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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 2004 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

Gravitational Waves and the Effort to Detect them

A worldwide network of detectors may soon measure subtle ripples in spacetime itself, ushering in a new era of astrophysical research

Peter Shawhan

Einstein's general theory of relativity describes how changes in the configuration of a massive object generate ripples in the fabric of spacetime. These gravitational waves propagate away from their source at the speed of light, causing small undulations in the dimensions of the things they wash over. Evidence for the existence of gravitational waves is robust. For example, they neatly explain why the orbits of some binary star systems are slowly decaying. But nobody has ever detected a gravitational wave directly. That situation may soon change as giant gravitational-wave detectors come into operation. One of those projects is the Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a 300-million-dollar project with facilities in both Washington State and Louisiana. A member of the team of scientists working on LIGO, Shawhan explains what gravitational waves are and how the new generation of instruments might soon be able to detect them.


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