Published: 8 December 2023
University of Southampton researchers are set to play a key role in developing the next generation of gravitational wave detectors, which could help astronomers probe the furthest reaches of the cosmos.
A consortium of seven British universities, including the University of Southampton, has secured £7m in support from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Infrastructure Fund.
The project brings together gravity experts from the universities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Portsmouth, Southampton, Strathclyde and the West of Scotland. Over the next three years, they 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.
The projects – Cosmic Explorer in the United States and the Einstein Telescope in Europe – are currently in the early stages of design work. They are expected to be fully constructed and online by the end of the next decade.
The international collaborations behind the next-gen detectors expect they will be sensitive enough to detect signals from the very edge of the universe.
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are faint ripples in spacetime caused by enormous astronomical events like the collision of black holes.
Gravitational wave detectors work by bouncing lasers between mirrors suspended at each end of long pipes often arranged in an L-shape. As the waves pass through the detectors, they cause miniscule variations in the distance between the mirrors measured by the lasers.
Analysis of the data captured during the passthrough of the gravitational waves can reveal a wealth of information about their origins in space.
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 then, gravitational wave detectors have made spectacular discoveries – including signals from more than 100 pairs of colliding black holes.
Next generation detectors
The next generation of detectors will be significantly more ambitious than current designs, with lasers bounced between mirrors suspended free of external vibration placed up to 40km apart instead of 4km. The mirrors, too, will be bigger and heavier as they double in diameter to around 60cm.
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.