Researchers at the University of East Anglia are part of an international team that have found evidence for ultra-low-frequency gravitational waves in space.
These waves are expected to come from pairs of supermassive black holes found in the centres of merging galaxies in the early Universe.
The results come after more than 25 years of observations from six of the world’s most sensitive radio telescopes.
The findings bring with them the promise of answers to some of the Universe’s unsolved mysteries, and the galaxies that populate it.
Dr Robert Ferdman, from UEA’s School of Physics, said: “Gravitational waves are the deformation of space-time travelling at the speed of light. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity back in 1915 and indirectly detected for the first time in 1982.
“Pulsars are the collapsed remains following the explosions of massive stars, where the core survives as a city-sized neutron star. The fastest pulsars rotate at a speed of 700 turns per second and emit a beam of radiation from their magnetic poles. They behave like cosmic lighthouses, and they make excellent natural clocks.”
“We use the incredible regularity of their signals to search for minute changes in their ticking to detect the subtle stretching and squeezing of space-time by gravitational waves originating from the distant Universe,” said Dr David Champion, senior scientist at the MPIfR in Bonn, Germany.
Dr Ferdman said: “This gigantic gravitational wave detector - spanning from the Earth to 25 chosen pulsars across the Galaxy - makes it possible to probe gravitational wave frequencies much lower than those probed by other experiments.
“Our findings are a crucial milestone in opening an astrophysically rich window in the gravitational wave spectrum,” he added.
Dr Stanislav Babak from the APC Laboratory at CNRS, France, said: “These ultra-low frequency gravitational waves carry information about some of the best-kept secrets of the Universe.”
One such secret would be the cosmic population of binary black holes with masses millions to billions of times that of the Sun which form when galaxies merge. This provides crucial direct clues about how galaxies formed in the early Universe and have evolved since.
Dr Michael Keith, a lecturer at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, UK, said: “The results presented today mark the beginning of a new journey into the Universe to unveil some of its unsolved mysteries.”
The findings come from the scientists of the European Pulsar Timing Array (EPTA), in collaboration with Indian and Japanese colleagues of the Indian Pulsar Timing Array (InPTA) – and are published today in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
The EPTA is a collaboration of scientists from institutions across Europe, including UEA. It brings together astronomers and theoretical physicists to use observations of pulsars and their ultra-regular pulses to construct a Galaxy-sized gravitational wave detector, called a Pulsar Timing Array.
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