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US-UK-Australia funding to improve global gravitational wave network

15 February 2019

A global network of gravitational wave observatories will be upgraded to almost double its sensitivity, the lead science funding agencies of the United Kingdom and United States announced today.

The $US30 million Advanced LIGO Plus (ALIGO+) project will improve the two existing Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatories (LIGO) in the United States, and will be included as standard in the new LIGO India facility from the mid-2020s.

The US National Science Foundation is providing $20.4 million funding for ALIGO+, and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) £10.7 million ($US14.1 million), with additional support from the Australian Research Council.

NSF Director France Córdova said: “This award ensures that LIGO, which made the first historic detection of gravitational waves in 2015, will continue to lead in gravitational wave science for the next decade.

“With improvements to the detectors – which include techniques from quantum mechanics that refine laser light and new mirror coating technology – the twin LIGO observatories will significantly increase the number and strength of their detections.

Advanced LIGO Plus will reveal gravity at its strongest and matter at its densest in some of the most extreme environments in the cosmos.

“These detections may reveal secrets from inside supernovae and teach us about extreme physics from the first seconds after the universe's birth.”

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “In confirming the existence of gravitational waves, the LIGO project generated unique insights into the nature of our universe and fuelled world-wide interest in science. This Nobel-winning project also illustrated the importance of international collaboration in research.

“The UK’s technological and scientific expertise will continue to play a crucial role in ALIGO+, which aims to further increase our understanding of the events that shape the universe. The UK investment in ALIGO+ and support for a third gravitational wave detector in India underlines UKRI’s commitment to developing existing collaborative research and innovation programmes with partners.”

The enhanced capabilities afforded by ALIGO+ are expected to illuminate the origins and evolution of stellar-mass black holes, allow precision tests of extreme gravity, enable detailed study of the equation of state of neutron stars, and permit new tests of cosmology, including fully independent constraints on the Hubble constant.

Technology improvements arising from the project are expected to include quantum optics, quantum information theory, materials science, optical technology, precision metrology and physical standards.

Dr David Reitze is Executive Director of the LIGO Laboratory. “The UK has always played a critical and innovative role in gravitational wave detector development, most recently providing the test mass suspensions, a key component to the Advanced LIGO interferometers.  ALIGO+, the next phase of Advanced LIGO, continues in that tradition.

“The UK-Australia-US partnership will bring Advanced LIGO to a level where we will detect binary black hole collisions on an almost daily basis by the middle of the next decade."

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: “If a normal telescope ‘sees’ the Universe, LIGO is akin to ‘hearing’ the Universe. The improved sensitivity from ALIGO+ will allow us to better understand what the Universe is telling us, information that we’ve been unable to hear until now.”

UKRI funding is provided through its Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), from the Fund for International Collaboration.

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 in part 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.

Professor Stuart Reid leads the gravitational wave research for the University of Strathclyde, and said: “Within a few years of the first detection, gravitational waves have opened our understanding on the Universe, teaching us about the origin of the elements and the existence ‘dancing’ black holes and neutron stars.”

In the UK, the ALIGO+ project will involve the Universities of Glasgow, Birmingham, Cardiff, Strathclyde and STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Professor Alberto Vecchio, of the Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at the University of Birmingham says: “LIGO A+ is the next leap in sensitivity to probe even deeper into the Universe. There is great excitement for all of us in Birmingham to be part of this project with our UK and US colleagues and to continue to drive this field to new horizons.”

Professor Hartmut Grote, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "The funds will allow us in Cardiff to contribute to improving the sensitivity of the Advanced LIGO detectors over the next few years to a level where we expect to detect four to seven times more gravitational wave signals compared with current instruments.
“This will be an exciting boost in our pursuit to a deeper insight into astrophysics with gravitational waves, with many more scientific surprises to come.”

The UK is also supporting the construction of a third LIGO detector, in India. LIGO-India is expected to become operational at about the same the time as ALIGO+ in 2025, with the design changes included from the start. This will form a global network of five detectors – the others being in Italy and Japan.

The UK has also led a variety of spinouts of LIGO technology into other areas.  As one example, the development of ‘nanokicking’ has exploited the use of precision measurement techniques to apply tiny vibrations to stems cells to convince them to form bone in the lab. Clinical trials are now taking place in Scotland to apply nanoscale vibration to patients with spinal injuries in an attempt to slow down and reverse the effects of a condition called ‘disuse osteoporosis’ by turning stem cells in to healthy bone.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, its budget is $7.8 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

LIGO is funded by NSF and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council-OzGrav) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,200 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration. A list of additional partners is available online.

More information on Gravitational Waves

STFC - Gravitational waves: everything you need to know

More about the UK’s involvement in gravitational wave research

Last updated: 18 February 2019


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