Astronomers announced Monday they have discovered what many consider the holy grail of their field: ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang.

Predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago, the discovery of the ripples, called gravitational waves, will be a crowning achievement in one of the greatest triumphs of the human intellect: an understanding of how the universe began and evolved into the cornucopia of galaxies and stars, nebulae and vast stretches of nearly empty space that constitute the known universe.

"This detection is cosmology's missing link," Marc Kamionkowski, a physicist of Johns Hopkins University and one of the researchers on the collaboration that made the finding, told reporters Monday at a press conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.