Ride the gravitational wave

CNU’s Dr. Fisher receives $10.8 million grant to uncover new properties of black holes

~Felix Phommachanh, Staff Writer~

In 1916, Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity suggested when a heavy object is in space, it distorts and bends the space around it, producing gravity. 

He also theorized that when heavy objects move quickly, they can produce gravitational waves. In 2015, the scientists of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) proved this part of the theory.

On Dec. 1, 2018, LIGO researchers, among them Dr. Ryan Fisher, a CNU professor of the PCSE Department, announced the discovery of four new gravitational waves.

These findings were supported by a $10.8 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. 

Gravitational waves are distortions in space-time, stretching and squeezing the space around them, resulting in huge explosions of energy coming from colliding black holes billions of light years away.

When the black holes collide, the gravitational waves are sent out across the universe like a ripple in a pond.  The closer an object is to the explosion, the more distorted the object is.

 As the waves travel through space, they become smaller. When they eventually reach Earth, LIGO’s observatory instruments gather data from the waves.

Fisher joined LIGO in 2009 as part of the Detector Characterization group working on understanding the performance interferometers.

As Fisher explained, “We’re working to understand the noise that is constantly inferring with our ability to detect these waves.” 

Fisher’s long involvement in this project helped lead to these recent discoveries.

A second project Fisher is involved in with LIGO is the search for gravitational waves coming from gamma-ray bursts. He explained that gamma-ray bursts are “another result of two neutron stars colliding into each other.”

Although LIGO is mostly focused on gravitational waves, they compare their findings with NASA’s Fermi and Swift gamma-ray telescope teams in order to see if gamma-ray bursts and gravitational waves are coming from the same neutron stars.

They only found one pairing of a gamma-ray burst with a gravitational wave that came from a neutron star binary, but if they could find more, Fisher states that “it could help understand what’s inside a neutron star.” 

His last, and most challenging project, is to find the source of fast radio bursts. 

Initially, there was debate in the public whether these were sign of extraterrestrial life, but Fisher and other scientists believe them to be similar to a gamma-ray burst, where there is different explosion in space. Fisher wants to find the source of these fast radio burst, but it is pretty difficult as the only way to find these is to “point a radio dish in a position and hope for the best.”  

The four new gravitational waves were discovered from LIGO’s second observation data, held from Nov. 30, 2016 to Aug. 25, 2017. The scientists removed systematic errors from the data, enabling them to get clearer and better signals from the data, uncovering the four new waves.  

When asked about how LIGO’s research on Waves help us understand space, he states it will help us understand the “cosmology, history and evolution of the universe.” 

“We know Gravitational Waves exist because of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and we proved it. The signals we theorized and data gathered are spot-on,” Fisher said.

“Finding Gravitational Waves could help us see what is inside a neutron star, how binary black holes are created, and what is going on at the center of supernovas. [The only problem is it might heat up the Earth if a supernova is close enough for LIGO to detect it]. Gravitational waves could teach us a lot of information about the universe.”  

The $10.8 million dollar grant is a shared fund across several LIGO researchers, allowing them to support the computational infrastructure gathered from their instruments. It provides scientists with software, equipment and the access to data across the world.

The grant will result in the development and operation of substantial computational infrastructure at CNU. 

CNU is currently the only university in Virginia to be linked to the LIGO project. 

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