China’s Planning to Launch a Space-Based Gravitational Wave Observatory in the 2030s: TianQin. Here’s how it’ll Stack up Against LISA

The successful detection of gravitational waves has been a game-changer for astronomy. And now the new frontier is in space, with satellite-based detection systems currently in development that will uncover some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. And while the team behind LISA is now developing that observatory in space, it just may be outclassed by a rival, TianQin, developed by the Chinese.

Gravitational waves are truly a new window into the universe. They allow us to detect the utterly unseeable, like the mergers of black holes. They also allow us to see into the hearts of some of the universe’s most mysterious events, as in the case of the kilonovas, which gravitational waves revealed to be caused by the collision of neutron stars.

But there’s a limit to what our ground-based gravitational wave detectors can do. As sensitive as they are, they can only detect relatively high frequency events – gravitational waves that are short and strong, clearly sticking out from the background.

If we want to push deeper into this new domain of astronomy, we have to go into space. Proposed instruments like LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will be large and stable enough to detect things like matter falling into supermassive black holes, the insides of supernovas when they go off, and maybe even gravitational waves echoing from the earliest moments of the Big Bang itself.

But competition is always a good thing, even in astronomy. LISA, which is set to deploy sometime in the 2030s (although it will probably be sometime after that), will be joined by a Chinese companion, TianQin.

And according to a new study, TianQin might perform better than LISA in certain situations. It’s difficult to predict exactly how these observatories will perform, because they haven’t been built yet, we can still take some guesses. A team of theorists behind the study have made simple models of the behavior of both instruments and pitted them head-to-head in a competition.

They found that TianQin will probably perform better than LISA at low frequencies and at the very highest frequencies that they can both measure, while they are equally matched for medium-frequency observations.

This means that the Chinese observatory might be better suited to detecting, say, gravitational waves from the Big Bang, while LISA might have an easier time targeting supermassive black holes.

Either way, the two planned observatories will complement each other, both listening in the dark for any gravitational echoes, providing an essential window into an unseen universe.

Paul M. Sutter

Astrophysicist, Author, Host | pmsutter.com

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