Science2013-09-05 2:56 AM

Seeing Gravitational Waves

Gravity is responsible for the long-range order of the universe. Using Einstein's general relativity, we now think of gravity as the geometrical curvature of the four-dimensional fabric of space-time (1). Extreme cosmological events such as the merging of neutron stars or black holes induce ripples in the fabric of space-time (see the figure). However, these ripples, or gravitational waves, are extremely weak, and their detection has remained elusive. To measure the small signal, an interferometric detector is required that can detect strain to one part in 1021 (that is, a billionth of a nanometer for a kilometer-length interferometer). Such extreme gravity events are also rare, occurring only once every 10,000 years per galaxy (2). An advanced version of such a detector is designed to find gravitational waves on a regular basis (roughly tens of events annually) beginning in 2017 (3). This heroic experiment alone will be somewhat unsatisfying—gravitational wave interferometers will only be able to hear the wave and detect when something happens (literally “hear” as the operational frequency of tens to thousands of Hertz overlaps with the human auditory range). The interferometers will be blind to exactly where the merger occurs. To locate the source of the gravitational waves, collaboration between the physics and the astronomy communities together with extensive simulations are under way (4).

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