Published: Fri, June 02, 2017
Sci-tech | By Doreen King

Einstein gravitational waves detected for third time

Einstein gravitational waves detected for third time

Director France Córdova regarding news that researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves from a third pair of merging black holes 3 billion light-years away - the farthest distance yet.

"It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such odd and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us", Shoemaker said in a statement. The new detection, called GW170104, occurred during LIGO's current observation period that began November 30, 2016, and concluded in early May, according to a news release about the discovery issued through LSU. It confirmed the second wave in December 2015 at a distance of 1.4 billion light years.

The third detection was made on January 4 of this year, and is being reported today in a paper accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.

The observations mark the third occasion that scientists have spotted gravitational waves- the compression and stretching of space itself that was first predicted by Einstein. Like, you know, two black holes smashing into one-another, which produce more energy than all the light emitted by every single star in the galaxy put together at a given moment. Scientists traced the ripple 3 billion light-years away, back to two ancient black holes on a collision course. The team also used the detection to study how the individual black holes were spinning.

They also reveal more about the way in which black holes spin and move.

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Black holes are some of the most massive objects in our known universe, which pull in anything that gets too close, including light.

"The black holes are not necessarily lined up", said Professor Scott, of the Australian National University, one of several Australian universities involved in the research. One current problem in making those ties, the scientists noted, is that, while LIGO is able to reach increasingly far into space to suss out gravitational waves, it now has very little information on just where in the sky those waves are coming from.

"We're starting to gather real statistics on binary black hole systems", Keita Kawabe of Caltech said. The black holes in the first and second detections were located 1.3 and 1.4 billion light-years away. These ripples, called gravitational waves, can shrink and stretch anything in their path, although the effect at the Earth is imperceptibly small and very hard to observe. The black holes-which will ultimately spiral together into one larger black hole-are illustrated to be orbiting one another in a plane. This was a huge accomplishment and a bit of a surprise, as prior to that detection scientists didn't know that collapsing stars could form black holes that massive.

In the other model, the black holes come together later in life within crowded stellar clusters. "It's an important clue to understanding how black holes form". In this scenario, the black holes can spin in any direction relative to their orbital motion. Because LIGO sees some evidence the GW170104 black holes are non-aligned, the data slightly favor this dense stellar cluster theory. The UO's role was vital in the initial discovery and detailed in the story "Confirming Einstein's Theory".

The find, described Thursday in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made on January 4, about a month after the experiment was switched on for its second run of observation.

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"It is truly remarkable that, 100 years after the formulation of general relativity, we are now directly observing some of the most interesting predictions of this theory", said LIGO collaborator Robert Wald, the Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Physics at UChicago. They collaborate with computer scientists at Northwestern's Image and Video Processing Laboratory, the Zooniverse team at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, human-computer interaction experts at Syracuse University and LIGO scientists at California State University, Fullerton.

"Imagine two tornadoes that are going about each other", said Laura Cadonati, a Georgia Tech physicist and LIGO deputy spokesperson, during a press conference Wednesday. Before then, the detectors' sensitivity will be further improved. Soon the complementary Virgo detector is expected to come online in Italy, and in 2024 another LIGO detector is scheduled to start up in India.

The LIGO team working with the Virgo Collaboration is continuing to search the latest LIGO data for signs of space-time ripples from the far reaches of the cosmos.

LIGO - which is composed of two observatories located in Washington and Louisiana - was able to detect these ripples in space-time thanks to the extreme sensitivity of the instruments.

"It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such odd and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us", said David Shoemaker, spokesman for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration.

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Astrophysicists are now eager for LIGO to discover gravitational waves from other types of phenomenon, beyond black-hole mergers - for example, from the merging of neutron stars.

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