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  1. Abstract

    Analyses of pulsar timing data have provided evidence for a stochastic gravitational wave background in the nanohertz frequency band. The most plausible source of this background is the superposition of signals from millions of supermassive black hole binaries. The standard statistical techniques used to search for this background and assess its significance make several simplifying assumptions, namely (i) Gaussianity, (ii) isotropy, and most often, (iii) a power-law spectrum. However, a stochastic background from a finite collection of binaries does not exactly satisfy any of these assumptions. To understand the effect of these assumptions, we test standard analysis techniques on a large collection of realistic simulated data sets. The data-set length, observing schedule, and noise levels were chosen to emulate the NANOGrav 15 yr data set. Simulated signals from millions of binaries drawn from models based on the Illustris cosmological hydrodynamical simulation were added to the data. We find that the standard statistical methods perform remarkably well on these simulated data sets, even though their fundamental assumptions are not strictly met. They are able to achieve a confident detection of the background. However, even for a fixed set of astrophysical parameters, different realizations of the universe result in a large variance in the significance and recovered parameters of the background. We also find that the presence of loud individual binaries can bias the spectral recovery of the background if we do not account for them.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 29, 2024
  2. Abstract Evidence for a low-frequency stochastic gravitational-wave background has recently been reported based on analyses of pulsar timing array data. The most likely source of such a background is a population of supermassive black hole binaries, the loudest of which may be individually detected in these data sets. Here we present the search for individual supermassive black hole binaries in the NANOGrav 15 yr data set. We introduce several new techniques, which enhance the efficiency and modeling accuracy of the analysis. The search uncovered weak evidence for two candidate signals, one with a gravitational-wave frequency of ∼4 nHz, and another at ∼170 nHz. The significance of the low-frequency candidate was greatly diminished when Hellings–Downs correlations were included in the background model. The high-frequency candidate was discounted due to the lack of a plausible host galaxy, the unlikely astrophysical prior odds of finding such a source, and since most of its support comes from a single pulsar with a commensurate binary period. Finding no compelling evidence for signals from individual binary systems, we place upper limits on the strain amplitude of gravitational waves emitted by such systems. At our most sensitive frequency of 6 nHz, we place a sky-averaged 95% upper limit of 8 × 10 −15 on the strain amplitude. We also calculate an exclusion volume and a corresponding effective radius, within which we can rule out the presence of black hole binaries emitting at a given frequency. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 1, 2024
  3. 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. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2024
  4. Abstract We report multiple lines of evidence for a stochastic signal that is correlated among 67 pulsars from the 15 yr pulsar timing data set collected by the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves. The correlations follow the Hellings–Downs pattern expected for a stochastic gravitational-wave background. The presence of such a gravitational-wave background with a power-law spectrum is favored over a model with only independent pulsar noises with a Bayes factor in excess of 10 14 , and this same model is favored over an uncorrelated common power-law spectrum model with Bayes factors of 200–1000, depending on spectral modeling choices. We have built a statistical background distribution for the latter Bayes factors using a method that removes interpulsar correlations from our data set, finding p = 10 −3 (≈3 σ ) for the observed Bayes factors in the null no-correlation scenario. A frequentist test statistic built directly as a weighted sum of interpulsar correlations yields p = 5 × 10 −5 to 1.9 × 10 −4 (≈3.5 σ –4 σ ). Assuming a fiducial f −2/3 characteristic strain spectrum, as appropriate for an ensemble of binary supermassive black hole inspirals, the strain amplitude is 2.4 − 0.6 + 0.7 × 10 − 15 (median + 90% credible interval) at a reference frequency of 1 yr −1 . The inferred gravitational-wave background amplitude and spectrum are consistent with astrophysical expectations for a signal from a population of supermassive black hole binaries, although more exotic cosmological and astrophysical sources cannot be excluded. The observation of Hellings–Downs correlations points to the gravitational-wave origin of this signal. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 29, 2024
  5. Abstract The 15 yr pulsar timing data set collected by the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) shows positive evidence for the presence of a low-frequency gravitational-wave (GW) background. In this paper, we investigate potential cosmological interpretations of this signal, specifically cosmic inflation, scalar-induced GWs, first-order phase transitions, cosmic strings, and domain walls. We find that, with the exception of stable cosmic strings of field theory origin, all these models can reproduce the observed signal. When compared to the standard interpretation in terms of inspiraling supermassive black hole binaries (SMBHBs), many cosmological models seem to provide a better fit resulting in Bayes factors in the range from 10 to 100. However, these results strongly depend on modeling assumptions about the cosmic SMBHB population and, at this stage, should not be regarded as evidence for new physics. Furthermore, we identify excluded parameter regions where the predicted GW signal from cosmological sources significantly exceeds the NANOGrav signal. These parameter constraints are independent of the origin of the NANOGrav signal and illustrate how pulsar timing data provide a new way to constrain the parameter space of these models. Finally, we search for deterministic signals produced by models of ultralight dark matter (ULDM) and dark matter substructures in the Milky Way. We find no evidence for either of these signals and thus report updated constraints on these models. In the case of ULDM, these constraints outperform torsion balance and atomic clock constraints for ULDM coupled to electrons, muons, or gluons. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 29, 2024