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LIGO detects gravitational waves for third time

A new window in astronomy has been firmly opened with a third detection of gravitational waves. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has made yet another detection of ripples in space and time, demonstrating that the detection of gravitational waves may soon become commonplace. As was the case with the first two detections, the waves were generated when two black holes collided to form a larger black hole.

The newfound black hole, formed by the merger, has a mass about 49 times that of our sun. This fills in a gap between the masses of the two merged black holes detected previously by LIGO, with solar masses of 62 (first detection) and 21 (second detection).

“We have further confirmation of the existence of stellar-mass black holes that are larger than 20 solar masses—these are objects we didn’t know existed before LIGO detected them,” says MIT’s David Shoemaker, the newly elected spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a body of more than 1,000 international scientists who perform LIGO research together with the European-based Virgo Collaboration. “It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such strange and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us. The entire LIGO and Virgo scientific collaborations worked to put all these pieces together.”

The new detection occurred during LIGO’s current observing run, which began November 30, 2016, and will continue through the summer. Its observations are carried out by twin detectors—one in Hanford, Washington, the other in Livingston, Louisiana—operated by Caltech and MIT with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In all three cases, each of the twin detectors of LIGO detected gravitational waves from the tremendously energetic mergers of black hole pairs. These are collisions that produce more power than is radiated as light by all the stars and galaxies in the universe at any given time.

The recent detection appears to be the farthest yet, with the black holes located about three billion light-years away. The black holes in the first and second detections are located 1.3 and 1.4 billion light-years away, respectively.

NCSA’s role in the detection

“NCSA is proud to be part of the LIGO Consortium. In addition to supporting the development of state-of-the-art algorithms for the detection and characterization of new gravitational wave sources, NCSA provides world-leading expertise in identity management, cyber-security, and network engineering, which are critical for the LIGO mission. Ongoing work by our gravity group will enable the use of Blue Waters, the NSF-supported leadership-class supercomputer operated by NCSA, to further accelerate these discoveries,” says Bill Gropp, NCSA’s interim director and chief scientist.

Achieving new insights about the astrophysical nature of gravitational wave sources in a completely uncharted territory is one of the most fascinating activities in contemporary astrophysics says Eliu Huerta, Gravity Group lead at NCSA. “The gravitational wave spectrum is full of surprises. Three events detected and all of them are binary black hole mergers. NCSA Gravity Group is actively contributing to this work with a transdisciplinary research program that involves the application of advanced cyber-infrastructure facilities, and innovative computational tools to tackle problems that range from detector characterization to analytical and numerical gravitational wave source modeling.”

Ed Seidel, founder professor of physics and vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois System, notes, “This third detection firmly establishes the emergent field of gravitational wave astrophysics, and confirms that the LIGO detectors will soon transition from their current discovery mode into an astronomical observatory. The gravitational wave spectrum has so far provided us with a glimpse of black hole collisions, and we eagerly await to hear about new classes of objects, in particular those that are expected to generate electromagnetic and astro-particle counterparts.”

“Numerical relativity has played a significant role in the validation of these three remarkable events. In addition to providing insights into the nature of the ultra compact objects that generate these signals, numerical relativity will play a critical role in the future identification and validation of events that involve matter, such as neutron stars mergers and black hole-neutron star collisions,” says Gabrielle Allen, astronomy professor and associate dean of the U of I College of Education.

About LIGO

LIGO is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and operated by MIT and Caltech, which conceived and built the project. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,000 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration. LIGO partners with the Virgo Collaboration, a consortium including 280 additional scientists throughout Europe supported by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN), and Nikhef, as well as Virgo’s host institution, the European Gravitational Observatory. Additional partners are listed at

About the National Center for Supercomputing Applications

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50 for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

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