Scientists could get their first glimpse of the dawn of the universe from a telescope buried up to half a mile underground. This new device is designed to detect gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are an elusive phenomena created by some of the most violent events in the universe such as black holes, neutron stars and the Big Bang.
Although they have never been directly detected, these waves of gravity are thought to echo through the universe like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond and they could provide scientists with a new way of mapping the sky.
The telescope, which is likely to cost between £500 million and £1 billion to build, will be built inside a network of tunnels 12 miles long and buried up to half a mile underground to dampen any interference from vibrations on the surface.
The project is expected to rival the Large Hadron Collider, the 17 mile particle smasher on the French Swiss Border that was switched on in 2008, in its scale and ambition.
Physicists claim the telescope will give them the first chance to see a black hole, which until now have only been detected indirectly because of the stars and debris orbiting them, and see into the centre of powerful stars known as neutron stars.
The telescope, called the Einstein Telescope, could also reveal for the first time whether there were universes in existence before our own by looking for the echoes of previous Big Bangs similar to the one that created our own universe 13.7 billion years ago.
Highly precise lasers will be beamed along two six mile long vacuum chambers to detect minute changes in the distance between targets at either end caused by gravitational waves passing through the Earth.
Professor B S Sathyaprakash, an astrophysicist at Cardiff University and chair of the science working party for the Einstein Telescope, said: “There is huge potential to see the universe in a completely new way with gravitational waves.
“They are very weak by the time they reach the Earth, but with a sensitive detector we will be able to get direct evidence for black holes, learn more about how the universe is expanding and pick up some of the gravitational waves from the big bang.
“If we are really lucky we get some signals from before the big bang that might help explain what existed before our own universe and whether we are living in just one of a continuous cycle of big bangs and rapid expansions.”
Scientists behind the project, which is being led by the European Gravitational Observatory, are due to hold a meeting in Pisa, Italy next month to outline their plans for the new telescope.
They are proposing to build the telescope in one of 14 candidate sites that are currently undergoing extensive seismic testing to ensure disturbances deep inside the earth’s crust will not interfere with the measurement.
The sites include abandoned mines in Poland, Hungary, Romania, France, Italy and Germany but they could also build new tunnels to house the telescope, which will consist two “arms” that are each six miles long.
At the end of each arm will be mirrored targets suspended on the end of long pendulums that will be used to reflect a laser beam.
The lasers will be fired through along the six mile arms in a close to perfect vacuum and at temperatures below -238 degrees F to reduce the external changes that could interfere with signals from gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves are created by objects like black holes moving through space and time, which creates ripples that move out at the speed of light, rather like those that occur when a stone is thrown into a pond.
They were first predicted by Albert Einstein in his theory of general relativity.
When these waves interact with particles, such as those that make up the mirrored targets in the telescope, they cause them to stretch and shrink.
Differences in the amount of stretching and shrinking in each arm of the Einstein Telescope can then be used, with the help of computers, to build up a picture of what created the gravitational wave and pinpoint its source.
Astronomers currently rely on visible light, radio waves and X-rays coming from distant objects for their view of the universe, but they are limited by how far these can penetrate through space.
Gravitational waves can cover far greater distances and echoes from the moment of the Big Bang, when the universe burst into being, are thought to still exist.
There are a number of smaller experiments that are nearing completion that are expected to detect gravitational waves for the first time.
Another project to use three spacecraft flying in formation to detect gravitational waves suffered a blow this month when Nasa said it may not be able to fund its part of the joint project with the European Space Agency.
Professor Alberto Vecchio, an expert on gravitational waves at Birmingham University who is among those leading the search to find the first gravitational waves, said: “Gravitational waves are essentially a different kind of broadcast channel coming from objects in space and allow us to build an entirely new class of telescope.
“It should allow us to see black holes, as they are among the strongest sources of gravitational waves and we will also be able to see neutron stars just moments before they collapse.
“Previous attempts to detect gravitational waves on the surface have produced difficulties because clouds or aircraft passing overhead have produced readings. Going underground where it is very quiet means we can build a very sensitive instrument.”