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Five leading Australian universities have joined together to seek funding for a major international gravitational wave observatory in Australia (LIGO-Australia).
Today the Deputy Vice Chancellors for Research from The University of Western Australia, the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, and Monash University announced that they have signed an agreement to plan and develop a collaborative project with the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Laboratory to build a gravitational wave observatory near Gingin, approximately 85km north of Perth, Western Australia.
Under the proposed collaborative arrangements, the two nations would provide approximately equal contributions to the construction of the Gingin facility which will be the crucial Southern Hemisphere node in an international network of detectors aimed at bringing about a new kind of astronomy: gravitational wave astronomy.
Australia would operate the detector in Western Australia, and the US would operate the detectors in North America, and both countries would share the research benefits.
The LIGO contribution is valued at approximately $140m in design and hardware costs, and it is proposed that this would be matched by an approximately equal investment from Australia for the buildings, vacuum system and labour for the detector installation.
"The direct detection of gravitational waves is one of modern science's great quests," said Dr. Jay Marx, Executive Director of the LIGO Laboratory. "We have worked with the Australian scientists in this field for many years, and this offer is a reflection of the high respect we have for them."
The project will be headquartered at UWA and a major initial focus will be seeking funding from a variety of sources.
"The LIGO Laboratory leads the world in this frontier field of science. This offer provides Australia with unsurpassed technology and its best opportunity to be part of these break-through discoveries in physics and astrophysics," said UWA's Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research, Professor Robyn Owens.
However, the US offer comes with conditions: "By October 2011, Australia must make a firm commitment to the construction of the facility and the installation and operation of the detector," said Professor Owens.
Success in attracting the funding to support the development of the observatory in Western Australia will lead to five years of construction to house the US-funded detector system.
Professor Owens said that the project would have major practical benefits: a major construction project in regional Australia, and capacity-building across a broad range of Australian industry from stainless steel fabrication to mineral exploration, geothermal energy to laser technology.
LIGO-Australia will be led by Professor Stan Whitcomb, the current Chief Scientist of the LIGO Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
"LIGO-Australia will play a critical role in the international network," Professor Whitcomb said. "The first question that must be answered about each wave that is detected is: where does it come from?
"A Southern Hemisphere detector is crucial for identifying source locations, and a detector in Western Australia is ideally located to complement the Northern Hemisphere detectors. Once a gravitational wave source is located, then other telescopes, such as the SKA radio telescope, can be alerted to observe it so that astronomers can learn the maximum about the sources."
Professor Whitcomb emphasised that many of the science goals and some of the technologies are synergistic with the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, and that success with the LIGO-Australia endeavour could help increase Australia's chances of being chosen to host the SKA.
"The science is so compelling and the increased capability so transformational that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is fully behind the effort, contingent on funding being provided by the Australian government," said Dr. Edward Seidel, Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the U.S. National Science Foundation. NSF funds the LIGO laboratory and the Advanced LIGO detector that would be offered to Australia.
The Australian Research Council this week announced funding to enable the Australian Consortium for Gravitational Astronomy to purchase "Equipment and instrumentation for breaking the quantum measurement barrier."
The team will be testing new technologies that are expected to underpin future advances in the field through new techniques of quantum measurement that can overcome limits caused by quantum mechanical fluctuations. This research will support future improvement of not only the LIGO-Australia detector, but of the US-based LIGO detectors as well.
Gravitational Waves & LIGO
Gravitational waves are tiny ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by very massive objects which are accelerating and moving very rapidly. They propagate outward from their sources at the speed of light.
The gravitational waves from even the strongest sources-black holes, super nova explosions, neutron stars, the Big Bang-produce infinitesimal effects, which require the most precise physical measurements that scientists can make.
Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein as a consequence of his General Theory of Relativity, but nearly 100 years later, the first direct detections are likely only with the second generation of interferometeric detectors, the generation being built now.
Media Statement: LIGO-Australia
Issued on behalf of a consortium of Australian universities: Australian National University, The University of Adelaide, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, UWA.
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