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SCIENTISTS HAVE ANNOUNCED THE FIRST direct detection of gravitational waves on Earth by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). These elusive ripples in the fabric of space-time were first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. Yet until now, no instrument possessed the sensitivity needed to measure their incredibly subtle traces.
An international team of scientists made the major discovery shortly after LIGO was switched on in September 2015 following a multi-year upgrade. They published their findings online today in the journal Physical Review Letters.
What did the observatory's twin detectors, located in Louisiana and Washington State, see? They each recorded a tiny vibration suggestive of gravitational waves passing through our planet. (Click here to learn more about how LIGO's detectors work.) An analysis revealed the waves' source: two inward spiraling black holes that smashed together to form a single black hole. It was the first time scientists had ever witnessed such a cataclysmic, space-warping event.
The monumental findings will open up an entirely new era of scientific investigation. Otherwise unknowable details of some of the universe's most violent events—from neutron star and binary black hole mergers, to supernova explosions and even the Big Bang itself—should be revealed by the tell-tale gravitational waves they produce.
The Kavli Foundation spoke with three LIGO researchers, all part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology'sKavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, about how studying gravitational waves will push Einstein's theories to their limits and revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos at its extremes.
The participants were:
- Nergis Mavalvala – is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and the Associate Department Head of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and a member of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI). Her LIGO work focuses on the development of instruments for making precise measurements.
- Rainer Weiss – is a Professor of Physics, Emeritus at MIT and also a member of MKI. Rai was among the first to explore the kind of instrumentation necessary to detect gravitational waves and proposed the LIGO project with two colleagues in the 1980s.
- Matthew Evans – is an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT as well as a member of MKI. His work centers on gravitational wave detector science, including modeling and control of large interferometers like LIGO.