From AAS NOVA: “Eccentricity, Spin, and the Origins of Colliding Black Holes”



6 November 2020
Susanna Kohler

Artist’s iconic conception of two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO Credit: LIGO-Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State /Aurore Simonnet.

The tally of merging black holes detected by the LIGO-Virgo gravitational-wave detectors continues to grow; the most recent data release brings the total to nearly 50 collisions! But how do these black-hole binaries form in the first place?

Still from a simulation showing how black holes might dynamically form as they interact in the chaotic cores of globular clusters. Credit: Carl Rodriguez/Northwestern Visualization.

Two Formation Channels

Before two black holes can collide in a burst of gravitational waves, they must first be bound together in an inspiraling binary pair.

There are two leading theories for how such pairs of black holes might arise in our universe. In isolated binary evolution, two massive stars of a stellar binary independently evolve into black holes. In dynamical encounters, single black holes pair up into binaries through gravitational interactions in the center of a dense, crowded star cluster.

Two Observational Clues

How can we determine which formation channel produced the black-hole binaries we’ve detected so far? Two observational signatures, in particular, could point to a dynamical merger:

1.Spin misalignment
Due to conservation of angular momentum, black holes in isolated binaries are expected to have aligned spins. Black holes that pair up via dynamical encounters, on the other hand, are likely to have random, misaligned spins.
2.Orbital eccentricity
If a binary evolves in isolation, any initial eccentricity is damped long before the black holes merge. In the dynamical scenario, however, the abruptly formed binaries can merge before their orbits have time to circularize.

Masses in the Stellar Graveyard GWTC-2 plot v1.0 BY LIGO-Virgo. Credit: Frank Elavsky and Aaron Geller at Northwestern University.

The vast majority of mergers we’ve detected so far have had gravitational-wave signals consistent with low-mass, spin-aligned binaries with circular orbits — preventing us from differentiating between the two formation channels. One recent merger, however, is a promising candidate for further study: GW190521.

One Intriguing Collision

GW190521 has set records as a heavyweight: the merging components were ~85 and ~66 solar masses. These unusually large black holes already hint at a dynamical formation for the binary: it’s easier to explain black holes of this mass if they grew via successive mergers in a dense stellar environment.

Now, a team of scientists led by Isobel Romero-Shaw (Monash University and OzGrav, Australia) has followed up on this clue, modeling the GW190521 signal with a variety of waveforms to explore the binary’s eccentricity and spin alignment.

Romero-Shaw and collaborators show that we can’t currently differentiate between two models: one with non-zero eccentricity and aligned spins, and the other with a circular orbit but misaligned spins. Both models, however, are highly favored over models with circular orbits and aligned spins — which means that a dynamical formation channel is likely for GW190521.

As LIGO-Virgo continues to amass detections, we may soon be able to build a statistical picture of how these black-hole binaries formed. But in the meantime, careful modeling of individual collisions like GW190521 are providing valuable insight.


“GW190521: Orbital Eccentricity and Signatures of Dynamical Formation in a Binary Black Hole Merger Signal,” Isobel Romero-Shaw et al 2020 ApJL 903 L5.

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition


AAS Mission and Vision Statement

The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the Universe.

The Society, through its publications, disseminates and archives the results of astronomical research. The Society also communicates and explains our understanding of the universe to the public.
The Society facilitates and strengthens the interactions among members through professional meetings and other means. The Society supports member divisions representing specialized research and astronomical interests.
The Society represents the goals of its community of members to the nation and the world. The Society also works with other scientific and educational societies to promote the advancement of science.
The Society, through its members, trains, mentors and supports the next generation of astronomers. The Society supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy.
The Society assists its members to develop their skills in the fields of education and public outreach at all levels. The Society promotes broad interest in astronomy, which enhances science literacy and leads many to careers in science and engineering.

Adopted June 7, 2009