12th February 2016
Gravitational waves detected for the first time
In a historical scientific landmark, researchers have announced the first detection of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity 100 years ago. This major discovery opens a new era of astronomy.
Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL
For the first time, scientists have directly 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 Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
The observation was made at 09:50:45 GMT on 14th September 2015, when two black holes collided. However, given the enormous distance involved and the time required for light to reach us, this event actually occurred some 1.3 billion years ago, during the mid-Proterozoic Eon. For context, this is so far back that multicellular life here on Earth was only just beginning to spread. The signal came from the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, in the rough direction of (but much further away than) the Magellanic Clouds.
The two black holes were spinning together as a binary pair, turning around each other several tens of times a second, until they eventually collided at half the speed of light. These objects were 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. As their event horizons merged, they became one – like two soap bubbles in a bath. During the fraction of a second that this happened, three solar masses were converted to gravitational waves, and for a brief instant the event hit a peak power output 50 times that of the entire visible universe.
The gravitational waves were detected 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 was published yesterday in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Prof. Stephen Hawking told BBC News: "Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the Universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionise astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging. Apart from testing General Relativity, we could hope to see black holes through the history of the Universe. We may even see relics of the very early Universe during the Big Bang at some of the most extreme energies possible."
"There is a Nobel Prize in it – there is no doubt," said Prof. Karsten Danzmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, who collaborated on the study. In an interview with the BBC, he claimed the significance of this discovery is on a par with the determination of the structure of DNA.
"It is the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves; it's the first ever direct detection of black holes and it is a confirmation of General Relativity because the property of these black holes agrees exactly with what Einstein predicted almost exactly 100 years ago."
"We found a beautiful signature of the merger of two black holes and it agrees exactly – fantastically – with the numerical solutions to Einstein equations ... it looked too beautiful to be true."
LIGO measurement of gravitational waves at the Hanford (left) and Livingston (right) detectors, compared to the theoretical predicted values.
By Abbott et al. [CC BY 3.0]
"Scientists have been looking for gravitational waves for decades – but we’ve only now been able to achieve the incredibly precise technologies needed to pick up these very, very faint echoes from across the universe," said Danzmann. "This discovery would not have been possible without the efforts and the technologies developed by the Max Planck, Leibniz Universität, and UK scientists working in the GEO collaboration."
Researchers at the LIGO Observatories were able to measure tiny and subtle disturbances the waves made to space and time as they passed through the Earth, with machines detecting changes just fractions of the width of an atom. 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 along tubes kept at 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 gravitational waves pass by the detector. A change in the lengths of the arms smaller than one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton can be detected; equivalent to a human hair's diameter over three light years from Earth.
"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. "We are very proud that we finished this NSF-funded project on time and on budget."
"We spent years modelling the gravitational-wave emission from one of the most extreme events in the universe: pairs of massive black holes orbiting with each other and then merging. And that’s exactly the kind of signal we detected!" says Prof. Alessandra Buonanno, director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam.
"With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvellous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe – objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime," says Kip Thorne, Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. "Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples."
Advanced LIGO is among the most sensitive instruments ever built. During its next observing stage, it is expected to detect five more black hole mergers and to detect around 40 binary star mergers each year, in addition to an unknown number of more exotic gravitational wave sources, some of which may not be anticipated by current theory.