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Posts Tagged ‘gravitational waves’

A faint ripple shakes the World

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Today, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO have proudly announced having detected the first faint ripples caused by gravitational waves. First predicted exactly one hundred years ago by Albert Einstein in the Theory of General Relativity, these gravitational waves, long believed to be too small to be seen, have at long last been detected.

In 1916, Einstein explained that gravitation is a distortion of space and time, as if it was a fabric that could be distorted by the presence of massive objects. An empty space would be like a taut sheet. Any object, like a ping-pong ball travelling in that space, would simply follow the surface of the sheet. Drop a heavy object on the sheet, and the fabric will be distorted. The ping-pong ball would no longer roll along a straight line but would naturally follow the curve of the distorted space.

A heavy object falling on that sheet would generate small ripples around it. Likewise, the Big Bang or collisions between black holes would also create ripples that would eventually reach the Earth.

These were the small disturbances LIGO was set to find. As explained in this excellent video, the scientists used an interferometer, that is, an apparatus with two identical arms as shown below. A laser (bottom left corner) emits a beam of light that hits a piece of glass (center). Half of the beam is reflected, half of it keeps going on. The two beams travel exactly the same distance (4 km), hit a mirror and bounce back.

LIGO-1

A light beam is a wave, and just like waves at the surface of water, it has crests and troughs. The arms length is such that when the beams return and overlap again, the two sets of waves are shifted with respect to each other, such that they cancel each other out. Hence, a detector placed at the bottom right corner would see no light at all.LIGO-2

Now imagine that a gravitational wave, produced by the collisions of two black holes for example, sweeps across the interferometer. The fabric of space would be stretched then compressed as the wave passes through. And so the length of the arms would change, shifting the pattern of crests and troughs. The two beams would no longer cancel each other. A light-sensitive detector would now detect some light that would pulsate as the gravitational wave sweeps across the apparatus.

The challenge is that any vibration caused by waves crashing on the shore, earthquakes, or even heavy traffic would disturb such an experiment by producing similar effects. So the laser beams travel in vacuum and the mirrors are mounted on shock-absorbing springs and suspended on fine wires to dampen any vibration by a factor of 10 billion.

To ensure a signal really comes from a gravitational wave and not from some other disturbance, LIGO used two identical laboratories located more than 3000 km apart in the USA, one in Louisiana, one in Washington State.

And here is the signal generated when two black holes, 50 km in diameter but 30 times more massive than the Sun, merged. This collision sent a gravitational wave that traveled for about a billion year before reaching the Earth on 14 September 2015. This wave changed the length of the 4-km arms by one thousandth of the size of a proton. A tiny ripple that lasted a mere 20 milliseconds, accelerating quickly before disappearing, exactly as General Relativity predicted.

Ligo-3

So when both instruments detected the same signal, the coincidence between the two left no doubt. It really was from gravitational waves. So far, the LIGO experiment only detected the classical part of these waves. We still do not know if gravitational waves are quantized or not, that is, if they come with a particle called the graviton.

For centuries, astronomers have used electromagnetic waves such as light to explore the Universe. Gravitational waves will provide a new tool to study it even further. Other experiments such as BICEP2 are already looking for the ripples left over from the Big Bang. What we will learn from these waves will be well worth the hundred-year long wait from their prediction to their discovery.

Pauline Gagnon

To learn more on particle physics, don’t miss my book, out this July.

To be alerted of new postings, follow me on Twitter: @GagnonPauline  or sign-up on this mailing list to receive an e-mail notification.

 LIGO-4

The LIGO interferometer in Hanford, Washington State, USA, with its 4km-long arms. ©NASA

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This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Thursday, April 9.

The Holometer is sensitive to high-frequency gravitational waves, allowing it to look for events such as cosmic strings. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The Holometer is sensitive to high-frequency gravitational waves, allowing it to look for events such as cosmic strings. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Imagine an instrument that can measure motions a billion times smaller than an atom that last a millionth of a second. Fermilab’s Holometer is currently the only machine with the ability to take these very precise measurements of space and time, and recently collected data has improved the limits on theories about exotic objects from the early universe.

Our universe is as mysterious as it is vast. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, anything that accelerates creates gravitational waves, which are disturbances in the fabric of space and time that travel at the speed of light and continue infinitely into space. Scientists are trying to measure these possible sources all the way to the beginning of the universe.

The Holometer experiment, based at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab, is sensitive to gravitational waves at frequencies in the range of a million cycles per second. Thus it addresses a spectrum not covered by experiments such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which searches for lower-frequency waves to detect massive cosmic events such as colliding black holes and merging neutron stars.

“It’s a huge advance in sensitivity compared to what anyone had done before,” said Craig Hogan, director of the Center for Particle Astrophysics at Fermilab.

This unique sensitivity allows the Holometer to look for exotic sources that could not otherwise be found. These include tiny black holes and cosmic strings, both possible phenomena from the early universe that scientists expect to produce high-frequency gravitational waves. Tiny black holes could be less than a meter across and orbit each other a million times per second; cosmic strings are loops in space-time that vibrate at the speed of light.

The Holometer is composed of two Michelson interferometers that each split a laser beam down two 40-meter arms. The beams reflect off the mirrors at the ends of the arms and travel back to reunite. Passing gravitational waves alter the lengths of the beams’ paths, causing fluctuations in the laser light’s brightness, which physicists can detect.

The Holometer team spent five years building the apparatus and minimizing noise sources to prepare for experimentation. Now the Holometer is taking data continuously, and with an hour’s worth of data, physicists were able to confirm that there are no high-frequency gravitational waves at the magnitude where they were searching.

The absence of a signal provides valuable information about our universe. Although this result does not prove whether the exotic objects exist, it has eliminated the region of the universe where they could be present.

“It means that if there are primordial cosmic string loops or tiny black hole binaries, they have to be far away,” Hogan said. “It puts a limit on how much of that stuff can be out there.”

Detecting these high-frequency gravitational waves is a secondary goal of the Holometer. Its main purpose is to determine whether our universe acts like a 2-D hologram, where information is coded into two-dimensional bits at the Planck scale, a length around ten trillion trillion times smaller than an atom. That investigation is still in progress.

“For me, it’s gratifying to be able to contribute something new to science,” said researcher Bobby Lanza, who recently earned his Ph.D. conducting research on the Holometer. He is the lead author on an upcoming paper about the result. “It’s part of chipping away at the whole picture of the universe.”

Diana Kwon

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