Heart of Louisiana: LIGO

Heart of Louisiana: LIGO
Updated: May. 10, 2016 at 8:55 PM CDT
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LIVINGSTON PARISH (WVUE) - It may seem like an unlikely place for deep space research, but a laboratory in the woods of Livingston Parish is on the cutting edge of uncovering some of the hidden secrets of the universe. Scientists at the LIGO facility recently captured the gravitation waves from a collision of black holes that occurred more than a billion years ago.

Once a month, visitors fill the science center and learn about light, gravity and gravitational waves.

"It mimics waves, just like gravitational waves, light waves, how it moves in a wave form, so it kind of translates the motion here, translates down to the end," said LGO volunteer Bryant Ross.

Some of these basic principles of science are now being used to record cataclysmic events in the universe so far away that they can only be detected at LIGO.

"So LIGO stands for laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory," said LIGO's William Katzman. It's like having a new sense. So for the first time, we can hear the universe speak to us."

Simply put, a laser beam is split and sent down two identical tubes, each one two-and-a-half miles long. If a gravitational wave from outer space passes through the earth, there will be the tiniest, momentary change in the length of the laser.

"So it went out like this, and any change in length will make the light come back out of sync," said Amber Stuver.

Stuver, who has a Ph.D in physics, has worked at LIGO for 17 years. During that time, no gravitation waves were detected. LIGO got an upgrade and was going through its final operational tests when it happened.  It was just before 5 a.m. Sept. 14, 2015. A gravitational wave, that came from two colliding black holes more than a billion light years away, passed through earth, and was recorded at LIGO.

Whenever a gravitational wave comes by, it compresses space in one direction, expands it in the other, and it's going to go back and forth like that.

That wave moved the mirrors in this giant laser ruler. It was a movement that was unimaginably small.

The gravitational wave changed the length of our two-and-a-half mile long arms less than a bit of matter that makes up part of an atom, so most people call that not measurable. That one split second of data came from the violent collision of two black holes.

There is another LIGO just like this one in Washington State. It's like having two ears, it's in stereo, so that if a wave is detected, scientists can tell what direction it's coming from.

The wave came from the direction of earth's southern hemisphere. So as the gravitational wave moved up, it moved through the earth, hit us and continued northward, and then 7 milliseconds later, hit the other LIGO detector and then continued on its way. It's still traveling out into space right now.

It was amazing luck that the Louisiana LIGO had just become operational the morning that wave was detected.  If it had not been turned on, that one event would have been missed.  Now, scientists are patiently waiting for the next gravitational wave to get another glimpse into the far reaches of our universe.

You can take the kids to science Saturdays at LIGO near Livingston on the third Saturday of every month. For more information, click here.

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