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WVU researchers help detect gravitational waves for the third time; confirm new population of black holes


West Virginia University professors Zach Etienne and Sean McWilliams and a group of WVU graduate students are part of a global team of scientists who have detected gravitational waves for the third time, demonstrating that a new window in astronomy has been firmly opened. 

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, made a third detection of ripples in space and time on January 4, which is described in a new paper in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The first detection of gravitational waves in 2015 was widely considered to be the most important scientific discovery of the century.

The detection provided a new confirmation of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which predicts that space and time are intertwined, and can be made to ripple when orbiting black holes stir them up. These ripples, called gravitational waves, can shrink and stretch anything in their path, although the effect at the Earth is imperceptibly small and very difficult to observe.

In this new LIGO detection, as was the case with the previous two, gravitational waves were generated when two black holes collided to form a larger black hole. The newly formed black hole had a mass about 50 times that of our Sun, and the collision produced more power than is radiated as light by all the stars in the universe at any given time.

Scientists say that the detection further confirms the existence of stellar-mass black holes – those formed by the collapse of a massive star – that are larger than 20 times the mass of our Sun. It also confirms that a new era of scientific discovery is at hand, and with every new detection scientists will learn new information about the universe.

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