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Australia asked to join gravity hunt

Simulation of gravitational waves

Simulation of what invisible gravitational waves produced by colliding black holes might look like. Image courtesy Henze / NASA.

  • Gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity
  • Two detector facilities in N. Hemisphere; one needed now in the south
  • US will fund the detector if Australia will fund the infrastructure

US researchers are offering to give Australia a gravitational wave detector worth $140 million provided we can build an appropriate facility to house it, costing a further $140 million.

The sophisticated detector would be part of a global search for gravitational waves, which were predicted by Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity, but have not yet been found.

“The Theory is his greatest legacy,” Prof Bruce Allen, director of the Albert Einstein Institute in Hanover, Germany told the Australian Institute of Physics Congress in Melbourne this week. “It predicts the bending of light as it passes by the Sun, and the collapse of stars into black holes.

“Another dramatic prediction is that rapidly accelerating massive objects produce ‘waves of gravitation’ that propagate through space at the speed of light,” added Prof Allen.

“Later in this decade, a new generation of large ‘gravitational wave observatories’ promises to make the first direct detections of these waves. This will usher in a new way to ‘see’ the universe and a new era in astronomy and astrophysics,” he said.

The $280-million observatory, to be known as LIGO-Australia, would be built at Gingin, 65 km north of Perth, where there is already a small test detector. It would use powerful lasers to measure minute movements of two mirrors several kilometres apart to ‘feel’ the gravitational waves passing—a technique known as laser interferometry.

The offer has been made by LIGO-Laboratory, which is funded by America’s peak science agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF). (LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.)

LIGO Hanford Observatory

Australia has been offered the chance to host a gravitational wave detector, like this one, the LIGO Hanford Observatory in Washington, USA. Courtesy LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Locating one of three detectors financed by the agency in the Southern Hemisphere would allow much more accurate determination of the origin of any gravitational waves.

And it would also have huge advantages for Australia, says Prof Jesper Munch of the University of Adelaide, chair of a consortium of five universities set up to advance the proposal.

“In addition to its significant scientific role, LIGO-Australia would put this country at the forefront of the relevant technology, including ultra-stable lasers,” he said.

“It would also attract some of the world’s best scientists, provide a unique educational facility for young scientists and engineers, and complement information from the proposed Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope.”

The members of the Australian Consortium of Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy (ACIGA) are the University of Western Australia, the University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Australian National University.

ACIGA has been collaborating with LIGO for more than 15 years.

Adapted from information issued by Science in Public.

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