Opening Up the Dark Side of the Universe

Physicists from the University of Glasgow along with other colleagues in the UK are about to start construction of a major part of an advanced new experiment, designed to search for elusive gravitational waves with funding from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) totalling £8.6m.

They are already part of two experiments: the UK/German GEO 600 project and the US LIGO experiment (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), both in their commissioning phases.

By bringing GEO 600 technology to LIGO, they and their German colleagues from the Albert Einstein Institute are now set to become full partners in Advanced LIGO, a more sensitive observatory that once fully operational should be able to detect a gravitational wave event a day.

First predicted by Einstein's Theory of Relativity, gravitational waves have never been observed, but indirect evidence of their existence has been obtained by measuring the effect of their emission by a binary pulsar system (two neutron stars orbiting each other).

Professor Ken Strain, Institute for Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow, explains "Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, produced by the acceleration of mass. Because the gravitational interaction is very weak, large masses and high accelerations are needed to produce gravitational waves of significant amplitude. These are the very conditions that occur during violent astrophysical events such as supernovae or when neutron stars coalesce."

The detection and study of gravitational radiation will be of great scientific importance. It will open up a new window on the universe through which may come unique information about a variety of astrophysical systems -supernova explosions, black hole formation, pulsars and coalescing compact binary objects. It is also possible that totally unexpected discoveries will be made, in much the same way as has occurred in radio and x-ray astronomy.

Professor James Hough added, "This is the culmination of a huge effort over two decades which now sees Glasgow leading the science contribution for this exciting next phase. GEO 600 has already come up with new ways of improving sensitivity. By sharing this technology with Advanced LIGO, the GEO 600 group is winning full partner status in this world-leading experiment."

The grants totalling £8.6 million have been made by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) for Glasgow and Birmingham Universities to carry out the work. Much of the construction work, and overall management of the UK programme, will be done by CCLRC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Professor Hough has recently seen his outstanding contribution to the design and development of gravitational wave detectors worldwide recognised firstly by the Royal Society this year with his election to the Fellowship, and more recently by the Institute of Physics who have awarded him the prestigious Duddell Medal and Prize.

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The new funding announced by PPARC consists of ?7.2million to the University of Glasgow and ?1.4million to the University of Birmingham. Funding for the Cardiff University participation in this project is included in their rolling grant that also covers other aspects of their work.

GEO 600 GEO 600 is a joint UK/ German project consisting of the Universities of Glasgow and Cardiff from the UK and in Germany, the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) Potsdam and Hannover, Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, Garching and the University of Hannover. See University of Hannover for more information. The GEO German partners are also expected to strengthen their position in the Advanced LIGO project.

LIGO LIGO is a US project, involving the LIGO Hanford Observatory, LIGO Livingston Observatory, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The detectors are sited at Hanford and Livingston. See LIGO for more information.

A world-wide network of detectors

Gravitational wave detectors are not direction sensitive; each receives signals from much of the sky. Therefore to identify where a signal is coming from, it needs to be detected at several locations. The difference in time when it arrives at each detector can be used to calculate the signal location and also rule out earth based interference that could give false positives ? such as earthquakes!

Contact details

University of Glasgow ? Judith Hodgson, Press Officer, University of Glasgow, Tel 0141 330 3535, Email:

PPARC Press Office - Julia Maddock, Tel 01793 442094, Email

First published: 24 September 2003