NASA will support the first gravitational wave detector of its kind

A theoretical astrophysicist from West Virginia University will play a key role in the creation of a unique space probe designed to identify and accurately quantify gravitational waves, which are undulating effects in space and time.

WVU astrophysicist Sean McWilliams was part of the team that first discovered gravitational waves in 2015. Now he will play a key role in the development of a first-of-its-kind space probe that will detect and accurately measure gravitational waves with support from NASA funding. Image credits: WVU

Sean McWilliams, associate professor of physics and astronomy in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, was a member of the team that discovered these imperceptible ripples in 2015, confirming Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Now that McWilliams has received $750,000 in funding from NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, he will take the lead in creating models that will make it easier for the planned spacecraft to make observations.

The probe, which will be known as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, will be the first specifically designed gravitational wave observatory in space that can measure binaries over a wide mass range.

Gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein in 1916, arise from monumental events such as mergers of black holes and neutron stars, supernovae, and even the remnants of radiation from the Big Bang.

McWilliams’ team will investigate the inspirations of massive binary stars that are about to merge, as well as the massive binaries at the centers of colliding galaxies. The LISA mission will advance scientific knowledge of the universe, allowing researchers to study phenomena invisible in traditional optical wavelengths.

LISA signals will be much louder relative to the detector noise than those from LIGO, so the models need to be much more accurate to ensure that the models don’t limit the science we can do.. This project will attempt to make the necessary dramatic improvements in modeling accuracy that will be needed.

Sean McWilliams, Associate Professor, West Virginia University

LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, operates in Washington and Louisiana. This large-scale facility detects gravitational waves and played a crucial role in the 2015 discovery by the team that included McWilliams.

McWilliams added: “For supermassive binaries with black holes, their spin and eccentricity distributions are sensitive to their environment just before entering the LISA band. In addition, LISA can detect mass binary stars earlier than ground-based detectors, and measuring their spins and eccentricities can provide insights into their formation and evolutionary history that cannot be obtained otherwise..”

The launch of LISA is scheduled for 2035.

In addition, researchers will build on McWilliams’ innovative ‘backward one-body method’ model. This model simplifies the analysis of gravitational waves by providing an accurate mathematical formula for the signal generated by the merger of two black holes.

Before McWilliams developed this approach, researchers had to use a mathematical transformation to derive the exact waveform from a black hole merger, a process that often required numerous numerical simulations and was very labor-intensive.

McWilliams improved the accuracy of these analyzes by applying principles of general relativity to calculate how a small test mass enters and disrupts the final black hole.

We will first improve the efficiency of the best inspiral models currently available, and we will replace the fusion signals with BOB (backward one-body). From there we can quickly assess new ideas to improve accuracy across the waveform. Ultimately we plan to have a model that builds on all known physics of the entire signal and then add tunability to the model.

Sean McWilliams, Associate Professor, West Virginia University

McWilliams’ team includes Zach Etienne, adjunct associate professor.

It is very satisfying to receive this support for the work that my group has been doing for a number of years. It is also humbling because it means that we are now responsible for helping LISA fulfill its scientific mission. The challenge is honestly a bit daunting, as current models don’t have nearly the level of accuracy that will be needed and the next decade will pass quickly. The instrument is currently being actually built and, barring catastrophes, will be launched in ten years.

Sean McWilliams, Associate Professor, West Virginia University

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