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Gravitational waves
This 3-D visualization shows the gravitational waves produced by two orbiting black holes. (Credit: NASA)

It looks as if scientists have chosen Thursday as the day to announce a potentially Nobel Prize-winning discovery: the first detection of gravitational waves, a century after they were predicted by Albert Einstein.

After months of rumors, simultaneous events have been scheduled for 7:30 a.m. PT in Washington, D.C., as well as in Italy, in Britain – and at Hanford, Wash., where one of the detectors for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory was built a decade and a half ago.

Since then, researchers using the Hanford detector and its twin in Livingston, La., have been looking for the ripples in spacetime created by violent clashes in the distant universe – for example, mergers of two black holes, collisions of neutron stars or the flare-up of supernovae.

The 2.5-mile-long observatories are built to detect the ever-so-slight perturbations caused by those ripples, amounting to less than 1 percent of the width of a proton. Last year, scientists finished upgrading the detectors for a phase of the project known as Advanced LIGO.

The first Advanced LIGO run began in September, and within just a couple of weeks, rumors of a gravitational-wave detection began filtering out. The rumors escalated in January, setting the stage for today’s announcement that an official announcement is coming.

There’s not much of a tip-off in the pre-announcement advisory, other than to say that LIGO’s scientists would “update the scientific community” about their efforts. But the fact that it’s at the National Press Club in Washington suggests this will be no ordinary status report.

A parallel European research effort, involving the VIRGO Collaboration, has planned a news conference at the same time at the European Gravitational Observatory in Pisa, Italy. Other events are being set up for journalists at the LIGO Hanford Observatory and at the Science Media Center in London.

Some details about purported findings have leaked out, but it’s already known that at least some of those details are wrong.

Why is this such a big deal? At least three reasons stick out:

  • Finding gravitational waves would confirm the last big prediction in Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Einstein proposed that gravitational shifts should send waves through the fabric of spacetime, just as seismic shifts send waves through Earth’s crust. Gravitational-wave energy would be so weak that only the most dramatic shocks could be detected, but they should exist. If not, that would pose a serious problem for relativity theory.
  • Beyond proving the truth of a 100-year-old claim, gravitational waves are expected to provide a new window on the universe. “Gravitational waves will change astronomy because the universe is nearly transparent to them. … Humans will be able to observe astrophysical objects that would have otherwise been obscured,” LIGO’s scientists say. Measurements of the waves could reveal how black holes form, and give scientists a better sense of how gravity works.
  • Successful detection would represent the biggest payoff yet for a “big science” project that has cost an estimated $620 million so far. It’s analogous to the discovery of the Higgs boson using the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider. In both cases, the big reveal is expected to be followed by further finds: LIGO is already in the midst of another upgrade that should make it significantly more sensitive to gravitational waves.

To get in on the buildup to Super Thursday, keep an eye on the LIGO website and monitor the #gravitationalwaves hashtag. GeekWire will be reporting on the big reveal from Washington as well as Hanford.

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