About 1.3 billion years ago, about 1.3 billion light years away, a black hole with a mass of 39 times that of our Sun, met a slightly smaller one with 26 times the mass of our Sun. The two merged into a single huge one 62 times more massive – wow. But wait, what about the other “three Suns?” The missing mass was turned into energy in the form of gravitational waves, a type that actually warps space time. Gravitational waves were just a theory – until today.

In the last post on Tek22, it was mentioned that the Laser  Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has been looking for theoretical gravitational waves for more than a decade. After a big upgrade to make it more sensitive that were completed in September, rumors started spreading that they had found something – and months later a press conference was scheduled for today, Thursday, February 11th. Remember the date – it is the date that scientists at LIGO announced that they had detected gravitational waves from the two black holes colliding. It is the date that will usher in a whole new scientific discipline: gravitational wave astronomy.

These waves were detected by two different LIGO facilities at precisely the right difference in time to account for the distance between the two. This revelation now opens the universe to be studied in a whole new spectrum of energy which will allow us to uncover some of the secrets it’s been hiding.

Until now, humans have been looking at the universe through a subset of available mediums. According to a New Yorker article on the discovery, Janna Levin, a professor of astrophysics, likened it to when movies went from being silent to having sound. It’s an apt comparison. LIGO is capable of detecting frequencies of gravitational waves that fall in a frequency capable of being detected by the human ear. They are just far too small to be heard. Can you imagine what someone would have heard had they been, say, a hundred light years away instead of 1.3 billion?

Posted by Darren Beyer

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