UTRGV gets $375k for gravitational waves research

The National Science Foundation awarded about $375,000 to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to further research into gravitational waves, which are 1,000 times smaller than the smallest nucleus, hydrogen.

The NSF grant will support the university’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave-Observatory (LIGO) instrumentation and data analysis, and provide funding for new gravitational wave detection techniques and experimental innovations to enhance the probability of discovering new gravitational waves sources.

The NSF is a federal agency that supports science and engineering, and provides funding for research to academic institutions as part of its mission, according to their government website.

Funds will go toward participating in conferences and hiring graduate students to help with the research, said Soma Mukherjee, Physics and Astronomy chairperson and professor. The grant will be awarded to UTRGV over the course of three years.

Mukherjee said she also wanted to credit associate professors Teviet Creighton and Volker Quetschke, who will also research the topic.

Two sources of gravitational waves have been detected as “binary black holes and binary neutron stars,” according to the grant. There may be other potential sources, and the third generation of detectors is expected to be built and used in the near future, she said.

“We expect to detect a lot more sources, and even unknown sources, so this grant is to address some of the new challenges, and … to explore new data analysis techniques, as well as experimental innovation to increase the probability of detecting new sources,” Mukherjee said.

Gravitational waves were first directly detected in 2015, about a hundred years after predictions from Albert Einstein, who published his general theory of relativity in the early 1900s, she said.

Mukherjee hopes the university will be able to hire about two to three graduate students a year, over the course of the grant. Ultimately, these students will gain experience and knowledge through “cutting-edge research” and to keep contributing to the sciences, she said.

“The impact of this research will be widespread… by involving the interest of students in this research and the training that we impart in the process is going to prepare them professionally in their scientific careers ahead,” Mukherjee said.

“We need to continue funding research like this to better understand the origins of the cosmos and ultimately mankind,” U.S. Rep Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said in a statement. “I am proud to know that some of the leading scientists in this field of study call the Rio Grande Valley home and base their research and teachings out of South Texas. I will continue to do all I can to provide them with resources for research and development to continue their advancements in observing space and time.”

University administrative figures also highlighted the importance of the research and applauded local politician’s efforts.

“UTRGV’s Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy has played an important role in several historic findings over the past several years, and this grant allows the center to continue its impactful research,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in a news release. “I thank Congressman Gonzalez and everyone at UTRGV who assisted in obtaining this grant.”

This collaboration at UTRGV is also a part of the greater research community of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which has over a 1,000 members across the nation and the world, she said.

“I do think this grant boosts our confidence that what we are doing at UTRGV is important on the national and global scale,” Mukherjee said.