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NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts

A Gravitational Wave Detector Based on an Atom Interferometer

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

Gravitational waves are tiny perturbations in the curvature of space-time that arise from accelerating masses – according to Einstein's general theory of relativity. The first hint that these waves existed was spotted in 1974 as a gradual decrease in orbital period of pulsars. However, no one has directly detected a gravitational wave, not even the operational ground-based Advanced LIGO antennas. Our space-based gravity wave detector, equipped with Atom Interferometers (AI), has the potential to enable exciting science spanning the gamut from investigations of white dwarf binaries to spiralling black holes, and cosmologically significant phenomena like inflation. This new measurement approach, capable of higher, scientifically more interesting frequencies of operation, interferometer architecture, and mission concept would open a whole new window on the origin of our universe, heralding a deeper understanding of the fundamental laws of physics. Unlike light, Gravitational Waves (GW) permit observations beyond the so-called surface of last scattering; that is, before the white hot fog of hydrogen plasma cooled to give way to the formation of atoms. Goddard has teamed with Stanford to explore this innovative detector concept. We are proposing to analyze and better understand the realm of applicability of this new, "disruptive" technology of atomic interferometry for exploring GW physics. Cold atom-based inertial sensors have recently made it out of the laboratory and are in the process of being engineered and ruggedized for a variety of real-world applications in the fields of navigation and remote sensing, including some very demanding mission applications. Gravitational wave detection is arguably the most compelling scientific application for atomic quantum sensors of this sort in space.

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