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Third gravitational waves discovery ‘opens new window on Universe’

Published: 
2 June 2017
Picture of pair of black holes
Artist’s illustration of a pair of spinning black holes. Image: Sonoma State University

A team of international scientists, including a mathematician from the University of Southampton, has gained further confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves – ripples in space-time caused by violent astronomical events.

This is the third time that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected the ripples, generated when two black holes collide to form a larger one.

The black hole that was formed has a mass 49 times that of the sun. Before the groundbreaking first detection of gravitational waves in 2015 – caused by the formation of a black hole with a solar mass of 62 – scientists were unaware of the existence of black holes larger than 20 solar masses.

This is the third such signal to have been found by the scientists working with LIGO data, which confirms a key prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity.

The black hole is located about three billion light years from Earth – the furthest of the three events so far discovered.

The latest detection, called GW170104, was made on 4 January 2017 and is described in a new paper published this week in the journal Physical Review Letters.

University of Southampton mathematician Dr Ian Jones is part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a body of more than 1,000 international scientists who perform LIGO research together with the European-based Virgo Collaboration.

He said: “This third detection makes it even clearer that we really are dealing with a whole population of these extraordinary objects, and that we truly have opened up a new window onto the Universe.”

Dr Jones has spent 14 years working on gravitational wave detection. Along with colleagues in Mathematical Sciences, his focus is gravitational waves generated by neutron stars – extremely small, dense stars which are the collapsed remnants of much larger stars.

He added: “Now that we have demonstrated that we can detect gravitational waves from black holes, the prospect of detecting waves from neutron stars is even more exciting.

“Neutron stars are truly extreme, containing ultra-dense matter and ultra-strong magnetic fields. We stand to learn a lot if we can detect their gravitational wave signals.”

LIGO made the first ever direct observation of gravitational waves in September 2015, with the second observation following in December 2015.

The detected waves were all caused by the tremendously energetic mergers of black hole pairs. These collisions produce more power than is radiated as light by all the stars and galaxies in the universe at any given time.

The latest observation provides further clues about the way in which these pairs of black holes spin, and how they are formed in the first place.

LSC spokesperson David Shoemaker commented: “It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such strange and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light years distant from us. The entire LIGO and Virgo scientific collaborations worked to put all these pieces together.”

 

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Notes for editors

LIGO is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and operated by MIT and Caltech, which conceived and built the project. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,000 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration. LIGO partners with the Virgo Collaboration, a consortium including 280 additional scientists throughout Europe supported by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN), and Nikhef, as well as Virgo’s host institution, the European Gravitational Observatory. Additional partners are listed at: http://ligo.org/partners.php

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