mass constant) bringing it into agreement with the BH masses observed in our Galaxy. There is one caveat though.  If the GW was originated in a galaxy far away at redshift z=1, instead of in a galaxy nearby (z~0), the intensity of the GW would have been much smaller than what LIGO observed. The intensity of the GW  is (to first order) the quantity that is used by LIGO to determine the distance. The observed intensity determined then that the inferred distance had to be relatively small. A mere few hundred Mpc instead of several thousand Mpc which would be the distance for a galaxy at redshftz~1 so one would conclude that the GW originated in a nearby galaxy and consequently, the intrinsic chirp mass had to be high. But this is the funny thing. Nature has interesting ways of playing with us. One of these ways is gravitational lensing thanks to which, an object that is far away may appear to us as if it were much closer (that is, it can amplify the intensity mentioned above). Note that I used the expression infer again when referring to the distance estimation by LIGO. This estimation is made under the assumption that gravitational lensing is not intervening. This is normally a good assumption since, after all, only a very small fraction of distant objects get (significantly) affected  by gravitational lensing. To be more precise, 1 in approximately 1000 or 10000 objects at redshifts larger than z=1 are substantially magnified by the gravitational lensing effect. Hence, is it still possible that a significant fraction of the LIGO events are distant lower mass events that are being magnified by gravitational lensing?  In our work we find that lensing can just make the trick. At large distances, the volume of the universe that is reaching us now (and by this I mean the volume where the light or GW we see now originated) is much  larger  than the corresponding volume at much smaller distances. To visualize this, imagine the volume of a shell of radius R. This volume goes like the square of the radius. So a large shell with a radius 10 times larger than a smaller shell will have 100 times the volume (if they both have the same thickness).  By precise calculations of the gravitational lensing effect over distant gravitational waves we prove that the massive and nearby events found by LIGO can in fact be interpreted as normal but more distant events with masses comparable to the ones found in our Galaxy. This solves the puzzle mentioned at the beginning of this article. Is our Galaxy special? And if it is not, where are the masses that LIGO claims is finding in nearby galaxies? The answer is that those masses would be the same in our Galaxy and in other galaxies. What is wrong is the interpretation of the observation since the amplification due to lensing has been ignored (this story is very similar to the puzzling first bright galaxies detected by Herschel that turned out to be all gravitationally lensed distant galaxies) .

So why has not anybody realized this earlier? That is a good question and the answer is not because people have not thought about this before. For our model to work, there is one little thing that sets our study apart from other similar attempts. As we mentioned earlier, at z~1, only one in a few thousand events could be magnified substantially by gravitational lensing. On the other hand, by observing more distant objects one is observing a larger volume, so one is observing more events. The gain in volume with respect to nearby distances is in the range of two orders of magnitude (more precisely about 1.5 orders of magnitude between z=0.1 and z=1 for a shell of thickness dz=0.1). This gain in volume is not enough to compensate the small probability of lensing at z~1 (1/1000 or less). A significant rate of lensed  events (enough to explain the rate of observed events)  can be obtained ONLY IF (and this is the little thing)  one increases the rate of intrinsic mergers at z=1 with respect to the rate at z=0. Such evolution in the intrinsic rate is expected and has been considered in the past. Our study shows that in order for the lensing mechanism to work and be able to explain the LIGO observations (with the troubling masses), the rate at z=1 needs to be more extreme than previously considered. This is not necessarily a problem since we simply don’t know what this rate is and also there are models that predict such rapid evolution in the intrinsic rate of events between z=1 and z=0 but, surprisingly, this type of strong evolution models were not considered in the past so the role played by lensing  was not recognized.

So then. Are we right? Are we wrong? Time will tell. After all, only one (if at all) of the many interpretations proposed to explain the LIGO massive events will be the correct one. An important aspect of any model is that it needs to be testable and this one is. If lensing is the culprit, at high magnifications one would expect a pair of images with similar magnifications and with a small time delay between them (hours to days depending on the lens mass, lens distance and relative source-lens-observer position).  LIGO detections don’t come in pairs (at least no such detections have been reported yet). If the time delay is several hours or days, it is possible that one of the two lensed events falls below the detection threshold of LIGO since the visibility (determined in part by the geometric factor in LIGO, a technicality whose explanation is beyond the scope of this article) may have changed substantially.  For simplicity, we can say that an event that is directly overhead the detector results in a significantly stronger signal-to-noise ratio than the same event near the horizon. Since Earth rotates once every 24 hours, a position in the sky (like the Sun for instance) can move from the zenith to the horizon in six hours. Hence, two identical GW originating in the same spot in the sky may have significantly different signal-to-noise if they are separated by approximately six hours. There is however a limit for how many times you may get the unlucky configuration that permits to hide one of the two images. Eventually two events should be observed that have virtually the same observed chirp mass and a distance estimate that is consistent with the uncertainties introduced by the geometric factor. The ratio of signal-to-noise between the two events should be compatible with the angle rotated by Earth during the time separation between the two events. Finally, the inferred location in the sky (derived from the time difference between detections in different observatories) should be also consistent with being the same for both events. Data mining of the LIGO data may unveil some of these missing events in the near future and confirm the lensing nature of the massive LIGO events.

Link to the publication

You can download the paper with our study in this link







Dark Matter under the microscope

Caustic_ColorDark matter remains one of the main unsolved problems in modern physics. Despite the growing evidence for its existence coming from astronomical observations, all efforts to detect it in a lab on Earth have failed. One possible candidate for dark matter that can not be detected on Earth (and let’s hope it stays like that) are primordial black holes (or PBH). This type of black hole was created during the first moments of the universe and may have survived till today. PBH are invisible (they don’t emit light, or extremely low amounts  if they are not very massive) and pretty much interact with the rest of the universe only through gravitational forces. This is basically the same behaviour as dark matter. Most types of PBH have been already ruled out but they can still exist in certain mass ranges (also, high spin PBH may not have been considered in detail in previous studies and may be harder to exclude). One of these possible  mass range is about 30 solar masses (think LIGO) and the second one is around the mass of a brown dwarf or a planet. A new type of observation may be able to prove these masses and rule out the possibility that PBH could be a sizeable fraction of the dark matter. This observation relies on caustic crossing events like the Icarus and Iapyx events observed in the galaxy cluster MACS1149. The interpretation of these events is that a very distant and luminous background star (z=1.55) is moving in a region that lies very close to  one of the caustics of the cluster (a caustic is a position which results in a large fraction of the light emitted from the star being focused to us at the focal point of the gravitational lens). As it moves, the light of the star gets amplified by the effect known as gravitational lensing. In its path to us, this light passes near stars (microlenses) in the galaxy cluster and the magnifcation changes depending on the distance to  the microlenses. Caustics are normally assumed to be smooth curves. In the presence of microlenses, caustics are disrupted like in the figure accompanying this post that shows a caustic being blown up by many PBH, each with 30 times the mas of the sun (without the PBH the caustic would resemble a single straight line instead of the web shown in the figure). We have studied this new type of observations and shown that through continuous monitoring of caustic crossing events it is possible to constrain the fraction of dark matter in the form of microlenses. So far, preliminary results do not favour an scenario where even a modest fraction of the dark matter ( a few percent) can be made of massive PBH (~ 30 solar masses).

You can read the scientific papers in the links below.

Observation paper

Theory paper


Seen stars in motion

A wise man said once that ; “A picture is worth a thousand words“. The wiser man replied, “A movie is worth a thousand pictures“. The movies below show a few examples on how the flux of the background star would change as the star moves across the field of microcaustics in the cases where only stars (and remnants) in the cluster act as microlenses and in the case where 1% of the dark matter is in the form of PBH with 30 solar masses each. For the first four movies the star is made unrealistically large in order to better see the effect (R=70000 solar radii). The magnification does not show large fluctuations as a consequence of this extreme radius.

Video 1) Icarus event with ICL stars

Video 2) Iapyx event with ICL stars

Video 3) Icarus event with ICL stars and 1% dark matter as PBH

Video 4) Iapyx event with ICL stars and 1% dark matter as PBH

An even higher resolution of the effect can be found in the two videos below where the resolution is increased by a factor ~30 and a more realistic star with 1000 Rsun is considered star (this is a typical radius for a giant star) . The first movie considers the more likely scenario where the direction of motion of the star with respect to the cluster caustic is at an angle. The movie considers an angle of 30 degrees but the result would be very similar at any angle larger than few degrees. The second case considers the special case (unlikely) where the motion of the star is aligned almost perfectly with the direction of the cluster caustic. In this case the star approaches the caustics through the cusps of the caustics producing a different pattern in the magnification. The caustic map is shown in the right panel of the movie with the position of the background star shown as a cross. For these movies we only consider microlenses from the intracluster medium (i.e, no PBH) and the central microlens has a mass of one solar mass.

Video 5) Star travelling at an angle with the caustic.

Video 6) Star travelling parallel to the caustic.

Similar movies but with just one microlens can be found in the two links below.In tehse movies, three nearby background stars cross the same caustic from a single microlens having M=1 Msun. The movies show how the same microlens can produce very different magnification patterns depending on the trajectory of the background star.

Video 7) Zoom in on Icarus side. Three stars travelling at an angle with a single microcautic from a microlens with M=1Msun

Video 8) Zoom in on Iapyx side. Three stars travelling at an angle with a single microcautic from a microlens with M=1Msun


You can read the scientific papers in the links below.

Observation paper

Theory paper







Where did the dark matter go?

Galaxias are supposed to be made mostly of stars, gas, dust and  … dark matter. Dark matter is the most mysterious substance in the Universe. We know HOW MUCH there is, we know WHERE it is, but we don’t know WHAT is it.  Dark matter has eluded detection by multiple experiments here on earth yet we continue gathering evidence of its existence on cosmological scales. Dark matter is responsible for the accelerated rotation of galaxies in the outer regions of these galaxies. It is also reponsible for the distribution of matter in the Universe on very large scales and also it is largely responsible for the so called gravitational lensing effect.  In galaxies, most of the mass is in the form of dark matter as evidenced by the rotational curves of galaxies that tell us ho much mass is inside a given distance from the centre of the galaxy. In some heavy galaxies, the amount of dark matter is so large that the space warps around these galaxies producing the optical illusion that another galaxy that is far behind these galaxies is seen in two, sometimes in three or more locations. This is the gravitational lensing effect predicted by the  general theory of relativity , thanks to which we can study the distribution of dark matter in these galaxies.


The most spectacular examples of the gravitational lensing effect can be found in galaxy clusters where the concentration of dark matter is greatest. Among the observations of the gravitational lensing effect, the recent Hubble Frontier Program is producing the best data around colliding galaxy clusters offering a unique opportunity to study dark matter (in a manner that tries to emulate particle accelerators that smash particles against each other).  In a recent work we use the gravitational lensing effect around a special type of galaxies, known as BCG (or Brightest Cluster Galaxy) and find something unexpected. Our results show that these particular galaxies have no dark matter at all (or a very small amount). Our study relies on two gravitationally lensed galaxies (marked with 7.2, 7.3, 19.1 and 19.2 in the figure above) that can be explained only if the two BCG galaxies in these cluster have most of their mass (if not all) in the form of stars and no dark matter (or very little). If these galaxies were normal galaxies, that is, having a significant amoount of dark matter , the two images shown above would be curved  towards the BCG galaxies, something that can be ruled by the observations. If confirmed, our findings would require new developments on galaxy formation  to explain this type of galaxies. We discuss several scenarios that could result on this type of galaxies. One of the most promising ones and that has not been explored sufficiently in the past is that these galaxies form as a consequence of cooling and not as the result of merging of several smaller galaxies. Future observations could confirm or reject this hypothesis but that will be a different story …

Link to paper: http://arxiv.org/abs/1609.04822





Gravitational waves (II)

LIGO has announced the detection of gravitational waves.

This is a remarkable achievement made possible after steady technological progress on detector technology. The detection of gravitational waves is relevant for different reasons. First, it confirms one of the main predictions made by General Relativity, that space itself can be shaped and dragged by massive objetcs such as black holes and that ripples in the space-time can be produced by such moving objects and move at the speed of light. This idea, that gravity “moves” at the speed of light and is not instantaneous like in Newtonian physics,  is what got Einstein in the first place to develop an alternative theory to the classical (Newtonian) gravitational theory. If gravity travels at the speed of light, its natural to think of it as a wave, similar to photons.  Although the curvature of space was long confirmed by observations of gravitational lensing, and the influence of massive bodies over time has been also confirmed (and applied to current technology like the GPS) the gravitational wave prediction remained elusive form the experimental point of view. Indirect confirmations was provided nearly half a century ago by the slowing down of the periods of a pair of orbiting neutron stars.

Web_NASA_binary star merger__gravitational_waves
Two stellar objects sipinning around each other and “radiating” gravitational waves. The two-black hole picture would be similar except we could not see the black hoes.


The discovery of gravitational waves is important also because ot opens a new window for research, not only of cataclismic events like the collision of two massive black holes but also for studying the origin of the Universe. A different type of gravitational waves (the primordial type), created right after the formation of our Universe are expected to be detected in the near future. A year ago, a claim was made about their detection but it turned out to be a false alarm. The technology to detects this primordial gravitational waves is however advancing at great speed and is just a question of time (1-5 years) till we can see the primordial gravitational waves. Once detected, they will give us valuable information about new phenomena, such as inflation, responsible for the structure of the Universe that we see today.