Detection, localization, and characterization of gravitational wave bursts in a pulsar timing array

Lee Samuel Finn, Andrea N. Lommen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Efforts to detect gravitational waves by timing an array of pulsars have traditionally focused on stationary gravitational waves, e.g., stochastic or periodic signals. Gravitational wave bursts-signals whose duration is much shorter than the observation period-will also arise in the pulsar timing array waveband. Sources that give rise to detectable bursts include the formation or coalescence of supermassive black holes (SMBHs), the periapsis passage of compact objects in highly elliptic or unbound orbits about an SMBH, or cusps on cosmic strings. Here, we describe how pulsar timing array data may be analyzed to detect and characterize these bursts. Our analysis addresses, in a mutually consistent manner, a hierarchy of three questions. (1) What are the odds that a data set includes the signal from a gravitational wave burst? (2) Assuming the presence of a burst, what is the direction to its source? (3) Assuming the burst propagation direction, what is the burst waveform's time dependence in each of its polarization states? Applying our analysis to synthetic data sets, we find that we can detect gravitational waves even when the radiation is too weak to either localize the source or infer the waveform, and detect and localize sources even when the radiation amplitude is too weak to permit the waveform to be determined. While the context of our discussion is gravitational wave detection via pulsar timing arrays, the analysis itself is directly applicable to gravitational wave detection using either ground- or space-based detector data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1400-1415
Number of pages16
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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