For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in
the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe, Caltech researchers said today.
The discovery confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915
general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
The waves were detected the morning of Sept. 14 by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The LIGO facilities are funded by the National Science Foundation, and were conceived, built and are operated by Caltech and MIT.
Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole.
This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed. “It’s a great day for gravitational physics,” David Reitze, research professor and executive director of the observatory, told KNX radio.
Based on the observed signals, LIGO scientists estimate the black holes that collided were about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, and the event took place about 1.3 billion years ago.
About 3 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. 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 into each other at nearly one-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. It is these gravitational waves that LIGO has observed.