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

January 2023 • 2023ApJ...942...99G

Authors • Graham, Matthew J. • McKernan, Barry • Ford, K. E. Saavik • Stern, Daniel • Djorgovski, S. G. • Coughlin, Michael • Burdge, Kevin B. • Bellm, Eric C. • Helou, George • Mahabal, Ashish A. • Masci, Frank J. • Purdum, Josiah • Rosnet, Philippe • Rusholme, Ben

Abstract • 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 a p-value of 0.0019. Based on ZTF sky coverage, AGN geometry, and merger geometry, we expect ≈3(N BBH/83)(f AGN/0.5) potentially detectable EM counterparts from O3, where N BBH is the total number of observed BBH mergers and f AGN is 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 >100 M , 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 (H 0) as a function of redshift.

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