Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott Campus looks forward to the physics colloquium every semester. With free pizza and a great lecture, the students and faculty piled into the semester’s first talk. The topic of the first colloquium was “The Intersection of Gravitational-Wave Astronomy and Nanometrology” and was given by Dr. Matthew Abernathy.
To break this down, nanometrology is the science of measuring tiny things. This includes the
topics of electron microscopy, scanning probe microscopy, and x-ray absorption. The purpose
behind this science is to improve the sensitivity of gravitational wave detectors to be used in
gravitational wave astronomy. In short, it takes the idea of measuring microscopic events on a
galactic scale to see what is going on in the universe.
Abernathy has been everywhere. He is a research associate at CalTech and a world expert
in using nanotechnologies for measuring mechanical and optical properties of materials in thin
layers. His work is currently being funded by LIGO, which stands for the Laser Interferometer
Gravitational Wave Observatory. With his extensive background, Abernathy posed the question,
“What are gravitational waves?” He defined them as ripples in the curvature of spacetime which
propagate as a wave, traveling outward from the source.
When gravitational waves travel across great distances, they don’t change. From the moment
they are sent out into the cosmos, they hold their distance from each other until they hit
something or, in LIGO’s case, when they cross Earth’s path. Gravitational waves can shed light
upon supernovae, neutron stars, black holes, and general relativity for starters. The problem arises from determining how to detect these waves traveling through space. But LIGO thinks they have an answer.
LIGO and other organizations that search for the gravitational waves use an instrument
called interferometers. The interferometers are super sensitive equipment for use in nanometrology. These devices can pick up frequencies that are much lower than previous
recordings. This can help further expand the knowledge of spatial anomalies that happen in the
universe. This device brings back the topic of metrology.
Nanometrology can be used to better understand the materials used in gravitational detectors
to improve sensitivity. The interferometers at LIGO are massive, using 4 kilometer long laser beam which are then reflected through a series of mirrors to increase magnification. This type of science usually uses a piece of equipment that Embry-Riddle currently has in the Materials Lab, an electron microscope. This device is used to measure many of Dr. Lanning’s class materials when it is time for etching.
When focused, the beams can reveal so much that is unknown about the surrounding
space. The investigation of this research could help jump start the excitement of space which
has been lost and rekindle the fire that NASA once had. Abernathy could only give us a taste of what is to come. This research in gravitational waves that Abernathy is working on could be the doorway that brings us back to space.