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.
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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.

Extreme Telescopes: Unique Observatories Around the World

In 1888, astronomer Simon Newcomb uttered now infamous words, stating that “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” This was an age just prior to identifying faint nebulae as separate galaxies, Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity, and an era when a hypothetical substance called the aether was said to permeate the cosmos.

Newcomb would scarcely recognize astronomy today. Modern observatories span the electromagnetic spectrum and are unlocking the secrets of a universe both weird and wonderful. Modern day astronomers rarely peer through an eyepiece, were it even possible to do so with such bizarre instruments. What follows are some of the most unique professional ground-based observatories in operation today that are pushing back our understanding of the universe we inhabit.

The four gamma-ray telescopes in the VERITAS array. (Credit: VERITAS/The National Science Foundation).
The four gamma-ray telescopes in the VERITAS array. (Credit: VERITAS/The National Science Foundation).

VERITAS: Based at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in southern Arizona, the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) is an observatory designed to observe high energy gamma-rays. Its array consists of four 12-metre aperture reflectors each comprised of 350 mirror scintillators. Each VERITAS array has a 3.5° degree field of view and the array has been fully operational since 2007. VERITAS has been used to study active galactic nuclei, gamma-ray bursts, and the Crab Nebula pulsar.

Looking down one of IceCube's detector bore holes. (Credit: IceCube Collaboration/NSF).
Looking down one of IceCube’s detector bore holes. (Credit: IceCube Collaboration/NSF).

IceCube: Not the rapper, IceCube is a neutrino detector in based at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. IceCube watches for neutrino interactions by use of thousands of photomultipliers suspended up to 2.45 kilometres down into the Antarctic ice sheet. With a total of 86 detector strings completed in 2011, IceCube is currently the world’s largest neutrino observatory and is part of the worldwide Supernova Early Warning System. IceCube will also complement WMAP and Planck data and can actually “see” the shadowing effect of the Moon blocking cosmic ray muons.

The Liquid Mirror Telescope used at the NASA Orbital Debris Observatory. (Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)
The Liquid Mirror Telescope used at the NASA Orbital Debris Observatory. (Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Liquid Mirror Telescopes: One of the more bizarre optical designs out there in the world of astronomy, liquid mirror telescopes employ a large rotating dish of mercury to form a parabolic mirror. The design is cost effective but does have the slight drawback of having to aim directly at the zenith while a swath of sky passes over head. NASA employed a 3-metre liquid mirror telescope as part of its Orbital Debris observatory based near Cloudcroft, New Mexico from 1995-2002. The largest one in the world (and the 18th largest optical telescope overall) is the 6-metre Large Zenith Telescope in the University of British Columbia’s Malcolm Knapp Research Forest.

An aerial view of LIGO Hanford. (Credit:  Gary White/Mark Coles/California Institue of Technology/LIGO/NSF).
An aerial view of LIGO Hanford. (Credit: Gary White/Mark Coles/California Institute of Technology/LIGO/NSF).

LIGO: Designed to detect incoming gravity waves caused by pulsar-black hole mergers, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is comprised of a pair of facilities with one based in Hanford, Washington and another in Livingston, Louisiana. Each detector is consists of a pair of 2 kilometre Fabry-Pérot arms and measures a laser beam shot through them with ultra-high precision.  Two geographically separate interferometers are needed to isolate out terrestrial interference as well as give a direction of an incoming gravity wave on the celestial sphere. To date, no gravity waves have been detected by LIGO, but said detection is expected to open up a whole new field of astronomy.

The VLBA antanna located at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. (Credit: Image courtesy of the NRAO/AUI/NSF).
The VLBA antenna located at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. (Credit: Image courtesy of the NRAO/AUI/NSF).

The Very Long Baseline Array: A series of 10 radio telescopes with a resolution the size of a continent, the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) employs observatories across the continental United States, Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This is effectively the longest radio interferometer in the world with a baseline of over 8,600 kilometres and a resolution of under one milliarcseconds at 4 to 0.7 centimetre wavelengths. The VLBA has been used to study H2O megamasers in Active Galactic Nuclei and measure ultra-precise positions and proper motions of stars and galaxies.

LOFAR: Located just north of the town of Exloo in the Netherlands,  The LOw Frequency Radio Array is a phased array 25,000 antennas with an effective collection area of 300,000 square metres. This makes LOFAR one of the largest single connected radio telescopes in existence. LOFAR is also a proof on concept for its eventual successor, the Square Kilometre Array to be built jointly in South Africa, Australia & New Zealand. Key projects involving LOFAR include extragalactic surveys, research into the nature of cosmic rays and studies of space weather.

One of the water tank detectors in Pierre Auger observatory. (Wikimedia Image in the Public Domain).
One of the water tank detectors in Pierre Auger observatory. (Wikimedia Image in the Public Domain).

The Pierre Auger Observatory: A cosmic ray observatory located in Malargüe, Argentina, the Pierre Auger Observatory was completed in 2008. This unique instrument consists of 1600 water tank Cherenkov radiation detectors spaced out over 3,000 square kilometres along with four complimenting fluorescence detectors.  Results from Pierre Auger have thus far included discovery of a possible link between some of the highest energy events observed and active galactic nuclei.

The GONG installation at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican observatory in Chile. (Credit: GONG/NSO/AURA/NSF).
The GONG installation at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican observatory in Chile. (Credit: GONG/NSO/AURA/NSF).

GONG: Keeping an eye on the Sun is the goal of the Global Oscillation Network Group, a worldwide network of six solar telescopes. Established from an initial survey of 15 sites in 1991, GONG provides real-time data that compliments space-based efforts to monitor the Sun by the SDO, SHO, and STEREO A & B spacecraft. GONG scientists can even monitor the solar farside by use of helioseismology!

A portion of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute. Used with permission).
A portion of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute. Used with permission).

The Allen Telescope Array: Located at Hat Creek 470 kilometres northeast of San Francisco, this array will eventually consist of 350 Gregorian focus radio antennas that will support SETI’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 42 antennas were made operational in 2007, and a 2011 budget shortfall put the status of the array in limbo until a preliminary financing goal of $200,000 was met in August 2011.

The YBJ Cosmic Ray Observatory: Located high on the Tibetan plateau, Yangbajing International Cosmic Ray Observatory is a joint Japanese-Chinese effort. Much like Pierre-Auger, the YBJ Cosmic Ray Observatory employs scintillators spread out along with high speed cameras to watch for cosmic ray interactions. YBJ observes the sky in cosmic rays continuously and has captured sources from the Crab nebula pulsar and found a correlation between solar & interplanetary magnetic fields and the Sun’s own “cosmic ray shadow”. The KOSMA 3-metre radio telescope is also being moved from Switzerland to the YBJ observatory in Tibet.

Pulsar Jackpot Scours Old Data for New Discoveries

Chalk another one up for Citizen Science.  Earlier this month, researchers announced the discovery of 24 new pulsars. To date, thousands of pulsars have been discovered, but what’s truly fascinating about this month’s discovery is that came from culling through old data using a new method.

A pulsar is a dense, highly magnetized, swiftly rotating remnant of a supernova explosion. Pulsars where first discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish in 1967. The discovery of a precisely timed radio beacon initially suggested to some that they were the product of an artificial intelligence. In fact, for a very brief time, pulsars were known as LGM’s, for “Little Green Men.” Today, we know that pulsars are the product of the natural death of massive stars.

The data set used for the discovery comes from the Parkes 64-metre radio observatory based out of New South Wales, Australia. The installation was the first to receive telemetry from the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon and was made famous in the movie The Dish.  The Parkes Multi-Beam Pulsar Survey (PMPS) was conducted in the late 1990’s, making thousands of 35-minute recordings across the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. This survey turned up over 800 pulsars and generated 4 terabytes of data. (Just think of how large 4 terabytes was in the 90’s!)

Artist's conception of a pulsar. (Credit: NASA/GSFC).
Artist’s conception of a pulsar. (Credit: NASA/GSFC).

The nature of these discoveries presented theoretical astrophysicists with a dilemma. Namely, the number of short period and binary pulsars was lower than expected. Clearly, there were more pulsars in the data waiting to be found.

Enter Citizen Science. Using a program known as [email protected], researchers were able to sift though the recordings using innovative modeling techniques to tease out 24 new pulsars from the data.

“The method… is only possible with the computing resources provided by [email protected]” Benjamin Knispel of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics told the MIT Technology Review in a recent interview. The study utilized over 17,000 CPU core years to complete.

Einstein@Home screenshot. (Credit: LIGO Consortium).
[email protected] screenshot. (Credit: LIGO Consortium).

[email protected] is a program uniquely adapted to accomplish this feat. Begun in 2005, [email protected] is a distributed computing project which utilizes computing power while machines are idling to search through downloaded data packets. Similar to the original distributed computing program [email protected] which searches for extraterrestrial signals, [email protected] culls through data from the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) looking for gravity waves. In 2009, the [email protected] survey was expanded to include radio astronomy data from the Arecibo radio telescope and later the Parkes observatory.

Among the discoveries were some rare finds. For example, PSR J1748-3009 Has the highest known dispersion measure of any millisecond pulsar (The dispersion measure is the density of free electrons observed moving towards the viewer). Another find, J1750-2531 is thought to belong to a class of intermediate-mass binary pulsars. 6 of the 24 pulsars discovered were part of binary systems.

These discoveries also have implications for the ongoing hunt for gravity waves by such projects as LIGO. Specifically, a through census of binary pulsars in the galaxy will give scientists a model for the predicted rate of binary pulsar mergers. Unlike radio surveys, LIGO seeks to detect these events via the copious amount of gravity waves such mergers should generate. Begun in 2002, LIGO consists of two gravity wave observatories, one in Hanford Washington and one in Livingston Louisiana just outside of Baton Rouge. Each LIGO detector consists of two 2 kilometre Fabry-Pérot arms in an “L” configuration which allow for ultra-precise measurements of a 200 watt laser beam shot through them.  Two detectors are required to pin-point the direction of an incoming gravity wave on the celestial sphere. You can see the orientation of the “L’s” on the display on the [email protected] screensaver. Two geographically separate detectors are also required to rule out local interference. A gravity wave from a galactic source would ripple straight through the Earth.

Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).
Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).

Such a movement would be tiny, on the order of 1/1,000th the diameter of a proton, unnoticed by all except the LIGO detectors. To date, LIGO has yet to detect gravity waves, although there have been some false alarms. Scientists regularly interject test signals into the data to see if system catches them. The lack of detection of gravity waves by LIGO has put some constraints on certain events. For example, LIGO reported a non-detection of gravity waves during the February 2007 short gamma-ray burst event GRB 070201. The event arrived from the direction of the Andromeda Galaxy, and thus was thought to have been relatively nearby in the universe. Such bursts are thought to be caused by neutron star and/or black holes mergers. The lack of detection by LIGO suggests a more distant event. LIGO should be able to detect a gravitational wave event out to 70 million light years, and Advanced LIGO (AdLIGO) is set to go online in 2014 and will increase its sensitivity tenfold.

The control room at LIGO Livingston. (Photo by Author).
The control room at LIGO Livingston. (Photo by Author).

Knowledge of where these potential pulsar mergers are by such discoveries as the Parkes radio survey will also give LIGO researchers clues of targets to focus on. “The search for pulsars isn’t easy, especially for these “quiet” ones that aren’t doing the equivalent of “screaming” for our attention,” Says LIGO Livingston Data Analysis and EPO Scientist Amber Stuver. The LIGO consortium developed the data analysis technique used by [email protected] The direct detection of gravitational waves by LIGO or AdLIGO would be an announcement perhaps on par with CERN’s discovery of the Higgs Boson last year. This would also open up a whole new field of gravitational wave astronomy and perhaps give new stimulus to the European Space Agencies’ proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) space-based gravity wave detector. Congrats to the team at Parkes on their discovery… perhaps we’ll have the first gravity wave detection announcement out of LIGO as well in years to come!

-Read the original paper on the discovery of 24 new pulsars here.

-Amber Stuver blogs about [email protected] & the spin-off applications of gravity wave technology at Living LIGO.

-Parkes radio telescope image is copyrighted and used with the permission of CSIRO Operations Scientist John Sarkissian.

-For a fascinating read on the hunt for gravity waves, check out Gravity’s Ghost.