Gravitational waves are ripples caused by accelerating objects in space that may carry data about the formation of the universe. Photo: Handout

China’s Sun Yat-sen University has unveiled an ambitious 1 billion yuan (US$147 million) project to build a ground-based gravitational wave simulator at its new campus in the burgeoning tech hub of Shenzhen.

The university said the simulator, when completed, would mock the environment in space within the safety of laboratories. It would also have a peripheral wave-detection facility that can “create” a complex space environment for research into the mysterious waves and other obstacles in space.

A 5,000-square-meter observatory and a new lab occupying more than 10,000 square meters for similar research are taking shape in neighboring Zhuhai, on top of an ultra-quiet cave laboratory built in the city of Guangzhou, where the university’s main campus is based.

“Gravitational waves” are ripples in the curvature of space-time caused by some of the more violent and energetic processes in the universe – the acceleration of masses that send out waves at the speed of light.

These waves were first detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in Louisiana in September 2015 in a landmark breakthrough that made global headlines.

A scientist with the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory examines components of a wave detector. Photo: Xinhua

Gravitational waves collect observational data about events such as the formation of the early universe shortly after the Big Bang.

China’s efforts to further investigate such ripples followed in the wake of the US discovery. The Guangdong-based university has reportedly earmarked 15 billion yuan for its research in this field.

Also under construction and later to be launched into space is the university’s gravitational-wave antenna, an equilateral triangle-shaped detector consisting of three high-precision drag-free satellites for space-based gravitational-wave observation.

Precision lasers will measure the tiny displacement caused by gravitational waves that pass near the satellites, according to the university’s Research Center for Gravitational Physics.

The entire ground and space-borne gravitational-wave observation program named Tianqin (meaning “harp in heaven” in Mandarin) will consist of such three satellites.

Tianqin program leader and Sun Yat-sen University President Luo Jun. Photo: WeChat

“If you send three satellites in orbit at a distance of about 100,000 kilometers and connect the three by laser beams, the space formation looks like a harp and when the gravitational waves come, there will be disturbances… it would be like someone is plucking the string,” lead scientist Luo Jun, who is also the president of the university, said in a China Central Television program.

He said the US lab’s historic discovery of gravitational waves was still ground-based while Tianqin would have detectors in space and simulators on the ground to reduce disturbances and pick up a wider range of gravitational radiation.

His team shot the country’s first lunar laser beam to the surface of the moon in January. Before that China’s laser range was ‘only’ 40,000 km, far from the 100,000-km range required for the Tianqin program.

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