An alert from a Syracuse graduate studying in Germany was crucial in expanding another major breakthrough in astronomy recently.
Alex Nitz – who earned a Ph.D. in physics – was examining data from one of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s two massive detectors in Louisiana in January when he observed the gravitational wave.
Shortly after noting the data from the Louisiana detector, Nitz confirmed what he was seeing with a second detector in Washington state.
“What I saw made my heart jump,” Nitz said.
He then alerted LIGO, which confirmed the phenomena.
“I alerted the group, beginning a process that woke up a lot of people a bit early in the United States. We compared the waveform to data we got from the detectors’ instruments, hunting for a small signal buried amid the noise. The analysis confirmed both instruments saw the same kind of signal at nearly the same time,” Nitz said.
LIGO announced the detection earlier this week.
According to LIGO, the collision of two massive black holes billions light years away sparked the gravitational wave.
They say one of the black holes was 31 times the mass of the sun, while the other was 19 times the mass of the sun.
“If the energy produced was visible light, instead of gravitational waves, the collision would have been brighter than all the stars in the universe combined,” said SU physics professor Peter Saulson.
Researchers at SU said that the detection – LIGO’s third since 2015 – demonstrates that “a new window into astronomy is fully open.”
Nitz began developing software at SU that was critical in the detection process.
Nitz says the work helped helped him “get in on the ground floor” with people looking for gravitational waves from binary black hole mergers.
“We are extremely proud of Alex for helping detect the furthest binary black hole merger that LIGO has seen. These black holes are over 2.8 billion light-years away,” said SU physics professor Duncan Brown.