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Alexey Petrov | WSU | USA

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“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves.”

The title says it all. Today, The Light Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory  (or simply LIGO) collaboration announced the detection of gravitational waves coming from the merger of two black holes located somewhere in the Southern sky, in the direction of the Magellanic  Clouds.  In the presentation, organized by the National Science Foundation, David Reitze (Caltech), Gabriela Gonzales (Louisiana State), Rainer Weiss (MIT), and Kip Thorn (Caltech), announced to the room full of reporters — and thousand of scientists worldwide via the video feeds — that they have seen a gravitational wave event. Their paper, along with a nice explanation of the result, can be seen here.

LIGO

The data that they have is rather remarkable. The event, which occurred on 14 September 2015, has been seen by two sites (Livingston and Hanford) of the experiment, as can be seen in the picture taken from their presentation. It likely happened over a billion years ago (1.3B light years away) and is consistent with the merger of two black holes, of 29 and 46 solar masses. The resulting larger black hole’s mass is about 62 solar masses, which means that about 3 solar masses of energy (29+36-62=3) has been radiated in the form of gravitational waves. This is a huge amount of energy! The shape of the signal is exactly what one should expect from the merging of two black holes, with 5.1 sigma significance.

It is interesting to note that the information presented today totally confirms the rumors that have been floating around for a couple of months. Physicists like to spread rumors, as it seems.

ligoSince the gravitational waves are quadrupole, the most straightforward way to see the gravitational waves is to measure the relative stretches of the its two arms (see another picture from the MIT LIGO site) that are perpendicular to each other. Gravitational wave from black holes falling onto each other and then merging. The LIGO device is a marble of engineering — one needs to detect a signal that is very small — approximately of the size of the nucleus on the length scale of the experiment. This is done with the help of interferometry, where the laser beams bounce through the arms of the experiment and then are compared to each other. The small change of phase of the beams can be related to the change of the relative distance traveled by each beam. This difference is induced by the passing gravitational wave, which contracts one of the arms and extends the other. The way noise that can mimic gravitational wave signal is eliminated should be a subject of another blog post.

This is really a remarkable result, even though it was widely expected since the (indirect) discovery of Hulse and Taylor of binary pulsar in 1974! It seems that now we have another way to study the Universe.

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