Dennis Overbye

The LIGO observatory made history in 2016 when it detected gravitational waves from a pair of colliding black holes, proving the existence both of gravitational waves, a century after Einstein predicted them, and of black holes. The instrument consists of twin L-shaped antennas in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La.

Since then, LIGO has been joined in its exploration of the darkness by another antenna known as Virgo, in Cascina, Italy. The combined LIGO-Virgo Collaboration consists of about 2,000 scientists around the world. The alphabetical listing of their names and institutions takes up the first five and a half pages of the new paper.

The puzzling collision recorded last August was one of 56 possible gravitational wave events — most of which appear to be black hole collisions — detected during the observatory’s third run, which went from April 2019 until March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down most scientific activities around the world. The collaboration is still reviewing the data in an effort to analyze and confirm them.

Dr. Kalogera said that the event was exciting for several reasons. The ratio of the two colliding masses was the most extreme — nine to one — of the gravitational wave collisions that have been observed so far. Astronomers have difficulty imagining how such unmatched stars could get together in a binary double-star system to begin with.

“This is very hard for formation theories to explain,” she said.

The signal — a characteristic “chirp” caused by the colliding objects circling faster and faster as they approach their moment of ultimate doom — lasted about 10 seconds. “Due to the favorable circumstance of having observed such a loud signal with quite different component masses and for about 10 seconds, we achieved the most precise gravitational-wave measurement of a black hole spin to date,” Alessandra Buonanno, of the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany, said in a statement issued by the institute’s arm in Hannover, Germany.

A black hole’s spin carries important information about the birth and evolution of the black hole, Dr. Buonanno noted. In this case, it revealed that the black hole was spinning “rather slowly,” less than one-tenth the rate allowed by the strictures of Einstein’s theory.

Nobody had any immediate explanation or candidate for what kind of entity could fill this mass gap — a “dearth,” Dr. Kalogera called it — except to affirm that the calculations were robust.



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