Scientists detect a mysterious burst of gravitational waves

Mysterious burst of gravitational waves from deep space appears to be coming from the direction of Betelgeuse, scientists claim

  • An ‘unusual’ and ‘unexpected’ gravitational wave burst hit the Earth on Tuesday 
  • It was detected somewhere in the region of the red supergiant Betelgeuse
  • Due to the unexpected nature scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint it exactly 

A mysterious gravitational wave burst has been detected hitting Earth and it comes from somewhere near the red supergiant Betelgeuse. 

The ripple in the fabric of spacetime was spotted by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the USA.

Experts can’t say what caused the wave or whether it is a genuine gravitational wave at all due to its unusual nature – they say it may be a ‘false positive’.

So far waves detected by LIGO have all been linked to significant events such as two black holes colliding or neutron stars merging, but this is ‘a new type of wave’.

This type of ‘burst’ could be linked to phenomena such as supernova or gamma ray bursts, according to the observatory. 

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The ripple in the fabric of spacetime was spotted by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the USA. Stock image illustrating waves coming from two black holes orbiting each other

The idea of it being linked to a possible supernova explosion had a number of astronomers pondering whether they may be about to witness the death of the red supergiant Betelguese.

The star is about eight million years old and is predicted to go supernova at some point in the next 100,000 years. 

Recently the star has been ‘acting strange’, becoming much dimmer than it has been since modern observations began. 

Astronomer Andy Howell said it’s unlikely to be Betelgeuse exploding because it was too short of a gravitational wave burst.

He said there was no significant increase neutrinos detection – something you’d expect to see if a star went supernova.

Gravitational waves are ‘ripples in spacetime’ predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, we only detected them for the first time in 2016. 

They can be produced, for instance, when black holes orbit each other or by the merging of galaxies.

Gravitational waves are also thought to have been produced during the Big Bang.

Astronomers have already turned their telescopes to the area of the sky where the gravitational waves were detected in the hope of finding out the real cause.

Even some of the bigger telescopes will be changing their target of study, according to NASA research scientist Dr Jessie Christiansen.

She said: ‘Instead of getting scheduled time, folks can override whoever is on the telescope if something super cool happens, and repoint it wherever they want.’

The exact location has yet to be pinned down due to the unusual and unexpected nature of the burst, but more details are expected in the next few days and weeks – assuming it really is a gravitational wave, say LIGO. 

So far waves detected by LIGO have all been linked to significant events such as two black holes colliding or neutron stars merging, but this is ‘a new type of wave’

LIGO describes the type of burst waves as ‘the gravitational waves that go bump in the night’ on its website.

They say there is no model for what to look for when there is a supernova so while it could be an exploding star generated the burst, it could also be something different.

‘Supernovae are one of the targets of our burst search! We are limited to those within our Galaxy currently. 

‘Other targets include accretion events, cosmic strings and the unknown.’

Christopher Barry, a gravitational waves expert from LIGO said the anomaly, named S200114f is from an ‘unmodelled search’ and so is too early to properly confirm. 

‘Intermediate mass black hole binaries and eccentric black hole binaries are popular sources, but I always hope that we’ll find something completely new. 

‘It’s probably not aliens.’ 

HOW DOES THE LIGO DETECTOR WORK?

Ligo is made up of two observatories that detect gravitational waves by splitting a laser beam and sending it down several mile (kilometre) long tunnels before merging the light waves together again.

A passing gravitational wave changes the shape of space by a tiny amount, and the Ligo was built with the ability to measure a change in distance just one-ten-thousandth the width of a proton.

However, this sensitivity means any amount of noise, even people running at the site, or raindrops, can be detected. 

The Ligo detectors are interferometers that shine a laser through a vacuum down two arms in the shape of an L that are each 2.5 miles (four kilometres) in length.

The light from the laser bounces back and forth between mirrors on each end of the L, and scientists measure the length of both arms using the light.

If there’s a disturbance in space-time, such as a gravitational wave, the time the light takes to travel the distance will be slightly different in each arm making one arm look longer than the other.

Ligo (pictured) is made up of two observatories that detect gravitational waves by splitting a laser beam and sending it down several mile (kilometre) long tunnels before merging the light waves together again

Ligo scientists measure the interference in the two beams of light when they come back to meet, which reveals information on the space-time disturbance.

The ensure the results are accurate, Ligo uses two observatories, 1,870 miles (3,000 kilometres) apart, which operate synchronously, each double-checking the other’s observations.

The noise at each detector should be completely uncorrelated, meaning a noise like a storm nearby one detector doesn’t show up as noise in the other.

Some of the sources of ‘noise’ the team say they contend with include: ‘a constant ‘hiss’ from photons arriving like raindrops at our light detectors; rumbles from seismic noise like earthquakes and the oceans pounding on the Earth’s crust; strong winds shaking the buildings enough to affect our detectors.’

However, if a gravitational wave is found, it should create a similar signal in both instruments nearly simultaneously. 

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