Image credit: ESO/L. Calšada, of a pulsar orbiting a binary companion and the gravitational waves (or ripples) in spacetime that ensue as a result.
For over a decade, to very little fanfare, a new type of astronomy has been going on: gravitational wave astronomy. Rather than using a telescope to look out at the Universe, a gravitational wave detector uses lasers, fired and reflected perpendicular to one another, and then reconstructed to create a specific interference pattern when they’re reunited. This apparatus — the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) — demonstrated its proof-of-concept from 2002-2010, and then was shut down for five years while it was upgraded. In September of 2015, it was turned back on with the new upgrade (Advanced LIGO), and in just two days, the Advanced LIGO collaboration is going to make their first major announcement, and the speculation is this: that they’re going to announce the direct detection of the first gravitational wave. Here’s what that would mean.
When Einstein’s General Relativity was first proposed, it was incredibly different from the concept of space and time that came before. Rather than being fixed, unchanging quantities that matter and energy traveled through, they are dependent quantities: dependent on one another, dependent on the matter and energy within them, and changeable over time. If all you have is a single mass, stationary in spacetime (or moving without any acceleration), your spacetime doesn’t change. But if you add a second mass, those two masses will move relative to one another, will accelerate one another, and will change the structure of your spacetime. In particular, because you have a massive particle moving through a gravitational field, the properties of General Relativity mean that your mass will get accelerated, and will emit a new type of radiation: gravitational radiation.
This gravitational radiation is unlike any other type of radiation we know. Sure, it travels through space at the speed of light, but it itself is a ripple in the fabric of space. It carries energy away from the accelerating masses, meaning that if the two masses orbit one another, that orbit will decay over time. And it’s that gravitational radiation — the waves that cause ripples through space — that carries the energy away. For a system like the Earth orbiting the Sun, the masses are so (relatively) small and the distances so large that the system will take more than 10^150 years to decay, or many, many times the current age of the Universe. (And many times the lifetime of even the longest-lived stars that are theoretically possible!) But for black holes or neutron stars that orbit each other, those orbital decays have already been observed.http://www.forbes.com/sites/startswi.../#1b249ac14726