Gravitational waves may have been discovered, but we won’t know until scientists announce the detection at a press conference tomorrow. The waves, first predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity over 100 years ago, may fundamentally change how researchers look at the universe.
In a joint project funded by the National Science Foundation, scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) have been working on the discovery of these waves for the past several years. Their findings will be announced at a press conference on Thursday.
Gravitational waves disrupt the fabric of space and time when a colossal object, such as a black hole or neutron star, moves. Einstein said they are triggered by cataclysmic events in space and compared them to the ripples in a pond that form after a stone is thrown in the water.
LIGO researchers may have finally detected the waves, somewhat confirming rumors that have been circulating in the scientific community for several months, as reported by the Guardian. The team may have discovered the gravitational waves after the observation of the collision and fusion of two black holes traveling at close to the speed of light.
The two black holes, one 29 times more massive than the sun, the other 36 times more massive, collided and formed a new 200-mile-wide black hole about 62 times the mass of the sun. Scientists theorize roughly six trillion kilotons of mass, the equivalent of three suns, was changed into energy, then shot out as gravitational waves.
If scientists can really detect these waves, some of the greatest mysteries of the universe can be looked at in a new perspective, including the fusion of neutron stars and the activities of black holes. The LIGO team has detectors in Washington and Louisiana that reportedly measure very minute changes in two 4-kilometer-long pipes as gravitational waves pass through them.
Tuck Stebbins, Gravitational Astrophysics Lab Chief at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says the ability to identify gravitational waves will significantly expand our understanding of the universe.
“The driving force of the universe is gravity. These waves are streaming to you all the time and if you could see them, you could see back to the first one trillionth of a second of the Big Bang. There is no other way for humanity to see the origin of the universe.”
If confirmed, the discovery of these waves would allow astronomers to study the interior of stars and maybe even understand gamma rays, according to Catherine Man, an astronomer at the Cote d’Azur Observatory in France. Gamma rays are some of the most powerful explosions in the universe and scientists do not have a clear understanding of them.
“Now we are no longer observing the universe with telescopes using ultraviolet light or visible light, but we are listening to the noises produced by the effects of the gravitation of celestial bodies on the fabric of space-time, which could come from stars or black holes. And since the star or black hole does not stop these waves, which move at the speed of light, they come right to us and we can therefore make models… to distinguish and detect their signatures.”
Alberto Sesana, a researcher at the University of Birmingham’s Gravitational Wave Group, expects the scientists to announce a positive detection. However, since the claim cannot be confirmed by any other scientific instrument, they will have to be somewhat cautious about their evidence of gravitational waves.
Scientists claimed to have discovered gravitational waves in 2014, but further analysis found that the signals were actually interference caused by space dust. Although, most members of the scientific community expect the waves have truly been detected this time.
[Photo by ESA/Getty Images]