LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves: Listening to the heavens became a reality (2016 in retrospect)

Kolkata, Dec 24 (IANS) In 2016, science fiction and reality collided when LIGO opened up our sixth sense to understand the universe and set the ball rolling for a new era of observational astrophysics with the detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes.

Along the way, the international team of researchers associated with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) scientific collaboration picked up numerous accolades and inspired a new generation of scientists.

The discovery of these elusive waves, a century after Albert Einstein’s prediction, is undoubtedly the biggest physics success story in 2016.

Dubbed as “ripples in the curvature of space and time”, these waves will provide information on the cosmos that wouldn’t have been possible by peering through any kind of telescope: to explore fundamental physics and could even offer a peep into the universe’s earliest moments.

The electrifying revelations by the 1,000-member LIGO also heralded a new chapter in India’s future of new-age astrophysics.

With India poised to set up a LIGO (the third in the world), scientists expect to hear space-time rhythms from Indian soil within next six to seven years, according to Karan P. Jani, one of the many US-based Indian researchers working on the project.

LIGO research is carried out by the international LIGO Scientific Collaboration (which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy) and the Virgo Collaboration in Europe.

The LIGO-India project is envisaged as an international collaboration between the LIGO Laboratory and three lead institutions in the IndIGO consortium: Institute of Plasma Research (IPR) Gandhinagar, Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune and Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT), Indore.

The window to the cosmos literally opened up on February 11, 2016, when LIGO announced the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves.

The waves arose from the merger of two massive black holes 1.3 billion light years away and were recorded by both of LIGO’s detectors – one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.

They were first tracked down on September 14, 2015, by both detectors.

The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A second gravitational-wave detection by LIGO was announced on June 15, 2016, also from merging black holes.

After an upgrade, on November 30, scientists restarted the twin detectors of LIGO, after making several improvements to the system.

The hunt is back on.

During the year, the LIGO team and the founders were honoured with all major awards including the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Kavli Prize and Gruber Prize in Cosmology.

The Special Breakthrough Prize would be shared between two groups of laureates – the three founders of LIGO and 1,012 contributors to the experiment, including 40 Indian researchers.

Gabriela Gonzalez, who serves as the spokesperson for the international collaboration, was named one of the top 10 scientists in the world by the scientific journal Nature.

She was also named one of the top 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine for the collaboration.

LIGO saw two strong gravitational wave events in its first four months, and possibly a third weaker signal. If that trend continues in the new run, researchers hope for, at least six events in the first half of 2017.

Another gravitational wave detector, Virgo, in Italy, is scheduled to be switched on in 2017 and combined with the twin LIGO detectors, they should be able to pinpoint the source of the waves.

Besides adding to the knowledge of the black hole population in the universe, the observatory could also quench science’s thirst to detect gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars, believed to be the producers and distributors of the heavy elements, such as the precious metals.

So far, technological developments that were made for LIGO have found independent applications in science as well as industry.

With the discovery, related projects like the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder satellite (which reported record-breaking gravitational wave results) have also come under the spotlight for the possibility that the search for gravitational waves could one day occur in space.

The LIGO discovery capped a decade-long search and is the unequivocal proof that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was valid.

It has spawned several other studies, including one which claims the discovery may have, in fact, invalidated Einstein’s theory and instead indicate that the first signs of quantum gravity may have been found.

2016 may have been a watershed year for new-age astrophysics, but 2017 could open the floodgates.

(This is a part of a series of articles from IANS that look back at the year that was. Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana.g@ians.in)

–IANS

sgh/ssp/vm/ky

Top