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Cover stories: Making the Breakthrough of the Year cover

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Science  23 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6319, pp. 1497
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5500

Cover stories offer a look at the process behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, humbly abbreviated as LIGO, is an instrument of vast scale measuring distances infinitesimally miniscule with incredibly complex technologies, all buried beneath a cloak of concrete. Two such observatories are currently online in the United States: one in Livingston, Louisiana, and the other in Hanford, Washington. It was the latter to which I was sent by Science.

The first thing one notices about LIGO Hanford is its vastness, set amidst the desert scrublands adjoining the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This is where Enrico Fermi and scientists of the Manhattan Project produced plutonium for the atomic bombs of Trinity and Nagasaki. The physical isolation is compelling for the observer and necessary for the observations.

One sees a small cluster of conjoined contemporary utilitarian buildings from which extend, at perpendicular angles, what appear to be two 2-mile-long cement aqueduct pipes half-buried in sagebrush and sand. Those mundane tubes belie the cosmological import of the phenomena LIGO seeks to measure and verify: the minute ripples of spacetime produced by cosmic cataclysms. My challenge was to visually convey some of that profundity.

Science’s Photography Managing Editor Bill Douthitt and I discussed multiple approaches, including aerials, which provide a clear vantage point of the facility and a sense of scale. However, the aerial view is the most common approach and does not convey any cosmological context. We set a goal to incorporate the wide and starry sky from which gravitational waves emanate. Precisely how we would achieve this was still a mystery.

Utilizing Google Earth, I was able to do a preliminary survey of LIGO Hanford's remote location from the comfort of my studio. A single elevated vantage point, an earthen overpass straddling the north-south tube near its origin, was evident. However, experience has proven that not everything one notes on the Internet is accurate. This margin of error extends to another primary consideration: weather. We needed clear, dark skies. Looking at an ephemeris, I saw a new moon in 3 days. A variety of weather sites also gave some hope.

Three-hundred-some miles later, I was standing on that rise with several LIGO scientists. A full tour of the vast grounds confirmed the suitability of the viewpoint (a daytime view can be seen here; also see Science’s 2016 Breakthrough of the Year section), but clouds throughout the day and night were problematic. When the skies cleared the next day, the wind picked up—dramatically. After settling on the precise alignment of equipment, which involved three heavy tripods as well as multiple lights and remotes, I had to tie it all down with 200 pounds of sandbags. Gravity!

I had two primary pre-visualizations in mind. One involved a stationary stellar sky full of thousands of single points of starlight. Ideally, this would include a panoply of deep-sky objects and the rich tapestry of the Milky Way. However, reality can be a stern taskmaster. My view northward above the LIGO arm was toward a less dramatic section of sky. Science magazine, like science itself, is about reality.

My other approach was much more complex and required techniques I had rarely used. The star trails you see on the cover are the result of 189 30-second exposures shot over a 2-hour period. The camera was completely stationary, other than the buffeting of the wind and the rotation of the Earth. Those images were then layered to compile the tiny 30-second streaks into the graceful arc of a 2-hour exposure. The animation seen here results from viewing all of those individual exposures in sequence rather than as a compilation.

Ironically, the star-trails image on the cover was anticipated to be a test shot. I wanted to have a dry run to make sure both the concept and technique actually worked. As things played out, clouds and wind interfered with all subsequent nights of shooting. Reality is like that.

Rich Frishman

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