"With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe—objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples," says Kip Thorne, Caltech's Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, emeritus.
For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.
The gravitational waves were detected on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA. The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery, accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy) and the Virgo Collaboration using data from the two LIGO detectors.
These plots above show the signals of gravitational waves detected by the twin LIGO observatories at Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The signals came from two merging black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun, lying 1.3 billion light-years away.
The top two plots show data received at Livingston and Hanford, along with the predicted shapes for the waveform. These predicted waveforms show what two merging black holes should look like according to the equations of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, along with the instrument's ever-present noise. Time is plotted on the X-axis and strain on the Y-axis. Strain represents the fractional amount by which distances are distorted.
As the plots reveal, the LIGO data very closely match Einstein's predictions.
The final plot compares data from both detectors. The Hanford data have been inverted for comparison, due to the differences in orientation of the detectors at the two sites. The data were also shifted to correct for the travel time of the gravitational-wave signals between Livingston and Hanford (the signal first reached Livingston, and then, traveling at the speed of light, reached Hanford seven thousandths of a second later). As the plot demonstrates, both detectors witnessed the same event, confirming the detection.
Based on the observed signals, LIGO scientists estimate that the black holes for this event were about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, and the event took place 1.3 billion years ago. About 3 times the mass of the sun was converted into gravitational waves in a fraction of a second—with a peak power output about 50 times that of the whole visible universe. By looking at the time of arrival of the signals—the detector in Livingston recorded the event 7 milliseconds before the detector in Hanford—scientists can say that the source was located in the Southern Hemisphere.
According to general relativity, a pair of black holes orbiting around each other lose energy through the emission of gravitational waves, causing them to gradually approach each other over billions of years, and then much more quickly in the final minutes. During the final fraction of a second, the two black holes collide into each other at nearly one-half the speed of light and form a single more massive black hole, converting a portion of the combined black holes' mass to energy, according to Einstein's formula E=mc2. This energy is emitted as a final strong burst of gravitational waves. It is these gravitational waves that LIGO has observed.
The approximate location of the source of gravitational waves detected on September 14, 2015, by the twin LIGO facilities is shown on this sky map above of the southern hemisphere. The colored lines represent different probabilities for where the signal originated: the purple line defines the region where the signal is predicted to have come from with a 90 percent confidence level; the inner yellow line defines the target region at a 10 percent confidence level.
The gravitational waves were produced by a pair of merging black holes located 1.3 billion light-years away.
A small galaxy near our own, called the Large Magellanic Cloud, can be seen as a fuzzy blob underneath the marked area, while an even smaller galaxy, called the Small Magellanic Cloud, is below it.
Researchers were able to home in on the location of the gravitational-wave source using data from the LIGO observatories in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The gravitational waves arrived at Livingston 7 milliseconds before arriving at Hanford. This time delay revealed a particular slice of sky, or ring, from which the signal must have arisen. Further analysis of the varying signal strength at both detectors ruled out portions of the ring, leaving the remaining patch shown on this map
LIGO was originally proposed as a means of detecting these gravitational waves in the 1980s by Rainer Weiss, professor of physics, emeritus, from MIT; Kip Thorne, Caltech's Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, emeritus; and Ronald Drever, professor of physics, emeritus, also from Caltech.
"The description of this observation is beautifully described in the Einstein theory of general relativity formulated 100 years ago and comprises the first test of the theory in strong gravitation. It would have been wonderful to watch Einstein's face had we been able to tell him," says Weiss.
"Caltech thrives on posing fundamental questions and inventing new instruments to answer them," says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "LIGO represents an exhilarating example of how this approach can transform our knowledge of the universe. We are proud to partner with NSF and MIT and our other scientific collaborators to lead this decades-long effort."
"Our observation of gravitational waves accomplishes an ambitious goal set out over five decades ago to directly detect this elusive phenomenon and better understand the universe, and, fittingly, fulfills Einstein's legacy on the 100th anniversary of his general theory of relativity," says Caltech's David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory.
"This discovery is just the beginning," says Fiona Harrison, the Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics and holder of the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. "Over the next years, LIGO will be putting general relativity to its most stringent tests ever, it will be discovering new sources of gravitational waves, and we will be using telescopes on the ground and in space to search for light emitted by these catastrophic events."
The existence of gravitational waves was first demonstrated in the 1970s and 80s by Joseph Taylor, Jr., and colleagues. Taylor and Russell Hulse discovered in 1974 a binary system composed of a pulsar in orbit around a neutron star. Taylor and Joel M. Weisberg in 1982 found that the orbit of the pulsar was slowly shrinking over time because of the release of energy in the form of gravitational waves. For discovering the pulsar and showing that it would make possible this particular gravitational wave measurement, Hulse and Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993.
The new LIGO discovery is the first observation of gravitational waves themselves, made by measuring the tiny disturbances the waves make to space and time as they pass through the earth.
LIGO research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a group of more than 1000 scientists from universities around the United States and in 14 other countries. More than 90 universities and research institutes in the LSC develop detector technology and analyze data; approximately 250 students are strong contributing members of the collaboration. The LSC detector network includes the LIGO interferometers and the GEO600 detector. The GEO team includes scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, AEI), Leibniz Universität Hannover, along with partners at the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, the University of Birmingham, other universities in the United Kingdom, and the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain.
"This detection is the beginning of a new era: The field of gravitational wave astronomy is now a reality," says Gabriela González, LSC spokesperson and professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University.
The discovery was made possible by the enhanced capabilities of Advanced LIGO, a major upgrade that increases the sensitivity of the instruments compared to the first generation LIGO detectors, enabling a large increase in the volume of the universe probed—and the discovery of gravitational waves during its first observation run. The US National Science Foundation leads in financial support for Advanced LIGO.
"In 1992, when LIGO's initial funding was approved, it represented the biggest investment the NSF had ever made," says France Córdova, NSF director. "It was a big risk. But the National Science Foundation is the agency that takes these kinds of risks. We support fundamental science and engineering at a point in the road to discovery where that path is anything but clear. We fund trailblazers. It's why the U.S. continues to be a global leader in advancing knowledge."
"The Advanced LIGO detectors are a tour de force of science and technology, made possible by a truly exceptional international team of technicians, engineers, and scientists," says David Shoemaker of MIT, the project leader for Advanced LIGO. "We are very proud that we finished this NSF-funded project on time and on budget, and delighted Advanced LIGO delivered its groundbreaking detection so quickly."
At each observatory, the two-and-a-half-mile (4-km) long L-shaped LIGO interferometer uses laser light split into two beams that travel back and forth down the arms (four-foot diameter tubes kept under a near-perfect vacuum). The beams are used to monitor the distance between mirrors precisely positioned at the ends of the arms. According to Einstein's theory, the distance between the mirrors will change by an infinitesimal amount when a gravitational wave passes by the detector. A change in the lengths of the arms smaller than one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton (10-19 meter) can be detected.
Independent and widely separated observatories are necessary to determine the direction of the event causing the gravitational waves, and also to verify that the signals come from space and are not from some other local phenomenon.
A network of detectors will significantly help to localize the sources. The Virgo detector will be the first to join later this year.
The LIGO Laboratory also is working closely with scientists in India at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, and the Institute for Plasma to establish a third Advanced LIGO detector on the Indian subcontinent. Awaiting approval by the government of India, it could be operational early in the next decade. The additional detector will greatly improve the ability of the global detector network to localize gravitational-wave sources.
Virgo research is carried out by the Virgo Collaboration, consisting of more than 250 physicists and engineers belonging to 19 different European research groups: 6 from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; 8 from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; 2 in The Netherlands with Nikhef; the Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland, and the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO), the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy.
The Daily Galaxy via Kathy Svitil
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