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

16th October 2017

Today's news that for the first time scientists have directly detected both gravitational waves and light from the same event (http://www.stfc.ac.uk/news/a-technological-wonder-the-uk-engineers-behind-the-latest-gravitational-waves-news/ and https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1733/) was made possible in part by engineers from STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh.

Professor Gillian Wright, Director, UK ATC, said:

"The result today is an excellent example of international collaboration and co-operation in astronomy. Technology has played a huge part in this incredible find, and we are pleased to have played our role, together with our partners, as designers and builders of the VISTA observatory, providers of software for ALMA, and contributors to the Gemini telescopes. Of course most of the result belongs with the LIGO team and those technologies".

The sensitivity of the telescopes, and the software used to analyse the data from the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and the Advanced Virgo Interferometer in Italy, relies on incredible technology.

After detection of the gravitational wave by LIGO, UK astronomers using ESO's Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) telescope in Chile were among the first to locate the new source.

VISTA is capable of producing a nine-gigapixel zoomable image of 84 million stars (link: http://www.stfc.ac.uk/news/vista-creates-huge-nine-gigapixel-zoomable-image-of-84-million-stars/) which is so large that, if printed with the resolution of the average book, it would be nine metres long and seven metres tall.

The combination of the telescope's location, telescope aperture, wide field, and high quantum efficiency detectors makes it the world's outstanding ground based near-infrared survey instrument.

STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre designed and built the VISTA Observatory as an 'in-kind' deliverable as part of the UK's fee for joining ESO. They worked closely with STFC's RAL Space to develop the camera.

Gary Rae, Head of Engineering, UK ATC said: "VISTA is a prime example of the incredible technical achievements possible when first class engineers work alongside our Scientific community to envision, design and build wonderful machines that enable our talented Scientists to make such discoveries. The dedicated multi-disciplinary engineers involved are extremely proud that our hard work continues to help deliver such exciting Science."

The ALMA Observatory in Chile; Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO
The ALMA Observatory in Chile
Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

ESO's ALMA telescope was also one of the telescopes to observe the events.

UK ATC provided essential software for ALMA that scientists rely on to turn raw data into data cubes that can be used for science. All data taken with ALMA uses the observation preparation software that was developed by an international team led by the UK ATC and the data pipeline software in which the UK ATC also plays a major role.

The ALMA Observing Tool (ALMA OT) is the software that takes the scientific definition of an observation and turns it into the detailed instructions that configure the ALMA dishes and receivers for the observations. The data pipeline software takes the raw data and calibrates it into a useable form for scientific analysis.

Dr Alan Bridger who led the team at the UK ATC responsible for the software, said:

"To have played even the smallest part in this amazing discovery makes me feel very proud. Whilst the LIGO team needs to take the limelight today, it is nice knowing that the software that our team provided to ALMA, and the contributions that other colleagues made to VISTA and the Gemini telescopes, all played a part in the results today".

Notes to Editors

For interviews and images please contact: harry.loney@stfc.ac.uk