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Lasers Could Reveal Evidence of Cosmic Collisions

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) could help scientists detect gravitational waves from across the universe.
LIGO Facility
An aerial view of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in Livingston, La.Caltech/LIGO Laboratory
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The ripples from violent cosmic collisions can be felt far across the universe, and thanks to a new, sensitive detector expected to start collecting data next year, scientists might be able to see evidence of those gravitational waves from Earth for the first time.

When two neutron stars (remnants of supernova explosions) merge or when a black hole merges with a neutron star, the reverberations of the merger can extend throughout the cosmos. Light, however, only tells us so much. To learn more about the mass and motion of the collision, astronomers want to use gravitational waves, ripples in space-time created during these massive crashes.

LIGO Facility
An aerial view of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in Livingston, La.Caltech/LIGO Laboratory

Next year, astrophysicists are set to switch on one of the most sensitive gravitational-wave detectors ever created. The observatory is called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO, for short). It originally had six observing runs between 2004 and 2010, and has been offline for half a decade to make upgrades. The return, its backers say, will be worth it.

"It opens us up to [viewing] a larger number of astrophysical events," said David Reitze, the LIGO Laboratory's principal investigator and director. One improvement will be better sensitivity in lower frequencies, which will let astronomers look for black holes of between 100 and 500 times the mass of the sun if they exist.

Gravitational waves hit the headlines in March when the scientific instrument BICEP2 (short for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) found the first direct evidence of cosmic inflation, or the huge expansion of the cosmos that happened shortly after the Big Bang.

LIGO, however, searches for waves at higher frequencies, in the 10 hertz to 10 kilohertz band. The primordial waves discovered by BICEP2, Reitze said, are 20 orders of magnitude lower in frequency.

Another prominent result came when scientists measured how round pulsars — super-dense, tiny, spinning remnants of supernovas — are by tracking asymmetries on their surfaces. "If it has a bump and the bump is big enough, it will generate a gravitational wave," Reitze said.

- Elizabeth Howell,

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