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Illustrating a historical moment in physics

CMU professor’s map helps LIGO visualize Einstein’s waves

Contact: Curt Smith

​​​The science community was abuzz last Thursday with the news that a gravitational wave was detected from the collision of two black holes in the cosmos. The discovery was hailed as one of the greatest physics victories in more than 100 years, and a Central Michigan University faculty member played a key role in illustrating the finding.

A panoramic image of the galaxy created by Axel Mellinger, associate professor of physics, was used in the official announcement by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory to illustrate the location of a black hole collision 1.3 billion light-years away. The panorama is a pivotal part of the gallery used by LIGO to make the announcement that confirmed a theory written by Albert Einstein in 1915.

Mellinger first created the all-sky mosaic image of the Milky Way in 2009. The project took him almost two years to complete, and the final product is comprised of more than 3,000 individual frames taken at locations in South Africa, Texas and Michigan. His careful work piecing together this puzzle of the galaxy helped him to recognize his panorama when he looked more closely at the LIGO announcement. Mellinger says this is not the first time the map has been used for a discovery in the cosmos.

Galaxy“The panorama has actually been used quite a bit,” he said. “In 2012, for example, the map helped illustrate measurements taken by the Hubble Space Telescope revealing the Andromeda galaxy is on a collision course with our own Milky Way. It forms the background of a map illustrating Earth’s night sky 3.75 billion years from now.”

Mellinger confirmed with researchers at LIGO that his panorama had been used, and they agreed to add an acknowledgment of his contribution. His map is now a key instrument used to help visualize the discovery of gravitational waves.

Without the map, which Mellinger made publicly available after its creation, the gallery would need to rely on hand-drawn or computer-generated images versus the actual image to visualize where the gravitational waves originated. With his panorama, LIGO was able to share specific information about the location of the black hole collision and illustrate with 90 percent certainty where the collision occurred.

A large print of the full map is on display on CMU’s campus in the Dow Science Building. Mellinger says it is used as an educational tool in planetariums around the world, including Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

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