Detection of gravitational waves continues to receive major honours

14 July 2017

LIGO Hanford Observatory (LHO) in aerial view.

LIGO Hanford Observatory (LHO) in aerial view. The 4-km interferometer arms are shown with the 5 main buildings along the orthogonal arm layout.
(Credit: Advanced LIGO)

Nearly two years on from the first detection of gravitational waves by the international Advanced LIGO team, made up of engineers and scientists from the UK, the USA, Germany and Australia amongst others, this achievement continues to be recognised as a research and technological breakthrough and this week was awarded the latest in a series of eminent honours for what has become a completely new branch of astronomy.

The latest international award for the project, the 2017 Giuseppe and Vanna Cocconi Prize for an outstanding contribution to Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, was given by the European Physical Society High Energy and Particle Physics Division at their annual conference in Venice.

The prize was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish ‘for their pioneering and leading roles in the LIGO observatory that led to the direct detection of gravitational waves, opening a new window to the Universe’, but they represent just the tip of a very large international team who have been working for over 30 years on this major scientific challenge.

In the UK alone major contributions to the project have come from very many researchers and engineers based at over 7 universities, including Glasgow, Cardiff and Birmingham as well as the STFC Technology division.

Several hundred people are working on the project in the USA with additional support and contributions from teams in the UK, Germany, Australia and around the globe. They are studying new phenomena in our Universe for the very first time, whilst honing novel technology to allow gravitational wave detectors to probe even further out into our cosmos.

Key early contributions to the project came from the late Scottish physicist Professor Ron Drever and colleagues in Glasgow. Professor Drever, who passed away earlier this year, co-founded The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) with Professor Kip Thorne at Caltech and Professor Rainer Weiss at MIT in the US over the period from 1986 till 1994. A major upgrade to LIGO by the US and its current international partners, in the period between 2010 and 2015, allowed for the detection of gravitational waves in September 2015.

The discovery, which confirmed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, is among the most significant in the last century of physics and was made possible by photonics technology, including the ultra-precise laser-based interferometers used to measure gravitational waves that the UK contributed to.

Since the initial confirmation of the detection of gravitational waves the LIGO Scientific Collaboration have been awarded many accolades for their work including the Yuri Milner Foundation’s Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2016) and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology (2016), together with the Bruno Rossi Prize (2017) and the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research (2017)

Notes to Editors

As part of a major upgrade to the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), STFC and other UK institutions formed part of the advanced aLIGO collaboration. The aim of the upgrade was to increase the sensitivity of the interferometer by developing improved technology, in part based on lessons learned from GEO600. The STFC team, based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) made a significant contribution to the aLIGO project, providing seismic isolations systems for all the major optics of the interferometer system.

These suspension systems, developed at STFC, together with the aLIGO collaboration, particularly the University of Glasgow, represent a major technological advance in the field and enable a level of isolation far in excess of anything that has been achieved before. This contribution has made a major impact on the sensitivity of the instrument, and its ability to detect gravitational waves.

In Autumn 2015, using advanced optics-based systems, the research team was able to measure gravitational waves on Earth, enabling them to pinpoint the precise moments they were produced.  Unlike light, gravitational waves are not diminished by interstellar dust as they propagate through space. By detecting them, the research team is able to peer into the most energetic events of the universe and explore the cosmos in a completely new way. The project is a significant example of the best in international innovation and the team's continued research with Advanced LIGO will continue to impact the physical sciences for years to come.

LIGO was designed and is operated by Caltech and MIT, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Advanced LIGO is funded by the NSF with important contributions from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Max Planck Society of Germany, and the Australian Research Council (ARC).

LIGO multimedia.

LIGO consists of two L-shaped interferometers, one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana. Each arm of each L is 2½ miles (4 km) long. Lasers look for changes in each arm's length as small as a millionth the diameter of a proton. Passing gravitational waves might distort space-time by that much. LIGO Laboratory.

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