1 Introduction

Gravitational waves, one of the more exotic predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity may, after decades of controversy over their existence, be detected within the next ten years.

Sources such as interacting black holes, coalescing compact binary systems, stellar collapses and pulsars are all possible candidates for detection; observing signals from them will significantly boost our understanding of the Universe. New unexpected sources will almost certainly be found and time will tell what new information such discoveries will bring. Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time and manifest themselves as fluctuating tidal forces on masses in the path of the wave. The first gravitational wave detectors were based on the effect of these forces on the fundamental resonant mode of aluminium bars at room temperature. Initial instruments were constructed by Joseph Weber [104Jump To The Next Citation Point, 105Jump To The Next Citation Point] and subsequently developed by others. Reviews of this early work are given in [101, 22]. Following the lack of confirmed detection of signals, aluminium bar systems operated at and below the temperature of liquid helium were developed and work in this area is still underway [70Jump To The Next Citation Point, 73Jump To The Next Citation Point, 2Jump To The Next Citation Point, 41Jump To The Next Citation Point]. However the most promising design of gravitational wave detectors, offering the possibility of very high sensitivities over a wide range of frequency, uses widely separated test masses freely suspended as pendulums on earth or in a drag free craft in space; laser interferometry provides a means of sensing the motion of the masses produced as they interact with a gravitational wave.

Ground based detectors of this type, based on the pioneering work of Bob Forward and colleagues (Hughes Aircraft) [67], Rai Weiss and colleagues (MIT) [107Jump To The Next Citation Point], Ron Drever and colleagues (Glasgow/Caltech) [24, 23Jump To The Next Citation Point] and Heinz Billing and colleagues (MPQ Garching) [6Jump To The Next Citation Point], will be used to observe sources whose radiation is emitted at frequencies above a few Hz, and space borne detectors, as originally envisaged by Peter Bender and Jim Faller [20, 28] at JILA will be developed for implementation at lower frequencies.

Already gravitational wave detectors of long baseline are being built in a number of places around the world; in the U.S.A. (LIGO project led by a Caltech/MIT consortium) [4, 56], in Italy (VIRGO project, a joint Italian/French venture) [13, 102], in Germany (GEO 600 project being built by a collaboration centred on the University of Glasgow, the University of Hannover, the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute), Golm and the University of Wales, Cardiff) [45, 33] and in Japan (TAMA 300 project) [99, 95]. A space-borne detector, LISA [19Jump To The Next Citation Point, 58Jump To The Next Citation Point, 57Jump To The Next Citation Point], – proposed by a collaboration of European and U.S. research groups – has been adopted by ESA as a future Cornerstone Mission. When completed, this detector array should have the capability of detecting gravitational wave signals from violent astrophysical events in the Universe, providing unique information on testing aspects of General Relativity and opening up a new field of astronomy.

We recommend a number of excellent books for reference. For a popular account of the development of the gravitational wave field the reader should consult Chapter 10 of ‘Black Holes and Time Warps’ by Kip S. Thorne [97]. A comprehensive review of developments toward laser interferometer detectors is found in ‘Fundamentals of Interferometric Gravitational Wave Detectors’ by Peter Saulson [86], and discussions relevant to the technology of both bar and interferometric detectors are found in ‘The Detection of Gravitational Waves’ edited by David Blair [7]. In addition to the home site of this journal and the sites listed above there is a very informative general site maintained by the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications [74].

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