Discovery of gravitational waves opens entirely new areas of science

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory
©Caltech/MIT/LIGO lab

In 2016 the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory) international science collaboration announced the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves – the final remaining unconfirmed major component of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The work was rewarded with the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics, with the UK playing a key role in the technological and computing advances that enabled the advance. This was followed, in October 2017, by the announcement of the detection of a neutron star collision. The aftermath was also observed by space and ground-based telescopes - the first detection of both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation.

The recent technical improvements to LIGO relied heavily on expertise from UK universities and STFC’s laboratories, increasing the sensitivity of its detectors ten-fold and making the discovery possible. STFC-funded researchers have since used the technology, expertise and knowledge developed for LIGO to develop commercial applications including a low cost and portable Micro Electromechanical System gravimeter, approximately 100,000 times more sensitive than those in current use in the best smartphones.