A newly released documentary brings the hunt for ripples in the fabric of space-time — called gravitational waves — into focus, and you can watch it live on Space.com.
The 20-minute film, called "LIGO, A Passion for Understanding," follows the scientists working to create one of the most powerful scientific tools ever made: the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories, or LIGO for short. LIGO collected data between 2004 and 2010, but a newly upgraded version of the instrument is set to come online in 2015. You can watch the LIGO documentary on Space.com now.
"As an aspiring filmmaker, it is my intent to focus on films which act as a conduit for science education and outreach," Kai Staats, the director of the new film, said of the inspiration behind the documentary. "While the general populous understands 'cancer research' and frequently quotes the most recent findings on age or diet, most people do not really understand what science is about, nor even what 'science' means." [Photos: Hunting Gravitational Waves with LIGO]
The $205 million LIGO is designed to detect gravitational waves from Earth using a laser that shoots down two 2.5-mile (4 kilometers) arms outfitted with mirrors. In theory, if a gravitational wave passes, the two lasers will change size relative to each other.
The two LIGO observatories — one in Washington state and another in Louisiana — are seismically isolated so that scientists can try to be sure that they are measuring a gravitational wave instead of another event that could shake up the positioning of the lasers.
Staats worked with the LIGO scientists and used animation to show some of the more complex ideas explored in "LIGO, A Passion for Understanding."
"The film was shot in just 12 days at LIGO Hanford Observatory, mid December 2013," Staats told Space.com via email. "The 3D art was produced by the talented artist Leonardo Buono. The trailer was completed by mid January. Editing of the proper film was initiated the second week of February and completed (mostly) by mid March, with some fine-tuning of key sections. I estimate nearly two hundreds hours editing for the trailer and film."
LIGO's science is on the cutting edge of astrophysics today. Gravitational waves have recently made headlines, thanks to a new result from a telescope called BICEP2 (short for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) in Antarctica.
Scientists using the South Pole instrument have discovered what look like the signs of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background — ancient light that spread throughout the universe about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. If the finding is confirmed, those early ripples in space-time could be the telltale signs of the universe's rapid expansion shortly after the Big Bang.
Although LIGO will not look for these early gravitational waves, Staats did want to include something about primordial gravitational waves in the film. He even crafted a section about them. But the timing didn't work out, so the late-breaking science didn't make the cut.
"Given the time to premiere, we chose to use the next film as a place to thoroughly explain the various frequencies of gravitational waves and what they mean to human observers," Staats said. "It is never easy to drop part of film … but now we can look forward to an in-depth, likely very creative visual explanation in the next chapter."
Staats hopes that he'll have a chance to follow up the new documentary with another. The next film will detail the stories of the founder of LIGO and the new scientists working with the detector today.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 12:53 p.m. EDT on April 15.