LIGO, the gravitational-wave observatory, is currently on ice. After running successfully (although without actually detecting any gravitational waves) through 2007, it got a mini-upgrade and ran as Enhanced LIGO in 2009 and 2010. But in October 2010 it shut off, and the original detectors were disassembled. Not because anything was wrong, but because of a long-anticipated upgrade to Advanced LIGO, a substantially more sensitive observatory.
Those upgrades are still going on, with the new detectors scheduled to come online in 2014. Advanced LIGO should provide more than a tenfold improvement in sensitivity, which allows the search for gravitational waves to pass an important threshold: with LIGO, it would have been possible but quite fortunate to actually detect gravitational waves from predicted astrophysical sources. With Advanced LIGO, it will be a surprise if we don’t detect them.
Clara Moskowitz has nice update on MSNBC.com. She quotes Kip Thorne as predicting that our first definite direct detection of gravitational waves will come in between 2014 and 2017 — within five years. Start your betting markets! Traditionally, looking at the skies in a new way (radio waves, cosmic rays, X-rays, gamma rays, neutrinos…) has always taught us something new and exciting. I’d be surprised if gravitational waves aren’t equally surprising.