Gravitational waves: Numbers don't do them justice

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Albert Einstein: His genius is made clear yet again

"It's astonishing; it really is." Jim Hough can't stop repeating the phrase.

The veteran gravitational wave hunter from Glasgow University has come to the National Press Club in Washington DC to witness the announcement of the first direct detection of ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by the merger of two "intermediate-sized" black holes.

The numbers look bald on paper, but it's when you try to imagine the scenario being described in those numbers that you rock backwards.

Imagine two monster black holes spinning down on each other in space. One has a mass which is about 35 times that of our Sun, the other roughly 30. At the moment just before they coalesce, they're turning around each other several tens of times a second. And then, their event horizons merge and they become one - like two soap bubbles in a bath.

David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO), described it thus: "Take something about 150km in diameter, and pack 30 times the mass of the Sun into that, and then accelerate it to half the speed of light. Now, take another thing that's 30 times the mass of the Sun, and accelerate that to half the speed of light. And then collide [the two objects] together. That's what we saw here. It's mind boggling."

Media captionThis simulation shows how the merging black holes warped space - watch the seconds tick down (video: SXS/LIGO)

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Gravitational waves: A triumph for big science

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Image caption Some of the big questions in science now require big machines to answer them

The first direct detection of gravitational waves is without doubt one of the most remarkable breakthroughs of our time. The Advanced LIGO laboratories in the US states of Washington and Louisiana have traced the warping of space from the merger of two black holes about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth.

It represents the last great confirmation of Einstein's ideas, and opens the door to a completely new way to investigate the Universe. Astronomy and other fields of science are now entering a new era.

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Europe settles on design for Ariane 6 rocket

Media captionAirbus Safran Launchers' promotional video for the Ariane 6

The design for Europe's new Ariane 6 rocket has been settled and development will now move on apace, say officials.

The launcher is due to be introduced in 2020 and long-term will replace the Ariane 5 and Soyuz vehicles that currently operate out of French Guiana.

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James Webb: Hubble successor maintains course

Cryo-vac test Image copyright NASA/CHRIS GUNN
Image caption Soon to emerge: The instruments were placed in the Goddard vacuum chamber for testing late last year

The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is reaching some key milestones in its preparation for launch in 2018.

Engineers are about to complete the assembly of the primary mirror surface on the James Webb Space Telescope.

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'Case is made' for Anthropocene Epoch

People Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Humans have made an indelible mark on Planet Earth in a very short period of time

There is little doubt now that we have entered a new geological age, believes an international scientific panel.

The team, which has been tasked with defining the so-called Anthropocene, says humanity's impacts on Earth will be visible in sediments and rocks millions of years into the future.

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Enceladus: Does this moon hold a second genesis of life?

Artist's impression Image copyright RICHARD BIZLEY/SPL
Image caption The Enceladus Interplanetary Geyser Park: Might we go there someday?

The mighty Cassini probe has made many great discoveries at Saturn, but none top its extraordinary revelations at Enceladus.

What the plutonium-powered satellite has seen at this 500km-wide, ice-crusted moon is simply astounding.

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Europe's ExoMars missions are go - finally

Artist's impression of TGO and Schiaparelli Image copyright ESA
Image caption Artist's impression: The satellite will release the lander three days out from Mars

The first of Europe's ExoMars missions is finally ready to get under way.

This initial venture will involve a satellite going to the Red Planet to study trace gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere.

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Curiosity rover: The reward for 'whale watching' on Mars

Whale Rock Image copyright NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS
Image caption Whale Rock is about 50cm high and is made from sediment grains that bounced along a rippling stream bed

Whale Rock. It's got quite a story to tell.

When scientists first saw it in images returned from Nasa's Curiosity rover on Mars, they really weren't sure what to make of it.

Read full article Curiosity rover: The reward for 'whale watching' on Mars

Martian water streaks present exploration challenge

Streaks Image copyright NASA
Image caption The dark streaks - or "recurring slope lineae" - result from the movement of liquid water, Nasa scientists say

Wherever there's water, there's a good chance life can thrive.

H2O is the "lubricant" of biochemical reactions, and Nasa's announcement that liquid water flows under certain circumstances on the Red Planet will heighten expectation that this normally freezing, desiccated world might just provide a foothold for microbial organisms.

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Advanced Ligo: Labs 'open their ears' to the cosmos

Ligo optics Image copyright ADVANCED LIGO
Image caption Advanced Ligo represents one of the most sensitive measuring systems ever devised

The experiment that should finally detect ripples in the fabric of space-time is up and running.

Labs in the US states of Washington and Louisiana began "listening" on Friday for the gravitational waves that are predicted to flow through the Earth when violent events occur in space.

Read full article Advanced Ligo: Labs 'open their ears' to the cosmos