The Gaia Mission Could Moonlight as a Gravitational Wave Detector

In February of 2016, scientists working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Since that time, multiple detections have taken place, thanks in large to part to improvements in instruments and greater levels of collaboration between observatories. Looking ahead, its possible that missions not designed for this purpose could also “moonlight” as gravitational wave detectors.

For example, the Gaia spacecraft – which is busy creating the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way – could also be instrumental when it comes to gravitational wave research. That’s what a team of astronomers from the University of Cambridge recently claimed. According to their study, the Gaia satellite has the necessary sensitivity to study ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that are produced by supermassive black hole mergers.

The study, titled “Astrometric Search Method for Individually Resolvable Gravitational Wave Sources with Gaia“, recently appeared in the Physical Review Letters. Led by Christopher J. Moore, a theoretical physicist from the Center for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, the team included members from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, Cavendish Laboratory, and Kavli Institute for Cosmology.

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars, which are a source of gravitational waves. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

To recap, gravitational waves (GWs) are ripples in space-time that are created by violent events, such as black hole mergers, collisions between neutron stars, and even the Big Bang. Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, observatories like LIGO and Advanced Virgo detect these waves by measuring the way space-time flexes and squeezes in response to GWs passing through Earth.

However, passing GWs would also cause the Earth to oscillate in its location with respect to the stars. As a result, an orbiting space telescope (such as Gaia), would be able to pick up on this by noting a temporary shift in the position of distant stars. Launched in 2013, the Gaia observatory has spent the past few years conducting high-precision observations of the positions of stars in our Galaxy (aka. astrometry).

In this respect, Gaia would look for small displacements in the massive field of stars it is monitoring to determine if gravitational waves have passed through the Earth’s neighborhood. To investigate whether or not Gaia was up to the task, Moore and his colleagues performed calculations to determine if the Gaia space telescope had the necessary sensitivity to detect ultra-low frequency GWs.

To this end, Moore and his colleagues simulated gravitational waves produced by a binary supermassive black hole – i.e. two SMBHs orbiting one another. What they found was that by compressing the data sets by a factor of more than 106 (measuring 100,000 stars instead of a billion at a time), GWs could be recovered from Gaia data with an only 1% loss of sensitivity.

Figure showing a Gaia star field, with red and black lines indicating induced apparent motions of the stars within a hemisphere. Credit: Kavli Institute for Cosmology, Cambridge

This method would be similar to that used in Pulsar Timing Arrays, where a set of millisecond pulsars are examined to determine if gravitational waves modify the frequency of their pulses. However, in this case, stars are being monitored to see if they are oscillating with a characteristic pattern, rather than pulsing. By looking at a field of 100,000 stars at a time, researchers would be able to detect induced apparent motions (see figure above).

Because of this, the full release of Gaia data (scheduled for the early 2020s) is likely to be a major opportunity for those hunting for GW signals. As Moore explained in a APS Physics press release:

“Gaia will make measuring this effect a realistic prospect for the first time. Many factors contribute to the feasibility of the approach, including the precision and long duration of the astrometric measurements. Gaia will observe about a billion stars over 5–10 years, locating each one of them at least 80 times during that period. Observing so many stars is the major advance provided by Gaia.”

It is also interesting to note that the potential for GW detection was something that researchers recognized when Gaia was still being designed. One such individual was Sergei A. Klioner, a researcher from the Lorhrmann Observatory and the leader of the Gaia group at TU Dresden. As he indicated in his 2017 study, “Gaia-like astrometry and gravitational waves“, Gaia could detect GWs caused by merging SMBHs years after the event:

“It is clear that the most promising sources of gravitational waves for astrometric detection are supermassive binary black holes in the centers of galaxies… It is believed that binary supermassive black holes are a relatively common product of interaction and merging of galaxies in the typical course of their evolution. This sort of objects can give gravitational waves with both frequencies and amplitudes potentially within the reach of space astrometry. Moreover, the gravitational waves from those objects can often be considered to have virtually constant frequency and amplitude during the whole period of observations of several years.”
Artist’s impression of two merging black holes, which has been theorized to be a source of gravitational waves. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

But of course, there’s no guarantees that sifting through the Gaia data will reveal additional GW signals. For one thing, Moore and his colleagues acknowledge that waves at these ultra-low frequencies could be too weak for even Gaia to detect. In addition, researchers will have to be able to distinguish between GWs and conflicting signals that result from changes in the spacecraft’s orientation – which is no easy challenge!

Still, there is hope that missions like Gaia will be able to reveal GWs that are not easily visible to ground-based interferometric detectors like LIGO and Advanced Virgo. Such detectors are subject to atmospheric effects (like refraction) which prevent them from seeing extremely low frequency waves – for instance, the primordial waves produced during the inflationary epoch of the Big Bang.

In this sense, gravitational wave research is not unlike exoplanet research and many other branches of astronomy. In order to find the hidden gems, observatories may need to take to space to eliminate atmospheric interference and increase their sensitivity. It is possible then that other space telescopes will be retooled for GW research, and that next-generation GW detectors will be mounted aboard spacecraft.

In the past few years, scientists have gone from making the first detection of gravitational waves to developing new and better ways to detecting them. At this rate, it won’t be long before astronomers and cosmologists are able to include gravitational waves into our cosmological models. In other words, they will be able to show what influence these waves played in the history and evolution of the Universe.

Further Reading: Kavli Institute for Cosmology, APS Physics, Physical Review Letters

LIGO and Virgo Observatories Detect Black Holes Colliding

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

On February 11th, 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first detection of gravitational waves. This development, which confirmed a prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity a century ago, has opened up new avenues of research for cosmologists and astrophysicists. Since that time, more detections have been made, all of which were said to be the result of black holes merging.

The latest detection took place on August 14th, 2017, when three observatories – the Advanced LIGO and the Advanced Virgo detectors – simultaneously detected the gravitational waves created by merging black holes. This was the first time that gravitational waves were detected by three different facilities from around the world, thus ushering in a new era of globally-networked research into this cosmic phenomena.

The study which detailed these observations was recently published online by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration. Titled “GW170814 : A Three-Detector Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Coalescence“, this study has also been accepted for publication in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Aerial view of the Virgo Observatory. Credit: The Virgo collaboration/CCO 1.0

The event, designated as GW170814, was observed at 10:30:43 UTC (06:30:43 EDT; 03:30:43 PDT) on August 14th, 2017. The event was detected by the National Science Foundation‘s two LIGO detectors (located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington) and the Virgo detector located near Pisa, Italy – which is maintained by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN).

Though not the first instance of gravitational waves being detected, this was the first time that an event was detected by three observatories simultaneously. As France Córdova, the director of the NSF, said in a recent LIGO press release:

“Little more than a year and a half ago, NSF announced that its Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory had made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, which resulted from the collision of two black holes in a galaxy a billion light-years away. Today, we are delighted to announce the first discovery made in partnership between the Virgo gravitational-wave observatory and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the first time a gravitational wave detection was observed by these observatories, located thousands of miles apart. This is an exciting milestone in the growing international scientific effort to unlock the extraordinary mysteries of our universe.”

Based on the waves detected, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and Virgo collaboration were able to determine the type of event, as well as the mass of the objects involved. According to their study, the event was triggered by the merger of two black holes – which were 31 and 25 Solar Masses, respectively. The event took place about 1.8 billion light years from Earth, and resulted in the formation of a spinning black hole with about 53 Solar Masses.

LIGO’s two facilities, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Credit:

What this means is that about three Solar Masses were converted into gravitational-wave energy during the merger, which was then detected by LIGO and Virgo. While impressive on its own, this latest detection is merely a taste of what gravitational wave detectors like the LIGO and Virgo collaborations can do now that they have entered their advanced stages, and into cooperation with each other.

Both Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo are second-generation gravitational-wave detectors that have taken over from previous ones. The LIGO facilities, which were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT, collected data unsuccessfully between 2002 and 2010. However, as of September of 2015, Advanced LIGO went online and began conducting two observing runs – O1 and O2.

Meanwhile, the original Virgo detector conducted observations between 2003 and October of 2011, once again without success. By February of 2017, the integration of the Advanced Virgo detector began, and the instruments went online by the following April. In 2007, Virgo and LIGO also partnered to share and jointly analyze the data recorded by their respective detectors.

In August of 2017, the Virgo detector joined the O2 run, and the first-ever simultaneous detection took place on August 14th, with data being gathered by all three LIGO and Virgo instruments. As LSC spokesperson David Shoemaker – a researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – indicated, this detection is just the first of many anticipated events.

Artist’s impression of two merging black holes, which has been theorized to be a source of gravitational waves. Credit: Bohn, Throwe, Hébert, Henriksson, Bunandar, Taylor, Scheel/SXS

“This is just the beginning of observations with the network enabled by Virgo and LIGO working together,” he said. “With the next observing run planned for fall 2018, we can expect such detections weekly or even more often.”

Not only will this mean that scientists have a better shot of detecting future events, but they will also be able to pinpoint them with far greater accuracy. In fact, the transition from a two- to a three-detector network is expected to increase the likelihood of pinpointing the source of GW170814 by a factory of 20. The sky region for GW170814 is just 60 square degrees – more than 10 times smaller than with data from LIGO’s interferometers alone.

In addition, the accuracy with which the distance to the source is measured has also benefited from this partnership. As Laura Cadonati, a Georgia Tech professor and the deputy spokesperson of the LSC, explained:

“This increased precision will allow the entire astrophysical community to eventually make even more exciting discoveries, including multi-messenger observations. A smaller search area enables follow-up observations with telescopes and satellites for cosmic events that produce gravitational waves and emissions of light, such as the collision of neutron stars.”

Artist’s impression of gravitational waves. Credit: NASA

In the end, bringing more detectors into the gravitational-wave network will also allow for more detailed test’s of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Caltech’s David H. Reitze, the executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, also praised the new partnership and what it will allow for.

“With this first joint detection by the Advanced LIGO and Virgo detectors, we have taken one step further into the gravitational-wave cosmos,” he said. “Virgo brings a powerful new capability to detect and better locate gravitational-wave sources, one that will undoubtedly lead to exciting and unanticipated results in the future.”

The study of gravitational waves is a testament to the growing capability of the world’s science teams and the science of interferometry. For decades, the existence of gravitational waves was merely a theory; and by the turn of the century, all attempts to detect them had yielded nothing. But in just the past eighteen months, multiple detections have been made, and dozens more are expected in the coming years.

What’s more, thanks to the new global network and the improved instruments and methods, these events are sure to tell us volumes about our Universe and the physics that govern it.

Further Reading: NSF, LIGO-Caltech, LIGO DD

Gravitational Waves will let us see Inside Stars as Supernovae Happen

On February 11th, 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first detection of gravitational waves. This development, which confirmed a prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity a century ago, has opened up new avenues of research for cosmologists and astrophysicists. Since that time, more detections have been made, all of which were said to be the result of black holes merging.

However, according to a team of astronomers from Glasgow and Arizona, astronomers need not limit themselves to detecting waves caused by massive gravitational mergers. According to a study they recently produced, the Advanced LIGO, GEO 600, and Virgo gravitational-wave detector network could also detect the gravitational waves created by supernova. In so doing, astronomers will able to see inside the hearts of collapsing stars for the first time.

The study, titled “Inferring the Core-Collapse Supernova Explosion Mechanism with Three-Dimensional Gravitational-Wave Simulations“, recently appeared online. Led by Jade Powell, who recently finished her PhD at the Institute for Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow, the team argue that current gravitational wave experiments should be able to detect the waves created by Core Collapse Supernovae (CSNe).

Otherwise known as Type II supernovae, CCSNe are what happens when a massive star reaches the end of its lifespan and experiences rapid collapse. This triggers a massive explosion that blows off the outer layers of the star, leaving behind a remnant neutron star that may eventually become a black hole. In order for a star to undergo such collapse, it must be at least 8 times (but no more than 40 to 50 times) the mass of the Sun.

When these types of supernovae take place, it is believed that neutrinos produced in the core transfer gravitational energy released by core collapse to the cooler outer regions of the star. Dr. Powell and her colleagues believe that this gravitational energy could be detected using current and future instruments. As they explain in their study:

“Although no CCSNe have currently been detected by gravitational-wave detectors, previous studies indicate that an advanced detector network may be sensitive to these sources out to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). A CCSN would be an ideal multi-messenger source for aLIGO and AdV, as neutrino and electromagnetic counterparts to the signal would be expected. The gravitational waves are emitted from deep inside the core of CCSNe, which may allow astrophysical parameters, such as the equation of state (EOS), to be measured from the reconstruction of the gravitational-wave signal.”

Dr. Powell and her also outline a procedure in their study that could be implemented using the Supernova model Evidence Extractor (SMEE). The team then conducted simulations using the latest three-dimensional models of gravitational-wave core collapse supernovae to determine if background noise could be eliminated and proper detection of CCSNe signals made.

As Dr. Powell explained to Universe Today via email:

“The Supernova Model Evidence Extractor (SMEE) is an algorithm that we use to determine how supernovae get the huge amount of energy they need to explode. It uses Bayesian statistics to distinguish between different possible explosion models. The first model we consider in the paper is that the explosion energy comes from the neutrinos emitted by the star. In the second model the explosion energy comes from rapid rotation and extremely strong magnetic fields.”

From this, the team concluded that in a three-detector network researchers could correctly determine the explosion mechanics for rapidly-rotating supernovae, depending on their distance. At a distance of 10 kiloparsecs (32,615 light-years) they would be able to detect signals of CCSNe with 100% accuracy, and signals at 2 kiloparsecs (6,523 light-years) with 95% accuracy.

In other words, if and when a supernova takes place in the local galaxy, the global network formed by the Advanced LIGO, Virgo and GEO 600 gravitational wave detectors would have an excellent chance of picking up on it. The detection of these signals would also allow for some groundbreaking science, enabling scientists to “see” inside of exploding stars for the first time. As Dr. Powell explained:

“The gravitational waves are emitted from deep inside the core of the star where no electromagnetic radiation can escape. This allows a gravitational wave detection to tell us information about the explosion mechanism that can not be determined with other methods. We may also be able to determine other parameters such as how rapidly the star is rotating.”

Illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

Dr. Powell, having recently completed work on her PhD will also be taking up a postdoc position with the RC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), the gravitational wave program hosted by the University of Swinburne in Australia. In the meantime, she and her colleagues will be conducting targeted searchers for supernovae that occurred during the first and seconds advanced detector observing runs.

While there are no guarantees at this point that they will find the sought-after signals that would demonstrate that supernovae are detectable, the team has high hopes. And given the possibilities that this research holds for astrophysics and astronomy, they are hardly alone!

Further Reading: arXiv

Do Gravitational Waves Permanently Alter the Nature of Spacetime?

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

On February 11th, 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first detection of gravitational waves. This development, which confirmed a prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity a century prior, opened new avenues of research for cosmologists and astrophysicists. It was also a watershed for researchers at Monash University, who played an important role in the discovery.

And now, a little over a year later, a team of researchers from the Monash Center for Astrophysics has announced another potential revelation. Based on their ongoing studies of gravitational waves, the team recently proposed a theoretical concept known as ‘orphan memory’. If true, this concept could revolutionize the way we think about gravitational waves and spacetime.

Researchers from Monash Center for Astrophysics are part of what is known as the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) – a group of scientists dedicated to developing the hardware and software needed to study gravitational waves. In addition to creating a system for vetting detections, the team played a key role in data analysis – observing and interpreting the data that was gathered – and were also instrumental in the design of the LIGO mirrors.

Looking beyond what LIGO and other experiments (like the Virgo Interferometer) observed, the research team sought to address how these detectors capabilities could be extended further by finding the “memory” of gravitational waves. The study that describes this theory was recently published in the Physical Review Letters under the title “Detecting Gravitational Wave Memory without Parent Signals“.

According to their new theory, spacetime does not return to its normal state after a cataclysmic event generates gravitational waves that cause it to stretch out. Instead, it remains stretched, which they refer to as “orphan memory” – the word “orphan” alluding to the fact the “parent wave” is not directly detectable. While this effect has yet to be observed, it could open up some very interesting opportunities for gravitational wave research.

At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are only able to discern the presence of gravitational waves at certain frequencies. As such, researchers are only able to study waves generated by specific types of events and trace them back to their source. As Lucy McNeill, a researchers from the Monash Center for Astrophysics and the lead author on the paper, said in a recent University press statement:

“If there are exotic sources of gravitational waves out there, for example, from micro black holes, LIGO would not hear them because they are too high-frequency. But this study shows LIGO can be used to probe the universe for gravitational waves that were once thought to be invisible to it.”

LIGO’s two facilities, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Credit:

As they indicate in their study, high-frequency gravitational-wave bursts (i.e. ones that are in or below the kilohertz  range) would produce orphan memory that the LIGO and Virgo detectors would be able to pick up. This would not only increase the bandwidth of these detectors exponentially, but open up the possibility of finding evidence of gravity wave bursts in previous searches that went unnoticed.

Dr Eric Thrane, a lecturer at the Monash School of Physics and Astronomy and another a member of the LSC team, was also one of the co-authors of the new study. As he stated, “These waves could open the way for studying physics currently inaccessible to our technology.”

But as they admit in their study, such sources might not even exist and more research is needed to confirm that “orphan memory” is in fact real. Nevertheless, they maintain that searching for high-frequency sources is a useful way to probe for new physics, and it just might reveal things we weren’t expecting to find.

“A dedicated gravitational-wave memory search is desirable. It will have enhanced sensitivity compared to current burst searches,” they state. “Further, a dedicated search can be used to determine whether a detection candidate is consistent with a memory burst by checking to see if the residuals (following signal subtraction) are consistent with Gaussian noise.”

Alas, such searches may have to wait upon the proposed successors to the Advanced LIGO experiment. These include the Einstein Telescope and Cosmic Explorer, two proposed third-generation gravitational wave detectors. Depending on what future surveys find, we may discover that spacetime not only stretches from the creation of gravitational waves, but also bears the “stretch marks” to prove it!

Further Reading: Physical Review Letters


“Spotters Guide” for Detecting Black Hole Collisions

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to the many mysteries of the Universe, a special category is reserved for black holes. Since they are invisible to the naked eye, they remain visibly undetected, and scientists are forced to rely on “seeing” the effects their intense gravity has on nearby stars and gas clouds in order to study them.

That may be about to change, thanks to a team from Cardiff University. Here, researchers have achieved a breakthrough that could help scientists discover hundreds of black holes throughout the Universe.

Led by Dr. Mark Hannam from the School of Physics and Astronomy, the researchers have built a theoretical model which aims to predict all potential gravitational-wave signals that might be found by scientists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors.

These detectors, which act like microphones, are designed to search out remnants of black hole collisions. When they are switched on, the Cardiff team hope their research will act as a sort of “spotters guide” and help scientists pick up the faint ripples of collisions – known as gravitational waves – that took place millions of years ago.

X-ray/radio composite image of two supermassive black holes spiral towards each other near the center of a galaxy cluster named Abell 400. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/AIfA/D.Hudson & T.Reiprich et al.; Radio: NRAO/VLA/NRL
X-ray/radio composite image of two supermassive black holes spiraling towards each other near the center of Abell 400 galaxy cluster. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/AIfA/D.Hudson & T.Reiprich et al.; Radio: NRAO/VLA/NRL

Made up of postdoctoral researchers, PhD students, and collaborators from universities in Europe and the United States, the Cardiff team will work with scientists across the world as they attempt to unravel the origins of the Universe.

“The rapid spinning of black holes will cause the orbits to wobble, just like the last wobbles of a spinning top before it falls over,” Hannam said. “These wobbles can make the black holes trace out wild paths around each other, leading to extremely complicated gravitational-wave signals. Our model aims to predict this behavior and help scientists find the signals in the detector data.”

Already, the new model has been programmed into the computer codes that LIGO scientists all over the world are preparing to use to search for black-hole mergers when the detectors switch on.

Dr Hannam added: “Sometimes the orbits of these spinning black holes look completely tangled up, like a ball of string. But if you imagine whirling around with the black holes, then it all looks much clearer, and we can write down equations to describe what is happening. It’s like watching a kid on a high-speed spinning amusement park ride, apparently waving their hands around. From the side lines, it’s impossible to tell what they’re doing. But if you sit next to them, they might be sitting perfectly still, just giving you the thumbs up.”

Researchers crunched Einstein's theory of general relativity on the Columbia supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center to create a three-dimensional simulation of merging black holes. Image Credit: Henze, NASA
Researchers crunched Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the Columbia supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center to create a three-dimensional simulation of merging black holes. Credit: Henze, NASA

But of course, there’s still work to do: “So far we’ve only included these precession effects while the black holes spiral towards each other,” said Dr. Hannam. “We still need to work our exactly what the spins do when the black holes collide.”

For that they need to perform large computer simulations to solve Einstein’s equations for the moments before and after the collision. They’ll also need to produce many simulations to capture enough combinations of black-hole masses and spin directions to understand the overall behavior of these complicated systems.

In addition, time is somewhat limited for the Cardiff team. Once the detectors are switched on, it will only be a matter of time before the first gravitational wave-detections are made. The calculations that Dr. Hannam and his colleagues are producing will have to ready in time if they hope to make the most of them.

But Dr. Hannam is optimistic. “For years we were stumped on how to untangle the black-hole motion,” he said. “Now that we’ve solved that, we know what to do next.”

Further Reading: News Center – Cardiff U

Watch: New Documentary Follows the Hunt for Gravitational Waves

A newly released documentary brings you behind the scenes in the hunt for gravitational waves. The 20-minute film, called “LIGO, A Passion for Understanding,” follows the scientists working to create one of the most powerful scientific tools ever made: the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO). You can watch the documentary above.
Continue reading “Watch: New Documentary Follows the Hunt for Gravitational Waves”

The Search for Gravitational Waves: New Documentary About LIGO Premieres Soon

What happens when stars or black holes collide? Scientists have theorized that the energy released would disturb the very fabric of the space-time continuum, much like ripples in a pond. These ripples are called gravitational waves, and while proving the existence of these waves has been difficult, their detection would open a brand new window on our understanding of the Universe.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO) have been searching for these elusive waves. A new documentary about LIGO will be available soon here on Universe Today, and it documents the science and people behind the unprecedented astronomical tool designed to catch sight of violent cosmic events trillions of miles from our planet.

The new documentary titled, “LIGO, A Passion for Understanding,” follows scientists working with LIGO. It is produced by filmmaker Kai Staats, and this will actually be the first installment to a multi-video series, in fact. Watch the trailer, above.

“A Passion for Understanding” brings to life one of the most important astronomical tools of our time while telling the human story of creativity, passion, and drive to understand the very fabric of the Universe in which we live.
Operated by teams from the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, LIGO’s observatories use 4 km laser beams to hunt for gravitational waves. The LIGO scientific collaboration consists of hundreds of scientists from around the world.

LIGO’s enhanced run ended in 2010, but the Advanced LIGO project featuring newly upgraded instruments is set to begin its run in late 2015. Advanced LIGO will probe deeper into the universe in search of gravitational waves.

Find out more about the documentary on the film’s Facebook page, at the LIGO collaboration website, and on

LIGO, A Passion for Understanding – Trailer from Kai Staats on Vimeo.

Space Science Stories to Watch in 2014

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “May you live in interesting times,” and 2013 certainly fit the bill in the world of spaceflight and space science. The past year saw spacecraft depart for Mars, China land a rover on the Moon, and drama in low Earth orbit to repair the International Space Station. And all of this occurred against a landscape of dwindling budgets, government shutdowns that threatened launches and scientific research, and ongoing sequestration.

But it’s a brave new world out there. Here are just a few space-related stories that we’ll watching in 2014:

An artist's conception of ESA's Rosetta and Philae spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA-J. Huart, 2013)
An artist’s conception of ESA’s Rosetta and Philae spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA-J. Huart, 2013)

Rosetta to Explore a Comet: On January 20, 2014, the European Space Agency will hail its Rosetta spacecraft and awaken it for its historic encounter with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year in August. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet. Launched way back in 2004, Rosetta promises to provide the cosmic encounter of the year.

The October 19th, 2014 passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs past Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The October 19th, 2014 passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs past Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A1 Siding Springs vs. Mars: A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled out the chance of impact, the comet will still pass 41,300 kilometres from the Red Planet, just outside the orbit of its outer moon Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the +7th magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will a fleet of spacecraft both on and above the Martian surface.

A recent tweet from @NewHorizons_2015, a spacecraft that launched just weeks before Twitter in 2006.
A recent tweet from @NewHorizons_2015, a spacecraft that, ironically, launched just weeks before Twitter in 2006.

Spacecraft En Route to Destinations: Though no new interplanetary missions are set to depart the Earth in 2014, there are lots of exciting missions currently underway and headed for worlds yet to be explored. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is headed towards its encounter with 1 Ceres in February 2015. Juno is fresh off its 2013 flyby of the Earth and headed for orbital insertion around Jupiter in August 2016. And in November of this year, New Horizons will switch on permanently for its historic encounter with Pluto and its retinue of moons in July 2015.    

LUX & the Hunt for Dark Matter: It’s all around us, makes up the bulk of the mass budget of the universe, and its detection is THE name of the game in modern astrophysics. But just what is dark matter? Some tantalizing– and hotly contested –data came out late last year from of an unusual detector deep underground near Lead, South Dakota. The Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX) looks for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) interacting with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX requires its unique locale to block out interference from incoming cosmic rays. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology, whether or not detections by LUX prove to be conclusive.   

The LIGO Livingston Observatory. (Photos by Author)
The LIGO Livingston Observatory. (Photos by Author)

 The Hunt for Gravity Waves: Another story to watch may come out of Caltech’s twin gravity wave observatories when its Advanced LIGO system goes online later this year. Established in 2002, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is comprised of two detectors: one in Hanford Washington and one outside of Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors look for gravity waves generated by merging binary pulsars and black holes. Though no positive detections have yet been made, Advanced LIGO with boast ten times the sensitivity and may pave the way for a new era of gravitational wave astronomy.

An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center).
An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center).

 Spacecraft reach Mars: 2014 is an opposition year for the Red Planet, and with it, two new missions are slated to begin operations around Mars: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) also known as Mangalyaan-1 is slated to enter orbit on September 24th, and NASA’s MAVEN or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission is set to arrive just 2 days earlier on September 22nd. MOM and MAVEN will join the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and  the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in the quest to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Space Tourism Takes Off: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo passed a key milestone test flight in late 2013. Early 2014 may see the first inaugural flights by Virgin Galactic out of the Mohave Spaceport and the start of sub-orbital space tourism. SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. Hey, room for any space journalists in there? On standby, maybe?

The First Flight of Orion: No, it’s not the first flight of the proposed sub-light interplanetary spacecraft that was to be propelled by atomic bombs… but the September launch of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) will be a  short uncrewed flight and test the capsule during reentry after two orbits. It’s to be seen if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV will occur by the end of the decade.

Launch of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission to the ISS in early 2013. (Photo by author).
Launch of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission to the ISS in early 2013. (Photo by author)

 The First Flight of the Falcon Heavy: 2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, starting with the launch of Thaicom-6 out of Cape Canaveral this Friday on January 3rd. SpaceX is now “open for business,” and expect to see them conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.… more to come!

The Sunjammer Space Sail: An interesting mission moves in 2014 towards a January 2015 launch: LGarde’s Sunjammer solar sail. Sunjammer will test key solar sail technologies as well as deliver the Solar Wind Analyzer (SWAN) and the MAGIC Magnetometer to the L1 Earth-Sun Lagrange point. Sunjammer will launch on a Falcon-9 rocket and deploy a 1200 square metre solar sail weighing only 32 kilograms. This will be a great one for ground satellite-spotters to track as well as it heads out!

Gaia Opens for Business: Launched on a brilliant night-shot out of the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19th of last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its astrometry mission in 2014, creating most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy. But we also anticipate exciting new discoveries due to spin-offs from this mission, to include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more.

And as in years previous, the quest to explore brave new worlds will be done against the backdrop of tightening budgets. Just like in household budgets, modern spaceflight is a continual conflict between what we would wish and what we can afford. In recent years, no mission seems to be safe, and there have even been occasional congressional rumblings to pull the plug on missions already underway. Interesting times, indeed… 2014 promises to be an extraordinary time in spaceflight and space science, both on Earth and beyond.