The Dance of the Stars: Scientists Measure Massive Space Waves

Jul 3, 2023

Our universe is wiggling, and physicists have found out why.  

“It’s really the first time that we have evidence of just this large-scale motion of everything in the universe,” Maura McLaughlin told The Associated Press (AP). She’s the co-director of NANOGrav. It's a group of scientists who study gravitational waves. These are massive ripples pushed through space by the movement of black holes.

NANOGrav published their findings on Thursday. They study what happens when galaxies fall in on themselves and black holes orbit each other. These black holes are billions of times heavier than our sun. When they move, they give off gravitational waves. NANOGrav measures the strength and effect of those waves as they move around the universe. These waves are similar to the sound waves you can hear from a violin or a singer.  

“Supermassive black hole binaries … are the tenors and bass of the cosmic opera,” astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka told the AP. 

These waves won't be topping any music charts. But they do change how certain stars, called pulsars, give off light. Pulsars are stars that have burned out and died. NANOGrav used the whole galaxy to help them measure things. They watched the way pulsars twinkle. Usually, that twinkling is very, very steady. But they watched for small changes in how often a pulsar twinkles. This way the scientists could tell when a wave had passed by and moved the pulsar.   

Knowing how these waves change the universe can teach us a lot about space. This could even give us a way to understand how everything in the universe started.  Gemma Janssen is an astronomer. She told that these slow-moving gravitational waves carry secrets about the universe we've yet to uncover.  

Photo from Reuters. 

Reflect: Do you think it is important for scientists to study the movement and motion of everything in the universe? What do you think they might discover by doing this research?

What idea is highlighted the most throughout the story? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. the impact of gravitational waves on space objects
b. the relationship between sound waves from instruments and from the universe
c. the study about what happens when galaxies fall in on themselves and black holes orbit each other
d. the use of pulsar twinkling to understand the universe's motion
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