“We’re starting to fill in the mass spectrum of black holes in the universe,” said David Reitze, director of the LIGO Laboratory, a smaller group of scientists headquartered at Caltech and M.I.T. who built and run the observatory.
The National Science Foundation, which poured $1 billion into LIGO over 40 years, responded with pride. “This is exactly what we hoped for from N.S.F.’s investment in LIGO: taking us deeper into time and space in ways we couldn’t do before the detection of gravitational waves,” France Cordova, the foundation’s director, said in a statement. “In this case, we’re exploring approximately 3 billion light-years away!”
In the latest LIGO event, a black hole 19 times the mass of the sun and another black hole 31 times the sun’s mass, married to make a single hole of 49 solar masses. During the last frantic moments of the merger, they were shedding more energy in the form of gravitational waves than all the stars in the observable universe.
After a journey lasting 3 billion years, that is to say, a quarter of the age of the universe, those waves started jiggling LIGO’s mirrors back and forth by a fraction of an atomic diameter 20 times a second. The pitch rose to 180 cycles per second in about a tenth of a second before cutting off.
Zsuzsanna Marka, an astronomer at Columbia University, was sitting in an office on the morning of Jan. 4 when she got an email alert. She started to smile but then remembered she was not alone and the other person was not a member of LIGO, so she couldn’t say why she was smiling.
“I just kept smiling,” she said.
Upon further analysis it proved to be a perfect chirp, as predicted by Einstein’s equations. Because of the merger’s…