LIGO opens new windows into universe with third detection of gravitational waves

02 June, 2017, 02:02 | Author: Bridget Leonard
  • LIGO's third detection hints at how black hole binaries are born

LIGO has made three detections of gravitational waves since September 2015, with the third being announced today (June 1).

For just the third time ever, scientists have picked up gravitational waves, actual ripples in the fabric of space and time that were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago but never observed until previous year.

LIGO and Virgo are also working on technical upgrades for LIGO's next run, which is scheduled to begin in late 2018, during which the detectors' sensitivity will be improved.

Before colliding, the binary black holes spotted earlier this year weighed in at 19 and 31 times our sun's mass. The recent detection is the farthest one yet, with the black holes located about 3 billion light-years away.

Christopher Berry, of the University of Birmingham and a researcher on the project, said: "We're not just in this business to detect gravitational waves".

Astronomers have come up with two primary methods for how black holes come to exist in pairs, one suggesting that they are born together - from orbiting stars that explode to form orbiting black holes - and the other that the black holes form separately before their random, fateful encounter. It further reinforces the impression that black holes were once formed in great abundance in our universe and that they are colliding often enough for LIGO researchers to start reaching more general conclusions based on their properties.

Animation of the inspiral and collision of two black holes consistent with the masses and spins of GW170104. The team also used the detection to study how the individual black holes were spinning.

"We're really moving from novelty to new observational science, a new astronomy of gravitational waves", said David Shoemaker, a senior researcher at MIT and the spokesman for the 1,000-scientist global LIGO collaboration. In their first observation run O1, researchers identified a total of two signals, called GW150914 and GW151226, both from merging pairs of black holes.

The collision was so violent that some of the black holes' mass, equivalent to twice the weight of the sun, was converted directly into energy in accordance with Einstein's E=mc formula.


"Misaligned spins is exactly what one would expect from a cluster origin of the black-hole binaries", Portegies Zwart says. A second detection was made in December 2015.

Scientists call the gravitational waves "ripples in space and time".

"We have further confirmation of the existence of stellar-mass black holes that are larger than 20 solar masses-these are objects we didn't know existed before LIGO detected them", David Shoemaker, a physicist at MIT and spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said in a statement.

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration is an worldwide collaboration whose observations are carried out by twin detectors-one in Hanford, Wash., and the other in Livingston, La. -operated by California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology with funding from the National Science Foundation. Because of this global collaboration, dozens of researchers co-authored the findings, published Thursday in the journal Physical Review Letters. Gravity Spy engages thousands of "citizen scientists" in classifying these glitches, increasing the chances of success in the gravitational-wave search.

"The new event also provides new opportunities to test Einstein's theory of general relativity". 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. The clue comes in the form of spin information captured in the gravitational wave signal.

"It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such unusual and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us", Shoemaker said in a statement. Cadonati explained that while the two tornadoes may be rotating around each other, their individual spins may not be in the same direction. As he predicted (and scientists have since proven) gravitational waves are ripples in space-time created when massive objects either merge or blow apart.

LIGO is primarily funded through the National Science Foundation, and at a cost of $30 million per year, is one of the most expensive experiments bankrolled by the organization. LIGO is just starting to piece together this puzzle.

"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. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project.

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