Catching Cosmic Ripples
Predicted by Einstein a century ago as a consequence of his general theory of relativity, gravitational waves are ripples of warped space and time — like ripples on a pond — produced by violent events of great energy in the universe, such as supernova explosions or colliding black holes. As these waves travel to Earth, Smith explained, they bring with them information about their violent origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot be obtained by other astronomical tools.
"Gravitational-wave observations provide tests of Einstein's theory of relativity under the most extreme conditions," said Smith. "This direct detection confirms Einstein's vision of the waves and gives us a riveting new window into cataclysms in the cosmos."
Gravitational waves also are important in better understanding black holes, which could lead to learning more about the origin of the universe, Lovelace said.
"Predicting the gravitational waves from merging black holes and neutron stars helps to maximize waves that the detectors will see," added Lovelace.
Read explores how neutron stars produce gravitational waves, using a combination of computer simulations and mathematical models to predict the shape of the gravitational waves that are produced by two neutron stars in a binary system spiraling toward each other and colliding.
"The waves encode information about the two stars, such as how massive they were and how compact they were," Read said.
CSUF Students Share Discovery
The Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center, opened in fall 2012, is the hub for faculty-student research activities related to the discovery. The center supports gravitational wave research, education and outreach in gravitational-wave astronomy, physics and astrophysics.
CSUF faculty researchers have received more than $2 million in external funding for their gravitational-wave studies, including grants from the National Science Foundation. Grant funding also supported building the supercomputer, ORCA, in which high-performance computing hardware and software are used to model gravitational waves.
To date, about 40 students have had the opportunity to work on this groundbreaking research, enhance their scientific and computing skills, present at national conferences and co-author peer-reviewed journal articles, said Smith, who serves as the center's director. Some students have also conducted gravitational wave research abroad in Italy and Korea, and visited the LIGO Observatories.
Seven CSUF alumni are currently enrolled in doctoral programs related to gravitational wave research at such institutions as Caltech, Syracuse University and Louisiana State University, located near the LIGO Livingston Observatory.
The discovery was made possible by the enhanced capabilities of Advanced LIGO, a major upgrade that increases the sensitivity of the instruments compared to the first-generation LIGO detectors, enabling a large increase in the volume of the universe probed — and the discovery of gravitational waves during its first observation run. The U.S. National Science Foundation leads in financial support for Advanced LIGO. Funding organizations in Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (STFC) and Australia (Australian Research Council) also have made significant commitments to the project. Several of the key technologies that made Advanced LIGO so much more sensitive have been developed and tested by the German UK GEO collaboration.
CSUF Media Contacts:
Joshua Smith, Physics
Jocelyn Read, Physics
Geoffrey Lovelace, Physics
Debra Cano Ramos