Pushing the boundary on ultralow frequency gravitational waves

An artist's rendering of gravitational waves showing spiraling blue ripples emanating from a bright white source in the center

Lowest-ever frequency gravitational waves spotted in pulsar data (Adobe Stock)

A team of physicists has developed a method to detect gravity waves with such low frequencies that they could unlock the secrets behind the early phases of mergers between supermassive black holes, the heaviest objects in the universe.

The method can detect gravitational waves that oscillate just once every thousand years, 100 times slower than any previously measured gravitational waves.

“These are waves reaching us from the farthest corners of the universe, capable of affecting how light travels,” said Jeff Dror, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physics at the University of Florida and co-author of the new study. “Studying these waves from the early universe will help us build a complete picture of our cosmic history, analogous to previous discoveries of the cosmic microwave background.”

Dror and his co-author, University of California, Santa Cruz postdoctoral researcher William DeRocco, published their findings Feb. 26 in Physical Review Letters.

Gravitational waves are akin to ripples in space. Like sound waves or waves on the ocean, gravitational waves vary in both frequency and amplitude, information that offers insights into their origin and age. Gravitational waves that reach us can be oscillating at extremely low frequencies, much lower than those of sound waves detectable with the human ear. Some of the lowest frequencies detected in the past were as low as one nanohertz.

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Brian Smith March 8, 2024