Letter | Published:

The first gravitational-wave source from the isolated evolution of two stars in the 40–100 solar mass range

Nature volume 534, pages 512515 (23 June 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The merger of two massive (about 30 solar masses) black holes has been detected in gravitational waves1. This discovery validates recent predictions2,3,4 that massive binary black holes would constitute the first detection. Previous calculations, however, have not sampled the relevant binary-black-hole progenitors—massive, low-metallicity binary stars—with sufficient accuracy nor included sufficiently realistic physics to enable robust predictions to better than several orders of magnitude5,6,7,8,9,10. Here we report high-precision numerical simulations of the formation of binary black holes via the evolution of isolated binary stars, providing a framework within which to interpret the first gravitational-wave source, GW150914, and to predict the properties of subsequent binary-black-hole gravitational-wave events. Our models imply that these events form in an environment in which the metallicity is less than ten per cent of solar metallicity, and involve stars with initial masses of 40–100 solar masses that interact through mass transfer and a common-envelope phase. These progenitor stars probably formed either about 2 billion years or, with a smaller probability, 11 billion years after the Big Bang. Most binary black holes form without supernova explosions, and their spins are nearly unchanged since birth, but do not have to be parallel. The classical field formation of binary black holes we propose, with low natal kicks (the velocity of the black hole at birth) and restricted common-envelope evolution, produces approximately 40 times more binary-black-holes mergers than do dynamical formation channels involving globular clusters11; our predicted detection rate of these mergers is comparable to that from homogeneous evolution channels12,13,14,15. Our calculations predict detections of about 1,000 black-hole mergers per year with total masses of 20–80 solar masses once second-generation ground-based gravitational-wave observatories reach full sensitivity.

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Acknowledgements

We are indebted to G. Wiktorowicz, W. Gladysz and K. Piszczek for their help with population synthesis calculations, and to H.-Y. Chen and Z. Doctor for their help with our LIGO/Virgo rate calculations. We thank the thousands of Universe@home users that have provided their personal computers for our simulations. We also thank the Hannover GW group for letting us use their ATLAS supercomputer. K.B. acknowledges support from the NCN grant Sonata Bis 2 (DEC-2012/07/E/ST9/01360). D.E.H. was supported by NSF CAREER grant PHY-1151836. D.E.H. also acknowledges support from the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago through NSF grant PHY-1125897 as well as an endowment from the Kavli Foundation. T.B. acknowledges support from the NCN grant Harmonia 6 (UMO-2014/14/M/ST9/00707). R.O’S. was supported by NSF grant PHY-1505629.

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Affiliations

  1. Astronomical Observatory, Warsaw University, Ujazdowskie 4, 00-478 Warsaw, Poland

    • Krzysztof Belczynski
    •  & Tomasz Bulik
  2. Enrico Fermi Institute, Department of Physics, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA

    • Daniel E. Holz
  3. Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York 14623, USA

    • Richard O’Shaughnessy

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All authors contributed to the analysis and writing of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Krzysztof Belczynski.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Cantiello and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18322

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