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Einstein’s gravitational waves detected in landmark discovery

Researchers identified gravitational waves coming from two distant black holes - extraordinarily dense objects whose existence also was foreseen by Einstein

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Scientists for the first time have detected gravitational waves, ripples in space and time hypothesised by Albert Einstein a century ago, in a landmark discovery announced on Thursday that opens a new window for studying the cosmos.

The researchers said they identified gravitational waves coming from two distant black holes - extraordinarily dense objects whose existence also was foreseen by Einstein - that orbited one another, spiraled inward and smashed together at high speed to form a single, larger black hole.

The waves were unleashed by the collision of the black holes, one of them 29 times the mass of the sun and the other 36 times the solar mass, located 1.3 billion light years from Earth, the researchers said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it,” said California Institute of Technology physicist David Reitze, triggering applause at a packed news conference in Washington.

“It’s been a very long road, but this is just the beginning,” Louisiana State University physicist Gabriela Gonzalez told the news conference, hailing the discovery as opening a new era in astronomy.

The scientific milestone was achieved using a pair of giant laser detectors in the United States, located in Louisiana and Washington state, capping a decades-long quest to find these waves.

“The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time, a storm in which time speeded up, and slowed down, and speeded up again, a storm in which the shape of space was bent in this way and that way,” Caltech physicist Kip Thorne said.

The scientists first detected the waves last Sept. 14.

The two instruments, working in unison, are called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). They detected remarkably small vibrations from the gravitational waves as they passed through the Earth. The scientists converted the wave signal into audio waves and listened to the sounds of the black holes merging.

At the news conference, they played an audio recording of this: a low rumbling pierced by chirps.

“We’re actually hearing them go thump in the night,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Matthew Evans said. “There’s a very visceral connection to this observation.”