A pioneering technology capable of atomic-level precision is now being developed to detect what so far has remained imperceptible: gravitational waves or ripples in space-time caused by cataclysmic events including even the Big Bang itself.

Goddard physicist Babak Saif, along with researchers from Stanford University and AOSense, Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, has received NASA funding to advance a potentially revolutionary technology — atom optics — to detect theoretically predicted gravitational waves.

A team of researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Stanford University in California, and AOSense, Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif., recently won funding under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to advance atom-optics technologies. Some believe this emerging, highly precise measurement technology is a technological panacea for everything from measuring gravitational waves to steering submarines and airplanes.

Since joining forces, the team has designed a powerful, narrowband fiber-optic laser system that it plans to test at one of the world's largest atom interferometers — a 33-foot drop tower in the basement of a Stanford University physics laboratory. Close scientifically to what the team would need to detect theoretical gravitational waves, the technology would be used as the foundation for any atom-based instrument created to fly in space.

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