Detecting gravitational waves in space: LISA Pathfinder test mission launch imminent

LISA Pathfinder (LPF), the test mission to demonstrate new technologies necessary for the planned gravitational wave observatory eLISA, will be shipped to the spaceport in Kourou on September 3rd, 2015, in preparation for launch.

LISA Pathfinder paves the way for eLISA, a large space observatory for the direct observation of one of the most elusive astronomical phenomena – gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are tiny distortions of space-time caused by cosmic catastrophes such as merging black holes, collapsing stars and supernovae. Their observation requires an extremely sensitive and highly precise measurement technology. eLISA will measure gravitational waves in the millihertz range and will complement ground-based detectors such as GEO600, aLIGO, and Virgo, which observe at higher frequencies in the audio range.

This observatory will probe unknown domains – the “dark side of the universe”, for example the formation, growth and merger of massive black holes – in concert with other astronomical methods. It will also be possible to further test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and search for unknown physics.

LISA Pathfinder will test novel technologies in space whose function and performance cannot be tested on the ground at all or only in a limited way, and will pave the way for the gravitational wave observatory eLISA.

Physicists at the University of Birmingham were involved in the design and build of the Phasemeter – an electronic box, which measure the separation between two test masses linked by laser beams. LISA Pathfinder will allow scientists to search for any spurious influences on the measurements between the masses that might hinder the future detection of gravitational waves by eLISA.

Professor Mike Cruise, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, and lead investigator at Birmingham, said: ‘University of Birmingham scientists have developed the sensitive electronics that will allow LISA Pathfinder to take the first step towards gravitational wave detection from space, opening a new window on the Universe. This mission will launch 100 years after Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves and will confirm that the precision required to detect these waves is now achievable.’

The highly sensitive scientific payload was integrated into the satellite in the last weeks, followed by the last function and environment tests. Now shipment to ESA spaceport Kourou in French Guayana is imminent. From there, the mission will lift off in late autumn on a Vega launcher.
Once LPF has reached its destination, scientists will extensively test the highly precise technologies on board for a period of several months while maintaining a constant dialogue with the satellite.

Ends
Notes to editors
1. The Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) in Hannover played a leading role in the development and construction of the optical scientific instrumentation for LISA Pathfinder. Joint scientific leadership is held by Professor Karsten Danzmann and Professor Stefano Vitale from the University of Trento, Italy.
2. LISA Pathfinder is an ESA mission, with the European space industry under the overall integration responsibility of Airbus DS and research institutions from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Great Britain as well as NASA participating.
3. LISA Pathfinder is funded through the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy based on a resolution of the German Bundestag.
4. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) supported the work of the Birmingham team and will also fund the exploitation of the data from the mission.

Further online information:
Press release about the integration of the highly sensitive LPF science payload into the satellite: http://www.aei.mpg.de/1682999/LPF_Integration
eLISA/LPF website: https://www.elisascience.org/  
Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics: http://www.aei.mpg.de/18558/02_LISA_Pathfinder  
ESA: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/LISA_Pathfinder_overview
UK Space Agency: https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/lisa-pathfinder
NASA: http://science1.nasa.gov/missions/st-7/

An image can be found here: http://www.aei.mpg.de/1718912/LISA_Pathfinder_on_the_way_to_launch
Picture caption and credit: LPF_acoustic_test.jpeg: The LISA Pathfinder Science Module on top the propulsion module in their launch setup with thermal isolation prior to acoustic tests at IABG in Ottobrunn, Germany. The acoustic tests in early July 2015 ensured that the spacecraft can withstand the vibrations during the rocket launch. (© Airbus DS)

For further information
Kate Chapple, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164, email: k.h.chapple@bham.ac.uk