Advanced LIGO Project Funded by National Science Foundation

Some time ago, Scruffy blogged about whether it’s worth spending money on gravitational wave research.

The National Science Foundation certainly thinks so.

News release follows.

Fred Bortz, author of Physics: Decade by Decade, (Twentieth-Century Science set, Facts On File, 2007)


For Immediate Release
April 1, 2008

Advanced LIGO Project Funded by National Science Foundation

Upgrade will enable the new field of gravitational wave astronomy

PASADENA, Calif.– The Advanced LIGO Project, an upgrade in
sensitivity for LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave
Observatories), was approved by the National Science Board in its
meeting on March 27. The National Science Foundation will fund the
$205.12 million, seven-year project, starting with $32.75 million in
2008. This major upgrade will increase the sensitivity of the LIGO
instruments by a factor of 10, giving a one thousand-fold increase in
the number of astrophysical candidates for gravitational wave signals.

"We anticipate that this new instrument will see gravitational wave
sources possibly on a daily basis, with excellent signal strengths,
allowing details of the waveforms to be observed and compared with
theories of neutron stars, black holes, and other astrophysical
objects moving near the speed of light," says Jay Marx of the
California Institute of Technology, executive director of the LIGO

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time
produced by violent events in the distant universe–for example, by
the collision of two black holes or by the cores of supernova
explosions. Gravitational waves are emitted by accelerating masses
much in the same way as radio waves are produced by accelerating
charges– such as electrons in antennas.

David Reitze of the University of Florida, spokesperson for the LIGO
Scientific Collaboration, adds that "these ripples in the space-time
fabric travel to Earth, bringing with them information about their
violent origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot be
obtained by other astronomical tools."

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of these gravitational waves
in 1916 in his general theory of relativity, but only since the 1990s
has technology become powerful enough to permit detecting them and
harnessing them for science.

Although they have not yet been detected directly, the influence of
gravitational waves on a binary pulsar system (two neutron stars
orbiting each other) has been measured accurately and is in excellent
agreement with the predictions. Scientists therefore have great
confidence that gravitational waves exist. But a direct detection
will confirm Einstein’s vision of the waves, and allow a fascinating
and unique view of cataclysms in the cosmos.

The Advanced LIGO detector, to be installed at the LIGO Observatories
in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, using the existing
infrastructure, will replace the present detector, and will transform
gravitational wave science into a real observational tool. David
Shoemaker of MIT, the project leader for Advanced LIGO, says the "the
improvement of sensitivity will allow the data set generated after
one year of initial operations to be equaled in just several hours."

The change of more than a factor of 10 in sensitivity comes also with
a significant increase in the sensitive frequency range, and the
ability to tune the instrument for specific astrophysical sources.
This will allow Advanced LIGO to look at the last minutes of life of
pairs of massive black holes as they spiral closer, coalesce into one
larger black hole, and then vibrate much like two soap bubbles
becoming one.

It will also allow the instrument to pinpoint periodic signals from
the many known pulsars that radiate in the range from 500 to 1000
Hertz (frequencies which correspond to high notes on an organ).
Recent results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe have
shown the rich information that comes from looking at the photon, or
infrared cosmic background, which originated some 400,000 years after
the Big Bang. Advanced LIGO can be optimized for the search for the
gravitational cosmic background–allowing tests of theories about the
development of the universe only 10 to the minus 35 seconds after the
Big Bang.

The LIGO Observatories were planned at the outset to support the
continuing development of this new science, and the significant
infrastructure of buildings and vacuum systems is left unchanged. The
upgrade calls for changes in the lasers (180 watt highly stabilized
systems), optics (40 kg fused silica "test mass" mirrors suspended by
fused silica fibers), seismic isolation systems (using inertial
sensing and feedback), and in how the microscopic motion (in the
range of 10 to the minus 20 meters) of the test masses is detected.

Several of these technologies are significant advances in their
fields, and have promise for application in a wide range of precision
measurement, state-of-the-art optics, and controls systems. A program
of testing and practice installation will allow the new detectors to
be brought online with a minimum of interruption in observation. The
instruments will be ready to start scientific operation in 2014.

The design of the instrument has come from scientists throughout the
50-institution, 600-person LIGO Scientific Collaboration, an
international group that carries out both instrument development and
scientific data analysis for LIGO. In the United States, these
efforts (and in particular the LIGO Laboratory) are supported by the
National Science Foundation (NSF).

"Advanced LIGO will be one of the most important scientific
instruments of the 21st century. For the first time, it will let us
listen in on the sounds of the universe, as unseen explosions,
collisions, and whirlpools shake the fabric of space-time and send
out the ripples that Advanced LIGO will measure. We in the
German-British GEO project are excited that our long-standing
partnership with LIGO allows us to contribute to Advanced LIGO some
of the key technologies we have developed and tested in our GEO600
instrument," says Bernard F. Schutz, director of the Albert Einstein
Institute in Germany.

The NSF funds the project through the Major Research Equipment and
Facilities Construction (MREFC) budget account. The Caltech-MIT LIGO
Laboratory will carry out the project.

Several international partners have already approved funding for
significant contributions of equipment, labor, and expertise:

The UK contribution is the suspension assembly and some optics for
the mirrors whose movements register the passage of the gravitational
waves; this has been funded via Britain’s Science and Technology
Facilities Council (STFC).

The German contribution is the high-power, high-stability laser whose
light measures the actual movements of the mirrors; this has been
funded via the Max Planck Society in Munich.

The University of Florida and Columbia University are taking on
specific responsibilities in the design and construction of Advanced

Other members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), with NSF or
other funding, will participate in all phases of the effort.

Photos are available at:

Additional information:

The LIGO Laboratory

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration

The National Science Foundation

The Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Max Planck Society

Contact: Kathy Svitil
(626) 395-8022
[email protected]

Elizabeth Thomson
(617) 258-5402
[email protected]