Listening to the Universe

A new type of astronomical observatory lets scientists listen to the music of the cosmos produced by gravitational waves, and scientists using a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) funded by a $500 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant are doing just that.

Listening to the Universe

Montclair State Mathematical Sciences professor Marc Favata is one of the scientists on the LIGO Scientific Collaboration team, which is managed by Caltech and MIT and received the three–year NSF grant to explore issues in modeling gravitational-wave (GW) sources.“The grant involves improving our understanding of GW signals so we can better analyze the data from the detectors,” he explains. “These signals have properties similar to sound waves, so in a certain sense, we are attempting to listen to the universe.

”Favata describes gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, as “ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by movements of dense, massive objects like neutron stars or black holes moving at close to the speed of light.”

Neutron stars and black holes occur when stars larger than the sun reach the end of their life spans. “Many stars in the universe are in binaries,” says Favata. “Eventually, the stars will collide and release a final strong burst of GWs.” LIGO operates detectors in Louisiana and Washington designed to provide precise measurements of such wave signals.

“Observing the final collision of neutron stars provides a new way of looking at the universe,” explains Favata. “My project consists of several separate parts related to modeling GWs,” says Favata. These involve modeling detector data; calculating the errors expected if an incorrect model is used; and producing mathematical models of the “memory effect,” a non-oscillatory signal that occurs when gravitational waves themselves produce more waves. For the project’s educational outreach component, Favata is training student assistants and developing a website that will convert wave signals into sound.