Can you hear black holes collide?

Hear black holes The precision of the GEO600 experiment makes high demands on the quality of the measuring system. This image shows silica suspension wires being welded to special synthesized fused quartz mirrors. [copyright: GEO600]

Albert Einstein Institute; Cardiff University; University of Glasgow; University of Southampton; University of Birmingham

Einstein's general theory of relativity predicts that black holes exist and that they emit "gravitational waves". Although indirect evidence exists for these gravitational waves they have so far proved too elusive to detect. All this may change in the next couple of years with new detectors that are highly sensitive to changes in gravity.

Hunting for gravitational waves is a huge international project with more than 400 scientists working with detectors based in Europe and America. The British-German GEO600 detector forms a key part of this network. 'The detectors are more like microphones than telescopes,' explains Nils Andersson a mathematician at the University of Southampton. 'They pick up everything that affects gravity such as earthquakes or even a passing lorry. There is therefore a great deal of work sifting through the "background noise".

Detectors are built based on computer models of what gravitational waves would look like. They basically measure the time taken for reflected laser light to travel down a vacuum tube, as this will be affected by gravitational waves. Scientists hope to detect the gravitational waves emitted when two black holes collide. 'So despite increased sensitivity, there are still issues of how often these collisions occur and whether they occur at a distance close enough to earth,' says Nils.

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