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LIGO and VIRGO - another success for global R&E collaboration

This week’s exciting announcements from the LIGO and Virgo teams of the first observations of a “Kilonova” (The merging of two neutron stars generating both gravitational waves and a range of electromagnetic waves) on the 17th August 2017 demonstrates the power and value of international collaborations.

A Triumph for Big Science

We live in an era of big science. For the past two decades, collaborations involving hundreds of scientists have been commonplace and there are even some involving thousands. These big projects have achieved great things that wouldn’t have been possible without the ability of large groups to communicate and share data, from decoding the human genome to revealing the Higgs boson. Even by these standards, however, what happened on 17 August and the days that followed was special.

International Networking supporting International Collaboration

The LIGO (with two interferometers in the states of Louisiana and Washington) and Virgo (with the Italian interferometer in Cascina) projects comprise more than 1,500 scientists, all of whom are working towards a single goal: to capture signs of gravitational waves and decode their meaning. The data gathering happens at massive observatories in the US and Italy, but the analysis is done in countries all over the world. This distribution and analysis of Terabytes of data can only take place through the work done by GÉANT and dozens of NRENs building high performance research and education networks to allow huge volumes of data to be rapidly and securely shared around the world.

For the first time, gravitational waves, gamma-ray busts and light have been observed simultaneously from the same source. The discovery was made using Ligo Virgo detectors and some 70 ground- and space-based observatories.

In particular the European Southern Observatory working in collaboration with scientists around the world, was able to pick up the infrared and optical signals from a gravitational wave and gamma source in the southern sky, within minutes of the announcement.

As a result, data from the European Southern Observatory and their partner telescopes, was passed back from Chile to the ESO science data archive at Garching in Germany. This data was transmitted through the R&E infrastructure of REUNA, RedCLARA, GÉANT and DFN. Not only have ESO been utilising the NREN network to enhance the science that they do but they have also utilised the eduGAIN trust and identity infrastructure to inter-federate their logins. Thereby allowing researchers to collaborate seamlessly across institutions. ESO currently have a 1Gbps connection to DFN and have been actively participating in eduGAIN to enable the federation of single-sign-on identities for researchers and staff.

Working together

Across the whole period, some 3,500 people, many of whom have never worked together at such a scale, had to all of a sudden figure out how to access and share data. The growth of Authentication, Authorisation and Identification (AAI) technologies and the expansion of interfederation between organisations and identity federations using eduGAIN has allowed these rapid collaborations to take place by allowing researchers to use their existing institutional identities to access data on remote systems and securely share results. Perhaps the true measure of success of R&E networks is that such a huge, intense and unplanned event and the resulting international and global efforts happened virtually seamlessly.

What is a “Kilonova”


The drama of a neutron-star merger is due to the fact that it involves one of the most extreme objects in the universe. Neutron stars are some of the smallest, densest stars we know. They do not have much more mass than our sun, but all of it is compressed into a ball no bigger than the width of a mid-sized city (about 15 km, or 9 miles). That’s a lot of compression. A teaspoon of neutron star would weigh 10 billion kg (or 22 billion lbs)—about the same as 1 million very large elephants.

The event didn’t just emit gravitational waves. It put out electromagnetic radiation in every spectrum: X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet, visible, and radio waves.

What is Virgo

Virgo aerial view

Virgo is the Italian detector,  built and managed by the European Gravitational Observatory  (EGO) founded by The National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Virgo is connected to the Italian R&E network GARR.