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

Click to access 2006.13219.pdf