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The International Symposium on Gravitational Waves (Beijing, May 25-29, 2017) celebrated the dawn of a new era of Astronomy

The International Symposium on Gravitational Waves (ISWG 2017), hosted by the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on its beautiful Yanqihu campus, was held from 25 to 29 May in Beijing. It gathered over 140 specialists of a variety of aspects of gravitational waves science coming from more than 10 different countries including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, France and China, with the participation of the Executive Director of ISSI-Beijing, Michel Blanc.

This symposium reflected in an exemplary way the dawn of the astronomy of gravitational waves. Impressive contributions by representatives of the major current or planned gravitational wave detection facilities on the ground and in space clearly showed that this fascinating fast-emerging field is driven nowadays by two majors scientific breakthroughs: on the ground, the LIGO experiment now counts three definite detections of gravitational waves, all generated by one of the most energetic events in the Universe: the coalescence of Black Hole Binaries (BHB). In space, the outstanding success of the LISA Pathfinder mission of ESA opens the way to the implementation of the first gravitational wave antenna in space, LISA, by ESA and its partner NASA, at the beginning of the 2030’s. LISA will make it possible to observe a frequency domain lower than and complementary to the one which LIGO has started to explore. (See figure).

Figure 1: An illustration of the contributions of the different astrophysical sources to the Gravitational Wave spectrum, from the beautiful and inspiring presentation by Shane Larson. Source: Shane L. Larson, CIERA, Northwestern Astronomy, Adler Planetarium, Chicago, USA.

Echoing these two major successes, the scientific community gathered at the ISGW presented and debated a rich diversity of approaches to this new field: specialists of detection techniques, building on unique developments of quantum optics, laser physics and space-time metrology, exchanged with some of the best General Relativity theoreticians and with high-energy astrophysicists. Together, these specialties allowed a comprehensive coverage of all the elements of the chain leading from the generation of a gravitational wave by energetic astrophysical object (such as black holes, neutron stars or white dwarfs), through its propagation for sometimes billions of years towards us, to its detection by our gravitational wave antennas.

The impressively large participation of the Chinese scientific community itself was a perfect illustration of the diversity of talents which, from GR theoreticians through astrophysicists to experimental physicists, is going to drive the development of this field. The original experimental contributions of China to this field include no less than two new proposals for the detection of gravitational waves in space, Taiji in interplanetary space and Tianqin in low Earth orbit, and an on-going experiment in Ali in western China to monitor the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) as the ultimate witness of the generation of primordial gravitational waves by the Big Bang : with them there is a very good chance that China will take a good share of the harvest of discoveries which are expected for several decades to come, making it an important player in this new arena.

In this emerging field characterized by the importance of complementaries between space and ground-based observations, theory, and the most challenging techniques of fundamental physics and metrology, international collaborations and synergies between these different approaches will play a key role. Taking the fantastic opportunity provided by the ISGW 2017, ISSI-Beijing has started to exchange with the international gravitational waves community to offer the use of one or more of its specific tools (most likely including a dedicated workshop) to provide its own contribution to the fast development of this very promising field and, beyond it, to the onset of a new era in our study of the cosmos : multi-messenger astronomy, combining gravitational wave detections with the information provided by observations of gamma-ray and X-ray photons and of diverse types of astroparticles, is likely to revolutionize our understanding of the most violent events and of the most energetic objects of the Universe in the decades to come.

Stefano Vitale, scientific leader of the very successful LISA Pathfinder mission of ESA which opens the way to gravitational wave astronomy in space, exchanging with Michel Blanc on the prospects of this fascinating field.


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