The BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica

Ripple effect: scientists await word on gravitational waves

A century after Albert Einstein proposed their existence, there are ripples of excitement in the scientific community about possible confirmation of existence of gravitational waves, a discovery that could open a new window on the universe.

(AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY) – A century ago, Albert Einstein hypothesized the existence of gravitational waves, small ripples in space and time that dash across the universe at the speed of light.

But scientists have been able to find only indirect evidence of their existence. On Thursday (February 10), at a news conference called by the U.S. National Science Foundation, researchers may announce at long last direct observations of the elusive waves.

Such a discovery would represent a scientific landmark, opening the door to an entirely new way to observe the cosmos and unlock secrets about the early universe and mysterious objects like black holes and neutron stars.

Scientists from the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration are set to make what they bill as a “status report” on Thursday on the quest to detect gravitational waves. It is widely expected they will announce they have achieved their goal.

Einstein in 1916 proposed the existence of these waves as an outgrowth of his ground-breaking general theory of relativity.

Scientists have been trying to detect them using two large laser instruments in the United States, known together as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), as well as another in Italy.

The twin LIGO installations are located roughly 1,800 miles (3,000 km) apart in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Having two detectors is a way to sift out terrestrial rumblings, such as traffic and earthquakes, from the faint ripples of space itself.

The LIGO work is funded by the National Science Foundation, an independent agency of the U.S. government.