Illustration of gravitational waves produced by two orbiting black holes. [Credit: Henze/NASA]

What are Gravitational Waves?

Spacetime Curvature

Two-dimensional illustration of how mass in the Universe distorts space-time. [Credit: NASA]

Gravitational waves are 'ripples' in space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the Universe. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916 in his general theory of relativity. Einstein's mathematics showed that massive accelerating objects (such as neutron stars or black holes orbiting each other) would disrupt space-time in such a way that 'waves' of undulating space-time would propagate in all directions away from the source. These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself.

The strongest gravitational waves are produced by cataclysmic events such as colliding black holes, supernovae (massive stars exploding at the end of their lifetimes), and colliding neutron stars. Other waves are predicted to be caused by the rotation of neutron stars that are not perfect spheres, and possibly even the remnants of gravitational radiation created by the Big Bang.

The animation below illustrates how gravitational waves are emitted by two neutron stars as they orbit each other and then coalesce (credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center). Note that gravitational waves themselves are invisible. They are made visible here to illustrate their propagation away from the source.

Though Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, the first proof of their existence didn't arrive until 1974, 20 years after his death. In that year, two astronomers using the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico discovered a binary pulsar, exactly the type of system that general relativity predicted should radiate gravitational waves. Knowing that this discovery could be used to test Einstein's audacious prediction, astronomers began measuring how the stars' orbits changed over time. After eight years of observations, they determined that the stars were getting closer to each other at precisely the rate predicted by general relativity if they were emitting gravitational waves. For a more detailed discussion of this discovery and work, see Look Deeper.

Binary Pulsar

Artist's Impression of a Binary Pulsar. [Credit: Michael Kramer, Jodrell Bank, University of Manchester]



Since then, many astronomers have studied pulsar radio-emissions (pulsars are neutron stars that emit beams of radio waves) and found similar effects, further confirming the existence of gravitational waves. But these confirmations had always come indirectly or mathematically and not through direct contact.

All of this changed on September 14, 2015, when LIGO physically sensed the undulations in spacetime caused by gravitational waves generated by two colliding black holes 1.3 billion light-years away. LIGO's discovery will go down in history as one of humanity's greatest scientific achievements.

While the processes that generate gravitational waves can be extremely violent and destructive, by the time the waves reach Earth they are thousands of billions of times smaller! In fact, by the time gravitational waves from LIGO's first detection reached us, the amount of space-time wobbling they generated was a 1000 times smaller than the nucleus of an atom! Such inconceivably small measurements are what LIGO was designed to make. To learn how LIGO achieves this seemingly impossible task, visit LIGO's Interferometer.