Saturday, February 13, 2016

Gravitational waves have been detected for the first time

TWO black holes circle one another. Both are about 100km across. One contains 36 times as much mass as the sun; the other, 29. They are locked in an orbital dance, a kilometre or so apart, that is accelerating rapidly to within a whisker of the speed of light. Their event horizons—the spheres defining their points-of-no-return—touch. There is a violent wobble as, for an instant, quintillions upon quintillions of kilograms redistribute themselves. Then there is calm. In under a second, a larger black hole has been born.

It is, however, a hole that is less than the sum of its parts. Three suns’ worth of mass has been turned into energy, in the form of gravitational waves: travelling ripples that stretch and compress space, and thereby all in their path. During the merger’s final fifth of a second, envisaged in an artist’s impression above, the coalescing holes pumped 50 times more energy into space this way than the whole of the rest of the universe emitted in light, radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays combined

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