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For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive, spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.

The gravitational waves were detected on Sept. 14, 2015 by twin detectors at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington.

The discovery, accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, of which Montana State University has been a member since 2007.

Physics professor and MSU eXtreme Gravity Institute, XGI, co-director Neil Cornish leads the MSU LIGO group. Cornish, together with his current and past graduate students Margaret Millhouse, Tyson Littenberg, Paul Baker and Joey Shapiro Key, developed a novel method for extracting gravitational wave signals directly from the LIGO data. This analysis helped confirm the nature of the signal, and the consistency of the signal with the predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity.

"The detection of gravitational waves by LIGO is a tremendous achievement capping decades of work by a large number of people," said Cornish, "but this is just the beginning. I'm even more excited about the discoveries we are going to make going forward, both with LIGO and other gravitational wave detectors."

The eXtreme Gravity Institute at MSU is involved in two other gravitational wave projects: the North American NanoHertz Gravitational Observatory; and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna — a future space mission led by the European Space Agency with possible NASA involvement.

"The XGI at Montana State University was launched just a year ago, at a historic time. The institute captures the enthusiasm of MSU and Montana for exploring great unknowns of extreme gravity,” said Renee Reijo Pera, vice president for research and economic development at MSU.

The black hole created by the merger the scientists detected rotates 100 times per second, and has a mass 62 times larger the sun's. The power output of the merger briefly exceeded that of all the stars in the universe. The total energy release was a billion billion billion times greater than the last eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, or a million billion times the energy required to completely blow the Earth apart.

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