A team of mathematicians and physicists from Colorado State University, Caltech and the University of California at San Diego have been awarded a prestigious $1.1 million, three-year Focused Research Group grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal of the project is to develop mathematical methods for estimating and controlling the error in computed gravity waves detected in space.

Cosmic gravitational waves are detected and measured by the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory, or LIGO, project. Gravitational waves are ripples in the space and time fabric produced by violent events in the distant universe, such as the collision of two black holes or shockwaves from the cores of supernova explosions. Gravitational waves are emitted by accelerating masses and then travel toward Earth, carrying information about their origins and valuable clues about the nature of gravity.

Gravitational waves are extremely weak and subject to significant interference. For this reason, LIGO measures the waves from different locations across the United States - at Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash. Future sites are planned. Each installation consists of 4-foot diameter vacuum pipes arranged in the shape of an "L" with 2.5-mile-long arms. By coordinating signals at the detectors, gravity wave structure can be measured.

Don Estep, University Interdisciplinary Research Scholar and professor of statistics at Colorado State University, is principal investigator of the project.

"Gravitational waves are not directly detected," Estep said. "Instead, we must solve a set of very complicated nonlinear mathematical equations posed on a four-dimensional space-time manifold using the LIGO data."

Both the LIGO measurements and the solutions of the equations are extremely sensitive to experimental and approximation error. "The project goal is to quantify and control the error in LIGO results. This is absolutely essential for the LIGO project to be successful," Estep said, noting that this is the first FRG grant for Colorado State.

"It is a sign of the quality of the Department of Statistics at CSU that we can compete with any university for this kind of competitive grant."

The grant will be used to build a focused team of investigators, postdoctorates, and graduate students at the three universities.

The FRG program is one of the most competitive and prestigious programs of the Division of Mathematical Sciences at NSF. Each year, only 10 to 15 awards are made from hundreds of applicants. Successful projects are recognized as tackling groundbreaking, extremely difficult problems in the mathematical sciences that also have broad importance. The FRG grant is another sign of the growing recognition that some of the most difficult and advanced theoretical mathematics problems arise in experimental science and engineering.