A century after Einstein proposed it, scientists may be close to confirming the existence of gravitational waves. Katie Sargent reports

Breakthrough … a simulated view of two black holes on the brink of merging. Picture: Bohn et al

GRAVITATIONAL waves have been detected confirming Albert Einstein’s famous theory of General Relativity, according to scientists at Washington’s National Science Foundation.

The breakthrough, possibly the biggest in physics in a century, could be the key to new understanding of the universe.

The discovery has been made with the use of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) — a system of two detectors constructed to spot tiny vibrations from passing gravitational waves.

Raw power ... Scientists now have direct evidence of the existence of gravitational waves rippling across the universe. Picture: NASA

Raw power … Scientists now have direct evidence of the existence of gravitational waves rippling across the universe. Picture: NASASource:Supplied

The announcement has electrified the world of physics and astronomy. Scientists say the finding opens a new way of observing the cosmos.

“We discovered gravitational waves from black holes. This is just the beginning, the first of many to come,” said Gabriela Gonzalez, the spokeswoman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

“Now that we know there are binary black holes out there we will begin listening to the universe.”

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration is comprised of more than 1000 people from over 90 institutions in 15 countries, including Australia.

The Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy, Australian National University, Charles Sturt University, Monash University, University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia were involved in the scientific breakthrough.

Breakthrough ... LIGO co-founder Rainer Weiss, left, and Kip Thorne, right, accompanied by LIGO executive director David Reitze. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Breakthrough … LIGO co-founder Rainer Weiss, left, and Kip Thorne, right, accompanied by LIGO executive director David Reitze. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew HarnikSource:AP

Some scientists likened the breakthrough to the moment Galileo took up a telescope to look at the planets.

“Until this moment we had our eyes on the sky and we couldn’t hear the music,” said Columbia University astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka, a member of the discovery team. “The skies will never be the same.”

For many years, scientists have had indirect evidence of the existence of gravitational waves rippling across the universe.

Confirmation ... A simulation of the shape of gravitational waves radiating out of a black hole merger. Picture: NASA.

Confirmation … A simulation of the shape of gravitational waves radiating out of a black hole merger. Picture: NASA.Source:Supplied

In 1974, student Russell Hulse and his supervisor Joseph Taylor calculated that a pair of burnt-out stars spiralling towards one another were radiating gravitational waves at exactly the rate predicted by Einstein. This earned both researchers a Nobel prize around twenty years later.

But now, an all-star international team of astrophysicists using an excruciatingly sensitive, $US1.1 billion instrument have not only detected one of these waves but they have been able to localise the signal.

“Not only did we detect gravitional waves, we can localise the signal. It came from the southern sky,” said Gonzalez.

According to Einstein’s theory, published in 1916, the universe is made up of a “fabric of space-time”: massive accelerating objects in the universe are believed to bend this fabric, causing ripples known as gravitational waves. The colliding of two black holes or merging of two pulsars are among the presumable causes of such waves’ formation.

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