9 Conclusions and Future Directions

The development of gravitational wave detectors to their present capability has required patience, ingenuity, and dedication by an entire generation of experimental physicists. No less dedication and vision have been required by scientific funding organizations of a half-dozen nations and two major space agencies. The initial data runs of the LIGO and VIRGO detectors at their first sensitivity goals (bursts with amplitudes of 10–21) have not so far yielded any detections, but this is certainly not surprising. The operation of these detectors at this sensitivity level has demonstrated that the technology is understood, and the analysis of the data has provided important early experience and the opportunity to organize the efforts into the LSC and VIRGO collaborations. As the detectors are upgraded during the period 2008 – 2014, the first detection could occur at any time; if the advanced detectors do not make early detections, then there will inevitably be serious questions about general relativity. The field of gravitational wave detection has never before been at the point where it could test the fundamental theory.

Once the first detection is made, there will be increasing emphasis on the fundamental physics and astrophysics that will follow from further detections. As we have discussed in this review, one can look forward soon thereafter to a detailed comparison of black hole mergers with theory, to exploring the relationship between compact-object mergers and gamma-ray bursts, to using this association to make a precise and calibration-free measurement of the Hubble constant, and to population studies of neutron stars and black holes. In this early phase of gravitational wave astronomy there are very exciting (but less certain) potential observations: an unexpectedly strong cosmological background, which would revolutionize early-universe physics; the detection of mass asymmetry or normal-mode oscillations of rotating neutron stars, either of which would for the first time probe the interior physics of these complex objects and would help unravel the mystery of the pulsar phenomenon; the first studies of the interior core dynamics of a supernova, if one happens to occur nearby; the detection of populations of compact dark objects, like cosmic strings or small black holes; the discovery of exceptionally-massive black holes, around 100M ⊙; or the association of gravitational wave events with transient phenomena other than gamma-ray bursts, such as transient radio bursts.

When LISA is launched, the physics and astrophysics consequences become even richer. LISA will study black hole mergers during the early phases of galaxy formation, exploring the mysterious link between the two. It will map in detail black hole spacetimes and verify the black-hole uniqueness and area theorems of general relativity. It is likely to map the history of the expansion of the universe through measuring the distances to massive black hole mergers, and from that look for evidence that the dark energy has been evolving with time. It will discover every short-period binary system in our galaxy, calibrating white-dwarf masses, mapping their mass distribution, determining the population of neutron stars in binaries. As with ground-based detectors, LISA might make other discoveries that are harder to predict, such as a cosmological background, cosmic strings, intermediate-mass black holes, even g-mode oscillations of the sun. LISA has enough sensitivity to be able to make discoveries even of sources for which there are no signal models to aid data analysis. And if LISA does not see its verification binary sources, that will be fatal for general relativity.

Gravitational wave detections may also come from other technologies, such as pulsar timing searches or observations of the cosmic microwave background. The spectrum of gravitational waves is enormous, and present technologies can explore only a tiny fraction of it. Beyond the LISA timeframe, say after 2020, new technologies may come into the field and make possible detectors that extend the ground-based detection band to lower frequencies (such as the Einstein Telescope project), observing in space in the 0.1 Hz band, going up to megaHertz frequencies.

The present review has attempted to give a good overview of the science that can be done with gravitational waves, but it is certainly not complete. Future revisions are planned to add more on LISA, more on data analysis issues, and considerably more on detectors that might go beyond Advanced LIGO and VIRGO. This is a field that is developing rapidly. For example, the launch of LISA is 10 years away (at the time of writing, 2008), but already the scientific literature contains many hundreds of refereed papers on LISA science and technology, and every second year there is a major international symposium on the subject. This is probably unprecedented among space missions. Living Reviews in Relativity is planning to release a suite of articles in the near future on LISA, which will cover cosmology, tests of general relativity, galactic astrophysics, black hole astrophysics, and observations of low-frequency gravitational wave sources with LISA. Until the next revision, readers interested in keeping up with the field should also consult the proceedings of the regular conferences on gravitational waves: the Amaldi meetings, GWDAW (Gravitational Wave Data Analysis Workshops), GWADW (Gravitational Wave Advanced Detectors Workshops), and the LISA Symposium.


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