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Earth blasted by shock waves from ancient cosmic crash

The collision of two black holes 3 billion years ago was "felt" on Earth in the form of gravitational waves detected for just the third time in history.

For just the third time ever, scientists have picked up gravitational waves, actual ripples in the fabric of space and time that were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago but never observed until last year

Like the first two detections of these cosmic shock waves, the latest can be traced back to a merger of two black holes forming a huge single black hole. This merger event occurred about 3 billion years ago, making it more than twice as old and distant as the last two events picked up by ground-breaking Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors in Louisiana and Washington state. 

A breakdown of the gravitational waves observed so far.


LIGO and the Virgo collaboration based in Europe published a paper Thursday on the latest detection in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The black hole collision that set off the gravitational waves is a little mind-blowing to think about. As if the basic idea of a black hole -- a point of gravity so powerful that even light itself can't escape -- weren't already weird enough. Now imagine two of them colliding in an epic crash that produces more energy than is radiated as light by all the stars and galaxies in the universe at any given moment. 

No wonder we can detect the shock waves of such a distant event. 

"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," MIT's David Shoemaker said in a news release. He is the spokesman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration

Observing gravitational waves gives scientists a whole new way to study the universe, better understand black holes and how they form, and perhaps even solve some of the greatest mysteries of space, like elusive dark matter.

This latest detection came on January 4 during LIGO's second observation run, which will continue through August. A third run is scheduled for late 2018, when major technical upgrades and a third detector in Italy should boost researchers' ability to spot more space-time tremors.

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