Success of gravity-wave satellite paves way for three-craft mission

Jun 27, 2017

By Davide Castelvecchi

Europe’s gravitational-wave hunters are celebrating. On 1 July, a satellite will wrap up its mission to test technology for the pioneering quest to measure gravitational ripples in the stillness of space. Over the past year, the craft has performed much better than many had hoped. That success has convinced the European Space Agency (ESA) to give the go-ahead to a full-scale version able to sense cataclysmic events that can’t be felt on Earth. 

The LISA Pathfinder mission, launched in late 2015, beat its precision target by a factor of 1,000 and quieted critics who have doubted its potential, says project scientist Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at ESA in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. “This is not the impossible task that some people believed it was.” 

Currently set to fly in 2034, the full-scale Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) will be the space analogue of the Laser Interfero-meter Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), two machines in the United States — each with a pair of 4-kilometre-long arms — that first detected the ripples by ‘hearing’ the merger of two black holes. LISA’s three probes will fly in a triangle, millions of kilometres apart, making the mission sensitive to much longer gravitational waves, such as the ripples produced by the collisions of even larger black holes.

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