The first pulsar was observed in
What are gravitational waves? A gravitational field, which can be viewed as a distortion of local space, surrounds every massive object. Gravitational waves can be viewed as spreading ripples in this space distortion which arise when a massive object is moved and its gravitational fields disturbed. Like light, gravitational waves travel at the speed of light and obey the inverse-square law [intensity is proportional to 1/(distance)2]. Gravitational waves induce a kind of "kneading" distortion in the space through which they move, making local distances alternately larger and smaller. In one direction, perpendicular to the wave's direction of travel, space is stretched, while in the other direction space is compressed, with the stretch and compression exchanging places after half a period of the wave. The wave can be visualized a longsausage with its sides alternately pinched in side-to-side and top-to-bottom, with the pinches along the length of the sausage repeating with each wavelength and the entire sausage moving forward at the speed of light.
Gravitational waves have two distinct states of polarization. Viewed head-on, gravitational waves with the "+" polarization state alternately compress and expand space top-to-bottom and side-to-side (kneading space with a "+" pattern). Gravitational waves having the "X" polarization state compress and expand space along lines 450 to the right of vertical and to the left of vertical (kneading with an "X" pattern). These two polarization states make gravitational wave detection more difficult because a given detector is usually sensitive to only one of the two states and therefore detects only half of the possible signals.
Gravitational waves are very difficult to detect directly because they are the wave embodiment of the weakest force of the universe (gravity is 4.3 x 10-40 times weaker than electromagnetism). The effects of gravitational waves on matter are correspondingly small. Early detection attempts, using large resonant cylinders as detectors, produced some f\positive reports in the 1970's. Ultimately, however, resonant-cylinder detectors were shown to be too insensitive to detect gravitational waves at the intensities expected. At this writing (5/11/2010), despite the construction and operation of major interferometer-based gravitational wave detectors in the USA (LIGO), Germany (Geo 600), Italy (Virgo), and Japan (TAMA 300), gravitational waves have still not been directly detected.
Now there is a clever new approach to the problem of gravitational wave detection. As gravitational waves travel, they distort the space through which they travel, causing adjacent points to momentarily become farther apart or closer together. The result of this is that radio waves moving through a gravitational-wave distorted region of space will have a small variation, on the order of a microsecond, in their transit time through the region. This effect is independent of the polarization of the gravitational wave.
Thus, the precise timing of the radio pulses from millisecond pulsars will be modified as they pass through a region where the gravitational waves are present, and the pulse train will be delayed by microseconds to nanoseconds. This, at least in principle, permits gravitational-wave detection. Further, since there are about 70 known millisecond pulsars, a large fraction of which having trains of pulses that could be delayed by same gravitational wave, pairs of pulsar signals can be correlated to focus on the time delay variation present in both signals from the two pulsars, thereby suppressing noise. These relative strengths of these correlations can also give fairly precise information on the direction and distance of the source that produced the gravitational waves, provided that production was in the right frequency range and of sufficient intensity.
The NanoGrav Collaboration (North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves) is US/Canadian group of radio astronomers who are attempting to use millisecond pulsar timing, combining observations from a number of radio telescopes, to directly detect low frequency gravitational waves. The work is complementary to that of ground-based gravitational wave detectors (e.g., LIGO, etc.) and to the proposed space-based detector (LISA). LIGO is sensitive to gravitational waves with frequencies between 50 Hz and 10 kHz. LISA will be sensitive to gravitational waves with frequencies between 1 Hz and 10-5 Hz. The NANOGrav observations of pulsar timing will be sensitive to gravitational waves with very low frequencies between 10-7 and 10-10 Hz.
It turns out that significant gravitational wave radiation from two independent mechanisms should exist in the NANOGrav range of frequencies. In particular, there should be large numbers of super-massive black hole binary systems in the universe. These systems, usually near galactic centers, should involve pairs of orbiting super-massive black holes with masses on the order of 107 solar masses. Such systems should produce very intense low frequency gravitational waves that fall within the range of sensitivity of NANOGrav observations. In addition, it is expected that during the inflationary period of the early universe, primordial gravitational waves of similar intensities and frequencies should have been produced as the universe expanded and should still be present as the gravitational analog of the cosmic microwave background.
The problem for the NANOGrav detection of gravitational waves is that the present precision with which pulsar periods are determined lacks sufficient precision to achieve the needed sensitivity due to sparse data collection and insufficient duration of pulsar detection. Their goal is to correct these deficiencies by 2015 and to monitor at least 20 pulsars with 100 nanosecond precision and 5 pulsars with 10 nanosecond precision.
Therefore, this is an exciting time for gravitational
wave astronomy. In the next few
years, we can expect the first results from the NANOGrav effort, pinpointing the
locations of binary systems of supermassive black holes.
During this period we also expect the observations, at higher
frequencies, of gravitational wave detection by the ground-based gravitational wave
detectors. Watch this column and the
science press for breaking news of direct gravitational wave detection.
Note: In this version of this AV column, the term "gravity wave" has been replaced with "gravitational wave" everywhere in the text to conform with standard terminology. This is because the term "gravity wave" refers to a type of wave on the surface of the ocean.
John G. Cramer's 2016 nonfiction book (Amazon gives it 5 stars) describing his transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Quantum Handshake - Entanglement, Nonlocality, and Transactions, (Springer, January-2016) is available online as a hardcover or eBook at: http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319246406 or https://www.amazon.com/dp/3319246402.
SF Novels by John Cramer: Printed editions of John's hard SF novels Twistor and Einstein's Bridge are available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Twistor-John-Cramer/dp/048680450X and https://www.amazon.com/EINSTEINS-BRIDGE-H-John-Cramer/dp/0380975106. His new novel, Fermi's Question may be coming soon.
Alternate View Columns Online: Electronic reprints of 212 or more "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer published in Analog between 1984 and the present are currently available online at: http://www.npl.washington.edu/av .
"The International Pulsar Timing Array project: using pulsars as a gravitational wave detector", G. Hobbs, et al,, Classical and Quantum Gravity, Volume 27, Issue 8, pp. 084013 (2010); arXiv e-print:0911.5206 .
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