Texas Tech University

LIGO Team, Including Five Texas Tech Faculty, Wins Major Prizes

Glenys Young

January 12, 2017

Gravitational Waves

The group has won the 2017 Bruno Rossi Prize and the 2016 Gruber Cosmology Prize for its detection of gravitational waves.

Two Black Holes Merge into One
Two Black Holes Merge into One
(Credit: SXS)

Two Texas Tech University faculty members and three postdoctoral researchers are part of an international team of scientists who have been honored with the 2017 Bruno Rossi Prize and the 2016 Gruber Cosmology Prize for their contributions to last year's groundbreaking detection of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein more than a century ago.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) discovery team included more than 1,000 members from more than 70 institutions. Texas Tech's contingent includes professor Benjamin Owen, assistant professor Alessandra Corsi and postdoctoral fellows Santiago Caride, Robert Coyne and Ra Inta, all from the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The Bruno Rossi Prize is awarded annually by the American Astronomical Society's High Energy Astrophysics Division for a significant contribution to high-energy astrophysics with particular emphasis on recent, original work. The division assists and promotes the advancement of research and the dissemination of knowledge about high-energy events, particles, quanta, relativistic gravitational fields and related phenomena in the astrophysical universe and promotes the coordination of this research and knowledge with other branches of science.

Gravitational Waves, As Einstein Predicted
Gravitational Waves, As Einstein Predicted
(Credit: LIGO)

The Gruber Cosmology Prize is awarded annually to honor a leading cosmologist, astronomer, astrophysicist or scientific philosopher for theoretical, analytical, conceptual or observational discoveries leading to fundamental advances in our understanding of the universe. Recipients are chosen by the Cosmology Selection Advisory Board. Its 2016 members represented such notable institutions as the University of Cambridge, the Niels Bohr Institute, Hosei University, Princeton University, the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics.

"It's great to see LIGO get this recognition," Owen said. "We're a team effort, that's what it takes to make big discoveries these days, and award committees are starting to realize that. Gravitational wave astronomy has just begun, and we're looking forward to many more exciting discoveries."

The LIGO team's Feb. 11, 2016, announcement of the detection electrified the physics community. For the first time, scientists had observed gravitational waves' arrival at the Earth from a cataclysmic event – the collision of two black holes in the distant universe. This confirmed a major prediction of Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opened an unprecedented new window into the cosmos.

Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.

Hanford achieves interferometer lock
Hanford achieves interferometer lock
On December 12, 2014, LIGO Hanford achieved its first interferometer "lock."
"Locking" refers to the times during which infrared light resonates throughout the interferometer under computer control.
(Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

One of the two data analysis algorithms that detected the gravitational waves relied on Owen's work in the last 20 years to efficiently search for signals, and Owen spent three years supervising the stress testing of the other algorithm. Corsi has worked for years at the interface of gravitational-wave physics and astronomy and is one of the key players in the effort to enable sky searches for electromagnetic counterparts to invisible gravitational waves.

Coyne has joined Corsi in this endeavor, which includes searching LIGO data for gravitational waves that leave detectable electromagnetic signatures. Caride and Inta have worked extensively to assure the quality of LIGO data.

"I feel greatly honored for being included in these prizes," Corsi said. "With the Advanced LIGO detectors now in their second observing run, I am looking forward to the possibility of detecting an electromagnetic counterpart to a LIGO event. To achieve this goal, here at Texas Tech we have secured time on both the NRAO Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array and the NASA Swift X-ray telescope. We are also continuing our work on testing new LIGO data analysis techniques tuned to search for stellar explosions giving birth to neutron stars. So I expect the next few months to be extremely busy, but also extremely exciting."

The LIGO discovery team previously won a Special Breakthrough Prize from the Breakthrough Foundation.

Hanford and Livingston
The LIGO Laboratory operates two detector sites, one near Hanford in eastern Washington (left), and another near Livingston, Louisiana (right). (Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

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