First Detection of Gravitational Waves

By Paige Copenhaver

On February 11th, scientists from the Large Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first ever detection of gravitational waves. Analogous to ripples caused by throwing a rock into a pond, gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by the acceleration of massive objects in space. The collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away from Earth produced these waves, an event that was predicted but never observed until now.

Not only does this finding confirm Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, in which he predicted their existence in 1916, but it also marks the first detection of a system of two black holes as well as black holes merging together.

Eventually scientists will be able to better understand the Big Bang and other violent events of cosmic significance through studying gravitational waves emitted in the early stages of the universe. Additionally, the discovery provides a means to further investigate interesting space objects such as black holes and neutron stars. Finally, it marks one further step in the quest for a unified theory to combine gravity and quantum theory, which explains the nature of energy and matter seen in very small scales.

LIGO uses interferometer technology to measure various aspects of electromagnetic waves by shooting lasers into long, L-shaped tunnels. The scientists at LIGO designed the experiment in such a way that light from the lasers cannot be disturbed by any event on Earth, ensuring that any disturbance must be from gravitational waves in space.

Paige Copenhaver is an undergraduate studying Physics and Astronomy at the University of Georgia. When she is not studying solar-type stars, she can be found playing ukulele or reading Lord of the Rings. You can email her at pac25136@uga.edu or follow her on twitter: @p_copenhaver. More from Paige Copenhaver.