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Gravitational wave detection with LIGO

14 Mar 2016  | Steve Taranovich

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When I first learned about gravitational waves being detected a billion light years away from Earth, I must say that I was quite sceptical. A NY Times article explained the event very well and I did some more research because I thought, "What if an alien just coughed or sneezed (do they have noses or mouths?), or there was a minor explosion on some planet or star in a nearby galaxy or maybe a major seismic event on a nearby world?" Here is what I found out which amazed me and piqued my interest in the incredible technology that detected two black holes colliding around 1.2 billion years ago.

The resulting cataclysmic explosion contained three solar masses' worth of energy vaporizing with an unimaginable explosion of energy causing invisible gravitational waves emanating outward at the speed of light in all directions. In visible light terms, that energy would equal the brightness of a billion trillion suns. Here on Earth, an incredible scientific instrument only detected a whimper, which in itself is an amazing feat of science and innovation. You can hear it here.

The state-of-the-art instrument that sensed this event is called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), the largest gravitational wave observatory in the world. It is constructed with two huge laser interferometers in the shape of an L, separated by more than 3,000km (one is located in Washington State and the other in Louisiana). This system uses the physical properties of light and space in order to detect and study the origins of gravitational waves.

The first version of LIGO's interferometers, "Initial LIGO" (iLIGO) would actively listen for gravitational waves, but in addition would also be a means to test and lead to the invention of new technologies required to make something like LIGO work as originally intended. "Advanced LIGO", or "aLIGO" refers to the current design of the interferometers themselves (figure 1).

Figure 1: The AdvLIGO (aLIGO) interferometer (IFO) configuration is a dual-recycled Fabry-Perot Michelson. (Image courtesy of LIGO/Caltech).

Figure 2: The generic optical scheme of a dual-recycled IFO. The optical components are the following: the power recycling mirror (PRM); the beam-splitter (BS); the signal recycling mirror (SRM); the two input test masses of the arms cavities X and Y (ITMX and ITMY) and the end test masses (ETMX and ETMY) ending the arm cavities. (Image courtesy of Reference 1)

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