UTRGV physicists helps observe gravitational waves

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) scientists have detected gravitational waves, ripples through the fabric of spacetime, experimentally verifying Albert Einstein’s last prediction of general relativity made a century ago. Months of social media rumors were confirmed during a Thursday press conference, introducing a new way to observe the universe.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley physicists, some who’ve worked decades on the project, are among more than 1,000 of LIGO’s international collaborators.

Last September, LIGO completed an upgrade to its pair of gravitational wave detectors located near Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington. Each contains state-of-the-art laser systems built specifically to observe gravitational wave length fluctuations the diameter of an atom.

“You can’t buy low-noise, high-power devices,” said UTRGV assistant professor of physics, Volker Quetschke, adding LIGO was defining state-of-the-art in the field. “The universities basically take the development role of the project. It is not a turn-key project. You don’t go to Radioshack and say, ‘I want a $1,000,000,000 gravitational wave detector. There are a lot of small aspects.”

Development of LIGO technologies were research projects for professors and students, said Quetschke said.

The Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy was made possible by a NASA grant in 2003, and has since brought research in cutting-edge technologies to the Valley, according to CGWA director, Mario Diaz.

“I thought it was important to develop something more applied. That’s the way we constructed the optics lab and we opened a line of research into lasers, optics (and) photonics — that is precisely the technology being used at LIGO.”

While the discovery is likely contribute to a Nobel prize, Diaz said the university’s investment in this research has already been rewarded.

“In 2006, we hired a new faculty member to come into our center, who is a radio astronomer,” said Diaz, referring to Fredrick Jenet. “This same faculty member is the same one that lead an initiative that attracted SpaceX to the Valley … because he’s going to be developing radio tracking systems for SpaceX spacecraft.”

“I think this is a good example of things that are unforeseeable, but are based in the knowledge that you generate and develop.”