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Detecting Gravitational Waves on the Cheap

6 Jan 2010, 09:56 UTC
Detecting Gravitational Waves on the Cheap
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

Forget building gravitational wave detectors costing hundreds of millions of dollars (I’m looking at you, LIGO), make use of the most accurate cosmic timekeepers instead and save a bundle.
The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) is a proposal that involves closely monitoring the regular flashes of spinning neutron stars (or pulsars) to detect very slight “shimmers” in their signal. Although the physics is crazy-complex, by tracking these shimmers over a suitably distributed number of pulsars could reveal the passage of gravitational waves.
However, there’s a problem with this plan; pulsars are notoriously tricky stellar objects, as my colleague Jennifer Ouellette points out:
The problem is that you need to closely monitor rapidly-spinning millisecond pulsars, which are (a) tough to find (only 150 have been found over nearly three decades since pulsars were first discovered), and (b) not very plentiful in the part of the night sky of interest to scientists (northern hemisphere). They tend to clump together in globular star clusters, which makes them useless for detecting gravitational waves.
However, according to results announced by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) at this week’s American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Washington D.C., they’ve discovered 17 ...

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