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What are gravitational waves? – Amber L. Stuver

Unveiling a Cosmic Mystery: The Impact of Gravitational Waves

  • Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by the movement of masses
  • They can be detected with instruments such as LIGO, which picked up a signal from two black holes colliding
  • Einstein’s Theory of Relativity imagines gravity as a curve in space-time, and masses create depressions in this surface
  • Gravitational waves move out from their source like ripples on a pond, getting smaller as they travel farther away
  • If we were able to sense them, we would feel stretched sideways and compressed vertically
  • LIGO has already revealed surprises about how often black holes collide.

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At about six o'clock in the morningon September 14, 2015,scientists witnessed somethingno human had ever seen:two black holes colliding.Both about 30 times as massiveas our Sun,they had been orbiting each otherfor millions of years.As they got closer together,they circled each other faster and faster.Finally, they collided and mergedinto a single, even bigger, black hole.A fraction of a second before their crash,they sent a vibration across the universeat the speed of light.And on Earth, billions of years later,a detector called the Laser InterferometerGravitational Wave Observatory,or LIGO for short,picked it up.The signal only lasted a fifth of a secondand was the detector's first observationof gravitational waves.What are these ripples in space?The answer starts with gravity,the force that pulls any two objects together.That's the case for everythingIn the observable universe.You're pulling on the Earth,the Moon, the Sun, and every single star,and they're pulling on you.The more mass something has,the stronger its gravitational pull.The farther away the object,the lower its pull.If every mass has an effecton every other mass in the universe,no matter how small,then changes in gravity can tell usabout what those objects are doing.Fluctuations in the gravitycoming from the universeare called gravitational waves.Gravitational waves move out from what caused them,like ripples on a pond,getting smaller as they travel fartherfrom their center.But what are they ripples on?When Einstein devised his Theory of Relativity,he imagined gravity as a curvein a surface called space-time.A mass in space creates a depressionin space-time,and a ball rolling across a depressionwill curvelike it's being attracted to the other mass.The bigger the mass,the deeper the depressionand the stronger the gravity.When the mass making the depression moves,that sends out ripples in space-time.These are gravitationl waves.What would a gravitational wave feel like?If our bodies were sensitive enoughto detect them,we'd feel like we were being stretched sidewayswhile being compressed vertically.And in the next instant,stretched up and down while being compressed horizontally,sideways,then up and down.This back and forth would happenover and overas the gravitational wavepassed right through you.But this happens on such a minute scalethat we can't feel any of it.So we've built detectors that can feel it for us.That's what the LIGO detectors do.And they're not the only ones.There are gravitational wave detectorsspread across the world.These L-shaped instruments have long arms,whose exact length is measured with lasers.If the length changes, it could be becausegravitational waves are stretchingand compressing the arms.Once the detectors feel a gravitational wave,scientists can extract informationabout the wave's source.In a way, detectors like LIGO arebig gravitational wave radios.Radio waves are traveling all around you,but you can't feel themor hear the music they carry.It takes the right kind of detector to extract the music.LIGO detects a gravitational wave signal,which scientists then study for dataabout the object that generated it.They can derive information, like its mass and the shape of its orbit.We can also hear gravitational wavesby playing their signals through speakers,just like the music a radio extractsfrom radio waves.So those two black holes collidingsounds like this.Scientists call this slide whistle-like noise a chirp,and it's the signature of any twoobjects orbiting into each other.The black hole collision was just one exampleof what gravitational waves can tell us.Other high-energy astronomical eventswill leave gravitational echoes, too.The collapse of a star before itexplodes in a supernova,or a very dense neutron stars colliding.Every time we create a new toolto look at space,we discover something we didn't expect,something that might revolutionizeour understanding of the universe.LIGO's no different.In the short time it's been on,LIGO's already revealed surprises,like that black holes collidemore often than we ever expected.It's impossible to say, but exciting to imagine,what revelations may now be propagatingacross spacetowards our tiny blue planet andits new way of perceiving the universe.