Saturday, 23 May 2015 15:17

Australia joins the search for gravitational waves


Postulated as a component of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, gravitational waves have never been detected.

Hopefully that will change with the involvement of two of Australia's leading universities.

The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories) project has constructed two pairs 4km-long vacuum tubes on opposite sides of the continental USA (in Louisiana and Washington State) set at right-angles to each other. In each tube, a laser beam bounces off a set of mirrors at either end to create an interferometer.

The hope is that passing gravitational waves (which are ripples in the fabric of space and time caused by the most violent events in the universe such as supernovae or collisions between black holes) will deflect the beam in a detectable manner.

For those familiar with the history of relativity, the LIGO experiment is similar the Michelson-Morley experiment but on a much larger scale and for an entirely different purpose.

The original detectors were built by Caltech and MIT in the 1990s. However, only now do they have the sensitivity levels required to detect gravitational waves with a tenfold improvement following a complete redesign and replacement of the detectors.


Led by Professor David McClelland, the team at ANU has developed a system which locks the laser beam to the 40 kilogram mirrors to ensure that infinitesimal movements caused by a passing gravitational wave are identified, while other small movements are nullified.

The University of Adelaide group, led by Professor Jesper Munch, has developed a system to correct for any deformation of the mirrors due to heat, a crucial factor with the stored laser power of the system approaching half a megawatt.

"The technology required pushes the limit of all the components, including low noise detectors, high power lasers, quantum effects and technology such as optical polishing, coatings and vacuum systems," said Professor Munch.

According to theory, a passing gravity wave ought to deflect the mirrors by around 10 ^-19m (around one ten-thousandth the radius of a proton) with a vibration frequency of around one kilohertz. The new detectors are easily able to detect this movement.

Australia is a partner in Advanced LIGO with the research groups from ANU and the University of Adelaide, supported by the Australian Research Council, directly contributing to its construction and commissioning. Following a dedication ceremony last Tuesday, LIGO is expected to 'go live' in the third quarter of this year.

As the LIGO project ramps up, additional detectors in Europe, Japan and India will assist with a fully 3-dimensional view of any passing waves.

General Relativity has predicted that large masses (such as stars and galaxies) can cause curvature in space and time - this has been confirmed many times with clear examples of gravity lensing. However, gravitational waves have only been observed in the tightly controlled environment of neutron star pairs experiencing orbital decay. This experiment seeks to observe them in the wider universe.

Gravitational waves are postulated to be produced when massive objects accelerate or collide; the ability to detect them will assist the testing of Einstein's theories in a very new way.


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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.



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