LIGO's mission is to directly observe gravitational waves of cosmic origin. These waves were first predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity in 1916, when the technology necessary for their detection did not yet exist. Gravitational waves were indirectly suggested to exist when observations were made of the binary pulsar PSR 1913+16, for which the Nobel Prize was awarded to Hulse and Taylor in 1993.

Direct detection of gravitational waves has long been sought. Their discovery would launch a new branch of astronomy to complement electromagnetic telescopes and neutrino observatories. Joseph Weber pioneered the effort to detect gravitational waves in the 1960s through his work on resonant mass bar detectors. Bar detectors continue to be used at six sites worldwide. By the 1970s, scientists including Rainer Weiss realized the applicability of laser interferometry to gravitational wave measurements.

In August 2002, LIGO began its search for cosmic gravitational waves. Measurable emissions of gravitational waves are expected from binary systems (collisions and coalescences of neutron stars or black holes), supernova of massive stars (which form neutron stars and black holes), accreting neutron stars, rotations of neutron stars with deformed crusts, and the remnants of gravitational radiation created by the birth of the universe. The observatory may in theory also observe more exotic currently hypothetical phenomena, such as gravitational waves caused by oscillating cosmic strings or colliding domain walls. Since the early 1990s, physicists have believed that technology has evolved to the point where detection of gravitational waves—of significant astrophysical interest—is now possible.

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