British-designed and built technology being used in the hunt for gravitational waves has enabled another scientific first — and is now also helping fix broken bones.

Scientists from 11 UK universities, and 20 other nations, have used a network of three observatories across the United States and Europe to detect the collision of two gigantic black holes, about 1.8 billion light-years away. The use of three detectors allowed very precise measurement of the collision, which generated a huge burst of gravitational energy equivalent to about three times the total energy in our Sun. Gravitational waves are ripples in space, and cannot be detected through ordinary telescopes which use electromagnetic radiation such as visible light or gamma rays. Previous gravitational wave detections only used two detectors.

The historic three-detector observation was made mid-morning on 14 August, by both detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington state in the US, and the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy. The detectors recorded the burst of energy as the two black holes — about 31 and 25 times the size of our Sun — spun together.

Dr. John Veitch, research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy, co-led a team within the collaboration on working on the data analysis of the signal to determine the origins and properties of the source. He said: “This was a very strong first. The addition to the network of a signal from Virgo provided us with a lot of useful data. Having a third detector means that we can now triangulate the position of the source, and much more accurately determine the exact spot in the cosmos where the signal came from.”

UK Science Minister, Jo Johnson, said, “The latest detection of gravitational waves is an excellent example of international collaboration, which was only made possible due to the breakthrough work undertaken by UK scientists and engineers.

“By developing our understanding of the universe and identifying new fields of scientific research, we are continuing to build upon our reputation as being a world leader in science and innovation which is at the core of our Industrial Strategy.”

Chief Executive Designate at UK Research and Innovation, Sir Mark Walport said: “Research and innovation are global endeavours. Breakthroughs in science involving many partners, such as this one, reinforce the importance the UK places on continuing to be a leading partner in the global scientific landscape.”

Professor Brian Bowsher, Chief Executive of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council said: “Today’s announcement helps us delve deeper into understanding how the universe works. I am particularly pleased that the UK-built technology at the heart of this discovery is also now being used to improve medical treatments.”

The LIGO detectors rely on British-designed technology to remove vibrations caused by natural and human activity, so that the incredibly tiny distortions caused by the gravitational waves can be accurately detected. That technology is being used in reverse to test a process to grow human bone in a laboratory. The new technique — known as “nanokicking” — vibrates stem cells thousands of times a second, to stimulate the production of bone cells. The new ‘bone putty’ has the potential to be used to heal bone fractures and fill bone where there is a gap.

Professor Sheila Rowan, director of the Institute for Gravitational Research, said: “We’re proud to have played a role in this first new joint detection alongside our partners in the US and in Europe, which is an important advance for the field of gravitational wave astronomy.”

Professor Mark Hannam, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Adding Virgo to the network has allowed us to pinpoint where the signal came from ten times better than before. This is an amazing improvement in the precision of gravitational-wave astronomy.”

Professor Andreas Freise, from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, said: “Once again, we have detected echoes from colliding black holes but this time we can pinpoint the position of the black holes much more accurately thanks to the addition of the Virgo detector to the advanced detector network. Around ten years ago I was in charge of designing the core interferometer of the Advanced Virgo project. To see that instrument become a reality, and now helping to deliver significant results, is really special.”

Professor Alberto Vecchio, also from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, added, “We’re really proud of how our team have helped contribute to the success of this international network, from designing the equipment to analysing and interpreting the data. It is a truly exciting time for astronomy and astrophysics as we try to unravel the mysteries of the universe.”

A paper about the event, known as GW170814, has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters [].