STFC engineers celebrate an international award for their contribution to gravitational waves breakthrough

Researchers installing some of the small suspended LIGO mirrors in the vacuum system (Credit: Courtesy of LIGO Laboratory)

Researchers installing some of the small suspended LIGO mirrors in the vacuum system
(Credit: Courtesy of LIGO Laboratory)

SWINDON, 15-Sep-2016 — /EuropaWire/ — On the first anniversary of the detection of gravitational waves a team of engineers from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory are celebrating sharing an international award for their contribution to the scientific breakthrough.

The international Advanced LIGO engineering team, made up of engineers and scientists from STFC, the USA and Germany, has been awarded the coveted Optical Society of America’s 2016 Paul F. Forman Team Engineering Excellence Award.

The discovery, which confirms Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, is among the most significant in the last century of physics and was made possible by photonics technology, including the ultra-precise laser-based interferometers used to measure gravitational waves that the STFC contributed to.

The award was given for the way the team overcame a daunting list of engineering challenges; such that the LIGO team connected optical, electrical and mechanical elements of advanced interferometry to find engineering success at the limits of human endeavour.

The STFC team included Justin Greenhalgh, Lead mechanical engineer, Joe O’Dell, Mechanical engineer and Ian Wilmut, Mechanical engineer.

Speaking about the award Joe O’DelI said “I feel privileged to have been a part of the LIGO engineering team whose significant technological advances have resulted in such a remarkable breakthrough. I am delighted at the sustained level of interest in this discovery and that the innovation and perseverance of this outstanding team have been recognised by receiving such an award.”

STFC’s Chief Executive, Professor John Womersley praised the STFC team for their efforts on the discovery. “It is wonderful to see this international recognition for the work of the engineers at STFC. To confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity wasn’t just a challenge in theoretical physics – it required real hands-on skills. The team developed engineering solutions at incredibly fine tolerances to make this breakthrough possible.”

The STFC team was responsible for the design, technological development and production of the passive isolation systems that suspend the most critical interferometer optics including the main test mirrors of the instrument. These suspensions provided the stability required to separate out the effects of tiny strains in space time from the much larger effects of seismic vibration and so lead to the successful detection.

Speaking about the initial detection of gravitational waves and the success of the project one year on Justin Greenhalgh said that “It is an honour to have been part of the UK team that contributed the suspension systems to LIGO and so played a part in this fantastic discovery. The detection of a completely new kind of radiation is a huge scientific breakthrough – it’s exactly the sort of thing we get up for in the morning”

As well as delivering the highly complex suspension systems, the STFC team provided technical expertise throughout the assembly, testing, installation and commissioning phases of the project, right up until the LIGO observatory exceeded its pre-upgrade sensitivity.

Notes to Editors

As part of a major upgrade to the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), STFC formed part of the advanced aLIGO collaboration. The aim of the upgrade was to increase the sensitivity of the interferometer by developing improved technology, in part based on lessons learned from GEO600. The STFC team, based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) made a significant contribution to the aLIGO project, providing seismic isolations systems for all the major optics of the interferometer system.

These suspension systems, developed at STFC, together with the aLIGO collaboration, particularly the University of Glasgow, represent a major technological advance in the field and enable a level of isolation far in excess of anything that has been achieved before. This contribution has made a major impact on the sensitivity of the instrument, and its ability to detect gravitational waves.

In Autumn 2015, using advanced optics-based systems, the research team was able to measure gravitational waves on Earth, enabling them to pinpoint the precise moments they were produced. Unlike light, gravitational waves are not diminished by interstellar dust as they propagate through space. By detecting them, the research team is able to peer into the most energetic events of the universe and explore the cosmos in a completely new way. The project is a significant example of the best in international innovation and the team’s continued research with Advanced LIGO will continue to impact the physical sciences for years to come.


Corinne Mosese
Science and Technology Facilities Council

Further information

LIGO was designed and is operated by Caltech and MIT, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Advanced LIGO is funded by the NSF with important contributions from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Max Planck Society of Germany, and the Australian Research Council (ARC).

LIGO multimedia.

LIGO consists of two L-shaped interferometers, one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana. Each arm of each L is 2½ miles (4 km) long. Lasers look for changes in each arm’s length as small as a millionth the diameter of a proton. Passing gravitational waves might distort space-time by that much. LIGO Laboratory – See more here.

SOURCE: Science and Technology Facilities Council

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