Keynote Video: Dr. Keith Thorne Explains The Extreme Engineering Of The LIGO Hardware

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is a huge installation measured in kilometers that is listening for wrinkles in space-time. Pulling this off is a true story of hardware and software hacking, and we were lucky to have Dr. Keith Thorne dive into those details with his newly published “Extreme Instruments for Extreme Astrophysics” keynote from the 2021 Hackaday Remoticon.

Gravity causes space-time to stretch — think back to the diagrams you’ve seen of a massive orb (a star or planet) sitting on a plane with grid lines drawn on it, the fabric of that plane being stretch downward from the mass of the orb. If you have two massive entities like black holes orbiting each other, they give off gravitational waves. When they collide and merge, they create a brief but very strong train of waves. Evidence of these events are what LIGO is looking for.

Laser Interferometer diagramRai Weiss had the idea to look for gravitational waves using laser interferometers in about 1967, but the available laser technology was too new to accomplish the feat. In an interferometer, a laser is shot through a beam splitter and one beam reflects out and back over a distance, and is then recombined with the other half using a photodetector to measure the intensity of light. As the distance in the long leg changes, the relative phase of the lasers shift, and the power detected will vary.

LIGO is not your desktop interferometer. It uses a 5 kW laser input. The 4 km legs of the interferometer bounce the light back and forth 1,000 times for an effective 4,000 km travel distance. These legs are kept under extreme vacuum and the mirrors are held exceptionally still. It’s worth it; the instrument can measure at a precision of 1/10,000 the diameter of a proton!

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How The LIGO Observatory Detects Gravitational Waves

Gravity is one of the more obvious forces in the universe, generally regarded as easily noticeable by the way apples fall from trees. However, the underlying mechanisms behind gravity are inordinately complex, and the subject of much study to this day.

A major component of this study is around the concept of gravitational waves. First posited by Henri Poincaré in 1905, and later a major component of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, they’re a phenomena hunted for by generations of physicists ever since. For the team at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, finding direct evidence of gravitational waves is all in a day’s work.

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About Those Gravitational Waves

It was the year of 1687 when Isaac Newton published “The Principia“, which revealed the first mathematical description of gravity. Newton’s laws of motion along with his description of gravity laid before the world a revolutionary concept that could be used to describe everything from the motions of heavenly bodies to a falling apple. Newton would remain the unequivocal king of gravity for the next several hundred years. But that would all change at the dawn of the 20th century when a young man working at a Swiss patent office began to ask some profound questions. Einstein had come to the conclusion that Newtonian physics was not adequate to describe the findings of the emerging electromagnetic field theories.  In 1905, he published a paper entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” which corrects Newton’s laws so they work when describing the motions of objects near the speed of light. This new description became known as Special Relativity.

It was ‘Special’ because it didn’t deal with gravity or acceleration. It would take Einstein another 10 years to work these two concepts into his relativity theory. He called it General Relativity – an understanding of which is necessary to fully grasp the significance of gravitational waves.

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