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Scientists May Have Detected the ‘Hum’ of the Universe That Could Change Astronomy Forever

Astrophysicists trying to detect the presence of low-frequency gravitational waves are on to something, and it could be one of the biggest discoveries in human history.

Gravitational wave illustration, Tonia Klein

Thanks to collaboration from one side of the Earth to the other, a signal has appeared in the data from a project that uses the rhythm of the movement of stars to detect these truly gigantic intergalactic waves, and scientists believe it may be proof of the gravitational wave. antecedents, a discovery more momentous than anything in recent history.

The researchers, hailing from the North American Nanohertz Observatory of Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), are cautious, knowing that both the macro and micro aspects of their data could mislead them.

His work has involved constant monitoring of 45 pulsars over a 12-year period. Pulsars They are super-dense stars that spin at incredibly fast speeds, generating a continuous stream of light, radiation, and even sound.

Since they are trying to measure one of the largest forces in the universe, the pulsars are working to expand scientists’ monitoring equipment to large swaths of the Milky Way galaxy, rather than just a laboratory in Colorado.

Their recent paper revealed that the continuous spin of pulsars seemed to be interrupted for a few nanoseconds in a way that was replicated in each of the 45 stars, exactly the kind of effect that low-frequency gravitational waves traveling through the universe would have. .

“It’s incredibly exciting to see such a strong signal emerge from the data,” said Joseph Simon of the University of Colorado, who led the newspaper. “However, because the gravitational wave signal we are looking for spans the entire duration of our observations, we must carefully understand our noise.

“This leaves us in a very interesting place, where we can strongly rule out some known noise sources, but we cannot yet tell if the signal is indeed gravitational waves. For that, we will need more data. “

The universal

When in 2015, researchers working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected evidence of a single gravitational wave, a ripple in the fabric of space-time caused by the collision of two black holes, they won the Nobel Prize. of Physics.

The wave his laser array detected was equivalent to a drum beat, a seconds-long event, after which silence reigned.

In stark contrast, the US and Canada NANOGrav project is trying to measure gravitational waves that take months, or even years to pass over the Earth.

These waves would be generated by a theoretical force known as the gravitational wave background (GWB), the equivalent of the continuous low hum and mixed of voices in a cafeteria or party, generated by millions of cataclysmic events that saturate the universe with waves in space. weather. .

Like many discoveries, especially those related to subatomic particles or dark matter, the method of observation involves the effect, not the actual object. Therefore, the sensitivity of the detective method must be exquisite, considering that the object is invisible and so slow and massive that it requires millions of light years of detective space and decades of blinking focus to see its effect on the cosmic environment.

Therefore, NANOGrav plans to add more pulsars to its observations through collaboration with the International Pulsar Timing Array, and study them for longer.

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“The next few years are going to be really exciting for NANOGrav as we put together the following set of data and look at it for gravitational waves,” Sarah Vigeland, assistant professor of physics at the Uni. Of Wisconsin told her. university press.

Implications of the gravitational wave background

As universal as tidal forces here on Earth, everything about our understanding of the universe would have to match the GWB.

Its power is generated by the most cataclysmic events that exist, such as a collision or merger between two supermassive black holes, objects billions of times larger than the sun, and which are theoretically at the center of many galaxies.

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“These tantalizing early indications of a gravitational wave background suggest that supermassive black holes are likely merging and that we are floating in a sea of ​​gravitational waves arising from mergers of supermassive black holes in galaxies throughout the universe,” Julie Comerford said, Associate Professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science at CU Boulder and member of the NANOGrav team.

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The power of the GWB would open up entirely new fields of study, especially those related to the enigmatic supermassive black holes, and one day if we became a space people, the GWB, like many other forces of nature that influence travel to the Land. , a factor in space travel as the power of low-frequency waves can alter the positions of planets, stars, and potentially even galaxies.

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