Welcome To A New Era Of Astrophysics
In case you missed it, the astrophysical community announced a discovery of unprecedented magnitude last week—the most profound of it’s kind since the finding of the cosmic background radiation in 1963.
A theory first put forth by Albert Einstein almost 100 years ago, postulating the existence of gravitational waves, has been officially confirmed by the members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). An announcement that will almost assuredly secure them a Nobel Prize in the field and forever cement their place in scientific history.
Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time caused by massive objects, traveling as gravitational radiation. These waves have proven unbelievably difficult to detect, hence the century gap between the first hypothesis and confirmation. The waves that Earth and other celestial bodies emit are relatively feeble, as far as force is concerned, constantly passing through and almost without a trace. For scale, these vibrations are smaller than the size of a single ato, and travel at the speed of light. Even with the most precise scientific equipment mankind can create, detection of gravitational waves requires an event of enormous mass and energy, which could emit vibrations far more powerful than anything in the nearby galaxies. The larger the mass of the object, the larger the effect.
Something like, I don’t know, the merging of two black holes.
Approximately 1.3 billion years ago two black holes collided in a massive event. In just 20 milliseconds, these black holes gave off energy equivalent to fifty times the power of every single star in the observable universe. The gravitational waves emitted by this merging warped space and time around it to such a degree, the effect was felt halfway across the universe all the way here on Earth—to a degree more powerful than anything previously detected.
Even with the significantly stronger gravitational waves, it took an instrument of the utmost precision to detect and register the results. The scientists at the facility used a LIGO detector, comprised of a series of mile-long tubes and powerful lasers, along with tons and tons (and tons) of math. The sensor on the LIGO detector is capable of picking up minute shifts less than one one-thousandth the width of an atom. And, after an upgrade in 2010 provided by the National Science Foundation, LIGO was capable of pinpointing gravitational waves up at distances of up to 225 million light-years.
What’s truly exciting about such a discovery are the possibilities that it opens up. Looking ahead, astronomers will be capable of creating instruments that observe gravitational waves in a variety of interactions. Just as X-Ray and radio technology did for the 20th century, this new lens from which to gather data and make observations will likely prove ripe with discoveries. Gravity and its many mysteries may finally begin to unravel.