July 30, 2014

02.02.10 In Search of Life, Gravity Waves, and Everything.

The LIGO detector at Hanford. (Credit:NSF/LIGO).

The LIGO detector at Hanford. (Credit:NSF/LIGO).

Astronomers have added a key tool to their arsenal in probing the very early universe. LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory, is a pair of “observatories” one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana that monitor the universe for that most exotic of beasts; gravity waves. Each L-shaped detector is comprised of two 2.25 mile long arms and by monitoring the minute changes in length as measured by laser beam, LIGO can detect changes as small as 1/1,000th of the width of an atomic nucleus.   By comparing the measurements from the two observatories and its sister companion, a European detector known as Virgo, directional magnitude of cosmic gravity waves can be measured. LIGO saw first “gravity light” in 2002. Late last year, data was released comprising two years’ worth of observations, and a sort of “all-sky map” in gravity waves is emerging. Unlike microwave energy, which can only probe the universe back to an age of about 380,000 years old, gravity waves were generated just moments after the Big Bang, and promise to paint a picture of that youthful era of our universe. LIGO may also prove to be one of the very few testable platforms for string theory, a theory that is very much in need of observational data. And be sure to keep an eye out in 2014 for Advanced LIGO, a detector to go online with 10x the present accuracy… can’t wait? YOU can join the citizen science brigade in the hunt for gravity waves before bedtime; checkout Einstein@home!