Professor Alberto Vechhio, Director of the Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, reflects on Birmingham's role in the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detector and the observation of gravitational waves.
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 was awarded to Rainer Weiss (MIT), Barry C. Barish (Caltech) and Kip S. Thorne (Caltech) "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves". Interviewed soon after the announcement, Kip Thorne said, “Huge discoveries are really the result of giant collaborations”.
The University of Birmingham has been part of the Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) project since its inception, and is one of the larger groups of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.
Twenty-four scientists from Birmingham – PhD students, post-docs, technical and academic staff – are members of the “LIGO-discovery Team”, and, as such, co-recipients of the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which was awarded “for the observation of gravitational waves, opening new horizons in astronomy and physics”.
Birmingham has made wide-ranging contributions to Advanced LIGO and the science that has ensued from this extra-ordinary machine.
Building LIGO and analysisng results
The group has developed and built high performance sensors and control electronics for Advanced LIGO. They find their home in the suspension systems at the heart of the instruments in Hanford (Washington) and Livingston (Louisiana). A third, identical set is stored in a warehouse in the USA ready to be shipped to India to become part of the LIGO-India instrument.
Birmingham scientists have also developed one of the main simulation tools for the design of optical configurations, which is used for the commissioning and development of km-scale interferometers.
The Birmingham group has pioneered the framework and analysis algorithms that are used to tease out from the feeble gravitational-wave signal the physical properties, such as masses and spins, of the sources that produce this radiation and enable in-depth studies of astrophysics and fundamental physics. Sky maps and information about source’s location and distance, that are broadcast to astronomers around the world to follow-up gravitational-wave events in the electromagnetic spectrum, are also generated with these algorithms.
Birmingham astrophysicists have combined tools for statistical analysis with rapid binary population synthesis simulations to shed light on the astrophysical processes that generate the systems observed by LIGO/Virgo.
Investing in future discoveries
This is just the beginning of new explorations of the cosmos. Exciting discoveries and (likely) surprises lay ahead, in the years and decades to come.
Birmingham is already investing in the future, with strong involvement in the Advanced LIGO upgrades, leading to the next-generation ground-based laser interferometers. , which will will incorporate, amongst other things, sophisticated quantum techniques applied to macroscopic objects. We are are also supporting the European Space Agency's Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, which will create the first space-based gravitational wave observatory.
Image credit: Ute Kraus, Physics education group Kraus, Universität Hildesheim, Space Time Travel, (background image of the milky way: Axel Mellinger) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)] via Wikimedia Commons
To find out more, please click on the links below:
Birmingham gravitational waves team welcomes 2017 Nobel Prize
Gravitational waves are revolutionising how we view the Universe