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Test cubes now floating freely in the LISA Pathfinder

19 February 2016

ESA’s LISA Pathfinder has released both of its gold–platinum cubes, and will shortly begin its demanding science mission, placing these test masses in the most precise freefall ever obtained to demonstrate technologies for observing gravitational waves from space.

At the core of LISA Pathfinder are the two test masses: a pair of identical 46 mm gold–platinum cubes, floating freely, several millimetres from the walls of their housings (image: ESA/ATG medialab)

Launched on 3 December, LISA Pathfinder reached its operational location on 22 January, some 1.5 million kilometres from Earth in the direction of the Sun.

As tests on the spacecraft and its precious payload continue, a major milestone was reached earlier this week. For the first time, the two masses – a pair of identical 46mm gold–platinum cubes – in the heart of the spacecraft are floating freely, several millimetres from the walls of their housings. The cubes sit 38cm apart linked only by laser beams.

Throughout LISA Pathfinder’s ground handling, launch, the burns that raised its orbit, and the six-week cruise to its work site, each cube was held firmly in place by eight ‘fingers’ pressing on its corners.

On 3 February, the locking fingers were retracted and a valve was opened to allow any residual gas molecules around the cubes to vent to space.

Each cube remained in the centre of its housing held by a pair of rods softly pushing on two opposite sides.

The rods were finally released from one test mass on Monday and from the other on Tuesday, leaving the cubes floating freely, with no mechanical contact with the spacecraft.  

“This is why we sent the test cubes into space: to recreate conditions that are impossible to achieve in the gravitational field of our planet,” says Paul McNamara, ESA’s project scientist. “Only under these conditions is it possible to test freefall in the purest achievable form. We can’t wait to start running experiments with this amazing gravity laboratory.”

Within the next few days, the cubes will be left completely at the mercy of gravity, with no other forces acting on them. Before then, minute electrostatic forces are being applied to move them around and make them follow the spacecraft as its flight through space is slightly perturbed by outside forces such as pressure from sunlight.

On 23 February, the team will switch LISA Pathfinder to science mode for the first time; the cubes will be in freefall and the spacecraft will start sensing any motions towards them owing to external forces. Microthrusters will make minuscule shifts in order to keep the craft centred on one mass.

Then the scientists will be in a position to run several months of experiments to determine how accurately the two freely-flying test masses can be kept positioned relative to each other, making measurements with the laser that links them.

Roughly speaking, the required accuracy is of the order of a millionth of a millionth of a metre.

After final checks, LISA Pathfinder will begin its science mission on 1 March, validating a key technology for observing gravitational waves from space.


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