First direct detection of a gravitational wave

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The science team from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced today that on September 14, 2015 they made the first direct detection of a gravitational wave, produced by the merging of two distant black holes.

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 three 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 at nearly 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. These are the gravitational waves that LIGO observed.

Because of the faintness of the wave signal, I suspect that the scientists involved have spent the last four months reviewing their data and the instrument very carefully, to make sure this was not a false detection. That they feel confident enough to make this announcement tells us that they think the detection was real.

Recently ESA launched Lisa Pathfinder, a prototype space-based gravitational wave detector designed to test the technology for building a larger in-space observatory that would be far more sensitive that LIGO. Funding for that larger detector has dried up, Today’s announcement will likely help re-energize that funding effort.

More information here.

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