MSU News Service

BOZEMAN – Montana State University is part of a national network that recently received $14.5 million to create and operate a center for detecting gravitational waves, an achievement expected to offer radical new insights about the universe.

The National Science Foundation announced March 30 that it had awarded the grant to the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) to establish a Physics Frontiers Center. MSU astrophysicist Neil Cornish is a senior member at the center, and his research group will receive $403,000 under the award.

“The funding from the NSF to Dr. Cornish and his colleagues is well-deserved,” said Renee Reijo Pera, MSU’s vice-president for research and economic development. “This funding supports the establishment of the Extreme Gravity Institute at MSU which is one of our key research priorities.”

MSU professor Ron Hellings did foundational work in the area of gravitational waves some 40 years ago, according to Cornish, and the well-known term for the angles between pulsars, called the Hellings and Downs Curve, is named after him.

The NANOGrav PFC will be a virtual center to look at black holes so huge they take up to years to complete their orbits, Cornish said. It will provide a unique opportunity for astronomers and solar physicists to work together.

According to the research team, the NANOGrav PFC will address a transformational challenge in astrophysics: the detection of low-frequency gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are elusive ripples in the fabric of space-time, which theories predict should arise from extremely energetic and large-scale cosmic events, such as orbiting pairs of massive black holes found at the centers of merging galaxies; phase transitions in the very early universe; or as relics from cosmic inflation, the period just after the Big Bang when the universe we can see expanded rapidly from a minuscule volume in a tiny fraction of a second.

In Einstein’s theory of gravity, these events produce waves that distort, or ripple, the actual fabric of the cosmos as they emanate throughout space. They have such a long wavelength – significantly larger than our solar system – that we cannot build a detector large enough to observe them. Fortunately, the universe itself has created its own detection tool, millisecond pulsars – the rapidly spinning, super-dense remains of massive stars that have exploded as supernovas.

These ultra-stable stars are nature’s most precise celestial clocks, appearing to “tick” every time their beamed emissions sweep past the Earth. Gravitational waves may be detected in the small but perceptible fluctuations – a few tens of nanoseconds over five or more years – they cause in the measured arrival times at Earth of radio pulses from these millisecond pulsars.

NANOGrav was founded in 2007 and at the time consisted of 17 members in the U.S. and Canada. It has since grown to 55 scientists and students at 15 institutions. The NANOGrav PFC will provide funding for 23 senior personnel, six postdoctoral researchers, 10 graduate students, and 25 undergraduate students across 11 institutions.