Gravitational Waves: Ripples in the fabric of space-time

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916 as part of the theory of general relativity. In Einstein's theory, space and time are aspects of a single measurable reality called space-time. Matter and energy are two expressions of a single material. We can think of space-time as a fabric; The presence of large amounts of mass or energy distorts space-time in essence causing the fabric to "warp" and we observe this warpage as gravity. Freely falling objects whether soccer balls, satellites, or beams of starlight simply follow the most direct path in this curved space-time.

Just as a boat sailing through the ocean produces waves in the water, moving masses like stars or black holes produce gravitational waves in the fabric of space-time. A more massive moving object will produce more powerful waves, and objects that move very quickly will produce more waves over a certain time period.

When large masses move suddenly, some of this space-time curvature ripples outward, spreading in much the way as ripples on the surface of an agitated pond. When two dense objects such as neutron stars or black holes orbit each other, space-time is stirred by their motion and gravitational energy ripples throughout the universe in a manner represented by the picture at lower right.

In 1974 Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse found such a pair of neutron stars in our own galaxy. One of the stars beams regular pulses of radio waves toward Earth. Taylor and his colleagues were able to use these radio pulses, like the ticks of a very precise clock, to study the orbit of neutron stars. Over two decades, these scientists watched for and found the tell-tale shift in timing of these pulses, which indicated a loss of energy from the orbiting stars energy that had been carried away as gravitational waves.

The result was just as Einstein's theory predicted. The discovery of Hulse and Taylor represents strong indirect evidence of gravitational waves.

LIGO seeks to measure gravitational waves directly

LIGO will detect the ripples in space-time by using a device called a laser interferometer, in which the time it takes light to travel between suspended mirrors is measured with high precision using controlled laser light. Two mirrors hang far apart, forming one "arm" of the interferometer, and two more mirrors make a second arm perpendicular to the first. Viewed from above, the two arms form an L shape. Laser light enters the arms through a beam splitter located at the corner of the L, dividing the light between the arms. The light is allowed to bounce between the mirrors repeatedly before it returns to the beam splitter. If the two arms have identical lengths, then interference between the light beams returning to the beam splitter will direct all of the light back toward the laser. But if there is any difference between the lengths of the two arms, some light will travel to where it can be recorded by a photodetector.

The space-time ripples cause the distance measured by a light beam to change as the gravitational wave passes by, and the amount of light falling on the photodetector to vary. The photodetector then produces a signal defining how the light falling on it changes over time. The laser interferometer is like a microphone that converts gravitational waves into electrical signals. Three interferometers of this kind were built for LlGO -- two near Richland, Washington, and the other near Baton Rouge. Louisiana. LlGO requires at least two widely separated detectors, operated in unison, to rule out false signals and confirm that a gravitational wave has passed through the earth.