LISA is On! Gravitational Wave Detection is Going to Space

The discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO experiment in 2015 sent ripples through the scientific community. Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the confirmation of these waves (and two subsequent detections) solved a long-standing cosmological mystery. In addition to bending the fabric of space-time, it is now known that gravity can also create perturbations that can be detected billions of light-years away.

Seeking to capitalize on these discoveries and conduct new and exciting research into gravitational waves, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently green-lighted the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission. Consisting of three satellites that will measure gravitational waves directly through laser interferometry, this mission will be the first space-based gravitational wave detector.

This decision was announced yesterday (Tuesday, June 20th) during a meeting of ESA’s Science Program Committee (SPC). It’s implementation is part of the ESA’s Cosmic Vision plan – the current cycle of the agency’s long-term planning for space science missions – which began in 2015 and will be running until 2025. It is also in keeping with the ESA’s desire to study the “invisible universe“, a policy that was adopted in 2013. 

To accomplish this, the three satellites that make up the LISA constellation will be deployed into orbit around Earth. Once there, they will assume a triangular formation – spaced 2.5 million km (1.55 million mi) apart – and follow Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Here, isolated from all external influences but Earth’s gravity, they will then connect to each other by laser and begin looking for minute perturbations in the fabric of space-time.

Much like how the LIGO experiment and other gravitational wave detectors work, the LISA mission will rely on laser interferometry. This process consists of a beam of electromagnetic energy (in this case, a laser) being split in two and then recombined to look for patterns of interference. In LISA’s case, two satellites play the role of reflectors while the remaining one is the both source of the lasers and the observer of the laser beam.

When a gravitational wave passes through the triangle established by the three satellites, the lengths of the two laser beams will vary due to the space-time distortions caused by the wave. By comparing the laser beam frequency in the return beam to the frequency of the sent beam, LISA will be able to measure the level of distortion.

These measurements will have to be extremely precise, since the distortions they are looking for affect the fabric of space-time on the most minuscule of levels – a few millionths of a millionth of a meter over a distance of a million kilometers. Luckily, the technology to detect these waves has already been tested by the LISA Pathfinder mission, which deployed in 2015 and will conclude its mission at the end of the month.

Artist’s concept of the LISA mission. Credit: AEI/Milde Marketing/Exozet

In the coming weeks and months, the ESA will be looking over the design of the LISA mission and completing a cost assessment. If all goes as planned, the mission will be proposed for “adoption” before construction begins and it is expected to be launched by 2034. In the same meeting, the ESA also adopted another important mission that will be searching for exoplanets in the coming years.

This mission is known as the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars, or PLATO, mission. Like Kepler, this mission will monitor stars within a large sections of the sky to look for small dips in their brightness, which are caused by planets passing between the star and the observer (i.e. the transit method). Originally selected in February of 2014, this mission is now moving from the blueprint phase into construction and will launch in 2026.

It’s an exciting time for the European Space Agency. In recent years, it has committed itself to multiple endeavors in the hope of maintaining Europe’s commitment to and continued presence in space. These include studying the “invisible universe”, mounting missions to the Moon and Mars, maintaining a commitment to the International Space Station, and even building a successor to the ISS on the Moon!

Further Reading: ESA

The Future of Gravitational Wave Astronomy: Pulsar Webs, Space Interferometers and Everything

It’s the hot new field in modern astronomy. The recent announcement of the direct detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) ushers in a new era of observational astronomy that is completely off the electromagnetic spectrum. This detection occurred on September 14th, 2015 and later earned itself the name GW150914. This occurred shortly after Advanced LIGO turned on in early September, a great sign concerning the veracity of the equipment. Continue reading “The Future of Gravitational Wave Astronomy: Pulsar Webs, Space Interferometers and Everything”

Spacecraft Launches to Test the Hunt for Ripples in the Fabric of Spacetime

LISA Pathfinder Liftoff

The European Space Agency successfully launched the LISA Pathfinder, a spacecraft designed to demonstrate technology for observing gravitational waves in space. The launch took place at Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on a Vega rocket, at 4:04 GMT on December 3, (10:04 pm EST Dec 2), 2015.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime, which were predicted by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity. So far, because they are extremely tiny and incredibly faint, gravitational waves have proved to be elusive. The technology needed to detect them is highly sensitive and therefore has been difficult to conceive, plan and build.
Continue reading “Spacecraft Launches to Test the Hunt for Ripples in the Fabric of Spacetime”

10 Space Science Stories to Watch in 2015

A new Avengers movie. A reboot of the Star Wars franchise. The final installment of the Hunger Games. The Martian makes it to the big screen. Yup, even if the zombie apocalypse occurs in 2015, it’ll still be a great year. But trading science fiction for fact, we’re also on track for a spectacular year in space science and exploration as well.

Humanity will get its first good look at Ceres and Pluto, giving us science writers some new pics to use instead of the same half dozen blurry dots and artist’s conceptions. SpaceX will also attempt a daring landing on a sea platform, and long duration missions aboard the International Space Station will get underway. And key technology headed to space and on Earth may lead the way to opening up the window of gravitational wave astronomy on the universe. Here’s 10 sure-fire bets to watch for in the coming year from Universe Today:

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LISA Pathfinder deployed at L1. Credit: ESA/Artist’s concept.

10. LISA Pathfinder

A precursor to a full-fledged gravitational wave detector in space, LISA Pathfinder will be launching atop a Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana in July 2015. LISA stands for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, and the Pathfinder mission will journey to the L1 Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun to test key technologies. LISA Pathfinder will pave the way for the full fledged LISA space platform, a series of three free flying spacecraft proposed for launch in the 2030s.

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Looking down one of the arms of LIGO Hanford. Credit: Photo by author.

9. AdLIGO Goes Online

And speaking of gravitational waves, we may finally get the first direct detection of the same in 2015, when Advanced LIGO is set to go online. Comprised of two L-shaped detectors, one based in Livingston Louisiana, and another in Hanford Washington, AdLIGO will feature ten times the sensitivity of the original LIGO observatory. In fact, as was the case of the hunt for the Higgs-Boson by CERN, a non-detection of gravitational waves by AdLIGO would be a much stranger result!

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A replica of the Hubble Space Telescope on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Photo by author.

8. Hubble Turns 25

Launched on April 24th, 1990 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 25 years in space in 2015. The final servicing mission in 2009 gave Hubble a reprieve from the space junk scrap heap, and the orbiting telescope is still going strong. Hubble has no less than pushed the limits in modern astronomy to become a modern icon of the space age.

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MESSENGER wraps up its mission in 2015. Credit: NASA/MESSENGER/JPL/APL.

7. The End of MESSENGER

NASA’s Mercury exploring spacecraft wraps up its mission next year. Launched in 2004, MESSENGER arrived in orbit around Mercury after a series of flybys on March 18th, 2011. MESSENGER has mapped the innermost world in detail, and studied the space environment and geology of Mercury. In late March 2015, MESSENGER will achieve one final first, when it impacts the surface of Mercury at the end of its extended mission.

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Akatsuki on Earth prior to departure. Credit: JAXA.

6. Akatsuki at Venus

This Japanese spacecraft missed orbital insertion a few years back, but gets a second chance at life in 2015. Launched in 2010 atop an H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, Akatsuki failed to enter orbit around Venus at the end of 2010, and instead headed out for a heliocentric path around the Sun. Some quick thinking by JAXA engineers led to a plan to attempt to place Akatsuki in Venusian orbit in November 2015. This would be a first for the Japanese space agency, as attempts by JAXA at placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet – including the Mars Nozomi probe – have thus far failed.

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The target for the Falcon-9 first stage later next week. Credit: SpaceX.

5. SpaceX to Attempt to Land on a Sea Platform

It’ll definitely rock if they pull it off next week: on January 6th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral with its Dragon spacecraft headed to the International Space Station on mission CRS-5. Sure, these resupply missions are becoming routine, but after liftoff, SpaceX is attempting something new and daring: landing the Falcon-9 first stage Buck Rodgers style, “fins first” on a floating barge. This is the next step in ultimately proving the feasibility of having the rocket fly back to the launch site for eventual reuse. If nothing else, expect some stunning video of the attempt soon!

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An artist’s concept of an asteroid retrieval mission. Credit: NASA.

4. NASA to Decide on an Asteroid Mission

Some major decisions as to the fate and the future of manned space exploration are due next year, as NASA is expected to decide on the course of action for its Asteroid Redirect Mission. The current timeline calls for the test of the SLS rocket in 2018, and the launch of a spacecraft to recover an asteroid and place it in orbit around the Moon in 2019. If all goes according to plan – a plan which could always shift with the political winds and future changes in administrations – we could see astronauts exploring a captured asteroid by the early 2020s.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly (left), and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko. Credit: NASA/Roscomos.

3. Long Duration ISS Missions

Beginning in 2015, astronauts and cosmonauts will begin year-long stays aboard the ISS to study the effects of long duration space missions. In March of 2015, cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko and U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly will launch as part of Expedition 43 headed to the ISS. The Russians have conducted stays in space longer than a year aboard the Mir space station, but Kelly’s stay aboard the ISS will set a duration record for NASA astronauts. Perhaps, a simulated “Mars mission” aboard the ISS could be possible in the coming years?

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An artist’s concept of Dawn approaching 1 Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL.

2. Dawn at Ceres

Fresh off of exploring Vesta, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will become the first mission to enter orbit around a second object, the asteroid 1 Ceres next year in April 2015. The largest asteroid and the first object of its kind discovered on the first day of the 19th century, Ceres looks to be a fascinating world in its own right. Does it possess water ice? Active geology? Moons of its own? If Dawn’s performance at Vesta was any indication, we’re in for another exhilarating round of space exploration!

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And artist’s conception of New Horizons at Pluto. Credit: NASA/JPL/Thierry Lombry.

1. New Horizons at Pluto

An easy No. 1,we finally get our first good look at Pluto in July, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies less than 14,000 kilometres from the surface of the distant world. Launched in 2006, New Horizons will “thread the needle” between Pluto and Charon in a flurry of activity as it passes by. New Horizons will then turn back as it passes into the shadows of Pluto and Charon and actually view the two worlds as they occult the distant Sun. And from there, New Horizons will head out to explore Kuiper Belt Objects of opportunity.

And these are just the top stories that are slated to be big news in space in 2015. Remember, another Chelyabinsk meteor or the next big comet could drop by at any time… space news can be unpredictable, and its doubtless that 2015 will have lots more surprises in store.