A century ago, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his general theory of relativity, and new data from the National Science Foundation has confirmed they do indeed exist. It’s vindication for a brilliant mind who was years (and years and years) ahead of his time.
Physicists announced their unprecedented findings on Thursday, saying they were able to detect the gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which heard the faintest of chirps as they hit Earth.
The waves were observed on Sept. 14, 2015, and were officially confirmed on Feb. 11—the day we knew for certain that there are ripples in the fabric of space-time, produced by massive, accelerating bodies such as black holes and neutron stars. Scientists have been attempting to corroborate Einstein’s theory for the past 50 years, so today’s findings were a long time in the making.
The picture above is a great visualization of what gravitational waves are. In the artist’s depiction, you can see two binary neutron stars on the verge of colliding, sending ripples through space-time. The waves that were observed by physicists were the result of a supermassive black hole collision that occurred a whopping 1.3 billion years ago. Here’s a description from the New York Times:
One of them was 36 times as massive as the sun, the other 29. As they approached the end, at half the speed of light, they were circling each other 250 times a second.
And then the ringing stopped as the two holes coalesced into a single black hole, a trapdoor in space with the equivalent mass of 62 suns. All in a fifth of a second, Earth time.
Dr. Kip Thorne, of the California Institute of Technology, said the collision created a storm, “In which the flow of time speeded, then slowed, then speeded.” Thorne added, “A storm with space bending this way, then that.”
Scientists have long suspected gravitational waves to be real, but they always proved incredibly difficult to observe because of how minuscule they are. In fact, scientists estimated that a typical gravitational wave from way out in space is estimated to be about a billionth the diameter of an atom. LIGO was able to use high-powered lasers to detect the waves.
So what does this mean? Well, scientists can now observe darker corners of the universe, and study what it was like in its infancy.
“With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe—objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime,” Thorne explained. “Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples.”
You can read more about today’s announcement at the source link below. You can also listen to the chirp the gravitational waves made in the embed.