The International Pulsar Timing Array (IPTA) is a consortium of consortia, comprising the European Pulsar Timing Array (EPTA), the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), and the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA). The goal of the IPTA is to detect gravitational waves using an array of approximately 30 pulsars. This goal is shared by each of the participating consortia individually, but they have all recognized that their goal will be achieved more quickly in collaboration, and by combining their respective resources.
The basic experiment exploits the predictability the pulses from Millisecond Pulsars (MSPs) and uses them as a system of Galactic clocks. Disturbances in the clocks will be measurable at Earth. A disturbance from a passing gravitational wave will have a particular signature across the ensemble of pulsars, and will be thus detected.
The experiment is analogous to ground-based interferometric detectors such as LIGO and VIRGO, where the time-of-flight of a laser beam is measured along a particular path and compared to the time-of-flight along an orthogonally oriented path. Instead of the time-of-flight of a laser beam the IPTA is measuring the time-of-flight of an electromagnetic pulse from the pulsar. Instead of 4 km arms (as in the case of LIGO) the ‘arms’ of the IPTA are thousands of light-years (the distance between the pulsars and the earth.) Each of the PTAs times approximately 20 millisecond pulsars (MSPs) each month. With significant overlap between the collaborations the total number of MSPs timed by the IPTA (and thus the number of ‘arms’ in the detector) is approximately 30.
These differences between the IPTA and the ground-based interferometers allow them to probe a completely different range in gravitational-wave frequency and thus a different category of sources. Whereas ground-based detectors are sensitive to between tens and thousands of Hz, the IPTA is sensitive to between tens and hundreds of microHertz. Their primary source of gravitational waves is supermassive black-hole binaries (billions of solar masses), presumed to exist in plenty in the universe at the centers of galaxies, resulting from previous mergers of those galaxies.
The resources of the IPTA are substantial. The EPTA uses large quantities of time on Europe’s five 100-meter class telescopes: the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, England, the Effelsberg 100-m Radio Telescope in Germany, the Sardinia Radio Telescope in Italy, the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands, and the Nancay Radio Telescope in France. Together these 5 telescopes make up the Large European Array for Pulsars (LEAP) in which they operate together as a single 300-meter class telescope. NANOGrav uses about 1-day per month of time at the Green Bank 100-m telescope, and 0.5 days per month at the 300-m Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The PPTA uses several days per month at the 64-meter Parkes Radio Telescope.
Pulsar timing was tied for top ranking in the "medium size" category for priorities from the Particle Astrophysics and Gravitational Panel of the Astro2010 Decadal Review sponsored by the National Academy. The table is in Table B.1 of the report.
The IPTA is coordinated and advised by the IPTA Steering Committee, a seven-member committee with two representatives from each of the three PTA consortia plus the immediate past Chair. Currently on the committee are Dick Manchester (Chair, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science), Willem van Straten (Swinburne University), Scott Ransom (NRAO), Ingrid Stairs (UBC), Ben Stappers (Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics), Gilles Theureau (Nancay Telescope), and Andrea Lommen (past Chair, Franklin & Marshall College). Each of the three consortia are also members of the Gravitational Wave International Committee, an advisory council consisting of the leaders of gravitational wave experiments worldwide.
- International Pulsar Timing Array
- NANOGrav-PIRE project
- Parkes Pulsar Timing Array
- European Pulsar Timing Array