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A New Astronomy

What are gravitational waves?

Simulation of neutron star merger, a possible source of gamma-ray bursts Credit: AEI/ZIB

Black Hole - Gamma Ray Bursts

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Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time generated by some of the most powerful astrophysical events - such as exploding stars and collisions of two black holes at the centres of galaxies. Gravitational waves travel at the speed of light through the universe, unhindered by intervening mass - to gravitational waves the universe is transparent. That is why gravitational waves are the cosmic messengers that will allow us to explore the so far dark side of the universe.

A direct detection of gravitational waves will add a new sense to our perception of the Universe: for the first time we will be able to LISTEN to the Universe because gravitational waves are in some respects similar to sound waves. Hence gravitational wave astronomy will complement our understanding of the Universe and its evolution. Gravitational waves measured by a large mission in space will allow us to e.g. trace the formation, growth, and merger history of massive black holes. Also it will enable us to confront General Relativity with observations, and it will probe new physics and cosmology with gravitational waves.

Gravity rules
Albert Einstein revealed that gravity rules the universe. According to his theory of general relativity gravity determines the curvature of space-time – the deformation of space-time depends on the position of masses and on their acceleration. Accelerating masses thus create gravitational waves - distortions in space-time that ripple outwards like waves on a pond.

In a pure gravitational environment all masses follow space-time along the straightest paths possible through this curved arena. The “straight line” to curved space-time is called a “geodesic”. Gravitational waves are waves in the fabric of space-time. They change approximately parallel geodesics, pushing them together and then pulling them apart. Two free falling test masses will experience this as an oscillating change in the relative distance to each other. ESA´s technology test mission LISA Pathfinder (LPF) will demonstrate this effect. LPF is due to launch in 2015.

Gravitational waves within general relativity
With his theories of relativity Einstein laid the foundation for much of modern physics. Fundamental ideas of his theories are:

  • The speed of light is constant.
  • Space, time and gravity are strongly connected to each other.
  • Space and time are flexible. They change according to circumfluent mass: stationary mass changes space.
  • Accelerating masses create gravitational waves - distortions in space-time that ripple outwards like waves on a pond.

In General Relativity gravity is no longer simply a force that pulls falling apples to the ground. Instead, gravity is geometry. The presence of matter alters the geometry of space and time, and the geometry in turn determines how matter and light moves. Einstein predicted in 1916 that space-time would be curved and that matter and light follow the curvature of space-time (geodesics). This was experimentally observed as early as in 1919 by Arthur Eddington.

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In 1907 a young Albert Einstein was looking for a way to extend his special theory of relativity to include acceleration.