Gravitational waves have been discovered for the first time after scientists managed to observe the warping of spacetime caused by the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago.

The news, announced at a press conference at the National Science Foundation, has been hailed as one of the most important scientific discoveries of recent decades. But why is the successful detection of gravitational waves so important? In this video, IBTimes UK explains.

What are gravitational waves?

Gravitational waves are small distortions, or ripples, in the fabric of spacetime. In 1916, Albert Einstein said spacetime is not a void but a four-dimensional fabric that can change as objects move through it.

One way to visualise this is if you imagine spacetime is a tablecloth. The heavier an object on the tablecloth, the more the material will bend and ripple. This distortion is similar to how gravitational waves work.

Massive accelerating objects such as black holes would disrupt spacetime so that ripples would radiate from the source. These ripples would then dash across the universe at the speed of light.

But by the time they reached Earth, they would be so tiny (around 1,000 times smaller than a proton) that they would be nigh-impossible to detect. But using LIGO's Interferometer, scientists managed to detect these tiny measurements of spacetime stretching in one direction and shrinking in another, which is evidence of gravitational waves passing.

Why is it important?

Up until now, gravitational waves were assumed to exist but this discovery is important as it prove a key part of Einstein's theory of general relativity was right 100 years ago.

Scientists will now be able to track objects that don't emit visible light, such as black holes and neutron stars, and other objects we might not even be aware of.

Being able to detect and analyse the information carried on them would open up a new area of study of some of the most important events in the history of the universe, such as the Big Bang, and help us find out more about how the universe was created.