On its Next run, LIGO Will be Able to Probe 8 Times as Much Space

Materials science has once again come through for space exploration.  Researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have developed a coating that could increase the sensitivity of LIGO by almost an order of magnitude.  That would increase the detection rate of the gravitational waves the observatory is seeking from about once a week to once a day, mainly due to the increased volume of space that the observatory’s interferometers would be able to collect signals from.

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A Gravitational Wave Observatory on the Moon Could "Hear" 70% of the Observable Universe

Concept for a Gravitational-wave Lunar Observatory for Cosmology (GLOC). Credit: Jani, et al

Gravitational-wave astronomy is set to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos. In only a few years it has significantly enhanced our understanding of black holes, but it is still a scientific field in its youth. That means there are still serious limitations to what can be observed.

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Astronomers Detected a Black Hole-Neutron Star Merger, and Then Another Just 10 Days Later

An artistic image inspired by a black hole-neutron star merger event. Credit: Carl Knox, OzGrav/Swinburne

The interior of a neutron star is perhaps the strangest state of matter in the universe. The material is squeezed so tightly that atoms collapse into a sea of nuclear material. We still aren’t sure whether nucleons maintain their integrity in this state, or whether they dissolve into quark matter. To really understand neutron star matter we need to pull it apart to see how it works and to do that takes a black hole. This is why astronomers are excited about the recent discovery of not one, but two mergers between a neutron star and a black hole.

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It Could be Possible to see Gravitational Wave Lenses

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist's impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

Gravitational-wave astronomy is very different from that of electromagnetic light. While gravitational waves are faint and difficult to detect, they also pass through matter with little effect. In essence, the material universe is transparent to gravitational waves. This makes gravitational wave astronomy a powerful tool when studying the universe. But it’s still in the early stages, and there is much to learn about how gravitational waves behave.

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Gaia Might Even be Able to Detect the Gravitational Wave Background of the Universe

Embry-Riddle researchers used data captured by the Gaia satellite (shown here in an artist’s impression) to determine the ages of stars. Credit: European Space Agency – D. Ducros, 2013
Embry-Riddle researchers used data captured by the Gaia satellite (shown here in an artist’s impression) to determine the ages of stars. Credit: European Space Agency – D. Ducros, 2013

The Gaia spacecraft is an impressive feat of engineering. Its primary mission is to map the position and motion of more than a billion stars in our galaxy, creating the most comprehensive map of the Milky Way thus far. Gaia collects such a large amount of precision data that it can make discoveries well beyond its main mission. For example, by looking at the spectra of stars, astronomers can measure the mass of individual stars to within 25% accuracy. From the motion of stars, astronomers can measure the distribution of dark matter in the Milky Way. Gaia can also discover exoplanets when they pass in front of a star. But one of the more surprising uses is that Gaia could help us detect cosmic gravitational waves.

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An Exotic Explanation for the Most Extreme Gravitational Wave Detected so far

Illustration of a merger of two boson stars. Credit: Nicolás Sanchis-Gual and Rocío García Souto

In May of 2019, the gravitational wave observatories LIGO and Virgo detected the merger of two black holes. One had a mass of 85 Suns, while the other was 66 solar masses. The event was named GW190521 and was the largest merger yet observed. It produced a 142 solar mass black hole, making it the first gravitational wave observation of an intermediate mass black hole. But the event also raised several questions.

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Physicists Figure out how to Make Gravitational Wave Detectors “Hear” 6x More Universe

This illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. The black holes—which represent those detected by LIGO on Dec. 26, 2015—were 14 and 8 times the mass of the sun, until they merged, forming a single black hole 21 times the mass of the sun. In reality, the area near the black holes would appear highly warped, and the gravitational waves would be difficult to see directly. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

Gravitational wave detectors are limited by fundamental quantum noise – an incessant “hum” that they cannot ever remove. But now physicists have recently improved a technique, called “squeezing”, that can allow the next generation of detectors to double their sensitivity.

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All The Gravitational Waves Detected So Far

Few events in the astronomy community were received with more fanfare than the first detection of gravitational waves, which took place on September 14th, 2015.  Since then, different events have been recorded using the same techniques.  Many include data from other observational platforms, as the events that normally create gravitational waves are of interest to almost everyone in the astronomical community.  Black hole and neutron star mergers and the like provide a plethora of data to understand the physics that happen under such extreme conditions.

To distribute that data equitably, researchers at LIGO, one of the main observatories for gravitational waves, have released a data set that contains information about all 50 confirmed gravitational wave events that have taken place since observations began.  What’s more, a team from the Cardiff University made a tool that makes it much easier to navigate the data.  

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Astronomers see a Hint of the Gravitational Wave Background to the Universe

Artist view of orbiting black holes. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Gravitational-wave astronomy is still in its infancy. LIGO and other observatories have opened a new window on the universe, but their gravitational view of the cosmos is limited. To widen our view, we have the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav).

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China’s Planning to Launch a Space-Based Gravitational Wave Observatory in the 2030s: TianQin. Here’s how it’ll Stack up Against LISA

The successful detection of gravitational waves has been a game-changer for astronomy. And now the new frontier is in space, with satellite-based detection systems currently in development that will uncover some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. And while the team behind LISA is now developing that observatory in space, it just may be outclassed by a rival, TianQin, developed by the Chinese.

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