Scientists are about to restart the hunt for ripples in space-time

Three powered-up facilities in the US and Europe are ready to continue their search for extreme cosmic events.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
2 min read

Two neutron stars colliding as gravitational waves spill outward.

Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes

On April 1, scientists will flip the switch on three giant machines that can detect ripples in the very fabric of the universe -- the mind-bending phenomena known as "gravitational waves". 

The giant twin facilities of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), in Louisiana and Washington, and the Virgo interferometer, stationed in Italy, have recently undergone significant upgrades to improve their many components.

Now they're ready to get back to work.

The facilities are able to detect gravitational waves because of a suite of high-powered lasers and mirrors. Each facility is arranged in an "L" shape with perpendicular arms stretching out for miles. At the corner of the L, a laser is fired, zipping down both arms and bouncing off mirrors before being sent back to its origin to recombine.

Gravitational waves give off very, very, very faint signals that can disturb the path of the laser and thus allow scientists to detect these universe-rippling events.

After upgrading the power of its lasers and replacing its mirrors, LIGO now has an increased sensitivity of about 40 percent over its last run. That will allow the twin facilities to peer across an even more vast amount of space in its effort to detect the waves. Similarly, Virgo has about doubled its own sensitivity.

With all three machines running better than ever before, detecting and locating "extreme cosmic events" that result in gravitational waves, such as black holes merging or neutron stars colliding, should get even better -- making it much easier to pinpoint exactly where in space the waves originated.

"With our three detectors now operational at a significantly improved sensitivity, the global LIGO-Virgo detector network will allow more precise triangulation of the sources of gravitational waves," said Jo van den Brand, a spokesperson for the collaboration, in a press release.

In previous detection runs, LIGO was inspecting the universe at a distance of up to 360 million light-years away. Since 2015, the facilities have detected 11 extreme cosmic events, including 10 black hole mergers and one instance of a neutron star collision. With the upgrade, the facilities will be able to peek an additional 190 million light-years into the universe.

"With LIGO and Virgo observing together for the next year, we will surely detect many more gravitational waves from the types of sources we've seen so far," said Peter Fritschel, chief detector scientists with LIGO.

"We're eager to see new events too, such as a merger of a black hole and a neutron star."

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