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Title: The NANOGrav 15 yr Data Set: Constraints on Supermassive Black Hole Binaries from the Gravitational-wave Background
Abstract The NANOGrav 15 yr data set shows evidence for the presence of a low-frequency gravitational-wave background (GWB). While many physical processes can source such low-frequency gravitational waves, here we analyze the signal as coming from a population of supermassive black hole (SMBH) binaries distributed throughout the Universe. We show that astrophysically motivated models of SMBH binary populations are able to reproduce both the amplitude and shape of the observed low-frequency gravitational-wave spectrum. While multiple model variations are able to reproduce the GWB spectrum at our current measurement precision, our results highlight the importance of accurately modeling binary evolution for producing realistic GWB spectra. Additionally, while reasonable parameters are able to reproduce the 15 yr observations, the implied GWB amplitude necessitates either a large number of parameters to be at the edges of expected values or a small number of parameters to be notably different from standard expectations. While we are not yet able to definitively establish the origin of the inferred GWB signal, the consistency of the signal with astrophysical expectations offers a tantalizing prospect for confirming that SMBH binaries are able to form, reach subparsec separations, and eventually coalesce. As the significance grows over time, higher-order features of the GWB spectrum will definitively determine the nature of the GWB and allow for novel constraints on SMBH populations.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
2106552 1909933 2146016 2007993 1815664 2114721 2020265 2202388
Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Date Published:
Journal Name:
The Astrophysical Journal Letters
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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    The nanohertz gravitational wave background (GWB) is believed to be dominated by GW emission from supermassive black hole binaries (SMBHBs). Observations of several dual-active galactic nuclei (AGN) strongly suggest a link between AGN and SMBHBs, given that these dual-AGN systems will eventually form bound binary pairs. Here we develop an exploratory SMBHB population model based on empirically constrained quasar populations, allowing us to decompose the GWB amplitude into an underlying distribution of SMBH masses, SMBHB number density, and volume enclosing the GWB. Our approach also allows us to self-consistently predict the number of local SMBHB systems from the GWB amplitude. Interestingly, we find the local number density of SMBHBs implied by the common-process signal in the NANOGrav 12.5-yr data set to be roughly five times larger than previously predicted by other models. We also find that at most ∼25% of SMBHBs can be associated with quasars. Furthermore, our quasar-based approach predicts ≳95% of the GWB signal comes fromz≲ 2.5, and that SMBHBs contributing to the GWB have masses ≳108M. We also explore how different empirical galaxy–black hole scaling relations affect the local number density of GW sources, and find that relations predicting more massive black holes decrease the local number density of SMBHBs. Overall, our results point to the important role that a measurement of the GWB will play in directly constraining the cosmic population of SMBHBs, as well as their connections to quasars and galaxy mergers.

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    The data is provided in pickle format. Each file contains a NumPy array with the MCMC chain (with burn-in already removed), and a dictionary with the model parameters' names as keys and their priors as values. You can load them as

    with open ('path/to/file.pkl', 'rb') as pick: temp = pickle.load(pick) params = temp[0] chain = temp[1]

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