Gravitational waves have been found, scientists say

Posted at 11:08 AM, Feb 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-11 11:08:21-05

Gravitational waves are a reality, according to scientists from an institution that has been hoping to observe them.

“We have detected gravitational waves. We did it,” said David Reitze, executive director of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

The discovery, based on ripples in space-time detected by LIGO, supports a prediction made by Albert Einstein that’s essential to his general theory of relativity. The ripples LIGO detected are based on the merging of two black holes, Reitze said.

“What’s really exciting is what comes next,” he said. “I think we’re opening a window on the universe — a window of gravitational wave astronomy.”

LIGO is described in a statement as “two identical detectors carefully constructed to detect incredibly tiny vibrations from passing gravitational waves,” one located in Louisiana, the other in Washington State. The project was created by scientists from Caltech and MIT and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Szabolcs Marka, a physics professor at Columbia University, told CNN that “we will be able to study not just Einstein’s general relativity — we’ll be able to find objects we only imagined would exist. We should see a universe that has never been observed before.”

Marka said to think of it as a “cosmic microphone,” an incredibly precise listening device that can detect distortions in space-time, the fabric of the universe. It’s so precise it can detect changes the size of a soccer ball in the entire Milky Way galaxy.

The discovery of gravitational waves is like opening another of our senses, Marka told CNN’s Rachel Crane: hearing the universe as well as seeing it.

“And when we hear the universe, we will learn about the secret life of black holes — their birth, their death, their marriage, their feeding. We will hear when a black hole eats a neutron star,” Marka said. “Nobody has ‘seen’ that before. We will not only understand it, we will ‘see’ it. It’s the most fascinating thing I can imagine.”

Indeed, black holes are a holy grail of the gravitational wave concept. To date, we’ve been able only to see their aftereffects — black holes themselves remain a conjecture. Discovery of gravitational waves would confirm their existence.

“It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves,” said Reitze. “Up to now we’ve been deaf to them.”