The European Space Agency announced last week (28th of November) that a space-based gravitational wave observatory will form one of its next two large science missions. This is exciting news for Cardiff University, as it has a very active gravitational waves research group headed up by Professor B S Sathyaprakash (known to everyone as “Sathya”). The Cardiff group, along with others in the Disunited Kingdom, played an important role in persuading ESA to make this observatory one of its next large science missions. Just over a year ago I blogged about some theoretical modelling of gravitational waves the Cardiff group had done.
The ESA plan is to launch a space-based gravitational wave observatory in 2034, which will have much more sensitivity than any current or even future ground-based gravitational wave observatory. Although NASA also had plans to launch a space-based gravitational wave observatory, there is currently none in existence, so this is really ground-breaking technology that ESA is announcing. From what I can understand, the current announcement by ESA is their commitment to the proposed LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) gravitational wave observatory. It would seem NASA has withdrawn their commitment to what was originally going to be a joint NASA/ESA mission.
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space. They were predicted by Einstein as part of his theory of general relativity, the best theory we currently have to describe gravity. In his theory, events which involve extreme gravitational forces (such as two neutron stars orbiting each other (or merging), or the creation of a black hole) will lead to the emission of these gravitational waves. As they spread out from the source at the speed of light, they literally deform space as they pass by, just as ripples deform the surface of a pond as they spread out from a dropped stone.
Current gravitational wave observatories
There are several current gravitational wave observatories, all ground-based. These include VIRGO (in Italy) and LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) which is in the United States. LIGO is the most sensitive of the current generation of gravitational wave detectors. LIGO actually comprises three separate detectors; one in Livingston, Louisiana and two in Hanford, Washington State. Each of the three separate detectors consists of two long arms at right angles to each other, forming a letter “L”. The idea behind these detectors is that, if a gravitational wave were to pass the detector, each of the two arms would have its length changed differently by the deformation of space as the gravitational wave passes through. Thus the detectors work on the principle of an interferometer, looking for tiny changes in the relative length of the two arms. And, when I say tiny, I mean tiny. In a 4km arm they are looking for changes of the order of , or about one thousandth the size of a proton!
LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Detector)
Currently the most sensitive gravitational wave detector is LIGO. LIGO consists of three separate detectors, one in Livingston, Louisiana and two in Hanford, Washington State. The detector in Louisiana is shown below.
The detector in Louisiana, and one of the two detectors in Washington State, consist of two 4km long arms at right angles to each other. An event like the collapse of a 10 solar-mass star into a black hole is expected to produce a change in length in a 4km arm of about , which is about one thousandth the size of a proton. This is just at the limit of the detection capabilities of LIGO, which is why astrophysicists are wanting more sensitive detectors to be placed into space. The other detector in Washington State has arms which are 2km in length, but just as sensitive as the detector with 4km arms at frequencies above 200 Hz, due to a different design.
LISA – Laser Interferometer Space Antenna
The ESA plans just announced will be based on the NASA/ESA plans for LISA, which have been on the drawing board for most of the last 10 years. ESA’s plan is to build two space-based interferometers, which will be in the form of equilateral triangles as this artist’s description shows.
The plan for LISA is to have arms which are 5 million km long! Compare this to the 4km long arms of LIGO. The changes in the length of a 5 million km long arm would be roughly one million times more than for LIGO, so rather than , which should be well within the capabilities of the detectors. This means that less energetic events than the collapse of a 10-solar mass star into a black hole would be detectable by LISA. All kinds of astrophysical events which involve large changes in gravitational fields should be detectable by LISA, including the afore-mentioned creation of black holes, but also the merging of neutron stars, and even the merging of less massive stars.
But, possibly most exciting is the opportunity that gravitational waves provide to probe the very earliest moments after the Big Bang. With normal electromagnetic radiation (light, x-rays, infrared light etc.), we can only see as far back as about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. This is when the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation was produced. Prior to this time, the Universe was opaque to EM radiation of any wavelength, because it was full of unbound electrons, and the photons would just scatter off of them and not get anywhere (see my blog here about the CMB). But, it was not opaque to gravitational waves, so they provide a way for us to see back beyond the CMB, and a unique way to learn about the conditions of the Universe in its earliest moments.