Gravitational waves: What they are and why scientists are so excited about them

Click to play video: 'What are gravitational waves?'
What are gravitational waves?
WATCH: Astronomers have announced they have found the first direct evidence of gravitational waves. But what are gravitational waves? – Feb 11, 2016

You may have come across the term “gravitational waves” over the past week through social media. That’s because the scientific community is abuzz with a possible announcement today that the elusive signature in space finally may have been directly detected.

READ MORE: Scientists confirm first direct evidence of gravitational waves

Gravitational waves are a form of radiation, ripples in space-time that travel at the speed of light. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his theory of general relativity in 1916, but thus far no direct detection has been made.

There has been indirect detection, however: In 1993, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor Jr. for the discovery of a new type of pulsar (a rapidly spinning star that sends out regular pulses of radio waves and electromagnetic radiation) which suggested the existence of gravitational waves.

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WATCH: Detection of gravitational waves being called a game-changer by scientific community

Click to play video: 'Detection of gravitational waves being called a game-changer by scientific community'
Detection of gravitational waves being called a game-changer by scientific community

Researchers using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) are searching for these waves using an interferometer.

Two telescopes are set up kilometres apart — one in Hanford, Wash. and another in Livingston, La., splitting a single laser beam that travels perpendicularly. Those beams of light should return to the original source perfectly aligned — and we’re talking in very precise scales here.

But a gravitational wave could change the distance that the beam travels compared to the other source. How slight a difference are we talking about? About 1/10,000th the width of an atom. Of course there’s a possibility that something else could interfere with the measurements, and that’s why LIGO must filter out all other sources of “noise.”

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On Monday, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration issued a press release announcing an update on the search for these waves. And now the scientific community is anticipating an announcement that the waves have been detected at last.

WATCH: Eric Sorensen explains how this discovery of gravitational waves could lead to new discoveries about the universe.
Click to play video: 'Astronomers make major discovery about gravitational waves'
Astronomers make major discovery about gravitational waves

So why does it even matter if we detect them or not?

Gravitational waves could help astronomers listen in on cataclysmic processes, such as the merging of black holes or even distant supernovas. Basically, these waves could teach us much more about our universe.

These waves will also help scientists to gain a better, more accurate understanding of our universe, its origins and workings as well as help further prove Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

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