Better 'hearing aids' to listen to the Universe

22 January 2019

The world’s most sensitive science experiment may be about to get even better, with the UK allocating funds for new research and development work.

After their historic first round of detections from 2015 onward, British and international researchers are planning to start their third period of recording data from the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatories (LIGO) in the United States.

The UK Research and Innovation funding will support research into making the detectors even more sensitive, and therefore even more likely to detect black holes and other cosmic events.

Professor Sheila Rowan is Director of the Institute for Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow, and chair of the international scientific oversight group for gravitational wave research.

She said: “Normal telescopes detect electromagnetic radiation, including visible light and gamma rays, to ‘see” the Universe. LIGO detects the tiny ripples in space cause by gravitational waves, which is akin to ‘hearing’ the Universe – and we’re keen on understanding whether we can build an even better hearing aid.”

“However, improving the sensitivity of LIGO’s detectors would require entirely new engineering, computing and quantum technologies, and would be incredibly challenging.”

Up to £11 million has been earmarked for the work, subject to further discussion with other funders and the research community.

Professor Mark Thomson is Executive Chair of STFC. He said: “LIGO’s historic first detections of gravitational waves were only made possible by combining UK technology, sustained international funding, and enormous dedication and hard work by more than a thousand scientists from around the world,”

Gravitational waves are ripples in space caused by massive cosmic events such as the collision of black holes or the explosion of supernovae. They are not electromagnetic radiation, and as a result were undetectable until the technological breakthroughs at LIGO enabled by UK technology.

At each LIGO site, twin laser beams are transmitted down two 4-kilometre long tubes kept under a near-perfect vacuum, and arranged as an L-shape. The beams are reflected back down the tubes by mirrors precisely positioned at the ends of each arm.

As a gravitational wave passes through the observatory, it causes extremely tiny distortions in the distance travelled by each laser beam. As a result of the UK-built systems which hold the mirrors in place, a distortion of just one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton can now be measured – not only enabling the detection of gravitational waves for the first time, but also making LIGO the most sensitive measuring instrument ever.

Universities across the UK will be involved in this next phase, including the Universities of Glasgow, Birmingham, Cardiff, Strathclyde and STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

The UK is also supporting the construction of a third LIGO detector, in India. LIGO-India is expected to become operational in 2025. This will form a global network of five detectors – the others being in Italy and Japan.

UK funding is provided through UKRI’s Fund for International Collaboration.

Further information on LIGO is available on the LIGO website.


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The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas. Visit the STFC website for more information.

Last updated: 22 January 2019

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