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Gravitational Waves – When Einstein’s Idea Became Reality

The story actually starts exactly 100 ago with one of the world’s most famous scientists, Albert Einstein. Best known in popular culture for his mass-energy equivalence formula E=mc², the German-born theoretical physicist claimed in 1916 that so-called gravitational waves must exist in the universe.

This prediction at that time belonged to Einstein’s most spectacular ones, that even he himself was convinced that they will never be evidenced. Since then scientist researched for their existence. Finally at the beginning of this year, physicists at The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced, with the first direct detection of gravitational waves, most likely one of the most important discoveries of the present time.

What Are Gravitational Waves?

For those who are not so into astrophysics it might be handy to clarify briefly, what is understood by gravitational waves? And why their existence is so important for future science? The tiny waves are distortions of space-time that arise when giant objects in space accelerate. This could be the case when for instance stars explode or black holes collide. According to Einstein, the bigger those celestial bodies are, the bigger the waves are. But even in such a case, the gravitational waves are still that tiny that they now could be proved only with a special refined instrument. Atomic physicist of the US based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) observed a signature of two merging black holes that collided 1.3 billion years ago. Those black holes were remnants of blown-up giant stars, which were of 29 times, respectively 36 times, more massive than our sun is. Scientists are now able to examine the structure of our galaxy, as well as the emergence and development of black holes and other cosmic phenomenon. Even a view on the Big Bang’s very first millisecond 13.8 billion years ago might be thinkable.

Gravitational waves
When huge celestial bodies collide, gravitational waves emerge

Follow-up On A Sensational Discovery

Clearly, research on this sensational discovery will continue, and so a follow-up program began soon after the gravitational wave candidate was identified. Observations, using facilities spanning the entire spectrum from radio to gamma-ray wavelengths, with satellites and ground-based telescopes around the globe have begun. An exciting role during these observations played the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), world’s largest radio telescope due to start operation in 2020, using a number of SKA pathfinders. Telescopes are spotted around the globe and are important technology test beds for the SKA. The Low Frequency Aperture Array (LOFAR), for instance, is located throughout Europe and is coordinated by ASTRON, the Netherlands institute for radio astronomy. SKA-linked radio telescopes are also dotted in the southern hemisphere, like the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP). The instruments offer a wide field of view and are therefore ideal for the follow-up program, because a major challenge is to locate the position of the gravitational wave source. “Having three SKA pathfinder and precursor telescopes involved in this major discovery is very exciting and gives a sense of what the SKA will unlock when it becomes operational in the early 2020s,” said Robert Braun, Science Director at SKA Organisation.

radio telescopes field of view
Apertif increases the field of view of radio telescopes (Image: Apertif)

EBV Helps To Process Massive Amount Of Data

It is not hard to imagine that during the research a massive amount for data will be produced. Huge computing and processing power is required to process the data transmitted. EBV with its expertise in semiconductors gives advice and supports ASTRON with their high performance computing boards for future radio-astronomical instruments that are required for processing the telescope data. Uniboard I and Uniboard II are FPGA boards that are used for the SKA pathfinder projects. The Uniboard systems are applied in various applications. Apart from others, they are used in a beamformer and correlator in APERTIF, a project that explores one of the technologies giving a larger field of view. Furthermore, a correlator for JIVE is equipped with Uniboard, as well as digital receivers and pulsar binning machines. In total 8 Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are integrated in one board which have a processing capability of 2 TMAC/s (Tera Multiply and Accumulates per second), the same as 20 personal computers. Power that is required to manage the recorded telescope data.

With all such technology that is available nowadays, how excited Albert Einstein would have been. Hard to believe what other predictions he could have derived out of that. We’ll never know.

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