A century after being suggested by physicist Albert Einstein, researchers have made the first detection of gravitational waves -- massive celestial objects on the move triggering spacetime itself to ripple -- a historic finding that opens up a completely new way of studying the university.
The discovery was made by the twin LIGO interferometers on Sept. 14, 2015, situated in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash., after the system was significantly upgraded to boost its sensitivity.
Like radio waves, visible light, X-rays and other forms of electromagnetic radiation, Einstein believed that gravity also travels in waves. But even the most energetic events in the cosmos, such as two black holes crashing together, would cause only the slightest rippling through space and across time.
After decades of failed efforts, researchers fished out the first confirmed measurement of gravitational waves passing through Earth, a detection that needed measuring 2.5-mile long lasers beams to a precision 10,000 times smaller than a proton.
Since everything from traffic to earthquakes will distort the beams, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which was used to make the finding, consists of two detectors separated by 1,865 miles. Because gravitational waves are thought to travel at light speed, a detection from a cosmic source picked up at one LIGO site should be followed up by an identical detection in the other 10 milliseconds later.
That’s precisely what researchers saw when they fished out waves set off by a black holes 1.3 billion light-years from Earth spiraling toward each other and then colliding to form an even larger black hole, scientists said at a webcast press conference Thursday.
“The LIGO announcement describes one of the greatest scientific findings of the past 50 years. Gravitational waves have been a theoretical prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity for the past 100 years,” Cornell University astrophysicist Saul Teukolsky said in a stateFdiment.
Decades of work with supercomputers to produce models of what the gravitational waves would look like set the stage for the detection.
“Our theoretical predictions lie right on top of the experimentalists' measurements -- an exciting confirmation of general relativity,” Teukolsky said.
Just as light radiates in waves of different lengths, ripples created by gravity stretch space and time differently, similar to how a bowling ball rolling across a trampoline will warp the surface more than a baseball.
“You get electromagnetic radiation – basically light – when you move some sort of charged particles. It’s the same idea with a radio tower … charges go up and down the antenna. If you’re moving masses, instead of moving charges, you get gravitational waves,” NASA astrophysicist Ira Thorpe, with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Discovery News.
The longest gravitational waves were produced in the Big Bang explosion 13.8 billion years ago. Colliding black holes are the most powerful cosmic events since the Big Bang. The European Space Agency in December launched a pathfinder satellite to test a technique for fishing out longer wavelength gravity ripples in space. This groundbreaking research appears in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Article originally published on Discovery
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