Illustration of gravitational waves

by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 24 September 2001

A gravitational wave traveling in a direction perpedicular to the computer screen (traveling into or out of the screen) will cause particles to move like this:

The amplitude of the wave depicted here is about 1021 times greater than that of gravitational waves expected to be detected by the LIGO arrays. This represents a wave with h+ or "h-plus" polarization. Waves can also have an hx or "h-cross" polarization, such that the directions of stretching and compression are rotated by 45°. This is illustrated below, again for a wave traveling perpendicular to the computer screen:

The illustrations below show the effect of combined polarizations. The first example shows a circularly polarized wave, which can be considered the simultaneous result of the above two waves (with a difference in phase):

Note in the illustration above that each particle (red dots) moves in a small circle. The large grey circle defined by the particles appears to rotate clockwise, but the particles are only oscillating about their normal positions.

(to be continued)

© 2001 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 24 September 2001.
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