Category: gravitational waves

Next Week, Scientists Will Finally Disclose Key Details About Gravitational Waves

Exciting News About Gravitational Waves

On Monday, October 16, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will host an event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC featuring researchers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo collaborations, along with scientists from approximately 70
observatories from around the world. Journalists are also invited to attend the event, which is intended to be the global reveal for new findings on gravitational waves.

First the scientists will discuss the new findings, which are from LIGO, Virgo, and various other observatories from all over the world. Next, telescope teams studying extreme cosmic events in partnership with the LIGO and Virgo collaborations will discuss their recent findings. The event will begin for the press and public at 10:00 a.m., EDT.

On September 14, 2015 the LIGO team first detected gravitational waves, a discovery that they announced in February of 2016. Gravitational waves are created (among other things) by the compacting and releasing of the fabric of spacetime as two black holes orbit each other in a dance of death. The first observed event confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity, via which he posited spacetime as a singular and unitary phenomenon, and was a milestone in astronomy and physics that would usher in a new field of gravitational-wave astronomy. Three more detections were confirmed since then, the most recent of which was the first joint LIGO and Virgo detection.

Solving Time-Old Mysteries

9 Physics Questions Baffling Scientists [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

Physicists from the LIGO project were recently awarded the Nobel for their work with gravitational waves. Their work detecting gravitational waves has permanently changed astronomy and physics, and not simply because it confirms Einstein’s theory of relativity. The detection of the waves will also offer insight into how the universe is expanding — insight that could never have been accessed without otherwise appealing to dark matter, a term that is ultimately a placeholder for a massive force of we-know-not-what that has long eluded the scientific community. Gravitational wave research is also likely to reveal the nature of dark matter.

Event organizers are asking journalists who wish to attend the event to RSVP as soon as possible to, and no later than noon EDT Friday, October 13. The National Press Club is located in Holeman Lounge at 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, in Washington, DC.

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New Gravitational Wave Research May Finally Reveal Mysterious “Dark Matter”

Black Holes and Revelations

Based on a new study, the same equipment that was integral to the work of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics — gravitational wave detectors — might be able to provide valuable insight into another enigmatic field of research: dark matter.

“The nature of dark matter is one the greatest mysteries in physics,” the study’s co-author Emanuele Berti noted in a University of Mississippi news release. “It is remarkable that we can now do particle physics – investigate the ‘very small’ – by looking at gravitational-wave emission from black holes, the largest and simplest objects in the universe.”

Berti and an international team of researchers produced calculations that suggest that some kinds of dark matter could form clouds around black holes. The going theory is that these clouds emit gravitational waves that could be detected by certain advanced equipment. “Surprisingly, gravitational waves from sources that are too weak to be individually detectable can produce a strong stochastic background,” explained co-author Richard Brito.

Based on their research, which has been published in Physical Review Letters, the scientists believe close analysis of data collected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) could confirm or deny the presence of ultralight dark matter.

Dark Matter Matters

Dark matter is estimated to be five times as abundant as ordinary matter, and yet, no one has been able to directly detect it. It has the potential to unlock all kinds of secrets about the universe, so the great amount of interest in this topic by scientists and astrophysicists isn’t surprising.

What Is Dark Matter?
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Already, this interest has led to new theories on the properties of dark matter and projects like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an immensely powerful digital camera set to go online in 2020. Recently released results from the Dark Energy Survey were even said to have the potential to rewrite physics as we know it.

If Berti and the rest of his team are correct in their belief that gravitational wave detectors will allow us to finally “see” dark matter, the implications would be tremendous. As Brito noted, “This is a new, exciting frontier in astroparticle physics that could shed light on our understanding of the microscopic universe.”

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The Nobel Prize Was Just Awarded for the Discovery Of “Ripples” in Spacetime

The Discovery of the Decade

Though Albert Einstein predicted their existence more than a century ago, gravitational waves remained theoretical until last year when they were finally detected by researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

The three physicists responsible for the creation of LIGO — Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Rainer Weiss and California Institute of Technology’s (Caltech) Kip Thorne and Barry Barish — have now been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery, which the Royal Swedish Academy claims “shook the world.”

Indeed, gravitational waves shake the world both literally and figuratively. The “ripples” in spacetime detected by LIGO were the result of a collision between two black holes some 1.3 billion years ago in a rather distant galaxy.

By the time they reach Earth, gravitational waves are already very weak, and detecting them requires the use of extremely specialized instruments called laser interferometers. Although observed for the first time in September 2015, LIGO didn’t officially confirm their detection of gravitational waves until February 2016 as the researchers wanted to be certain of their discovery.

Pushing the Boundaries of Physics

The detection of gravitational waves has changed astrophysics forever, not just because it confirms Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but also because it illustrates our ability to observe the universe in a way that we’ve never done before. Thanks to LIGO, we’re now able to “hear” the universe in a completely unique way. Gravitational waves give us a fresh appreciation and understanding of how the universe expanded and continues to expand.

9 Physics Questions Baffling Scientists [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

While the three new Nobel laureates were the pioneers of this work, making invaluable contributions to the LIGO project, this discovery was the product of decades of work by teams of researchers, and Thorne doesn’t want to take all the credit.

“It should go to all the people who built the detector or to the members of the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration who pulled off the end game,” he told The New York Times.

Thorne also expressed his astonishment at how the research followed the path he predicted decades ago. “For me, an amazing thing is that this has worked out just as I expected when we were starting out back in the ’80s,” he noted. “It blows me away that it all come out as I expected.”

Now that the technology is in place, Thorne expects to detect more gravitational waves in the coming years. “An enormous amount of rich science is coming out of this,” he said, and in fact, just last month, LIGO and Virgo astronomers detected their fourth spacetime ripple. Additionally, they now have the ability to accurately pinpoint the source of gravitational waves, adding to the precision with which we can observe this remarkable, world-shaking phenomenon.

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Scientists Detect New Gravitational Waves from a Black Hole Collision

New Gravitational Waves

Scientists announced this week that they have once again recorded gravitational waves, ripples in space-time, from a pair of black holes colliding 1.8 billion light years away. They recorded the event on August 14, the fourth time in the past two years that astronomers have detected and recorded such ripples from collisions of black holes. The scientists made the announcement in a Physical Review Letters paper, as well as at a G7 meeting of science ministers in Turin, Italy.

Image Credit: 12019/Pixabay
Image Credit: 12019/Pixabay

The August collision involved a black hole with a mass of about 31 times that of the Sun, and another with 25 solar masses. Once the two crashed, they created a black hole with a mass of 53 solar masses. In line with earlier gravitational wave detections, the remaining three solar masses transformed into the gravitational waves the scientists detected. The August observations were the result of Virgo’s August 1 debut, a new gravitational wave detector in Italy built by the European Gravitational Observatory.

New Tools

Earlier detections of gravitational waves were made by LIGO, a pair of L-shaped antennas in Louisiana and Washington. Since LIGO first detected the waves in February 2016 — confirming Albert Einstein’s prediction and verifying the nature of black holes — the scientists working with LIGO have been searching for more insights into the universe. Although the newer Virgo antenna is only one-fourth as sensitive as the LIGO antennas, the network can now triangulate the sources of gravitational waves, allowing optical telescopes to search for any accompanying visible effects sparking in the night sky.

The astronomers will continue working to improve their instruments until fall of 2018 when their next observation run will begin. LIGO Scientific Collaboration spokesman David Shoemaker told the New York Times: “This is just the beginning of observations with the network enabled by Virgo and LIGO working together. With the next observing run planned for Fall 2018, we can expect such detections weekly or even more often.”

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Cosmic Census: There Could Be 100 Million Black Holes in Our Galaxy Alone

Enormous Mergers

In January of 2016, researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Caltech and MIT, LIGO is dedicated to studying the waves predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and caused by black hole mergers.

According to a new study by a team of astronomers from the Center of Cosmology at the University of California Irvine, such mergers are far more common than we thought. After conducting a survey of the cosmos intended to calculate and categorize black holes, the UCI team determined that there could be as many as 100 million black holes in the galaxy, a finding which has significant implications for the study of gravitational waves.

The study which details their findings, titled “Counting Black Holes: The Cosmic Stellar Remnant Population and Implications for LIGO“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Oliver D. Elbert, a postdoc student with the department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine, the team conducted an analysis of gravitational wave signals that have been detected by LIGO.

Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

More Questions

Their study began roughly a year and a half ago, shortly after LIGO announced the first detection of gravitational waves. These waves were created by the merger of two distant black holes, each of which was equivalent in mass to about 30 Suns. As James Bullock, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine and a co-author on the paper, explained in a UCI press release:

“Fundamentally, the detection of gravitational waves was a huge deal, as it was a confirmation of a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But then we looked closer at the astrophysics of the actual result, a merger of two 30-solar-mass black holes. That was simply astounding and had us asking, ‘How common are black holes of this size, and how often do they merge?’”

Traditionally, astronomers have been of the opinion that black holes would typically be about the same mass as our Sun. As such, they sought to interpret the multiple gravitational wave detections made by LIGO in terms of what is known about galaxy formation. Beyond this, they also sought to create a framework for predicting future black hole mergers.

From this, they concluded that the Milky Way Galaxy would be home to up to 100 million black holes, 10 millions of which would have an estimated mass of about 30 Solar masses – i.e. similar to those that merged and created the first gravitational waves detected by LIGO in 2016. Meanwhile, dwarf galaxies – like the Draco Dwarf, which orbits at a distance of about 250,000 ly from the center of our galaxy – would host about 100 black holes.

They further determined that today, most low-mass black holes (~10 Solar masses) reside within galaxies of 1 trillion Solar masses (massive galaxies) while massive black holes (~50 Solar masses) reside within galaxies that have about 10 billion Solar masses (i.e. dwarf galaxies). After considering the relationship between galaxy mass and stellar metallicity, they interpreted a galaxy’s black hole count as a function of its stellar mass.

A Common Occurrence?

In addition, they also sought to determine how often black holes occur in pairs, how often they merge and how long this would take. Their analysis indicated that only a tiny fraction of black holes would need to be involved in mergers to accommodate what LIGO observed. It also offered predictions that showed how even larger black holes could be merging within the next decade.

As Manoj Kaplinghat, also a UCI professor of physics and astronomy and the second co-author on the study, explained:

“We show that only 0.1 to 1 percent of the black holes formed have to merge to explain what LIGO saw. Of course, the black holes have to get close enough to merge in a reasonable time, which is an open problem… If the current ideas about stellar evolution are right, then our calculations indicate that mergers of even 50-solar-mass black holes will be detected in a few years.”

In other words, our galaxy could be teeming with black holes, and mergers could be happening in a regular basis (relative to cosmological timescales). As such, we can expect that many more gravity wave detections will be possible in the coming years. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how LIGO has made two additional detections since the winter of 2016.

With many more expected to come, astronomers will have many opportunities to study black holes mergers, not to mention the physics that drive them!

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There Are Missing Black Holes in Our Universe, but There’s a New Way to Find Them

Intermediate-Mass Black Holes

Over the years, astronomers have readily detected stellar black holes, which are relatively small and equal in mass to a few Suns or less, and supermassive black holes, which are equal in mass to millions of Suns. However, black holes of intermediate mass have notably eluded detection, prompting scientists to theorize why. New research suggests that intermediate-mass black holes might not have been discovered because they may not exist in our modern-day Universe for a very simple reason: the growth rate of black holes.

Scientists believe that stellar-mass black holes form when huge stars die and collapse inward. These are the “standard” black holes you might envision when you think of stars dying, or when you imagine the millions of black holes that dot our Universe. Supermassive black holes are those that form the hearts of large galaxies like our own Milky Way. To date, the oldest supermassive black holes found include a discovery from 2015 — a throwback to a much younger version of our Universe, when it was only about 875 million years old. The overall picture presented by our findings on supermassive black holes so far indicates that those early days of the Universe were friendlier for the formation of supermassive black holes, since matter was more concentrated in the much smaller Universe.

Image Credit: Ute Kraus/Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Ute Kraus/Wikimedia Commons
Notably absent in this picture of black holes in our Universe are intermediate-mass black holes of about 100 to 10,000 solar masses. Astronomers hope to be able to study these elusive creatures to better understand how supermassive black holes reach their incredible size and affect the Universe around them, but thus far they’ve been coming up with evidence that is mostly inconclusive. New research suggests that this may be an artifact of the growth rate of black holes.

Searching With Gravitational Waves

As scientists have continued to better understand the process of black holes engulfing stars, they’ve been able to observe the rate at which black holes grow. This has allowed them to estimate a growth rate of one solar mass per 10,000 years. While this is only an estimate, and they might grow even faster if they could consume dark matter or gas, assuming they consume solely stars and dense matter such as neutrons and white dwarfs, this speed should be fairly accurate. This means that even a small, stellar-mass black hole would grow far past the intermediate-mass stage within 10 billion years. Our Universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old, so if most black holes have had time to progress into the supermassive stage, they must also have started early in the Universe’s life.

Researchers also say that intermediate-mass black holes that exist right now might be hard to identify, as they may be in dense clusters of stars. This would mean that light produced by objects they consume is not especially noticeable, and can easily be mistaken for other phenomena. The solution to this, according to the new research, is to search not for light, but for gravitational waves.

In fact, the researchers point out that among the discoveries that the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (ELISA) mission planned for 2034 may make are gravitational waves generated by the collision of two intermediate-mass black holes. If ELISA can detect intermediate-mass black holes, we may be able to glean entirely new insights into the mysteries of their supermassive cousins, dark matter and energy, and how our Universe is expanding.

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Scientists Assert That Hidden Dimensions Might Exist in Gravitational Waves

Hidden Dimensions

String theory has predicted the existence of hidden dimensions, but scientists have yet to find them. However, new work from researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics of the Albert Einstein Institute (AEI) indicates that hidden dimensions could have an influence on something that physicists can detect: gravitational waves. If this is true, studying those ripples in space-time might be the key that unlocks the mystery of hidden dimensions.

The study explores the consequences extra dimensions could have on gravitational waves, and offers predictions about whether or not we might be able to detect their effects. “Physicists have been looking for extra dimensions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN but up to now this search has yielded no results,” second author of the study Dr. Gustavo Lucena Gómez said in a press release. “But gravitational wave detectors might be able to provide experimental evidence.”

The hunt for extra dimensions is a consuming one because of what is at stake. Tiny dimensions that are hidden due to their diminutive size are a core component of string theory, and among the most likely sources for a working theory of quantum gravity. Scientists have been pursuing a theory of quantum gravity because it would unify general relativity and quantum mechanics — a goal which continues to eluded physicists. That theory would be integral to our understanding of what happens inside black holes, how the Big Bang worked, and any other event that involves minuscule distance and huge masses.

LIGO And Gravitational Waves

Ever since LIGO first detected the gravitational waves emanating from a black-hole binary in September 2015, scientists have been looking for new ways to expand its use. LIGO has opened up a new area of astronomy, having detected stellar-mass black holes larger than 20 solar masses. LIGO has also given birth to LISA, the in-space manifestation of LIGO which will carry on the search for supermassive black holes and other phenomena.

The instant research clarifies a new role for LIGO’s observations of gravitational waves: we can use the tool not only to locate black holes, but also to more thoroughly research and explain gravity itself. For example, the relative weak force of gravity may be the result of interactions with hidden dimensions. The team suspects that hidden dimensions, if they exist, would both modify “standard” gravitational waves and cause additional waves above 1,000 Hz. It seems unlikely that we could observe the latter phenomenon (not from Earth, anyway) but introducing more than one detector into the mix might improve our chances.

The team will test this possibility starting with the next set of observations, which will be made by both LIGO detectors and the Virgo detector beginning in late 2018. So, if you’re feeling hopeful about an imminent discovery of quantum gravity, you’re not alone. These ongoing efforts to expand what LIGO does and increase its reach and detection ability are taking place because scientists are confident about finding what they’re looking for — and probably some surprises, too.

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Europe’s Space Program Will Launch a Gravitational Wave Hunting Spacecraft in 2034

LISA Launch Set

The ESA’s Science Program Committee met on June 20, and at the top of their agenda was addressing planning for the agency’s missions to come over the next 20 years — one of which will be a three satellite Laser Interferometer Space Antenna mission (LISA). The space antenna was designed to detect gravitational waves. The LISA mission has been selected to move forward and is set to launch in 2034.

The project uses the satellite trio to create a huge triangle in space. The satellites form the corners and lasers bouncing across the 2.5 million kilometers (1.55 million miles) between them form its sides. The triangle itself will follow Earth as it orbits the Sun. Meanwhile, the satellites will be sorting through an impressive array of cosmic noise to determine which signals are the most promising signs of supermassive black holes, and which are just false leads.

Starting Where LIGO Stops

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) first detected gravitational waves in September 2015, confirming its initial findings when the waves were detected again in June of 2016. By February of 2017, scientists learned that LIGO also produces the waves. Earlier this year, LIGO detected the waves for the third time. They appear to be from a supermassive black hole that’s 49 times larger than our sun.

LISA is taking the detection of gravitational waves to the next level by searching for supermassive black holes millions of times larger than those found by LIGO. LISA should also be able to give scientists enough lead time to observe the black holes with telescopes, enabling us to discover more about how these collisions work.

“We’ll be able to see signals for months, so we’ll have time to point all these other telescopes at that point in the sky to see if there’s any other signals coming from that area when the merger happens,” ESA’s senior advisor for science & exploration Mark McCaughrean told New Scientist.

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LIGO Just Detected the Oldest Gravitational Waves Ever Discovered

Gravitational Waves Revealing The Universe

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) just detected gravitational waves, ripples in time and space, for the third time. Two black holes collided, forming a huge black hole 49 times more massive than our sun, and this generated the waves. This kind of collision was also the cause of the waves detected previously by LIGO, although the masses of the black holes varied. This repetition of the discovery confirms that a new area of astronomy now exists.

“We have further confirmation of the existence of stellar-mass black holes that are larger than 20 solar masses — these are objects we didn’t know existed before LIGO detected them,” MIT’s David Shoemaker, a LIGO spokesperson, said in a press release. “It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such strange and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us. The entire LIGO and Virgo scientific collaborations worked to put all these pieces together.”

In September 2015, LIGO first directly observed these gravitational waves during its first run since receiving Advanced LIGO upgrades. The second detection followed in December 2015, and this latest detection, called GW170104, followed in January of this year. In each case, both of LIGO’s twin detectors perceived gravitational waves from the collisions of the black holes, but this latest observation does offer a few new pieces of information.

For example, it suggests which directions the black holes might be spinning in, and indicates that at least one of the black holes in the pair may not be aligned with the overall orbital motion. Scientists are hoping that they can learn more about how binary black holes form by making more LIGO observations.

Image Credit: S. Ossokine, A. Buonanno/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics
Image Credit: S. Ossokine, A. Buonanno/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

LIGO’s Future

This work is testing, and thus far providing proof for, the theories proposed by Albert Einstein. For example, the theory of relativity says that dispersion, the effect that happens as light waves in a physical medium travel at different speeds, cannot happen in gravitational waves. LIGO has not found any evidence of dispersion in gravitational waves, as predicted by relativity.

“It looks like Einstein was right — even for this new event, which is about two times farther away than our first detection,” Georgia Tech’s Laura Cadonati, the Deputy Spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), said in the press release. “We can see no deviation from the predictions of general relativity, and this greater distance helps us to make that statement with more confidence.”

Moving forward, the LIGO-Virgo team will keep searching LIGO data for any hint of gravitational waves emanating from the far corners of the Universe. The sensitivity of the detector will improve during the next run starting in late 2018 after researchers apply technical upgrades, hoping to see even more. Caltech’s David Reitze, the LIGO Laboratory’s executive director, said in the press release, “While LIGO is uniquely suited to observing these types of events, we hope to see other types of astrophysical events soon, such as the violent collision of two neutron stars.”

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Ripples in Space-Time Might Indicate That We Live in a Multiverse

Hunting for Extra Dimensions

As important as gravity is to us here on Earth, it is actually surprisingly weak in comparison to other fundamental forces in our universe, such as electromagnetism. In fact, as researchers struggle to unite quantum effects and gravity in single theories that make sense, they find that extra dimensions, usually with gravity, are implied.

However, theorizing the existence of these extra dimensions is much easier than actually proving that they exist. Scientists were hopeful that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) might reveal evidence of their existence. After all, the device gives them the ability to run specialized experiments searching for massive particle traces, microscopic black holes, and missing energy caused by the migration of gravitons to higher dimensions. So far, however, definitive proof has not been discovered with the LHC.

In their search for answers, researchers Gustavo Lucena Gómez and David Andriot at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany, have honed in on two strange effects: high frequency gravitational waves and the “breathing mode,” a modification of how gravitational waves stretch space.

The researchers calculated that extra dimensions should result in the creation of extra, high frequency gravitational waves. Unfortunately, we don’t currently have observatories that can detect frequencies in the range they predict, nor are any in development.

However, we do have the tech needed to observe the breathing mode. Space changes shape as it reacts to gravity passing through it. The breathing mode is seen when, in addition to stretching and squishing, space expands and contracts in reaction to additional gravitational waves. “With more detectors we will be able to see whether this breathing mode is happening,” Lucena Gómez told New Scientist.

Based on the researchers’ calculations, the additional waves at high frequencies would point decisively to extra dimensions. However, the breathing mode could have explanations beyond those theoretical dimensions, but its detection would be a significant clue pointing toward their existence.

Explaining Our Universe

Even without definitive proof, we’re making progress in our hunt for other dimensions. Since 2015, scientists have been able to observe gravitational waves, and because gravity probably exists in other dimensions, observing and analyzing the behavior of these waves under different conditions might provide clues about those extra dimensions. The existence of another dimension makes weak gravitational force more understandable — if gravity exists throughout all of these extra dimensions as well, it should be weaker.

The Evolution of Human Understanding of the Universe [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

Put another way, the existence of extra dimensions would allow for a coherent, comprehensive theory of the universe. It would also explain uncertainties about the nature of gravity. It would even put us on the road to explaining why the universe is expanding faster and faster. “If extra dimensions are in our universe, this would stretch or shrink space-time in a different way that standard gravitational waves would never do,” explained Lucena Gómez.

Proof of an extra dimension would be extraordinarily exciting for physicists working to explain the laws of the universe with a single, coherent theory. If we were able to reconcile the conflicts between quantum field theory and general principles of relativity, for example, things like antigravity, instantaneous communication and transport, transmutation of matter, and faster-than-light travel might all be possible. For now, we don’t have a definitive answer, but understanding the behaviors of gravitational waves would be a remarkable step in the right direction.

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New Theory Suggests We Could “Hear” Otherwise Undetectable Dark Matter Particles

An Axiom for Axions

As much as our understanding of the universe has grown over the past decade, we are still a few missing of the threads that make up the interstellar tapestry. Among other things, we’ve yet to understand what accounts for more than 25 to 27 percent of the mass and energy and 80 percent of the gravity in our observable universe. This Dark Matter, scientists believe, could be made up of particles that remain undetectable and largely unknowable for us.

However, scientists have recently put forward a new model to help us understand these particles — and possibly to “hear” them as well.

What Is Dark Matter?
Click to View Full Infographic

The dark matter particles of interest here are called axions, which are hypothetical subatomic particles that are very light, electrically neutral, and have eluded scientists for more than 40 years now. A team of researchers from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada proposed a theory that can help explain what these are and locate them.

To do this, they combined several of the craziest concepts in physics — such as Black Holes, Gravitational Waves, and dark matter. “The basic idea is that we’re trying to use black holes…the densest, most compact objects in the universe, to search for new kinds of particles,” researcher Masha Baryakhtar told Gizmodo.

Tuning In and Listening

Of course, it helps that gravitational waves — a fundamental part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — have been discovered and confirmed in 2016, providing a handle to work with. The theory Baryakhtara and colleagues developed, which was published in the journal Physical Review D, puts forward a way to understand black holes and axions by following a “gravity atom” model.

In this model, a black hole works like an Atom with axions as electrons. Atoms and electrons interact via electromagnetism, whereas axions interact with a black hole via gravity. Axions jump around a black hole, gaining and losing energy and releasing gravitational waves. As the black hole rotates, it supercharges the space around it, producing more axions through what’s known as a superradiance effect. This could produce 10^80 axions — as many as the total number of atoms in the entire universe.

Now, with the estimated abundance of axions, the researchers believe it’s possible to actually hear the hum of the gravitational waves produced by this atom-like behavior of the black hole-axion system. “You’d see this at a particular frequency which would be roughly twice the axion mass,” said Baryakhtar said in the Gizmodo interview. To detect these, scientists can rely on the very instrument that detected gravitational waves in the first place, giant detectors called Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).

These can be adjusted to tune in on axions. “With the current sensitivity we’re on the edge” of detecting axions, Baryakhtar explained. “But LIGO will continue improving their instruments, and, at design sensitivity, we might be able to see as many as 1000s of these axion signals coming in.”

Of course, this is still just theory, and theoretical physics is a tough field to work in. But instruments like LIGO are helping us understand the vast and largely unknown space outside of our world. Just as it’s helped discover gravitational waves, which previously existed only in theory, the LIGO may soon discover particles like axions. We may be entering a new era in physics.

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Suprise! LIGO Makes Gravitational Waves

Making Waves

It’s been almost a year now since the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the greatest scientific discovery of 2016. Though the first gravitational waves were actually detected in September 2015, it was only after additional detections were made in June 2016 that LIGO scientists finally confirmed that the elusive waves exist, solidifying Albert Einstein’s major prediction in his theory of relativity.

Now, the most sensitive detector of spacetime ripples in the world turns out to also be the best producer of gravitational waves. “When we optimize LIGO for detection, we also optimize it for emission [of gravitational waves],” said physicist Belinda Pang from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena according to a report in Science. Pang was speaking at a meeting of the American Physical Society last week, representing her team of physicists.

Gravitational waves are ripples that are produced when massive objects warp spacetime. They essentially stretch out space, and according to Einstein, they can be produced by certain swirling configurations of mass. Using uber-sensitive twin detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, LIGO is able to detect this stretching of space.

Once they realized they could detect gravitational waves, the physicists posited that the sensitivity of their detectors would enable them to efficiently generate these ripples, too. “The fundamental thing about a detector is that it couples to gravitational waves,” said Fan Zhang, a physicist at Beijing Normal University. “When you have coupling, it’s going to go both ways.” The LIGO team tested their idea using a quantum mathematical model and found that they were right: their detectors did generate tiny, optimally efficient spacetime ripples.

The world's most efficient gravitational wave broadcaster. Image credits: Matt Heintze/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab
The world’s most efficient gravitational wave broadcaster. Image credits: Matt Heintze/Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

Transforming Physics

Quantum mechanics says that small objects, such as electrons, can be in two places at once, and some physicists think that it’s possible to coax macroscopic objects into a similar state of quantum motion. According to Pang, LIGO and these waves could be just the things to make it happen.

Though that delicate state couldn’t be sustained for very long periods, any amount of time could give us added insight into quantum mechanics. We could measure how long it takes for decoherence to occur and see what role gravity might play in the existence of quantum states between macroscopic objects. “It’s an interesting idea, but experimentally it’s very challenging,” explained Caltech physicist Yiqui Ma, one of Pang’s colleagues. “It’s unbelievably difficult, but if you want to do it, what we’re saying is that LIGO is the best place to do it.”

Any added insight into quantum activity could not only help us build better quantum computers, it could completely revolutionize our understanding of the physical universe. LIGO is already in the process of receiving upgrades that will help it detect even fainter gravitational waves, and eventually, the plan is to build the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA), a gravitational wave observatory in space. Within the next decade, not only could LIGO be regularly detecting gravitational waves, it could also be finding ever more advanced ways to create them and furthering our understanding of the quantum world in unimaginable ways.

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A Timeline of Future Space Exploration: Part 2 [INFOGRAPHIC]

A Timeline of Future Space Exploration_Part 2

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A Timeline of Future Space Exploration: Part 1 [INFOGRAPHIC]

A Timeline of Future Space Exploration_Part 1

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A New Discovery Is Challenging Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

Echoes From a Black Hole

Earlier this year, physicists celebrated the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s (LIGO) discovery of gravitational waves — ripples in spacetime curvature — at the site of a black hole merger as it confirmed part of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, that discovery might now be hinting that the very same theory breaks down at the edge of black holes.

Physicists studying LIGO’s data on the black hole merger claim it reveals “echoes” of gravitational waves that contradict predictions made by Einstein’s general theory, which has been proven by LIGO on more than one occasion now. Previously, physicists believed that Einstein’s theory broke down in extreme conditions, such as those found at a black hole’s core. However, these recently discovered echoes seem to indicate that relativity fails around a black hole’s edges, far from its center.

As part of the standard model based on Einstein’s theory, nothing should be found at the edge of a black hole (its event horizon). This contradicts other theories such as the one that corresponds to quantum physics, which suggests that an event horizon should have a firewall, a ring of high-energy particles, around it.

Cosmologist Niayesh Afshordi at the University of Waterloo in Canada created models of these black hole mergers that assumed they did have something at their event horizons. The timing of the echoes following the release of gravitational waves in the mergers recorded by LIGO matched up perfectly with those expected by Afshordi’s models. This supports the idea that the edges of black holes do have some structure and not a whole lot of nothingness as suggested by Einstein’s theory.

The Puzzle That Is the Universe

“The LIGO detections, and the prospect of many more, offer an exciting opportunity to investigate a new physical regime,” said black-hole researcher Steve Giddings from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

For now, more research is needed to see if these echoes were a fluke or something that will completely reshape our understanding of a black hole’s event horizon. If proven to be permanent fixtures of a merger, we would need a new theory to explain this and similar phenomenon — at least until the elusive theory of everything comes along.

In any case, observation of future black hole mergers can confirm whether these echoes were just flukes or random noise. “The good thing is that new LIGO data with improved sensitivity will be coming in, so we should be able to confirm this or rule it out within the next two years,” said Ashfordi.

It’s no surprise that the universe continues to confirm theories of physics one minute and break them the next. So much of the universe is still a big unknown as far as we’re concerned. Theories come and go, and although Einstein’s has been relatively successful, the emergency of new technologies will continue to allow us to challenge earlier assumptions.

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