New gravitational wave detection shows shape of ripples from black hole collision | Science

Astronomers have made a new detection of gravitational waves and for the first time have been able to trace the shape of ripples sent through spacetime when black holes collide.

The announcement, made at a meeting of the G7 science ministers in Turin, marks the fourth cataclysmic black-hole merger that astronomers have spotted using Ligo, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. The latest detection is the first to have also been picked up by the Virgo detector, located near Pisa, Italy, providing a new layer of detail on the three dimensional pattern of warping that occurs during some of the most violent and energetic events in the universe.

Why discovering gravitational waves changes everything

A tiny wobble in the signal, picked up by Ligo’s twin instruments and the Virgo detector on 14 August, could be traced back to the final moments of the merger of two black holes about 1.8bn years ago. The black holes, with masses about 31 and 25 times the mass of the sun, combined to produce a newly spinning black hole with about 53 times the mass of the sun.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that the presence of mass causes a curvature in spacetime. When massive objects merge, this curvature can be altered, sending ripples out across the universe. These are known as gravitational waves.By the time these disturbances reach us, they are almost imperceptible. It was only a century after Einstein’s prediction that scientists developed a detector sensitive enough – the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or Ligo – and were able to confirm the existence of gravitational waves.

The remaining three solar masses were converted into pure energy that spilled out as deformations that spread outwards across spacetime like ripples across a pond. Detecting these tiny distortions has required detectors sensitive enough to measuring a discrepancy of just one thousandth of the diameter of an atomic nucleus across a 4km laser…

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