Gravitational Waves: One Year Later

One year ago, on September 14, 2015, scientists detected evidence of gravitational waves for the first time in history.  After months of verification, they announced the news on February 11, 2016.  The discovery supports physicist Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which surmises that a black hole could distort space, time and gravity.

The Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) relied on Agilent technology for its discovery.  Agilent custom ion pumps helped ensure the near-perfect vacuum necessary to detect an instrumentation change of one part in a thousand billion billion.

One year later, Business Insider has a fascinating interview with Vicky Kalogera and Imre Bartos, who work with LIGO.  The two physicists speculate about a new era of astronomy that has been enabled by gravitational waves.

Among the possibilities:

  • Since gravitational waves arrive at Earth before any related light does, scientists could detect supernovas (explosions of stars) hours before they’re visible to telescopes. This would enable us to point a telescope at a star before it explodes, then witness the event as it happens.
  • By watching a supernova unfold, scientists could “hear” the birth of a black hole, as the event emits gravitational waves in all directions. This would also enable us to learn more about the structure of a black hole, including its theoretical “event horizon” (the “point of no return” from which nothing – even light – can escape the black hole’s immense gravity).
  • Scientists may be able to examine currently mysterious cosmic objects, including binary black hole systems, neutron stars, and perhaps other objects that we don’t even know exist yet.

LIGO already detected a second occurrence of gravitational waves, discovered in December 2015 and announced in June 2016.  LIGO is currently installing an advanced system that may increase their discoveries by a tenfold or hundredfold over the next year.

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