An international collaboration of scientists, including a team from The University of Western Australia, has upgraded United States gravitational wave detectors to bring the instruments to sensitivities that are expected to directly detect and measure gravitational waves for the first time.
Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 as a consequence of his general theory of relativity, and are ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events in the distant universe.
The international project team has spent the last seven years putting together the gravitational-wave detector equipment which will be tested later this year and then be used to regularly measure gravitational waves. The detectors use powerful lasers to measure vibrations of mirrors suspended four kilometres apart at the ends of huge vacuum pipes.
UWA researchers contributed to the project by using high power lasers at the Gingin Gravitational Research Centre to observe and test newly discovered ways of scattering the laser beams. They developed methods for preventing instabilities in the detectors.
One of the Gingin researchers, Carl Blair, has been working at LIGO setting up systems, first proposed and tested at Gingin, that involve careful heating of the mirrors to make tiny changes in the mirror shape. Using this method, the new detectors in the US have reached a sensitivity able to detect gravitational waves from a distance of approximately 200 million light years.
The UWA project team is headed by UWA Winthrop Professor David Blair, and included researchers Professor Linqing Wen, Professor David Coward, Professor Li Ju, Associate Professor Chunnong Zhao and Doctor Eric Howell.
Professor Blair said the success of Advanced LIGO was a remarkable accomplishment and a major milestone in the field of science.
“Advanced LIGO represents an important step forward in being able to understand the extraordinary mysteries of our universe,” he said.
“The upgrade will greatly aid the search for gravitational waves, black holes and other cosmic phenomena.
“As members of the international collaboration we have all worked hard, with Australian Research Council funding and support from our partners at Caltech and MIT, to help make Advanced LIGO a reality.”
David Reitze, Executive Director of the LIGO Project and scientist at the California Institute of Technology said the project team had spent many years putting together the most sensitive gravitational-wave detector ever built.
“It gives scientists a highly sophisticated instrument for detecting gravitational waves, which we believe carry with them information about their dynamic origins and about the nature of gravity that hasn’t been known up until now,” he said.
LIGO is designed and operated by California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The project received important contributions from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Max Planck Society of Germany and the Australian Research Council. It has been further supported by an Australian consortium of universities of which UWA is a founding member.
The WA Government provided the site for the Gingin Research Facility and the Gravity Discovery Centre, and provided the initial funding that enabled its creation. Approximately 200,000 West Australians have visited the Gingin centre.
During National Science Week, which runs between 15-23 August, the Gravity Precinct at Gingin will be open as part of the Gingin Science Festival and members of the public will be able to visit the research centre.