Searching for continuous gravitational waves

Permanent Max Planck Independent Research Group established at AEI Hannover

April 10, 2018

A permanent Max Planck Independent Research Group under the leadership of Dr. M. Alessandra Papa has been established at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute; AEI) in Hannover. The primary goal of the research group “Searching for continuous gravitational waves” is to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves from rapidly rotating neutron stars. It is the largest group worldwide dedicated to this topic and conducts the most sensitive searches for this kind of gravitational wave with the globally distributed volunteer computing project Einstein@Home. In addition to its permanent funding, the group will receive additional funds from the Max Planck Society for the first five years.

Charting a new continent

“With the first direct detections of gravitational waves from merging black hole and neutron star pairs, we have done the first steps into new astrophysical territory,” says Dr. M. Alessandra Papa, leader of the permanent Max Planck Independent Research Group. “But much of this new continent is still uncharted. While we do know that there are about a hundred million single neutron stars in our Galaxy, we only have identified about 3000 of them. We want to unveil this mostly invisible population by detecting their continuous gravitational-wave emission.”

The type of gravitational wave emitted by single neutron stars is very different from the signals already detected. Rapidly rotating neutron stars can emit much fainter but much longer duration (continuous) gravitational waves. Finding these waves is very difficult and limited by the amount of computing power available for the searches. This is because there are many unknowns to search over wide ranges: the star's sky position, its spin rate, and its deformation responsible for the gravitational-wave emission. The Einstein@Home volunteer computing project provides the lion's share of the required compute cycles for the state-of-the-art search techniques.

The most sensitive searches for continuous gravitational waves

The international group of over 15 scientists is part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and develops and implements the most sensitive searches for continuous gravitational waves from rapidly rotating neutron stars.

“The detection of continuous gravitational waves will allow us to observe these extreme stars via an entirely new physical mechanism, which would carry important new information about their unknown internal structure and composition, and their evolutionary history,” explains Papa.

M. Alessandra Papa (born 1967) studied physics at La Sapienza, University of Rome where she also obtained her PhD. She has been a postdoc at the AEI in Potsdam, at INFN in Frascati, and has held tenured positions as senior staff scientist at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and as group leader at AEI Potsdam. Since early 2018 she has established the permanent Max Planck Independent Research Group “Searching for Continuous Gravitational Waves” at the AEI in Hannover.

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