Massive U.S. Machines That Hunt For Ripples In Space-Time Just Got An Upgrade

Mar 19, 2019
Originally published on March 19, 2019 3:40 pm

Scientists are about to restart the two giant facilities in the United States that register gravitational waves, the ripples in the very fabric of the universe that were predicted by Albert Einstein more than a century ago.

Einstein realized that when massive objects such as black holes collide, the impact sends shock waves through space-time that are like the ripples in water created by tossing a pebble in a pond.

In 2015, researchers made history by detecting gravitational waves from colliding black holes for the first time — and this was such a milestone that three U.S. physicists almost immediately won the Nobel Prize for their work on the project.

This artist's animation shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward during the event.
LIGO Lab Caltech : MIT via / YouTube

Since then, physicists have detected gravitational waves from other exotic smashups. The grand total is 10 pairs of black holes colliding and a pair of neutron stars crashing together.

Now they're getting ready to discover more of these cosmic events. On April 1, the twin facilities in Louisiana and Washington state that make up the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory will start doing science again after being shut down for more than a year so that workers could install hardware upgrades.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the improvements should dramatically increase the detector's ability to sense some of the most mysterious and powerful events in the universe.

"So far, we've seen 11 things. Maybe we'll see twice that many this year," says Joseph Giaime, head of the LIGO Observatory in Livingston, La.

Researchers will also be helped by the fact that a third detector in Italy, called Virgo, will be up and running. It was only online for the very end of LIGO's last observation period. Having more detectors working together makes it easier for researchers to locate the source of gravitational waves in the sky. What's more, a new detector in Japan called KAGRA is expected to join in at some point.

A visualization of the 10 merging black holes that LIGO and Virgo have observed so far. As the horizons of the black holes spiral together and merge, the emitted gravitational waves become louder (larger amplitude) and higher pitched (higher in frequency).
SXS Collaboration via / YouTube

Being able to sense gravitational waves is new for astronomy, which has spent centuries studying light. But black holes don't emit light, and these detectors offer a new way to probe their secrets.

"Galileo invented the telescope or used the telescope for the first time to do astronomy 400 years ago. And today we're still building better telescopes," notes Gabriela González, professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University. "I think this decade has been the beginning of gravitational wave astronomy. So this will keep making progress, with better detectors, with different detectors, with more detectors."

She worked on gravitational waves for years before they actually were detected and says friends now confess that they worried about her career because the task was so hard that it seemed the waves might never be detected. Now, she says, they are jealous that she works in such a cutting-edge field.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in physics laureates (from left) Barry C. Barish, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss, pose during a joint news conference in December 2017 at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm.
Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/Getty Images

Each LIGO detector in the U.S. is made of two long, concrete pipes that come together in what looks like a huge letter "L." Each arm stretches out for more than 2 miles. "I've spoken with pilots who fly over this who wonder why there is a pipeline that starts nowhere, travels a couple miles, turns right and then also goes nowhere," Giaime says.

Inside the pipeline is a powerful laser beam that bounces back and forth between mirrors. Scientists use this laser to precisely measure the length of each arm of the L. When a gravitational wave passes through and distorts space, the lengths change by a tiny, tiny bit — a fraction of the width of a subatomic particle.

Giaime says some of the recent upgrades to the detectors include types of hardware that boost laser power and reduce certain kinds of "noise" in their measurements. "We replaced some optics, which is a lot of work," he says.

This time around, if LIGO detects gravitational waves, the team will send out public alerts so that anyone can point a telescope at the right spot in the sky in case, like the neutron star collision, the event sends out any observable fireworks.

"We've only seen this handful of black holes out of all the possible ones that are out there. There are many, many questions we still don't know how to answer," says Nergis Mavalvala, a gravitational wave researcher at MIT.

Plus, she says, there's always the possibility that something completely unexpected will go boom and leave perplexed researchers scratching their heads.

"That's how discovery happens," she says. "You turn on a new instrument, you point it out at the sky, and you see something that you had no idea existed."

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Albert Einstein predicted that some cosmic smashups would be so powerful, they'd create ripples in the very fabric of the universe. A century later, physicists proved him right when they detected the ripples created by the collision of two black holes. The massive detectors used to make that discovery have now gotten an upgrade, and they are just about to start back up. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Gabby Gonzalez is a physicist at Louisiana State University who has spent years, decades, working with a team that was trying to detect something that had never been detected before.

GABRIELA GONZALEZ: I have lots of friends that, now, they tell me, I felt so worried about your career because you were working on such a difficult thing that I thought it was never going to happen. And now, I'm so jealous (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They're jealous because in 2015, it did happen - the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. You can't see them. You can't feel them. But Albert Einstein had it right. Space and time is a kind of jiggly matrix. And when two big things out in the universe collide, they can send shockwaves through spacetime that are like the ripples you make when you toss a pebble into a pond. Being able to sense these waves is brand new for astronomy, which has spent centuries studying light.

GONZALEZ: Galileo invented the telescope or used the telescope for the first time to do astronomy 400 years ago. And today, we're still building better telescopes. I think this decade has been the beginning of gravitational wave astronomy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And she thinks it should just keep getting better and better. The United States has two facilities for detecting gravitational waves - one in Washington state and one in Louisiana. Together, they're called LIGO for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. I drove about an hour and a half north of New Orleans to see the one in rural Louisiana. The head of the observatory, Joe Giaime, took me over to a display case to see a gold medal.

JOSEPH GIAIME: People who win Nobel prizes can pay a little extra money, and check a box and get a duplicate.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Each site has one of these since the first detection of gravitational waves was such a big deal that the Nobel Committee, pretty much instantly, honored three American physicists for their work on this project. We walk out onto a bridge that goes over a big concrete pipe. From here, we see the pipe going off into the distance, and we can also see another pipe as well. Giaime says each is more than two miles long. They come together in a shape that, from above, looks like a capital L.

GIAIME: I've spoken with pilots who fly over this. And they wonder why there's a pipeline that starts nowhere, travels, you know, a couple miles, turns right and then goes also nowhere.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Inside each stretch of pipe is a powerful laser beam that bounces back and forth between mirrors. Scientists use this laser to precisely measure the length of each arm of the L. When a gravitational wave passes through and distorts space, the lengths change by a tiny, tiny bit like a fraction of the width of a subatomic particle.

GIAIME: We're in the control room now, and this is where all of the activities of both the site and the detector are monitored and controlled.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's a windowless room with people sitting at dozens of computer monitors. Since the first historic detection 3 1/2 years ago, this place has registered 10 more gravitational wave events. Nine were black hole collisions, and one was a pair of neutron stars smashing together. But the science has been shut down for more than a year. That was to let researchers install new hardware and other upgrades. The workers in here, now, are testing them out. On April 1, everything officially comes back online. Giaime says the U.S. detectors plus another one in Italy will all be more sensitive.

GIAIME: So, so far, we've seen 11 things. Maybe we'll see twice that many this year.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And they'll be better able to locate the source of the waves in the sky. The team will send out public alerts so that anyone can point their telescopes at the right spot. In case, like the neutron star collision, the event sends out cosmic fireworks. Thousands of astronomers and physicists around the world are now involved in studying gravitational waves because these offer the only way to explore some of the most powerful, exotic events in the universe. And that's the fun of it. Nergis Mavalvala is a physicist at MIT.

NERGIS MAVALVALA: We've only seen this handful of black holes of all the possible ones that are out there. There are many, many questions we still don't know how to answer.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Plus, maybe something completely unexpected will go boom.

MAVALVALA: That's how discovery happens. As you turn on a new instrument, you point it out at the sky and you see something that you had no idea existed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says that's happened time and time again in astronomy, and she bets it'll happen for gravitational waves as well. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.