Get ready, Thursday could be a day for the history books.
A team of scientists from Caltech, MIT, and the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration will convene in Washington DC for an “update” on their efforts to detect a cosmic phenomenon called gravitational waves.
This modest “update,” however, could prove to be one of the most important scientific discoveries of the decade, opening the door to a new era of astronomy wherein scientists can actually watch two black holes devour one another or watch one chow down on a neutron star — the densest objects in the cosmos aside from black holes.
Like many other scientific breakthroughs of our time, this all began with a man named Albert Einstein. One hundred years ago, Einstein first predicted that when mass in the universe accelerates, it generates invisible waves, called gravitational waves.
So, for example, when two black holes are about to merge, they spiral toward one another, accelerating in the process. This behaviour generates gravitational waves that permeate the cosmos, stretching and contracting the fabric of spacetime — like ripples on a pond.
The only catch about Einstein’s theory is that it hasn’t been directly confirmed, yet, because no one has ever detected a gravitational wave. But if expectations pan out, that could all change on Thursday at 10:30 AM ET, when the team makes their announcement. You can watch the event live on YouTube or on the stream we’ve provided at the end of this post.
Scientists first began listening for gravitational waves with LIGO detectors in 2002, but after eight years of silence, they shut the machines down in 2010 for a major update, which may prove to be exactly what was needed.
Last September, the new and improved Advanced LIGO switched on, and now, five months later, there’s exciting news that the team might have detected something. While a detection would signal the end of a century-long search, it would provide so much more for the field of astronomy.
“A discovery is really not an end. A discovery would be the most glorious beginning of something new,” Szabolcs Marka, who is a professor of physics at Columbia University and a member of the LIGO collaboration, told Business Insider.
He added that gravitational waves will be a revolutionary tool in the study of enigmatic sources like black holes, neutron stars, and supernova explosions.
To date, astronomers can only observe the environment around black holes and not the objects themselves, but gravitational waves could change that:
“We have indirect observation of black holes, we have indirect observation of objects around black holes and their behaviour indicate that there should be a black hole,” Marka said. “Advanced LIGO gives us a chance — through an eventual discovery, we will be able to observe black holes directly.”
And black holes are just the beginning. If Advanced LIGO becomes the gravitational wave detecting machine that scientists hope for, it could prove monumental in studying the way matter behaves at the heart of a neutron star, what triggers a supernova explosion, and what causes gamma ray bursts — the brightest events in the universe.
There is an opportunity here to open up a whole new universe of human understanding, Marka said. Don’t miss the announcement scheduled to take place tomorrow at 10:30 AM ET.
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