Gravitational Waves | Out Of This World Weekly

The universe can be a strange place and today that means two stars orbiting each other very close have been observed to give off waves of gravity.  One of these stars is a extremely dense and rapidly spinning neutron star which is very capable of bending the local space around it.  The gravity on this star is about 300 billion times stronger than here on Earth and it spins very rapidly at 25 times per second.  The other star is an old white dwarf star caught by the neutron star’s extreme gravity and is so close, that it orbits once every 2.5 hours.  Together, these two stars caught in their gravitational dance are warping and twisting spacetime around them in a very precise manner which confirms Einstein’s theories about general relativity.  A predicted loss of a small amount of the energy in this system was to have been caused by ripples in space called gravitational waves.  Sure enough, no less than six telescopes have confirmed this loss of the miniscule 8 millionths of a second per year of the orbital period of the white dwarf due to gravitational waves radiating energy out of the system. 

Scientists have been working on detectors to be able to directly measure gravitational waves and this new information will help them to design better ways to detect these waves.  Since gravitational waves are move outward at the speed of light, this method of detection could shed new discoveries in a spectrum that we are not currently familiar with.  It is thought that gravitational radiation could be measured like any other type of radiation and this could yield new discoveries and insights that we have no way of currently mapping.  Gravitational waves should be able to penetrate all dust clouds and every other type of interfering matter, allowing an unobstructed and distortion free look into the universe.  These waves may also provide a look into the very early universe, before the 370,000 year mark where electromagnetic radiation was able to escape.

To detect these gravitational waves, we have been designing both ground based and space interferometers.  Early Earth based detectors very precisely measure the amount of variance of force caused by the strain from one end of a bar being distorted by a passing gravitational wave, although this could only detect the most powerful gravitational waves.  New methods include the use of laser interferometry to measure small distortions in matter caused by a passing gravitational wave through a 4km long by 4km wide laser field.  Space based laser interferometers are being designed because the further away each detector node is from each other, the more sensitive the entire detector can become.  Plans are under way for three test masses to form an equilateral triangle with each detector being separated by five million kilometers.  These new generations of gravitational wave detectors should provide new insights into our universe in a way that we may not be able to easily visualize but being able to detect unobservable masses like planets and stars through their gravity could show profound results in a short time that couldn’t be achieved by any other means.

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