Texas Tech University

Researchers Awarded for Contributions to Scientific Breakthrough

Cara Vandergriff

June 20, 2016

Several researchers from the Department of Physics have been awarded for their participation in a project resulting in the first direct detection of gravitational waves.

Ra Inta

Three months after the announcement that gravitational waves had been directly detected for the first time, confirming Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and rewarding a scientific effort decades in the making, Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist Yuri Milner pledged to award $3 million to the international team of researchers credited with the discovery.

The team of scientists responsible for the detection of this groundbreaking evidence, also known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration, is made up of more than 1,000 scientists from around the world, including several researchers from Texas Tech University.

Texas Tech Professor Benjamin Owen, assistant professor Alessandra Corsi and postdoctoral researchers Santiago Caride, Robert Coyne and Ra Inta are among the scientists who will share $2 million of the award, with $1 million being split among the experiment's three leaders: Ronald P. Drever and Kip. S. Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Owen, Corsi, Caride, Coyne and Inta, all researchers in the Department of Physics, contributed to the ongoing study of gravitational waves by helping author LIGO's research article published in the academic journal Physical Review Letters in addition to other individual contributions.

Inta analyzes data from the LIGO observatories and helped initiate the automated alert system that notifies partner observatories about potential events detected by the LIGO team.

Benjamin Owen

"I look at data from the LIGO observatories to make sure it makes sense and to flag potential issues of data quality," Inta said. "What I mostly do is search for gravitational waves from the densest stars known: neutron stars. We expect rotating neutron stars to give out a continuous pure gravitational-wave tone. The signal is tiny, but it's on all of the time, so we can average out the signal over a long time."

Caride, who works in the same LIGO subgroup as Inta, also focuses on the search for continuous waves, which may be produced by pulsars or other rapidly rotating neutron stars.

"I've done some work on understanding and mitigating sources of noise in the detectors," Caride said. "Most of what I did was help ensure the quality of experimental data."

Coyne contributed to the discovery by developing data analysis tools to detect gravitational waves from other events that also are sources of electromagnetic radiation.

"This particular discovery was the merger of two black holes, and we don't expect events like that to emit light," Coyne said. "However, I'm looking forward to future events like this that include at least one neutron star in place of a black hole. Those sorts of events are the cornerstone of the work I do with LIGO."

Owen, who has spent 20 years working to more efficiently search for signals, had a major role in developing the data analysis algorithms used to detect the gravitational waves.

"My first article in grad school set up the technique to search for these signals efficiently using calculations of what they should look like, and we've been refining that technique over the years," Owen said. "It's great to see it finally come to fruition – and with such a monster signal. It's already told us that general relativity is doing great, and we expect plenty more in the coming years."

Alessandra Corsi

Corsi contributed to the discovery by studying the interface of gravitational-wave physics and astronomy, which led her to help in enabling sky searches for electromagnetic counterparts to invisible gravitational waves.

"For this particular event, I was part of a team effort aimed at searching for associated electromagnetic emission," Corsi said. "As soon as signals from systems containing at least one neutron star are detected by LIGO, joint electromagnetic and gravitational wave observations will unravel the properties of matter under the most extreme conditions. Indeed, this discovery marks the beginning of a new era: the era of gravitational-wave astronomy."

With the help of these Texas Tech researchers, LIGO made a significant discovery that both confirms a 100-year-old theory and represents the beginning of a new field of astronomy and fundamental physics.

"We're all still so excited about the first detection," Inta said. "The announcement is really the tip of an iceberg that has been decades in the making. The LIGO detectors are simply an incredible feat of engineering, and the awards received generally acknowledge that this is the first step on the road of a whole new scientific odyssey."

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