UK universities set to support development of next-generation gravitational wave detectors

Artist's impression of the Einstein Telescope. Image by M Kraan, Nikhef

Researchers from UK universities, including the University of Strathclyde, are set to play a key role in developing the next generation of gravitational wave detectors to help astronomers probe the furthest reaches of the cosmos.

A consortium of seven universities has secured £7m in support from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Infrastructure Fund.

The fund helps researchers and innovators to do ground-breaking work.

Over the next three years, the consortium partners will develop designs for new mirror coatings, data analysis techniques, and suspension and seismic isolation systems for use in two future international gravitational wave detector development projects.

These projects - Cosmic Explorer in the United States and the Einstein Telescope in Europe - are in the early stages of design work. They are expected to be fully constructed and online by the end of the next decade.

Gravitational wave detectors work by bouncing lasers between mirrors suspended at each end of long pipes, often arranged in an L-shape.

Black holes

As gravitational waves – the faint ripples in spacetime caused by enormous astronomical events like the collision of black holes - pass through the detectors, they cause miniscule variations in the distance between the mirrors measured by the lasers.

Analysis of the data captured can reveal a wealth of information about their origins in space.

The UK consortium is led at the University of Glasgow and, along with Strathclyde, brings together the universities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Southampton and the West of Scotland.

Professor Stuart Reid, Head of Strathclyde’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, said: “We are delighted to be involved in developing core technologies to enable the next generation of gravitational wave observatories to further explore our dynamic universe.

Strathclyde, through the Extreme Performance Optical Coatings testbed within the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), will lead and coordinate the consortium’s activity on the development of large mirrors with unprecedented reflectivity. The support from STFC will also establish new manufacturing techniques in Scotland that will be transformational to an array of applications in quantum, space, and medical technologies.


Artist's impression of Cosmic Explorer. Image by A Nguyen, V Kitchen, E Anaya, California State University Fullerton

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of the STFC and UKRI Champion for Infrastructure, said: “The detection of gravitational waves has been one of the most exciting recent developments in science and has provided us with entirely new way of observing the universe.

“This new UKRI investment will enable UK scientists to play a key role in the international effort to develop the next generation of even more sensitive gravitational wave observatories, which will greatly expand our understanding of the cosmos.”

Scientists from the UK, funded by STFC, part of UKRI, have been involved in gravitational wave research for several decades.

They contributed to the design, mirror suspension technology and data analysis which underpins the current generation of gravitational wave observatories - LIGO in the United States, Virgo in Italy, and KAGRA in Japan.

Historic discovery

The LIGO observatory made the historic first detection of gravitational waves in 2015, opening up an entirely new field of astronomy which ‘listens’ for vibrations in spacetime instead of looking for information from across the electromagnetic spectrum. Since 2015, gravitational wave detectors have made spectacular discoveries – including signals from more than 100 pairs of colliding black holes.

The next generation of detectors will be significantly more ambitious in their design, with lasers bounced between mirrors suspended free of external vibration placed up to 40km apart, instead of 4km as they are in current detectors.The mirrors will also be bigger and heavier as they double in diameter to around 60cm.

The international collaborations behind the planned next-gen detectors expect that new observatories will be sensitive enough to detect signals from the very edge of the universe.

The expanded reach of the detectors will help cast new light on how black holes were formed in the earliest epochs of time, how matter behaves in neutron stars, and pick up gravitational waves which current observatories are unable to detect.


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