What an incredible day...

Article for CathNews discussion board on International Gravity Wave Observatory and European Space Agency ground station at New Norcia.

Dear all,

If you happened to read my last post on Maggie's blogsite today, I mentioned that I was going to spend Friday visiting two very interesting scientific research facilities located near the Benedictine Monastery Town of New Norcia with my former Physics' teacher, Dr Vin McKenna. What a fascinating day it turned out to be.

We began in the morning with a visit back to our old school, Aquinas College, where the refurbished Science wing at the College has been named after "Doc" McKenna. This was one of the first secondary school science facilities built in the State with Commonwealth Government money in the early 1960s. I was a student at Aquinas when it was being built and "Doc" McKenna was the Deputy Principal and Physics' teacher and had recently been awarded his PhD from Melbourne University for research in nuclear physics based on the newly installed Cyclotron at that university. The science wing at Aquinas was extensively refurbished last year and the College decided to name the wing after "Doc" McKenna. Yesterday was his first opportunity to re-visit the college to inspect the new facilities but they asked him back this morning for a photo call. Vin's wife told me this evening after we returned that Vin has had two previous buildings named after him – one in Canberra and one at the former Christ College in Chadstone – but they have both since been sold by the Church and his claim to fame was brief. One expects little prospect of the Church, or the Christian Brothers, selling the magnificent campus at Aquinas College – which must surely be one of the most beautiful secondary college campuses anywhere in Australia – in the foreseeable future.

A couple of days ago, in anticipation of our visit to New Norcia, I had emailed Abbot Placid Spearritt as I wanted to catch up with him and some of the other monks I know while we were near the Abbey. Unfortunately Abbot Placid was interstate but he invited us to join the monks for midday prayers in the Oratory and afterwards for lunch. Prayers and a meal with the monks at New Norcia is a very special experience and transports one into an entirely differently paced world in time and rhythm. The prayers are based on the daily liturgy of the hours which the monks say each day commencing with Vigils (5.15am Office of Readings), Lauds (6.45am Morning Prayer), Midday Prayer (12 noon), Afternoon Prayer (2.30pm), Vespers (6.30pm) and Compline (8.15pm). The prayer is a mix of the spoken word, chant, sung music and silence. The Guest House situated beside the Monastery usually has a number of visitors who join the monks along with tourists passing through the town. The meals in the Monastery are taken in silence but accompanied by one of the monks who reads from Scripture, from some contemporary book and concludes with a reading from the Rule of St Benedict. The Scripture reading today was a continuation of the Book of Job and the contemporary book was on the history of the papacy by Eamon Duffy. The meals are beautifully prepared but simple and wholesome and accompanied by a small bottle of red wine. Two of the monks serve the meals to the other monks and any visitors. At the conclusion of lunch we had coffee and port with Dom David Barry in the visitors' parlour and swapped many interesting stories and informed ourselves of the link between the monks and the European Space Agency deep space satellite dish which has been constructed about 10kms south of New Norcia to track the Rosetta, Mars Express and Venus Express space probes.

The ESA website describes the dish at New Norcia as "the jewel in the crown" of the half dozen dishes the Agency is commissioning around the world to control and receive the data from these state of the art probes to discover evidence of life on Mars and a better understanding of the other planets. The ESA developed a close association with the monks at New Norcia in their search for a site. The monks had offered them the use of their extensive land but a site suitably sheltered from the wind could not be found as good as the one finally selected 10km south of the Monastery which is sheltered by a number of hills to the West and South. The ESA has though established a room within the Education Centre at New Norcia which is used to explain the work of the Agency to school groups and to provide regularly updated educational information about the space probes the dish is tracking.

After lunch we drove south to visit the ESA dish. Unfortunately this is closed to the public. Fortuitously, we did briefly meet one of the resident scientists at the gate as he was leaving the facility and he was able to answer a couple of our questions. The dish is still being commissioned to some extent but within a short time it will be remotely controlled almost completely from Europe and will only require the occasional visits from technicians for minor mechanical maintenance. It seems incredible that this awesome piece of technology – the moving parts of the dish weigh 150 tonnes – can be controlled with pin-point precision to point to any part of the Southern sky from the other side of our planet. One can drive up to the gates of the facility and while a very modern accommodation and office block is built not far from the dish itself, one presumes this will be used by visiting scientists who, in the future, will be using the facility for other areas of research. The accompanying photograph gives you some idea of what the dish looks like. The dish itself is 35m in diameter so it is not large by, say, the standard of the Parkes Radio Telescope but, as I understand it, this dish serves both as a powerful transmitter as well as the "ear" to listen for the faint radio signals sent back from so far by the relatively low-powered transmitters on the satellites.

From there we travelled roughly SSW back towards Perth to the town of GinGin which hosts another scientific project that is perhaps even more "state of the art" than the impressive ESA endeavour. The Australian International Gravitational Observatory (AIGO) is in the process of being constructed as part of an international collaboration of a number of linked observatories in the southern and northern hemispheres to detect the gravity waves, whose existence was postulated in 1916 by Albert Einstein, and whose existence was proved in 1993, but which have not yet been detected on earth.

This introduction from the prospectus that was used to generate the huge financial investment required to mount this piece of pure scientific research gives you some idea of the scope of this project: "The world is on the threshhold of a new technology – the technology of gravitational waves – and a new form of astronomy – gravitational wave astronomy. Gravity waves will allow us to peer into the birth of the universe and unravel the mysteries of black holes. Australian scientists are at the forefront of this technology and the world needs an Australian Observatory." This project is headed by Professor David Blair from the University of Western Australia School of Physics who was two years ahead of me when I studied Physics at UWA in the second half of the 1960s. (Today he is light years ahead of me.) As well as actually measuring Gravity Waves, this laboratory has been breaking new ground in helping humankind construct test equipment that can operate beyond the previous limits of precision that we have known where different forms of "noise" cause our measurements to be useless. This research has been undertaken by teams working at UWA, ANU, Adelaide University, Monash University and the CSIRO. The equipment in this facility will end up being so sensitive, and able to be isolated from other vibrations, that it can actually "hear" the sound made by the waves breaking on the cost 20km distant from the observatory.

Let me try and explain very briefly how it works. A very powerful laser beam is split into two paths at 90 degrees to one another and directed at two mirrors which are mounted in ultra-isolated housings at present about 80m away from the originating laser and the detector which the beams bounce back to. The two mirrors are made of artificial sapphire and are machined to tolerances more than 100 times more accurate than that used in the very best optical systems used in conventional astronomy. (Fortunately these mirrors are fairly small compared to the mirrors used in optical telescopes so the accuracy can be fairly easily achieved in the small area.) The mirrors are suspended from Niobium masses which are isolated as far as possible from the "noise" made by the earth and by human activity. Gravity waves are extremely small in amplitude but can carry enormous energy in an exceedingly short space of time. For example it is estimated that the gravitational energy released when a pair of neutron stars or a pair of black holes coalesce exceeds the entire collective light (electromagnetic) energy of all the stars in the universe. In other words, imagine for a moment all the light released by our sun in the time taken to read this sentence. Then multiply all that energy by the number of stars you can see in the heavens. And then multiply that by a few billion for all the stars you cannot see because they are too far away or they are hidden around the other side of the world, and you still have not imagined the amount of gravitational energy released when two neutron stars or two black holes collide.

When gravitational energy is released it travels though the universe in waves. Similar to the way waves travel across the ocean. Just as how a singer can cause a tuning fork or empty glass to "ring" in harmony to their voice, gravitational waves can cause the Niobium masses in this detector to "ring". The laser beams fired off the mirrors attached to their heavy yet inert weights will pick up this ringing. The differences in the "ring" of the two masses at the end of the observatory are what enable the scientists to "hear" the gravity wave as it passes through planet earth. Having a number of these observatories around the globe will enable scientists to triangulate and effectively turn the whole planet into a giant gravitational telescope which tells us where the wave originated out in space. Hopefully in time the two arms of the observatory will each be 4km long and the whole array will then be sensitive enough to actually "hear" the sound the universe was making very shortly after it was created and at all points forward from that.

At present the scientists have constructed and sealed the north-south arm of the laser array at GinGin. Each of the laser beams is fired down a stainless steel tunnel about 2 feet in diameter. These tunnels are completely sealed and all the air is extracted from them to create an enormous vacuum so that no "noise" or distortion is created by the air molecules in the measuring apparatus. They are presently completing the East-West tunnel. At the cross over of the two beams and at the ends (where the mirrors and Niobium masses are housed) the tunnels open into huge vat-like stainless steel chambers which are cooled to exceedingly low temperatures and which are also held at vacuum pressure. (Professor Blair is pictured at right standing in front of these "vats" before they were installed.) Eventually each of these tunnels will be 4km long. A lot of the immediate work is associated with building a facility where the tunnels can be sealed over such a large distance against air leaks and research into making sure the masses which detect the vibrations of gravity waves do not pick up sounds like earthquakes or the sound of the waves crashing on the sea shore 20km away. Other research is going in to ensure that the instruments do not pick up the sounds made by the electrons as they travel through the transistors and wires of the circuits that measure the infinitesimally small vibrations that need to be detected in the laser beams reflecting off the mirrors.

If you are interested in a more rigorous scientific explanation of what is involved check out this page:

I left home about 8.30am this morning and finally returned about 7.30pm this evening. The entire day has been a mesmerising experience. It was made all the more memorable because my 23 year-old son, Julian, accompanied us on the journey. We can only wonder at the incredible privileges that are available to us to look up into the heavens and to have some understanding today not only of some of the questions as to why the heavens look as they do but in being humbled that the more we discover the more we are left in awe at the beauty and complexity of creation and what more there is yet to be known. Even 90 years ago, within the lifetime of my father, we would have not even been able to think of the possibility of being able to actually "listen" to the faint echoes that still reverberate in the universe of the very birth of creation. Today I walked around and touched the tunnels and chambers that house the incredible apparatus that hopefully will soon enable us to "hear" that music that humankind has never heard before. Yet, barely an hour before that I was experiencing another way of looking at life that literally does extend back to the dark ages when St Benedict preserved humankind against barbarism and a civilisation that had lost all wonder at the grandeur of knowledge that comes to us from God.

LINK: APPENDIX: 05 Sep 2008 article from SMH about the Rosetta Space Probe fly-by of the tiny asteroid, Steins, being controlled for the European Space Agency facility at New Norcia.

©2005Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Posted: 13Sep2003 2:59 am

Brian Coyne

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley