16 October 2017
The first detection of both gravitational waves and light from the same event was made possible by bringing together some of the world’s most brilliant minds with some of the most advanced technology in existence, working across different facilities and nations to join together the pieces of the puzzle.
The “science” was made possible by advances in technology by engineers and technicians – and here we showcase the role that UK technology has played in these amazing breakthroughs.
In this view of the Paranal Observatory, the Milky Way forms an arc across the Atacama night sky. Below it stands VISTA, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy. STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre designed and built the VISTA Observatory.
(Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky)
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Mechanical Engineer Joe Odell inside the Beamsplitter vacuum tank at LIGO Livingston Observatory, with one of seven Beamsplitter suspensions delivered by the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) for the aLIGO project.
The LIGO detectors need technology that removes vibrations caused by natural and human activity, so they can detect the incredibly weak signal of a passing gravitational wave. The detectors can pick up waves in distant oceans, trains passing many miles away, and human footsteps walking past, as well as earthquakes on the far side of the world.
Scientists from the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research led on the conception, development, construction and installation of the sensitive mirror suspensions in the heart of the LIGO detectors.
The mirror-suspension systems, together with technical and manufacturing expertise from other UK universities made the first detection of gravitational waves, observed in 2015 and reported in February 2016, possible.
In the UK alone major contributions to the project have come from very many researchers and engineers based at 11 research institutions, including Glasgow, Cardiff and Birmingham and STFC.
Working on the University of Glasgow’s designs, STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) built the most sensitive part of LIGO’s seismic isolation system with colleagues from the Universities of Glasgow (silica fibres and welding) Birmingham (electronics) and Strathclyde.
RAL also provided technical expertise throughout the assembly, testing, installation and commissioning phases of the project, to ensure the LIGO observatory exceeded its pre-upgrade sensitivity.
Justin Greenhalgh, UK Project manager at STFC with aLIGO, said: “I am delighted that we at STFC have been able to play a part in this exciting research. The hopes of the gravitational wave community, that ground-breaking new science would follow the first detection, are already being borne out.”
For the past decade, the Gravitational Physics Group at Cardiff University have laid the foundations for the computing tools that ensure scientists correctly analyse a gravitational wave and determine its origin. They developed novel algorithms and software that have now become standard search tools for detecting the elusive signals.
The technology developed for gravitational waves is now also being used in reverse to test a process to grow human bone in a laboratory. The new technique - known as “nanokicking” – vibrates stem cells thousands of times a second, to stimulate the production of bone cells. The new ‘bone putty’ has the potential to be used to heal bone fractures and fill bone where there is a gap.
LIGO in the United States and the Advanced Virgo Interferometer in Italy alerted observers to the detection of a gravitational wave event, meaning that telescopes around the world could point toward the area of sky to make electromagnetic observations – in visible, infrared, gamma rays and other spectrum. A number of European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes were involved in this work. STFC manages the UK membership of ESO, and provides critical governance and oversight. Our national subscription provides UK scientists access to the telescopes, and in addition UK engineers and technicians played key roles in building the VISTA and ALMA telescopes.
UK astronomers using ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) telescope in Chile were among the first to locate the new source.
VISTA is capable of producing a nine-gigapixel zoomable image of 84 million stars which is so large that, if printed with the resolution of the average book, it would be nine metres long and seven metres tall.
The combination of the telescope’s location, telescope aperture, wide field, and high quantum efficiency detectors makes it the world’s outstanding ground based near-infrared survey instrument.
STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh designed and built the VISTA Observatory as an 'in-kind' deliverable as part of the UK’s fee for joining ESO. They worked closely with STFC’s RAL Space to develop the camera. RAL Space was responsible for much of the detailed design of the camera, and performed its overall assembly and performance testing.
The camera for VISTA at RAL Space following assembly and performance testing in 2009 before being shipped to Chile.
(Credit: STFC RAL Space)
Professor Gavin Dalton, Instrument Scientist for the VISTA camera, from STFC’s RAL Space, said: “RAL Space managed the design and construction of the VISTA camera. Its purpose is to observe the whole Southern Sky, and because it sees far into the infrared spectrum, VISTA can see deep into the dust that obscures the hearts of galaxies. VISTA’s wide-field imaging capability is ideally suited to this type of exciting follow-up detection, and we look forward to seeing how it can continue to support this new form of astrophysics.”
VISTA was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 universities in the United Kingdom, led by Queen Mary, University of London.
Gary Rae, Head of Engineering, UK ATC said: "VISTA is a prime example of the incredible technical achievements possible when first class engineers work alongside our scientific community to envision, design and build wonderful machines that enable our talented scientists to make such discoveries. The dedicated multi-disciplinary engineers involved are extremely proud that our hard work continues to help deliver such exciting science.”
The stunning Milky Way above the antennas at the ALMA Observatory. UK ATC and RAL contributed to ALMA.
(Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky (LCO))
ESO’s ALMA telescope was also one of the telescopes to observe the events.
The UK, through the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Kent, and STFC’s Technology Department and RAL Space, contributed to the construction of ALMA.
STFC Technology was responsible for the design, manufacture and delivery of the cryostats - or cooling systems - at the heart of each telescope, under the project management of Dr Anna Orlowska. Each cryostat weighs approximately half a ton and each keeps ten receivers at a stable temperature below -269C (less than four degrees above absolute zero). It is essential to keep the telescope at such cold temperatures for the very sensitive instruments to operate effectively.
RAL Space hosted and operated Europe’s Front End Integration Centre (one of three in the world) where components were tested and integrated – these components are crucial in detecting very faint radio signals.
UK ATC provided essential software for ALMA. All data taken with ALMA uses the observation preparation software that was developed by an international team led by the UK ATC and the data pipeline software in which the UK ATC also plays a major role. The ALMA Observing Tool (ALMA OT) is the software that takes the scientific definition of an observation and turns it into the detailed instructions that configure the ALMA dishes and receivers for the observations. The data pipeline software takes the raw data and calibrates it into a useable form for scientific analysis.
Dr Alan Bridger who led the team at the UK ATC responsible for the software, said:
“To have played even the smallest part in this amazing discovery makes me feel very proud. Whilst the LIGO team need to take the limelight today, it is nice knowing that the software that our team provided to ALMA, and other colleagues to VISTA and the Gemini telescopes, have made their contribution to the results today”.
Gemini South: Staff of both the UK ATC and RAL played major roles in the construction of the Gemini telescopes, including the GMOS spectrometer which was built as a collaboration between Durham University and UK ATC (with HIA in Canada).
Last updated: 11 October 2018