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Spotlight on LISA following LIGO announcement

12 February 2016

The announcement by LIGO/Virgo of the detection of gravitational waves is also big news for scientists involved in Europe’s LISA Pathfinder mission.

Artist's impression of LISA Pathfinder, courtesy of the European Space Agency

Europe’s LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) Pathfinder mission is a UK-led spacecraft (launched in December 2015) to test new technologies needed to measure gravitational waves in space. LISA Pathfinder has some of the most precise and advanced technology ever launched into space.

The announcement [on February 11] of the first detection of gravitational waves by the Advanced LIGO Team has opened a new era in astronomy which will require observations and measurements from both ground and space borne detectors," says Professor Mike Cruise at the University of Birmingham. "The successful launch in December of LISA Pathfinder, designed to pave the way for a future gravitational wave detector in space, is the next step in opening up our new window on the Universe."

LISA Pathfinder is expected to reach its operational orbit in mid-February. After final checks, it will begin its six-month scientific mission on March 1.

The UK’s involvement in LISA Pathfinder’s technology demonstration payload and the operational phase of the mission is funded by the UK Space Agency and was formerly funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Airbus Defence and Space is the prime contractor for the mission, having built the spacecraft, as well as being the LISA Test Package (LTP) architect, on behalf of ESA and the participating Member States.

SciSys UK developed the satellite’s on-board software and UK scientists from the University of Birmingham, the University of Glasgow and Imperial College London designed and built elements of the innovative and complex LTP. STFC RAL Space was involved in several technology development projects in the early stages of the mission in 2001.

At the core of LISA Pathfinder is a pair of identical 46mm gold–platinum cubes separated by 38cm, which will be isolated from all external and internal forces acting on them except one: gravity.

The mission will put these cubes in the purest free-fall ever produced in space and monitor their relative positions to astonishing precision, laying the foundations for gravitational wave observatories in space.

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