LISA Pathfinder Marks New Astronomy Era

Next Thursday, July 18, the last command will be sent to conclude the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder. The mission opens up a new astronomy era, having successfully demonstrated the technology that will give shape to the next mission, LISA, the future space observatory of gravitational waves.

LISA Pathfinder comes to an end having exceeded all scientific expectations. Not only has the mission successfully demonstrated the key technologies needed to detect gravitational waves from space, but it also did it with a higher level of accuracy than anticipated. This includes free-falling test masses linked by laser and isolated from all external and internal forces except gravity, a requirement to measure any possible distortion caused by a passing gravitational wave.

The door is now open for future missions to offer a new look into the unknown gravitational universe. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission will now continue with LISA Pathfinder’s legacy.  Planned for launch in 2034, the LISA space-based observatory will consist of three spacecraft separated by 2.5 million km with enough sensitivity to detect gravitational waves at lower frequencies.

A New Look Into the Gravitational Universe

Gravitational waves are oscillations in the fabric of space-time, moving at the speed of light and caused by the acceleration of massive objects. Being able to detect gravitational waves from space will open a new door in our understanding of the Universe, and at the same time help to verify Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Scientists have been hunting gravitational waves for decades. It wasn’t until 2015 that they were detected for the first time through the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) located in Washington and Louisiana, United States. That signal was triggered by the merging of two black holes some 1.3 billion light-years away. Since then, LIGO has spotted gravitational waves twice more, which shows a promising future for LISA.

Detectors such as LIGO have proved that there is a new field of astronomy to explore, but they are only the first step as they are only capable of spotting the strongest of signals. LISA will help to find gravitational waves from weaker sources like stars and planets, as it will be equipped with a bigger detector that would have enough sensitivity to detect all sorts of gravitational waves. The space observatory will be thousands of times more sensitive than LIGO, being able to capture the collision of much more massive objects — such as the supermassive black holes that make up most galaxies’ cores.

MOIS: Orchestrating the success of space missions

MOIS provided flight control procedures for LISA Pathfinder at the European Space Operations Centre, and a full mission planning system for the European Astronomy Centre. Discover the software supporting more than 100 space missions.