Well, this is it. We've finally gotten to the point where observing two black holes slamming together, possibly the most way-out physics-based idea one could wrap their head around, has become "routine". How did we get here?
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Vicky Kalogera, a Northwestern University physicist, took her week of much-needed vacation in Utah this past August. She promised her family she'd stay off of email for a week. It wasn't a real promise, of course, but she was going to try. She'd arranged the perfect day for August 17. Her husband was going to take the kids hiking in Arches National Park while she'd spend the whole day at the spa. Right as she left her room, she just had to give her email a peep. The deluge brought the news: Telescopes and detectors across the world were making a monumental observation.
Arguably the most exciting recent development in astronomy was 2016's announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves, waves that literally ripple the shape of space itself, created by violent events like black holes colliding. But every gravitational wave discovery had always been done with only two detectors, meaning that scientists only knew what caused the waves -- but couldn't really figure out where in the sky they came from.
Car crashes, nuclear explosions and even asteroid impacts are relatively puny compared with some of our universe's other explosive events. Heck, a violent, seemingly infinitely hot explosion is probably what set the whole universe in motion in the first place. So big collisions, like those between black holes many times the mass of our sun, could have some pretty wild consequences. Like scarring spacetime itself.
For the second time this year, physicists at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Waves Observatory (LIGO) are giddy with excitement. They have just confirmed the second detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime proposed by Albert Einstein a century ago. It seems we've officially entered the age of gravitational wave astronomy.