Rothstein Receives NASA Grant to Calculate Gravity Wave Signatures-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rothstein Receives NASA Grant to Calculate Gravity Wave Signatures

PITTSBURGH-Physics Professor Ira Rothstein has been awarded a $563,000 grant from NASA to calculate the expected gravity wave signature that is created when black holes collide. The research will help to interpret data collected from gravitational wave detectors.

According to NASA, gravitational waves are perturbations in the curvature of space-time, generated by heavy, rapidly accelerating matter and energy. The waves are caused by a number of sources, including black holes, binaries of compact stars and stellar remnants and relic radiation from significant events like the Big Bang.

While Albert Einstein first predicted gravitational waves in his Theory of General Relativity, they have yet to be detected. Several large, land-based gravity wave detectors have been built in the United States and abroad, and space-based systems have been proposed to search the skies for the elusive waves.  Most notable of these projects are the land-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) funded by the National Science Foundation, and the proposed space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), funded by NASA. 

"There is a huge amount of information about our universe that is just floating through space, that we have not had access to. If we can tap into gravity waves, it will be like taking a blindfold off, opening a whole new window on the world," Rothstein said.

While the first feat for these detector projects will be to gather large amounts of data, the next monumental task will be to find out what that data actually means. Under the new grant, Rothstein, a member of Carnegie Mellon's Bruce and Astrid McWilliams Center for Cosmology, and colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology will calculate the characteristics of gravity waves produced by the collision of two black holes. The group chose black hole collisions since they are thought to be one of the strongest sources of gravitational waves. After the calculations are developed, researchers will be able to apply them to data collected by the gravitational wave detectors, allowing them to determine if a gravity wave was caused by a black hole collision, or by something else, marking the first step to understanding the mysterious waves.

"Much like light seen through a telescope, gravity waves contain a library of information about our universe," Rothstein said. "Gravity waves are a fundamental part of our universe, yet everything we know about them is theoretical. It's exciting, this could be a new era in astrophysics."

Researchers believe that gravity wave signals will yield information about some of the most mysterious aspects of the universe, including the birth of galaxies and massive black holes, the behavior of general relativity and space-time, the expansion history of the universe, and the physics of dense matter and stellar remnants.

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