2024 2024: NASA, ESA move forward on science supported by UMass Dartmouth faculty

2024 2024: NASA, ESA move forward on science supported by UMass Dartmouth faculty
NASA, ESA move forward on science supported by UMass Dartmouth faculty

UMassD faculty and students play prominent role in probing the history of the universe

Credit: LISA mission

The scope of UMass Dartmouth's growing footprint in gravitational-wave science takes another step forward, as the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA officially greenlit the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, with a planned launch for 2035 and the potential to provide a snapshot of the universe just seconds after the "Big Bang."

The success of the multi-billion-dollar project hinges on the accurate computation of gravitational wave signal "templates" based on Einstein's theory of general relativity. UMass Dartmouth mathematics faculty Scott Field and Vijay Varma, in collaboration with UMassD adjunct and University of Rhode Island (URI) professor of physics, Gaurav Khana, have played a pivotal role in developing high-accuracy models of black hole binary systems to date.

The group, who are all members of the LISA Consortium and head the UMass-URI Gravity Research Consortium (U2GRC), have developed high-accuracy models of black hole binary systems with a large-mass ratio and found the first and second fast-moving black holes partly thanks to supercomputers in the university's Center for Scientific Computing and Data Science Research (CSCDR) and the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC). As of the date of this article's publication, these remain the only two fast-moving black holes ever observed.

"LISA is poised to revolutionize our understanding of astronomy, cosmology, and fundamental physics for decades to come," says Field. "I am thrilled that our U2GRC regional and interdisciplinary collaboration between UMassD and URI is driving forward current and future gravitational-wave science."

Current UMassD students Som Dev Bishoyi, Adhrit Ravichandran, Manas Vishal, and former PhD students Tousif Islam, Kevin Gonzalez-Quesada, Nur Rifat, and Katie Rink, as well as URI student Ritesh Bachhar, played pivotal roles in developing models and simulation software especially effective for scenarios in which one black hole is significantly larger than the other. Now, research groups at UMassD are recruiting more UMassD students interested in stamping their name on potentially ground-breaking discoveries of our universe.

Opportunities for UMassD students

The U2GRC group has roughly $1.5 million in active funding and is recruiting multiple graduate and undergraduate students on various projects related to black hole physics, gravitational-wave data science, and astrophysics.

Field is looking for a graduate student to join his research group, after Islam, who was a co-author on the research that found the first evidence for a large recoil velocity from a black hole merger, graduated last semester.

Field and Varma's research groups are finalizing an updated model that accounts for black hole spin, and working to develop simulation software to accurately and efficiently simulate large mass-ratio black hole systems. The new methods should enable modeling of highly realistic astrophysical scenarios that were previously infeasible, such as systems in which both black holes are rapidly spinning in the extreme mass ratio limit.

Varma, and Assistant Professor of Physics Sarah Caudill both recently received funding from the National Science Foundation and are looking to bring in graduate students to their research groups.

Varma's grant supports research on relativity and relativistic astrophysics, aiming to develop advanced numerical simulations and data-driven models. Focused on black hole-neutron star and binary neutron star mergers, the simulations test Einstein's theory of general relativity and alternative theories like scalar-tensor gravity under extreme conditions. This research also trains students in essential computational skills relevant to data science and machine learning, preparing them for diverse careers.

If binary black holes have large, misaligned spins and asymmetric masses, then the binary's orbit will precess. The resulting gravitational waves can have significant amplitude and phase modulations, causing the signals to be missed entirely by current searches. Caudill aims to develop the tools needed to search for and potentially detect this important class of precessing signals.

"We also enjoy working with undergraduates," says Field. "Our groups are always looking for interested students to join in on existing research projects."

Potential to visualize the Big Bang

LISA consists of three spacecrafts configured in a perfect equilateral triangle that will trail behind the Earth as it orbits the Sun. Each pair of spacecrafts will be set 1.6 million miles apart and will exchange laser beams to measure the separation down to less than a billionth of an inch.

This innovative design may unlock mysteries of the universe, with the potential to probe the entire history of the universe and provide a glimpse of galaxies in the seconds after the "Big Bang" occurred.

"These amazing detectors have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of black holes, gravity, and the early universe," says Varma.  "It has been a long wait, but the future is very exciting!"

Read more

Caudill, Field, Khanna, and Varma have been cited in many popular science media outlets, such as Scientific American, Discovery, Quanta, Physics World, Vox, and Wired.


UMassD students at any level interested in joining Field, Varma, or Caudill's research labs can email them directly.