The detection of a new set of gravitational waves has expanded the window into the universe for scientists — including a team from LSU — that has spent the past few years mapping black holes in space, according to researchers working on the project.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, more commonly known as LIGO, announced Thursday that it recently made its third detection of gravitational waves. Like the research center's first two detections, the waves were created by the collision of two black holes that formed a larger ripple in the space-time fabric. 

This third discovery, made on Jan. 4, has a mass approximately 49 times that of our solar system's sun. The new detection, called GW170104, occurred during LIGO's current observation period that began Nov. 30, 2016, and concluded in early May, according to a news release about the discovery issued through LSU.

"We suspended the run in May so we can make improvements on the detectors, improving their sensitivity," said Thomas Corbitt, an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at LSU.  

LIGO's observations are conducted by twin detectors in Louisiana and Washington. LSU undergraduate and graduate students conduct much of the daily research at the observatory in Livingston Parish. 

"This new one was a lot farther away than the previous discoveries," Corbitt said. "That's why we want to make improvements so that in the future we get more events more frequently and some with more significance." 

LIGO's first discovery of gravitational waves happened in Sept. 2015. A second detection was announced in Dec. 2015.

Gravitational waves are caused by cosmic events like colliding black holes or neutron stars, explosive supernovas — even the birth of the universe. The waves travel across the universe at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot be otherwise obtained.

In all three discoveries, LIGO detected gravitational waves from the energetic mergers of black hole pairs. The black holes in the first and second detections were located 1.3 and 1.4 billion light-years away, respectively. The third has an estimated distance of approximately 3 billion light-years away.  

"We have further confirmation of the existence of stellar-mass black holes that are larger than 20 solar masses — objects we didn't know existed before LIGO detected them," David Shoemaker said in a news release about the discovery.

Shoemaker is an MIT scientist and newly-elected spokesman for the international group of scientists who perform LIGO research together with the European-based Virgo Collaboration. 

"It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such strange and extreme events that took place a billion years ago and a billion light-years distant from us," he said. 

The gravitational wave detections confirm a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and mark the beginning of the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy.

The LIGO-Virgo Team are now working on technical upgrades for LIGO's next scheduled observation set for late 2018. 

"While LIGO is uniquely suited to observing these types of events, we hope to see other types of astrophysical events soon, such as the violent collision of two neutron stars," LIGO executive director David Reitze said in a prepared statement. 

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