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A technological wonder: the UK engineers behind the latest gravitational waves news

The first detection of both gravitational waves and light from the same event was made possible by bringing together some of the world’s most brilliant minds with some of the most advanced technology in existence, working across different facilities and nations to join together the pieces of the puzzle.

The “science” was made possible by advances in technology by engineers and technicians – and here we showcase the role that UK technology has played in these amazing breakthroughs.


The LIGO detectors need technology that removes vibrations caused by natural and human activity, so they can detect the incredibly weak signal of a passing gravitational wave. The detectors can pick up waves in distant oceans, trains passing many miles away, and human footsteps walking past, as well as earthquakes on the far side of the world.

Scientists from the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research led on the conception, development, construction and installation of the sensitive mirror suspensions in the heart of the LIGO detectors.

The mirror-suspension systems, together with technical and manufacturing expertise from other UK universities made the first detection of gravitational waves, observed in 2015 and reported in February 2016, possible.

In the UK alone major contributions to the project have come from very many researchers and engineers based at 11 research institutions, including Glasgow, Cardiff and Birmingham and STFC.

Working on the University of Glasgow’s designs, STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) built the most sensitive part of LIGO’s seismic isolation system with colleagues from the Universities of Glasgow (silica fibres and welding) Birmingham (electronics) and Strathclyde.

RAL also provided technical expertise throughout the assembly, testing, installation and commissioning phases of the project, to ensure the LIGO observatory exceeded its pre-upgrade sensitivity.

Justin Greenhalgh, UK Project manager at STFC with aLIGO, said: “I am delighted that we at STFC have been able to play a part in this exciting research. The hopes of the gravitational wave community, that ground-breaking new science would follow the first detection, are already being borne out.”

For the past decade, the Gravitational Physics Group at Cardiff University have laid the foundations for the computing tools that ensure scientists correctly analyse a gravitational wave and determine its origin. They developed novel algorithms and software that have now become standard search tools for detecting the elusive signals.

The technology developed for gravitational waves is now also being used in reverse to test a process to grow human bone in a laboratory. The new technique - known as “nanokicking” – vibrates stem cells thousands of times a second, to stimulate the production of bone cells. The new ‘bone putty’ has the potential to be used to heal bone fractures and fill bone where there is a gap.

ESO telescopes

LIGO in the United States and the Advanced Virgo Interferometer in Italy alerted observers to the detection of a gravitational wave event, meaning that telescopes around the world could point toward the area of sky to make electromagnetic observations – in visible, infrared, gamma rays and other spectrum. A number of European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes were involved in this work. STFC manages the UK membership of ESO, and provides critical governance and oversight. Our national subscription provides UK scientists access to the telescopes, and in addition UK engineers and technicians played key roles in building the VISTA and ALMA telescopes.

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