Linking gravitational waves and X-ray phenomena with joint LISA and Athena observations


The evolution of cosmic structures, the formation and growth of the first black holes and the connection to their baryonic environment are key unsolved problems in astrophysics. The X-ray Athena mission and the gravitational-wave Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) offer independent and complementary angles on these problems. We show that up to about 10 black hole binaries in the mass range of approximately 105 to 108 solar masses discovered by LISA at redshift below about 3.5 could be detected by Athena in an exposure time up to 100 ks, if prompt X-ray emission of 1–10% of the Eddington luminosity is present. Likewise, if any LISA-detected extreme-mass-ratio inspirals occur in accretion disks, Athena can detect associated electromagnetic emission out to a redshift of about 1. Finally, warned by LISA, Athena can point in advance and stare at stellar-mass binary black hole mergers at redshift less than about 0.1. These science opportunities emphasize the vast discovery space of simultaneous observations from the two observatories, which would be missed if they were operated in different epochs.

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Fig. 1: Feasibility of joint GW/X-ray observations of MBHB mergers in the mass–redshift plane.
Fig. 2: Feasibility of joint GW/X-ray observations of a stellar-mass compact object spiralling into a massive companion.
Fig. 3: The discovery space in the total mass–redshift plane of joint GW/X-ray observations of stellar-mass binary black holes.

Data availability

The source data used in the figures are available on request from the corresponding author.


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S.McG. acknowledges the support of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC); A.S. is supported by a University Research Fellowship of the Royal Society; A.V. acknowledges support from STFC, UK Space Agency, the Royal Society and the Wolfson Foundation. We thank E. Barausse for providing the MBHB population models discussed in the text.

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Correspondence to Sean McGee.

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McGee, S., Sesana, A. & Vecchio, A. Linking gravitational waves and X-ray phenomena with joint LISA and Athena observations. Nat Astron 4, 26–31 (2020).

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