The search is on to detect the first evidence of gravitational waves travelling around the cosmos. How can we do this? The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) uses a system of laser beams fired over a distance of 4 km (2.5 miles) and reflected back and forth by a system of mirrors. Should a gravitational wave pass through the volume of space-time surrounding the Earth, in theory the laser beam will detect a small change as the passing wave slightly alters the distance between mirrors. It is worth noting that this slight change will be small; so small in fact that LIGO has been designed to detect a distance fluctuation of less than one-thousandth of the width of a proton. This is impressive, but it could be better. Now scientists think they have found a way of increasing the sensitivity of LIGO; use the strange quantum properties of the photon to “squeeze” the laser beam so an increase in sensitivity can be achieved…
LIGO was designed by collaborators from MIT and Caltech to search for observational evidence of theoretical gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are thought to propagate throughout the Universe as massive objects disturb space-time. For example, if two black holes collided and merged (or collided and blasted away from each other), Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that a ripple will be sent throughout the fabric of space-time. To prove gravitational waves do exist, a totally different type of observatory needed to be built, not to observe electromagnetic emissions from the source, but to detect the passage of these perturbations travelling through our planet. LIGO is an attempt to measure these waves, and with a gargantuan set-up cost of $365 million, there is huge pressure for the facility to discover the first gravitational wave and its source (for more information on LIGO, see “Listening” for Gravitational Waves to Track Down Black Holes). Alas, after several years of science, none have been found. Is this because there are no gravitational waves out there? Or is LIGO simply not sensitive enough?
The first question is quickly answered by LIGO scientists: more time is needed to collect a longer period of data (there needs to be more “exposure time” before gravitational waves are detected). There is also strong theoretical reasons why gravitational waves should exist. The second question is something scientists from the US and Australia hope to improve; perhaps LIGO needs a boost in sensitivity.
To make gravitational wave detectors more sensitive, Nergis Mavalvala leader of this new research and MIT physicist, has focused on the very small to help detect the very big. To understand what the researchers are hoping to achieve, a very brief crash course in quantum “fuzziness” is needed.
Detectors such as LIGO depend on highly accurate laser technology to measure perturbations in space-time. As gravitational waves travel through the Universe, they cause tiny changes in the distance between two positions in space (space is effectively being “warped” by these waves). Although LIGO has the ability to detect a perturbation of less than a thousandth of the width of a proton, it would be great if even more sensitivity is acquired. Although lasers are inherently accurate and very sensitive, laser photons are still governed by quantum dynamics. As the laser photons interact with the interferometer, there is a degree of quantum fuzziness meaning the photon is not a sharp pin-point, but slightly blurred by quantum noise. In an effort to reduce this noise, Mavalvala and her team have been able to “squeeze” laser photons.
Laser photons possess two quantities: phase and amplitude. Phase describes the photons position in time and amplitude describes the number of photons in the laser beam. In this quantum world, if the laser amplitude is reduced (removing some of the noise); quantum uncertainties in laser phase will increase (adding some noise). It is this trade-off that this new squeezing technique is base on. What is important is accuracy in the measurement of amplitude, not the phase, when trying to detect a gravitational wave with lasers.
It is hoped that this new technique can be applied to the multi-million dollar LIGO facility, possibly increasing LIGO’s sensitivity by 44%.
“The significance of this work is that it forced us to confront and solve some of the practical challenges of squeezed state injectionâ€”and there are many. We are now much better positioned to implement squeezing in the kilometer-scale detectors, and catch that elusive gravitational wave.” – Nergis Mavalvala.