Scientists have successfully recorded gravitational waves from two black holes colliding light-years away - now what?
Scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory made a massive discovery recently when they detected gravitational waves emanating from a 1.3 billion-year-old collision between two black holes. According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, the discovery has confirmed a prediction made by Albert Einstein himself in 1916, and could significantly change our understanding of the universe.
Einstein theorized that massive objects radiate energy as they accelerate or decelerate, which is carried away in the form of gravitational waves. The energy coming from the movement of these huge bodies creates wave-like ripples in the fabric of space and time, and until this year, scientists were unable to detect a specific instance of the waves.
In fact, scientists doubted their existence for a long time. They tried to explain it as a mathematical bug in a theory of the universe that otherwise ran smoothly. Einstein himself doubted that he could prove their existence when he first conceived of the idea in the early 20th century.
According to Alan Weinstein, a physicist at Caltech and a LIGO researcher, “Einstein’s general theory of relativity is a very mathematically complex set of equations. It’s hard to interpret them correctly. And in particular, there was for a long time the notion that gravitational waves were a mathematical fiction.”
After a series of unsuccessful attempts to demonstrate gravitational waves’ existence, the National Science Foundation funded the LIGO project that eventually led to the recent breakthrough. The project first began searching for gravitational waves in 2001, but underwent a series of upgrades until 2015 when it first detected something.
A detector in Louisiana first recorded the event in September 2015. 7 milliseconds later, a second detector in Washington State recorded the event. Based on this data, researchers were able to peer deep into the history of the universe and witness a stunning event.
The discovery of gravitational waves has allowed scientists to determine that two black holes with 36 and 29 solar masses, respectively, were spinning toward each other, eventually melding into a single body and emitting waves from the sky in the southern hemisphere.
The discovery is hopefully just the beginning. If two data points were able to create such a vivid image, imagine what the discovery of more could lead to. The LIGO project is extremely complex, and it may be some time before scientists are ready to fire the detectors up again. But continued improvements in technology will likely yield more fascinating breakthroughs in the future.