2 Gravitational Waves

Some early relativists were sceptical about the existence of gravitational waves; however, the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hulse and Taylor for their experimental observations and subsequent interpretations of the evolution of the orbit of the binary pulsar PSR 1913+16 [48, 96], the decay of the binary orbit being consistent with angular momentum and energy being carried away from this system by gravitational waves [108].

Gravitational waves are produced when matter is accelerated in an asymmetrical way; but due to the nature of the gravitational interaction, detectable levels of radiation are produced only when very large masses are accelerated in very strong gravitational fields. Such a situation cannot be found on earth but is found in a variety of astrophysical systems. Gravitational wave signals are expected over a wide range of frequencies; from ≃ 10–17 Hz in the case of ripples in the cosmological background to ≃ 103 Hz from the formation of neutron stars in supernova explosions. The most predictable sources are binary star systems. However there are many sources of much greater astrophysical interest associated with black hole interactions and coalescences, neutron star coalescences, low-mass X-ray binaries such as Sco-X1, stellar collapses to neutron stars and black holes (supernova explosions), pulsars, and the physics of the early Universe. For a full discussion of sources refer to the material contained in references [83Jump To The Next Citation Point, 17, 65].

Why is there currently such interest worldwide in the detection of gravitational waves? Partly because observation of the velocity and polarisation states of the signals will allow a direct experimental check of the wave predictions of General Relativity; but more importantly because the detection of the signals should provide observers with new and unique information about astrophysical processes. It is interesting to note that the gravitational wave signal from a coalescing compact binary star system has a relatively simple form and the distance to the source can be obtained from a combination of its signal strength and its evolution in time. If the redshift at that distance is found, Hubble’s Constant – the value for which has been a source of lively debate for many years – may then be determined with, potentially, a high degree of accuracy [88].

Only now technology has reached a stage where the building of detectors of the sensitivity required to observe such interesting sources can be envisaged.


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