Astrophysicists at West Virginia University, working with colleagues around the world, may soon open a new window into the universe through the direct detection of gravitational waves, a key prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Maura McLaughlin, assistant professor of physics in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University, is the principal investigator on a $6.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering and the Division of Astronomical Sciences as part of the Partnerships for International Research and Education program.
“This landmark research grant is yet another achievement by Dr. McLaughlin and the faculty in our nationally renowned Physics Department,” WVU President James P. Clements said. “It speaks volumes about the quality of our faculty at West Virginia University and their dedication to research and their students, as well as to their commitment to excellence in academic scholarship.”
The PIRE project will set in motion the International Pulsar Timing Array partnership between the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational waves and Australian, European and Indian scientists, focusing a coordinated effort with dedicated research power on detection of gravitational waves. Indirect evidence points to the existence of these waves, but they have never been directly detected.
“In their recent Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the National Academies of Science named NANOGrav as one of eight mid-scale astrophysics projects recommended as high priorities for funding in the next decade, placing WVU at the cutting edge of astrophysics research,” said Curt Peterson, vice president for research and economic development.
And WVU Provost Michele Wheatly said the PIRE award “is a significant grant, both because of its size and its international aspect. This further affirms the direction the University is moving in its commitment to research. It also comes on the heels of a record year in which WVU saw an 18 percent increase in sponsored research to more than $175 million.”
McLaughlin explained that direct detection of gravitational waves is one of the most transformational prospects of modern physics, with the potential to revolutionize our knowledge of the universe by enabling studies of black holes within massive galaxies and the space-time dynamics of early stages of the universe.
“By combining data taken at the world’s best facilities, with the highest-precision detection techniques, with experts from around the world, the PIRE team expects to detect gravitational waves within five to 10 years,” McLaughlin estimates.
The award will establish an international team for the detection and study of low frequency gravitational waves using timing observations of millisecond pulsars. The team will use radio telescopes around the world, including the two largest: the 105-m Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, W.Va. and the 305-m Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. The Green Bank Telescope is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Arecibo telescope is operated by the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, both under cooperative agreement with the NSF.
“This program further elevates the importance of our unparalleled radio facilities in Green Bank, W.Va.,” said Duncan Lorimer, associate professor of physics at WVU and a co-principal investigator on the grant.
The grant brings together a diverse group of researchers from colleges and universities across the United States. It will be managed by McLaughlin and co-principal investigators Lorimer; Fredrick Jenet, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas, Brownsville; Andrea Lommen, associate professor of astrophysics at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa.; and Daniel Stinebring, professor of physics and astronomy at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Other senior investigators involved in this project are James Cordes, Cornell University; David Nice, Lafayette College; Joanna Rankin, University of Vermont; Scott Ransom, NRAO; and Xavier Siemens, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The team also includes affiliates Zaven Arzoumanian of the Universities Space Research Association and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Joseph Lazio at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The team of international collaborators and U.S. researchers and students will use radio telescopes to observe signals from dozens of pulsars over several years. This will enable the PIRE team to directly test for the existence of gravitational waves and, after detection, measure their distribution, polarization and spectrum and identify and characterize their astrophysical sources.
Detecting gravitational waves using pulsars is complementary to other detection efforts using ground-based detectors such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.
“Both international collaboration and coordinated use of worldwide resources are critical for detecting low frequency gravitational waves. Detection sensitivity increases the longer the pulsars are monitored, so observations over many years are required,” Jenet said.
Pairs of pulsars widely separated on the sky must be observed to maximize sensitivity, requiring observing sites in both hemispheres. Additionally, long, frequent observations at several radio observing frequencies are required for high precision and must be done for as many millisecond pulsars as possible. All of these factors combine to place a substantial demand on the world’s radio telescope time.
“One of the most exciting things about this project is that we are exploring the unknown. There will be a lot of discoveries along the way,” Lommen said.
PIRE will support postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students at nine U.S. institutions, yearly international science meetings, workshops, and research and observing trips. Once established, a consortium-wide Memorandum of Understanding for the planned research/study abroad programs will continue to provide valuable opportunities for current and future generations of students at these institutions.
“We are enthusiastic about the international research experiences this project will afford our students. These types of experiences are vital in today’s world-wide research enterprise”, said Stinebring.
The institutions that will be part of the international partnership are Monash University, Swinburne University and Australia Telescope National Facility, Australia; McGill University and University of British Columbia, Canada; L’Observatoire de Paris at Nanšay/Nanšay Observatory, France; Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy at the University of Bonn, Germany; National Center for Radio Astrophysics, India; Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari, Italy; Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, Netherlands; and University of Manchester, United Kingdom.
For more information about the PIRE project, visit http://nanograv-pire.wvu.edu.
CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
304-293-7405, ext 5251; Rebecca.Herod@mail.wvu.edu
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