The alert on Mansi Kasliwal’s phone went off at two in the morning. Shrugging off the sleep, she squinted at the message. It was from LIGO, the Nobel Prize-winning scientific collaboration that operates gravitational wave detectors.
Thanks to the smartphone revolution, she could react without leaving her bed. A few taps on the screen, and the Zwicky Transient Facility, a robotic telescope on Mount Palomar, was reprogrammed to start the hunt.
And since they started running again at the start of April, expectations are holding up: two in the second week; three last week.
It was the next, on 25 April, that woke Mansi Kasliwal up. The gravitational ripples hinted at the involvement of neutron stars, which would be engulfed in a scorching nuclear flame as they devoured each other and became one.
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Gravitational waves hunt now in overdrive
The radio, optical, X-ray and gamma-ray colours would reveal new details about these normally secretive objects. But before the specialist telescopes could zoom in on the action, astronomers needed to know exactly where to look.
The 25 April “candidate” event was going to test that capacity. With LIGO’s second detector temporarily out of action (the one in Hanford, Washington State), LIGO and VIRGO could only narrow the search to a quarter of the entire sky: somewhere in that vast darkness, a new spark could be brightly shining, but beginning to fade.
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ZTF has the ability to photograph an area about 14 Moons by 14 Moons in just 30 seconds, and see anything down to 150,000 times dimmer than the faintest star visible to the human eye. In a little over two hours it has scoured this whole target area, before moving on to a new sector.
LIGO and Virgo recap smashups, including hints of a black hole eating a neutron star
The science teams for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, and Europe’s Virgo detector today laid out the details of their recent detections, including a crash between neutron stars, three black hole mergers and what may be the first observed collision of a neutron star and a black hole.
Astronomers and their fans have been talking about the detections for days, thanks to the fact that LIGO and Virgo are quickly sharing the raw results from their current observing run. But today’s statements provided the most authoritative views from researchers running the two gravitational-wave detectors.
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Gravitational-wave hunt restarts ‘ with a quantum boost
The Virgo gravitational-wave detector near Pisa, Italy, has roughly doubled its sensitivity since 2017.Credit: Cappello/Ropi via ZUMA
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The increased sensitivity will enable the detectors to better distinguish signals from the constant background of noise ‘ providing physicists with more detail on the waves. This could in turn allow for precise tests of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicted the existence of gravitational waves.
Future detections should reveal secrets about black holes that are in the process of merging, such as how fast they spin and in which direction, says Ilya Mandel, a theoretical astrophysicist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. ‘Maybe we can start teasing out some information about whether they preferentially align,’ he says.
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