Reply to post: Anyone remember Greg Egan's "Diaspora" (1998)

Boffins' gravitational wave detection hat trick blows open astronomy

Anonymous Coward
Anonymous Coward

Anyone remember Greg Egan's "Diaspora" (1998)

Bullialdus observatory, Moon

24 046 104 526 757 CST

2 April 2996, 16:42:03.911 UT

... Bullialdus was a gravitational wave detector, part of a solar-system-wide observatory known as TERAGO. A single laser beam was split, sent along perpendicular journeys, then recombined; as the space around the crater was stretched and squeezed by as little as one part in ten-to-the-twenty-fourth, the crests and troughs of the two streams of light were shifted in and out of alignment, causing fluctuations in their combined intensity which tracked the subtle changes of geometry. One detector, alone, could no more pinpoint the source of the distortions it measured than a thermometer lying on the regolith could gauge the exact position of the sun, but by combining the timing of events at Bullialdus with data from the nineteen other TERAGO sites, it was possible to reconstruct each wavefront's passage through the solar system, revealing its direction with enough precision, usually, to match it to a known object in the sky, or at least make an educated guess.

... As well as recording any sudden catastrophes, TERAGO was constantly monitoring a few hundred periodic sources. It took an event of rare violence to produce a burst of gravitational radiation sufficiently intense to be picked up halfway across the universe, but even routine orbital motion created a weak but dependable stream of gravitational waves.

... Lacerta G-1 was a pair of neutron stars, a mere hundred light years away. ... G-1a and G-1b were separated by just half a million kilometers, and over the next seven million years gravitational waves would carry away all the angular momentum that kept them apart. When they finally collided, most of their kinetic energy would be converted into an intense flash of neutrinos, faintly tinged with gamma rays, before they merged to form a black hole. At a distance, the neutrinos would be relatively harmless and the "tinge" would carry a far greater sting; even a hundred light years would he uncomfortably close, for organic life. Whether or not the fleshers were still around when it happened, Karpal liked to think that someone would take on the daunting engineering challenge of protecting the Earth's biosphere, by placing a sufficiently large and opaque shield in the path of the gamma ray burst. Now there was a good use for Jupiter. It wouldn't he an easy task, though; Lac G-1 was too far above the ecliptic to be masked by merely nudging either planet into a convenient point on its current orbit.

Lac G-1's fate seemed unavoidable, and the signal reaching TERAGO certainly confirmed the orbit's gradual decay. One small puzzle remained, though: from the first observations, G-la and G-1b had intermittently spiraled together slightly faster than they should have. The discrepancies had never exceeded one part in a thousand—the waves quickening by an extra nanosecond over a couple of days, every now and then—but when most binary pulsars had orbital decay curves perfect down to the limits of measurement, even nanosecond glitches couldn't be written off as experimental error or meaningless noise.

With a martyr's sigh, Karpal touched the highlighted name on the screen, and a plot of the waves from Lacerta for the preceding month appeared.

It was clear at a glance that something was wrong with TERAGO. The hundreds of waves on the screen should have been identical, their peaks at exactly the same height, the signal returning like clockwork to the same maximum strength at the same point on the orbit. Instead, there was a smooth increase in the height of the peaks over the second half of the month—which meant that TERAGO's calibration must have started drifting. Karpal groaned, and flipped to another periodic source, a binary pulsar in Aquila. There were alternating weak and strong peaks here, since the orbit was highly elliptical, but each set of peaks remained perfectly level. He checked the data for five other sources. There was no sign of calibration drift for any of them.

Baffled, Karpal returned to the Lac G-1 data. He examined the summary above the plot, and sputtered with disbelief. In his absence, the summary claimed, the period of the waves had fallen by almost three minutes. That was ludicrous. Over 28 days, Lac G-1 should have shaved 14.498 microseconds off its hour-long orbit, give or take a few unexplained nanoseconds. There had to he an error in the analysis software; it must have become corrupted, radiation-damaged, a few random bits scrambled by cosmic rays somehow avoiding detection and repair.

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