Tag Archives: Lisa Pathfinder

LISA Pathfinder proves space-based gravity wave detection technology

Engineers have announced that the gravity wave detection technology being tested in orbit by Europe’s LISA Pathfinder works.

To show that the necessary sensitivity is possible, LISA Pathfinder measures the distance between two masses, both of which are inside the spacecraft. “We’ve shrunk the arm of a large gravitational wave antenna to 35 centimeters so we could show it works properly,” Paul McNamara, LISA Pathfinder project scientist, told the press conference.

LISA Pathfinder was launched in December 2015 to a spot 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. When its test masses where first released to float free in February, “the relief was unbelievable,” McNamara says. Science operations began on 1 March and on that first day the team was able to measure distance variations between the masses much smaller than LISA Pathfinder’s mission requirements, Stefano Vitale, the mission’s principle investigator, told reporters. After a month, the variations were even smaller, “very close to [eLISA] requirements,” he says.

They now hope to launch an array of at least three such spacecraft by the mid-2030s.

LISA Pathfinder cubes in freefall

After a week of testing scientists have now completely released LISA Pathfinder’s two gold-platinum cubes so that they are floating free within the spacecraft.

With the cubes released, the spacecraft is now measuring the position of each cube and using thrusters to adjust its position and keep the cubes floating within it. This success has essentially proven that the technology works, though they now have to see if the technology can be maintained in orbit for a long enough period of time to be worthwhile. If so, this mission will be followed by multiple similar spacecraft, flying in formation while also measuring their positions precisely relative to each other. If a gravitational wave rolls past, they will detect it by the tiny differences of each cube’s position, kind of like beach balls floating on the ocean as a wave rolls past.

LISA Pathfinder’s cubes floating free

More gravitational wave news: LISA Pathfinder’s two gold-platinum 46mm cubes have been released and are now floating free inside their spacecraft.

After a week of further testing, they will stop controlling the cube’s positions with electrostatic force. They will then watch them very precisely with lasers to test whether the equipment is capable of detecting distance shifts small enough for a future version, made up of three such spacecraft, to detect gravitational waves. The idea is that, as a wave rolls by, the cubes will shift positions at slightly different times, just as different beach balls will do so on ocean waves.

Lisa Pathfinder lifts off

Lisa Pathfinder, an experimental probe to test the technologies for measuring gravity waves in space, was successfully launched today by Arianespace’s Vega rocket.

At its core is a pair of free-floating, identical 46 mm gold–platinum cubes separated by 38 cm, which will be isolated from all external and internal forces acting on them except one: gravity. “LISA Pathfinder will put these test masses in the best free-fall ever produced in space and monitor their relative positions to unprecedented precision,” says Karsten Danzmann, who also is the Co-Principal Investigator for the LISA Pathfinder Technology Package, the scientific heart of the satellite. “This will lay the foundations for future gravitational-wave observatories in space such as eLISA.”

It is important to point out that this probe will not measure gravity waves. It doesn’t have the sensitivity to do it. Instead it is testing the engineering, as described above, for building a later probe that will have sensitivity. To gain that sensitivity the floating cubes must be much farther apart, and likely will require several independent satellites flying in formation.