Artist impression of the Cosmic Explorer
Artist impression of the Cosmic Explorer. Credit: A. Nguyen, V. Kitchen, E. Anaya, California State University Fullerton

Researchers from UK universities, including the University of Birmingham, are set to play a key role in developing the next generation of gravitational wave detectors, which could help astronomers probe the furthest reaches of the cosmos.

A consortium of seven British universities, led by the University of Glasgow, has secured £7m in support from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Infrastructure Fund. This fund helps to create a long-term pipeline of infrastructure investment priorities and supports the facilities, equipment and resources that are essential for researchers and innovators to do ground-breaking work.

This is the very first step into the realisation of powerful gravitational-wave observatories that, once in operation, will take us on breathtaking journeys throughout the universe, discovering many new phenomena.

Professor Alberto Vecchio, University of Birmingham

The newly funded UK consortium brings together the universities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Portsmouth, Southampton, Strathclyde and the West of Scotland.

Deputy Principal Investigator on the project, Alberto Vecchio, Professor of Astrophysics and the Director of the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, said: “I am delighted to be working on this new project.

“This is the very first step into the realisation of powerful gravitational-wave observatories that, once in operation, will take us on breathtaking journeys throughout the universe, discovering many new phenomena. It is wonderful to be working alongside STFC, colleagues at institutions across the UK and our partners around the world to make these new fantastic instruments a reality.”

Over the next three years, the consortium partners will develop designs for new mirror coatings, data analysis techniques, and suspension and seismic isolation systems for use in two future international gravitational wave detector development projects, the Cosmic Explorer in the United States and the Einstein Telescope in Europe.

The next generation of detectors will be significantly more ambitious in their design than previous iterations, with lasers bounced between mirrors suspended free of external vibration placed up to 40km apart instead of 4km, as they are in current detectors. The mirrors, too, will be bigger and heavier as they double in diameter to around 60cm.

The international collaborations behind the planned next-gen detectors expect that new observatories will be sensitive enough to detect signals from the very edge of the universe, helping to cast new light on how black holes were formed in the earliest epochs of time, how matter behaves in neutron stars, and pick up gravitational waves which current observatories are unable to detect.

Denis Martynov, Professor of Precision Measurements said: “The third-generation gravitational-wave detectors will be ten times more sensitive than the existing detectors and will listen to mergers of black holes and neutron stars to the edge of the universe. Since signals from cosmological distances are shifted down in frequency due to the expansion of the universe, we will need extraordinary sensitivity in the low-frequency band. One of Birmingham’s contributions to the project will be the development of new technologies to achieve the required sensitivity of future detectors. The technology will consist of a fused silica seismometer with interferometric readout which has the potential to surpass the sensitivity of existing seismometers by more than an order of magnitude.”

The University of Birmingham team will be key in the development of the new observatories bringing a range of expertise, including precision measurements, interferometry, gravitational-wave source modelling and novel data-processing and AI techniques to deal with a large volume of data and millions of astrophysical objects that these instruments will discover.

Dr Geraint Pratten, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham said: “The next generation of gravitational-wave detectors will unveil binary mergers at an unprecedented level of detail. This brings a wealth of theoretical and computational challenges that we must tackle if we are to extract as much information as possible from the observations. This is an immensely exciting opportunity to work with our international partners whilst ensuring that the UK is taking a leading role in experimental and theoretical gravitational-wave astronomy over the coming years.”

Dr Teng Zhan, Assistant Professor in Experimental Physics said: “The third-generation gravitational wave detectors will enable us to explore throughout the history of our universe, uncovering new frontiers in science. It's exciting to be part of this project with STFC and play a role in shaping the future.”

Dr Patricia Schmidt, Associate Professor in Gravitational Waves, commented: “With the continued support from STFC, UK researchers have been key to the success of the LIGO project and the first discovery of gravitational waves. UKRI’s investment in the next generation of ground-based gravitational-wave observatories will allow the UK to remain at the forefront of delivering ground-breaking science together with our global partners.”