Video simulation showing the warping of space-time
and gravitational waves produced, during the final inspiral, merge, and ringdown of black hole binary system GW150914.
Albert Einstein originally predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, on the basis of his theory of general relativity. General relativity interprets gravity as a consequence of distortions in space-time, caused by mass. Therefore, Einstein also predicted that events in the cosmos would cause "ripples" in space-time – distortions of space-time itself – which would spread outward, although they would be so minuscule that they would be nearly impossible to detect by any technology foreseen at that time. It was also predicted that objects moving in an orbit would lose energy for this reason (a consequence of the law of conservation of energy), as some energy would be given off as gravitational waves, although this would be insignificantly small in all but the most extreme cases.
One case where gravitational waves would be strongest is during the final moments of the merger of two compact objects such as neutron stars or black holes. Over a span of millions of years, binary neutron stars, and binary black holes lose energy, largely through gravitational waves, and as a result, they spiral in towards each other. At the very end of this process, the two objects will reach extreme velocities, and in the final fraction of a second of their merger a substantial amount of their mass would theoretically be converted into gravitational energy, and travel outward as gravitational waves, allowing a greater than usual chance for detection. However, since little was known about the number of compact binaries in the universe and reaching that final stage can be very slow, there was little certainty as to how often such events might happen.
Slow motion computer simulation of the black hole binary system GW150914 as seen by a nearby observer, during 0.33 s of its final inspiral, merge, and ringdown. The star field behind the black holes is being heavily distorted and appears to rotate and move, due to extreme gravitational lensing
, as space-time
itself is distorted and dragged around by the rotating black holes.
Gravitational waves can be detected indirectly – by observing celestial phenomena caused by gravitational waves – or more directly by means of instruments such as the Earth-based LIGO or the planned space-based LISA instrument.
Evidence of gravitational waves was first deduced in 1974 through the motion of the double neutron star system PSR B1913+16, in which one of the stars is a pulsar that emits electro-magnetic pulses at radio frequencies at precise, regular intervals as it rotates. Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, who discovered the stars, also showed that over time, the frequency of pulses shortened, and that the stars were gradually spiralling towards each other with an energy loss that agreed closely with the predicted energy that would be radiated by gravitational waves. For this work, Hulse and Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993. Further observations of this pulsar and others in multiple systems (such as the double pulsar system PSR J0737-3039) also agree with General Relativity to high precision.
Direct observation of gravitational waves was not possible for the many decades after they were predicted due to the minuscule effect that would need to be detected and separated from the background of vibrations present everywhere on Earth. A technique called interferometry was suggested in the 1960s and eventually technology developed sufficiently for this technique to become feasible.
In the present approach used by LIGO, a laser beam is split and the two halves are recombined after travelling different paths. Changes to the length of the paths or the time taken for the two split beams, caused by the effect of passing gravitational waves, to reach the point where they recombine are revealed as "beats". Such a technique is extremely sensitive to tiny changes in the distance or time taken to traverse the two paths. In theory, an interferometer with arms about 4 km long would be capable of revealing the change of space-time – a tiny fraction of the size of a single proton – as a gravitational wave of sufficient strength passed through Earth from elsewhere. This effect would be perceptible only to other interferometers of a similar size, such as the Virgo, GEO 600 and planned KAGRA and INDIGO detectors. In practice at least two interferometers would be needed, because any gravitational wave would be detected at both of these but other kinds of disturbance would generally not be present at both, allowing the sought-after signal to be distinguished from noise. This project was eventually founded in 1992 as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The original instruments were upgraded between 2010 and 2015 (to Advanced LIGO), giving an increase of around 10 times their original sensitivity.
LIGO operates two gravitational-wave observatories in unison, located 3,002 km (1,865 mi) apart: the LIGO Livingston Observatory (30°33′46.42″N 90°46′27.27″W / 30°33′46.42″N 90°46′27.27″W / 30.5628944; -90.7742417) in Livingston, Louisiana, and the LIGO Hanford Observatory, on the DOE Hanford Site (46°27′18.52″N 119°24′27.56″W / 46°27′18.52″N 119°24′27.56″W / 46.4551444; -119.4076556) near Richland, Washington. The tiny shifts in the length of their arms are continually compared and significant patterns which appear to arise synchronously are followed up to determine whether a gravitational wave may have been detected or if some other cause was responsible.
Initial LIGO operations between 2002 and 2010 did not detect any statistically significant events that could be confirmed as gravitational waves. This was followed by a multi-year shut-down while the detectors were replaced by much improved "Advanced LIGO" versions. In February 2015, the two advanced detectors were brought into engineering mode, in which the instruments are operating fully for the purpose of testing and confirming they are functioning correctly before being used for research, with formal science observations due to begin on 18 September 2015.
Throughout the development and initial observations by LIGO, several "blind injections" of fake gravitational wave signals were introduced to test the ability of the researchers to identify such signals. To protect the efficacy of blind injections, only four LIGO scientists knew when such injections occurred, and that information was revealed only after a signal had been thoroughly analyzed by researchers. On 14 September 2015, while LIGO was running in engineering mode but without any blind data injections, the instrument reported a possible gravitational wave detection. The detected event was given the name GW150914.