Prof. Dr. Alessandra Buonanno
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The Max Planck Society – in 75 Seconds

The hunters – the detection of gravitational waves

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Astrophysical and Cosmological Relativity

In September and December 2015, gravitational waves emitted by two binary black-hole collisions were detected by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory). Researchers of the division have developed highly accurate models of gravitational waves that black holes generate in the final process of orbiting and colliding with each other. These waveform models are implemented and employed in the continuing search for binary coalescences in LIGO data. The detection does not only constitute a major scientific discovery in itself, but has a scientific impact in astrophysics and cosmology, enriching our understanding of gravitational phenomena and opening a revolutionary new window on our Universe.

In general relativity spacetime is a dynamic and elastic entity both influencing and influenced by the distribution of mass and energy that it contains. As a consequence the accelerated motion of mass and energy can generate ripples or gravitational waves in the fabric of spacetime propagating at the speed of light. Those ripples encode unique information about the source that has generated them.

Binary systems composed of black holes and/or neutron stars, spiraling in toward each other and loosing energy because of the emission of gravitational waves are the most promising and exciting sources for gravitational-wave detectors. However, to significantly increase the probability of identifying gravitational waves in the detector data, the search from these sources requires detailed knowledge of the expected signals.

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The research carried out in the "Astrophysical and Cosmological Relativity" division aims at improving our ability to detect and extract unique astrophysical and cosmological information from the observed waveforms and test fundamental equations of general relativity.

Scientists in this division work on several aspects of gravitational waves emitted by binary systems, notably
(i) theoretical gravitational dynamics and radiation (post-Newtonian theory, gravitational self-force formalism, perturbation theory and effective-one-body approach),
(ii) numerical simulations of gravitational-wave sources,
(iii) source modeling and analysis of data from gravitational-wave detectors, and
(iv) astrophysics of black holes and neutron stars.

Several scientists of the division are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC). The division also supports theoretical studies of gravitational-wave sources and the development of techniques for data analysis for the European Pulsar Timing Array collaboration and LISA, a planned space-based gravitational-wave detector. Some members of the division work at the AEI in Hannover and specialise in searches for continuous gravitational wave signals.

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