Science has detected gravity waves from the violent collision of two black holes

A supermassive black hole billions of times bigger than our sun. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists have detected gravitational waves for a second time, this time caused by the massive collision of two black holes 14 and eight times the size of our Sun.

A team, including scientists from the Australian National University (ANU), glimpsed the black holes orbiting each other 27 times in their last second before hitting each other.

The signal, detected by the two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detectors in the US, was 10 times longer than that of the first gravitational wave detected, an event announced in February this year.

“This has cemented the age of gravitational wave astronomy,” says Professor Susan Scott from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.

“This shows data is going to flow, that will enable us to map a lot more of the Universe than we’ve seen before.”

The violent collision happened approximately 1.4 billion years ago in a distant galaxy. During the journey to Earth, the gravitational waves died down so much that they were only a tiny fraction of the width of a proton.

Gravitational waves are caused by big cosmic events such as collisions between stars or black holes or explosions such as supernovae. They were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 but he thought they would be too small for humans to ever detect.

Until gravitational waves were detected, nearly all astronomy relied on electromagnetic observations — visible light, radio waves and X-rays.

Gravitational waves promise major insights into the puzzles of dark energy and dark matter. The latest gravitational wave was detected on December 26, 2015.

The chair of the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy, Dr Bram Slagmolen, says he’s proud of the contribution Australian scientists had made to the detection.

“There’s massive enthusiasm among Australian scientists, we’ve come up with lots of innovative technology and ideas,” says Dr Slagmolen from the ANU.

The research is published in Physical Review Letters.

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