For the first time, ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that can reveal the secrets of the formation of the universe have been observed.
Astronomers discovered them after 25 years of observations using six of the world’s most sensitive radio telescopes.
They are thought to come from pairs of supermassive black holes found at the centers of merging galaxies.
It may also hold answers to galaxies across the universe – including our own Milky Way, according to University of Manchester experts involved in the discovery.
Dr Michael Keith, lecturer at the university’s Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics, described the discovery as “the beginning of a new journey into the universe to unravel some of the unsolved mysteries”.
What are gravitational waves?
They are ripples in space created when two objects orbit each other — in this case, a pair of supermassive black holes hundreds of millions of times the mass of our sun.
Think of waves as footprints left by stars, planets and other phenomena as they move, which can then be studied to help map how the universe formed.
Ultralow frequency waves such as those caused by supermassive black holes have long wavelengths and extremely weak frequencies, making them difficult to detect.
That’s why a team of astronomers from the European Pulsar Timing Array and colleagues in India and Japan have spent a quarter of a century observing them.
It also required extremely sensitive telescopes – the six used are located around the world, including the Netherlands, Germany, India and the Jodrell Bank Center in Manchester.
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How were waves discovered?
Astronomers and physicists have observed a collection of pulsars, which are neutron stars that emit radio waves.
The selected pulsars span the Milky Way and combine to form a galaxy-sized gravitational-wave detector powerful enough to spot them at ultra-low waves.
Professor Alberto Vecchio, head of astrophysics and space research at the University of Birmingham, said it represented “the gold standard in physics”.
The next step is to expand the data collected during the experiment, using an array of more than 100 pulsars instead of the 25 used this time.
It also means that the number of telescopes used will more than double, to 13 in the next phase.