Physical response of light-time gravitational wave detectors

Michael J. Koop, Lee Samuel Finn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Gravitational wave detectors are typically described as responding to gravitational wave metric perturbations, which are gauge-dependent and - correspondingly - unphysical quantities. This is particularly true for ground-based interferometric detectors, like LIGO, space-based detectors, like LISA and its derivatives, spacecraft Doppler tracking detectors, and pulsar timing array detectors. The description of gravitational waves, and a gravitational wave detector's response, to the unphysical metric perturbation has lead to a proliferation of false analogies and descriptions regarding how these detectors function, and true misunderstandings of the physical character of gravitational waves. Here we provide a fully physical and gauge-invariant description of the response of a wide class of gravitational wave detectors in terms of the Riemann curvature, the physical quantity that describes gravitational phenomena in general relativity. In the limit of high frequency gravitational waves, the Riemann curvature separates into two independent gauge-invariant quantities: a "background" curvature contribution and a "wave" curvature contribution. In this limit the gravitational wave contribution to the detector response reduces to an integral of the gravitational wave contribution of the curvature along the unperturbed photon path between components of the detector. The description presented here provides an unambiguous physical description of what a gravitational wave detector measures and how it operates, a simple means of computing corrections to a detectors response owing to general detector motion, a straightforward way of connecting the results of numerical relativity simulations to gravitational wave detection, and a basis for a general and fully relativistic pulsar timing formula.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number062002
JournalPhysical Review D - Particles, Fields, Gravitation and Cosmology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 4 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Nuclear and High Energy Physics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)


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