Scientists have developed a new method that can detect gravitational waves – invisible ripples in the fabric of space and time proposed by Albert Einstein as part of his theory of general relativity.
“Gravitational waves are emitted by accelerating masses,” said lead study author Barry McKernan, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Really big waves are emitted by really big masses, such as systems containing black holes merging with each other.
Direct observations of gravitational waves have not been made. The waves interact very weakly with matter, which partly explains why seeing these ripples in spacetime is difficult.
McKernan and his colleagues have now suggested that gravitational waves could have more of an effect on matter than previously thought, with their influence potentially brightening stars, ‘Space.com’ reported.
“We’re brought up as astronomers thinking the interaction between matter and gravitational waves is very weak, essentially negligible, and that turns out not to be true,” McKernan said.
The researchers suggest that stars that vibrate at the same frequency as gravitational waves passing through them can absorb a large amount of energy from the ripples.
A challenge is determining whether any star brightening astronomers detect is from gravitational waves or some other factor.
The researchers suggest the key to spotting the effects of gravitational waves involves looking at large groups of stars.
“When a population of stars is near a system of merging black holes and is getting pounded by gravitational waves, we think that the more massive stars will light up first,” McKernan said.
“As the black holes get closer together, the frequency of the gravitational waves they generate will increase, and we’d expect to see brightening of smaller stars,” he added.
“If we see a population of stars where the smaller stars are brightening after the bigger stars in a collective way, that might be a sign of gravitational waves,” he said.
The research is published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.