Cosmic Cataclysms

Joan Centrella poses with a scale model of one of the three LISA spacecraft, which are designed to detect gravitational waves from black-hole mergers.
Bonny Schumaker (JPL)
What are the most energetic events in the universe since the Big Bang? If you ask an astronomy aficionado, there’s a good chance the reply will be “supernova” or “gamma-ray burst.” Sure, these explosions release such staggering amounts of energy that they boggle the imagination. But they’re pipsqueaks compared to what happens when two supermassive black holes collide and merge. These cosmic cataclysms can release tens or hundreds of times more energy than a stellar explosion. That energy comes out almost entirely in the form of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time predicted by Albert Einstein. To learn more about these incredible and fascinating collisions, listen to this 15-minute podcast interview with award-winning astrophysicist Dr. Joan Centrella, director of the Gravitational-Wave Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Click here to download the 4.5-megabyte, 13-minute podcast.

Click here and here to download 35-megabyte .mpg files showing computer simulations of black-hole mergers.