Scientists detect Einstein gravitational waves for a third time

Gravitational waves

A second gravitational wave observatory in Italy is scheduled to begin operations this summer and will enhance LIGO's ongoing studies. "We're really moving from novelty to a new observational science", said Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist David Shoemaker.

Scientists have observed one of the most powerful astronomical events ever seen - the collision of two giant black holes to form an even larger black hole.

The third detection has been described in a new paper accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. This marked the third time in about a year that physicists, thanks to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, discovered gravitational waves from the violent death spirals of merging black holes. Two times the mass of Earth's sun was converted directly into energy in a fraction of a second.

It's an important find because it confirms that black holes that size may be fairly common. This can shed light on the way the black holes might have formed. More observations with LIGO are needed to say anything definitive about the spins of binary black holes, but these early data offer clues about how these pairs may form. The black holes both spin around one another as well as spin on their own axes.

According to Bangalore Sathyaprakash of the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom, the relative orientations of the spin and orbital angular momenta of a binary black hole provide important information about how the system formed.

Furthermore, the implication is that "this finding lightly favors the theory that these two black holes formed separately in a dense stellar cluster, [traveled] to the core of the cluster and then paired up, rather than being formed together from the collapse of two already-paired stars", said Cadonati. In the second detection (GW151226), recorded previous year, there is some evidence that the spin of one of the black holes could be at an angle to the orbital angular momentum - but still have a component in the direction of the orbital angular momentum.

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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.

It was not a given that LIGO would be listening when the signal from the black holes arrived. For example, while general relativity predicts that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, some alternative theories of gravity predict that gravitational waves of different energies travel at different speeds. But detecting them is a major challenge.

The researcher immediately notified LIGO's detector operations, characterization, and data analysis working groups, which set to work further dissecting the signal.

"When an optical source potentially related to the LIGO event was discovered, the CZTI team joined hands with the global GROWTH collaboration to study it. But unlike a calm pond, spacetime is actually dynamic and so can stretch, curve and bend in response to mass and energy in the universe". The strength of the gravitational wave is indicated by the elevation of the bands, as well as color, with blue indicating weak fields and yellow, strong fields. "The moment I saw that, I think everything stopped for me", Nitz says.

According to McWilliams, there were four key areas of discovery in this latest detection of gravitational waves.

Each LIGO observatory features a pair of 2.5-mile-long vacuum tubes arranged in an L shape in which precisely tuned laser beams flash back and forth between multiple mirrors that effectively increase the distance each beam travels to almost 1,000 miles. But that was enough to change the pattern of the laser light where the two beams were recombined.

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On Jan. 4, 2017, at 10:11:58.6 UTC, a gravitational ripple was recorded passing through one of LIGO's detectors, in Hanford, Washington.

The resulting interference patterns allow scientists to compute the masses involved and, in some cases, how the initial black holes were spinning with respect to their orbital motion.

There are only two LIGO laboratories in the world, both located in the US.

And that's precisely what the LIGO researchers found in the three confirmed cases to date.

Most of the remaining mass - almost twice our sun's worth - cascaded out in a powerful burst of invisible energy: gravitational waves that took 3 billion earth years to reach us, and that passed right on by in a fraction of a second. "By combining results from the large number of events that LIGO will observe in near future, we will be able to perform stringent tests of Einstein's theory", Parameswaran Ajith, the Principal Investigator of the nine-member ICTS team in LIGO said. In terms of mass, that places this event in the middle of the two mergers that were identified during LIGO's previous run.

And there's always a chance a nearby supernova or merger might occur, one that would give space a major shake. The scientists used computational tools to narrow in on a likely set of parameters, such as a system's mass, spin, and orientation, that would produce a gravitational signal matching the one seen in the data.

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