skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 5:00 PM ET until 11:00 PM ET on Friday, June 21 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Title: A Light in the Dark: Searching for Electromagnetic Counterparts to Black Hole–Black Hole Mergers in LIGO/Virgo O3 with the Zwicky Transient Facility

The accretion disks of active galactic nuclei (AGNs) are promising locations for the merger of compact objects detected by gravitational wave (GW) observatories. Embedded within a baryon-rich, high-density environment, mergers within AGNs are the only GW channel where an electromagnetic (EM) counterpart must occur (whether detectable or not). Considering AGNs with unusual flaring activity observed by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), we describe a search for candidate EM counterparts to binary black hole (BBH) mergers detected by LIGO/Virgo in O3. After removing probable false positives, we find nine candidate counterparts to BBH mergers during O3 (seven in O3a, two in O3b) with ap-value of 0.0019. Based on ZTF sky coverage, AGN geometry, and merger geometry, we expect ≈3(NBBH/83)(fAGN/0.5) potentially detectable EM counterparts from O3, whereNBBHis the total number of observed BBH mergers andfAGNis the fraction originating in AGNs. Further modeling of breakout and flaring phenomena in AGN disks is required to reduce our false-positive rate. Two of the events are also associated with mergers with total masses >100M, which is the expected rate for O3 if hierarchical (large-mass) mergers occur in the AGN channel. Candidate EM counterparts in future GW observing runs can be better constrained by coverage of the Southern sky as well as spectral monitoring of unusual AGN flaring events in LIGO/Virgo alert volumes. A future set of reliable AGN EM counterparts to BBH mergers will yield an independent means of measuring cosmic expansion (H0) as a function of redshift.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
2034437 1831412 2219090 2108402
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
DOI PREFIX: 10.3847
Date Published:
Journal Name:
The Astrophysical Journal
Medium: X Size: Article No. 99
["Article No. 99"]
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. null (Ed.)
    ABSTRACT Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo are detecting a large number of binary stellar origin black hole (BH) mergers. A promising channel for accelerated BH merger lies in active galactic nucleus (AGN) discs of gas around supermasssive BHs. Here, we investigate the relative number of compact object (CO) mergers in AGN disc models, including BH, neutron stars (NS), and white dwarfs, via Monte Carlo simulations. We find the number of all merger types in the bulk disc grows ∝ t1/3 which is driven by the Hill sphere of the more massive merger component. Median mass ratios of NS–BH mergers in AGN discs are $\tilde{q}=0.07\pm 0.06(0.14\pm 0.07)$ for mass functions (MF) M−1(− 2). If a fraction fAGN of the observed rate of BH–BH mergers (RBH–BH) come from AGN, the rate of NS–BH (NS–NS) mergers in the AGN channel is ${R}_{\mathrm{ BH}\!-\!\mathrm{ NS}} \sim f_{\mathrm{ AGN}}[10,300]\, \rm {Gpc}^{-3}\, \rm {yr}^{-1},({\mathit{ R}}_{NS\!-\!NS} \le \mathit{ f}_{AGN}400\, \rm {Gpc}^{-3}\, \rm {yr}^{-1}$). Given the ratio of NS–NS/BH–BH LIGO search volumes, from preliminary O3 results the AGN channel is not the dominant contribution to observed NS–NS mergers. The number of lower mass gap events expected is a strong function of the nuclear MF and mass segregation efficiency. CO merger ratios derived from LIGO can restrict models of MF, mass segregation, and populations embedded in AGN discs. The expected number of electromagnetic (EM) counterparts to NS–BH mergers in AGN discs at z < 1 is $\sim [30,900]\, {\rm {yr}}^{-1}(f_{\mathrm{ AGN}}/0.1)$. EM searches for flaring events in large AGN surveys will complement LIGO constraints on AGN models and the embedded populations that must live in them. 
    more » « less

    Despite the increasing number of gravitational wave (GW) detections, the astrophysical origin of binary black hole (BBH) mergers remains elusive. A promising formation channel for BBHs is inside accretion discs around supermassive black holes, that power active galactic nuclei (AGN). In this paper, we test for the first time the spatial correlation between observed GW events and AGN. To this end, we assemble all sky catalogues with 1,412 (242) AGN with a bolometric luminosity greater than 1045.5erg s−1 ($10^{46}\, {\rm erg\, s}^{-1}$) with spectroscopic redshift of z ≤ 0.3 from the Milliquas catalogue, version 7.7b. These AGN are cross-matched with localization volumes of BBH mergers observed in the same redshift range by the LIGO and Virgo interferometers during their first three observing runs. We find that the fraction of the detected mergers originated in AGN brighter than $10^{45.5}\, {\rm erg\, s}^{-1}$ ($10^{46}\, {\rm erg\, s}^{-1}$) cannot be higher than 0.49 (0.17) at a 95 per cent credibility level. Our upper limits imply a limited BBH merger production efficiency of the brightest AGN, while most or all GW events may still come from lower luminosity ones. Alternatively, the AGN formation path for merging stellar-mass BBHs may be actually overall subdominant in the local Universe. To our knowledge, ours are the first observational constraints on the fractional contribution of the AGN channel to the observed BBH mergers.

    more » « less

    Merging black holes (BHs) are expected to produce remnants with large dimensionless spin parameters (aspin ∼ 0.7). However, gravitational wave (GW) observations with LIGO–Virgo–Kagra (LVK) suggest that merging BHs are consistent with modestly positive but not high spin (aspin ∼ 0.2), causing tension with models suggesting that high-mass mergers are produced by hierarchical merger channels. Some BHs also show evidence for strong in-plane spin components. Here, we point out that spin-down of BHs due to eccentric prograde post-merger orbits within the gas of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) disc can yield BHs with masses in the upper mass gap, but only modestly positive aspin, and thus observations of BHs with low spin do not rule out hierarchical models. We also point out that the fraction of binary black hole (BBH) mergers with significant in-plane spin components is a strong test of interactions between disc BBHs and nuclear spheroid orbiters. Spin magnitude and spin tilt constraints from LVK observations of BBHs are an excellent test of dynamics of BHs in AGN discs, disc properties, and the nuclear clusters interacting with AGNs.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    In 2017, the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave (GW) detectors, in conjunction with electromagnetic (EM) astronomers, observed the first GW multimessenger astrophysical event, the binary neutron star (BNS) merger GW170817. This marked the beginning of a new era in multimessenger astrophysics. To discover further GW multimessenger events, we explore the synergies between the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and GW observations triggered by the LIGO–Virgo–KAGRA Collaboration (LVK) detector network. TESS's extremely wide field of view (∼2300 deg2) means that it could overlap with large swaths of GW localizations, which often span hundreds of square degrees or more. In this work, we use a recently developed transient detection pipeline to search TESS data collected during the LVK’s third observing run, O3, for any EM counterparts. We find no obvious counterparts brighter than about 17th magnitude in the TESS bandpass. Additionally, we present end-to-end simulations of BNS mergers, including their detection in GWs and simulations of light curves, to identify TESS's kilonova discovery potential for the LVK's next observing run (O4). In the most optimistic case, TESS will observe up to one GW-found BNS merger counterpart per year. However, TESS may also find up to five kilonovae that did not trigger the LVK network, emphasizing that EM-triggered GW searches may play a key role in future kilonova detections. We also discuss how TESS can help place limits on EM emission from binary black hole mergers and rapidly exclude large sky areas for poorly localized GW events.

    more » « less

    Galactic nuclei are promising sites for stellar origin black hole (BH) mergers, as part of merger hierarchies in deep potential wells. We show that binary black hole (BBH) merger rates in active galactic nuclei (AGNs) should always exceed merger rates in quiescent galactic nuclei (nuclear star clusters, NSCs) around supermassive black holes (SMBHs) without accretion discs. This is primarily due to average binary lifetimes in AGNs that are significantly shorter than those in NSCs. The lifetime difference comes from rapid hardening of BBHs in AGNs, such that their semimajor axes are smaller than the hard–soft boundary of their parent NSC; this contrasts with the large average lifetime to merger for BBHs in NSCs around SMBHs, due to binary ionization mechanisms. Secondarily, merger rates in AGNs are enhanced by gas-driven binary formation mechanisms. Formation of new BHs in AGN discs is a minor contributor to the rate differences. With the gravitational wave detection of several BBHs with at least one progenitor in the upper mass gap, and signatures of dynamical formation channels in the χeff distribution, we argue that AGNs could contribute $\sim 25{\!-\!}80{{\ \rm per\ cent}}$ of the LIGO–Virgo measured rate of $\sim 24\, \rm {Gpc}^{-3} \rm {yr}^{-1}$.

    more » « less