Montana State University

MSU joins international group pursuing big questions of the universe

April 18, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Birth of a star. (Photo courtesy of NASA).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Montana State University scientists who search for black holes and super novas are now part of an international group devoted to gravitational waves. The waves, when detected, will offer a new way to explore and understand the universe.

MSU was recently accepted as the 42nd member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said Neil Cornish, an astrophysicist who leads the Montana Gravitational Wave Astronomy Group. The collaboration, an unusually large group for scientists interested in gravitational waves, involves approximately 500 scientists and five observatories. MSU's membership lets Cornish's group and other scientists around campus use data collected by the observatories.

"It's very prestigious," said MSU President Geoff Gamble who studied astrophysics before becoming a linguist. "To have one of our faculty members, and particularly Neil Cornish, in the group really speaks to the quality that MSU has among its faculty and the great work that Neil is doing."

Gravitational waves are created when objects collide in space. Using gravitational waves to explore the universe is like a sighted person suddenly gaining hearing, Cornish said.

"Right now, we are deaf to the universe," Cornish said. "Those gravitational wave detectors will be our ears."

Scientists already use electromagnetic waves to learn about the universe, Cornish said. Gravitational waves will provide a richer picture of the universe and allow researchers to learn more about the objects they study, he added. As the current detectors improve, they will be able to look farther into the universe and be more likely to see things like super nova explosions in other galaxies, for example. Scientists currently see one super nova explosion every 30 to 50 years in this galaxy.

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration involves clusters of scientists who have different reasons for their interest in gravitational waves, Cornish said. Cornish and his group are searching for black holes and super nova explosions. Other researchers are studying spinning neutron stars and searching for signals from the early universe. Laser physicists are interested in developing the advanced optical technology that makes the detections possible.

The gravitational wave detectors, known officially as Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatories or LIGO, are expected to start picking up gravitational waves in the next few years, but they are already sending vast quantities of information over the Internet. Two detectors are located in the desert near Hartford, Wash. One is located in the swamps near Livingston, La. One is located near Pisa, Italy and another near Hanover, Germany. The observatories are highly sensitive and can be disrupted by earthquakes, tsunamis and even heavy trucks, Cornish said.

Before the LIGO collaboration, Cornish was more involved in space-based antennas that would detect gravitational waves. Funding delays, however, gave him more time for projects involving the ground-based detectors.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu