When a gravitational wave passes through the Earth, space itself stretches in a single direction and compresses in the opposite, so the 2 “arms” of the detector actually grow and contract in tiny amounts. This implies that each beam of sunshine travels a rather different distance, which appears within the recombinant laser light pattern as a frequency spike called a “cosmic chirp” – a gravitational wave signal.
To measure this, Virgo relies on state-of-the-art equipment. The mirrors at the top of every tunnel are product of synthetic quartz so pure that it absorbs only one in 3 million photons that hit them. It is polished to the atomic level, leaving it so smooth that there’s virtually no light scattering. It is roofed with a skinny layer of fabric so reflective that lower than 0.0001 percent of the laser light is lost in touch with it.
Each mirror hangs under an excellent damper to guard them from seismic vibrations. They consist of a series of seismic filters that act as pendulums, enclosed in a vacuum chamber inside a 10-meter tower. The setup is designed to counteract Earth’s motions, which could be nine orders of magnitude stronger than the gravitational waves Virgo is attempting to detect. Super attenuators are so effective that, no less than within the horizontal direction, the mirrors behave as in the event that they were floating in space.
A more moderen innovation is Virgo’s “squeeze” system, which combats the consequences of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, an odd feature of the subatomic world that states that certain pairs of properties of a quantum particle can’t be precisely measured concurrently. For example, it’s not possible to measure each the position and the momentum of a photon with absolute precision. The more accurately you realize its location, the less you realize about its momentum, and vice versa.
Within Virgo, the uncertainty principle manifests as quantum noise, obscuring the gravitational wave signal. But by injecting a special state of sunshine right into a tube that runs parallel to the foremost vacuum tubes after which overlaps the foremost laser field on the beamsplitter, scientists can “squeeze” or reduce uncertainty within the laser light’s properties, reducing quantum noise and improving Virgo’s sensitivity to signals gravitational waves.
Since 2015, nearly 100 gravitational waves have been recorded during three series of observations of the Virgo satellite and its American counterpart LIGO. With improvements to each facilities and KAGRA joining the event, the following commentary run – which is able to start in March 2023 – guarantees rather more. Scientists hope to realize a deeper understanding of black holes and neutron stars, and the sheer variety of expected events offers an attractive prospect to construct an image of cosmic evolution using gravitational waves. “This is only the start of a latest way of understanding the universe,” says Losurdo. “Loads will occur in the following few years.”
This article was originally published within the January/February 2023 issue of WIRED UK.