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Arizona Scientists: Gravitational Waves Offer New Way To Study The Universe

collision of two black holes
(Photo courtesy of SXS)
The collision of two black holes — an event detected for the first time ever by the LIGO — is seen in this still from a computer simulation.

Scientists have announced the detection of gravitational waves, only theorized until now. Arizona astronomers say the finding opens up a new way to observe the universe.

Gravitational waves are tiny ripples in space and time, in this case, caused by two massive black holes colliding. Proof of their existence was found by a pair of detectors called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory).

Brennan Hughey of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott is on LIGO’s team. Part of his job was to rule out other possibilities for the signal, such as earthquakes or lightning strikes.

“We’ve done a very rigorous job of ruling out any other thing that this could be, so I am quite confident that we’re looking at a gravitational wave,” he said. “It beautifully matches the predictions of general relativity.”

Einstein predicted gravitational waves a century ago. This finding confirms his theory.

It also opens up a whole new window into the cosmos, said Gerard van Belle of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

“This is a lot like if we had been able to visit with Galileo when he first turned the telescope to the sky,” he said. “When that tool first got turned on it revolutionized the field, and this is going to do the same here.”

Gravitational waves make it possible to study objects that don’t give off light, like black holes. They potentially can explain other mysteries, like how stars explode.  

Embry-Riddle scientist Michele Zanolin leads the group looking for gravitational waves given off by supernovae. Another Arizona scientist, Andri Gretarsson, contributed to LIGO’s design. 

The paper appeared Thursday in Physical Review Letters.

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Melissa Sevigny is a reporter at KNAU in Flagstaff.