Illustration of the LISA mission, a space-based gravitational wave observatory

LISA: ESA Approved The Gravitational Wave Mission

ESA approves the LISA mission: an ambitious project set to observe gravitational waves from space, slated for launch in 2035

The European Space Agency has recently confirmed the initiation of the LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission. Scheduled for launch in 2035, this pioneering initiative represents the first effort to observe gravitational waves directly from space.

Artist's impression of the LISA mission satellites in the solar system observing gravitational waves. Credits: University of Florida / Simon Barke
Artist’s impression of the LISA mission satellites in the solar system observing gravitational waves. Credits: University of Florida / Simon Barke

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The origin of the mission

The LISA mission is founded on years of history in the making accompanied by development and innovation. Preceded by the developmental footsteps of Earth-based gravitational wave detectors as LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and Virgo, came the idea of a space-based gravitational wave observatory. These instruments have paved the way for gravitational wave physics, which has allowed in 2015 the first direct observation of such waves, an achievement that confirmed one of Einstein’s predictions done through the theory of general relativity.

LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston, and Virgo. Credits: Caltech
LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston, and Virgo. Credits: Caltech

Innovating space wave detection

LISA stands out for its innovative approach to observing gravitational waves. This is unlike in the case of terrestrial detectors like LIGO and Virgo whose limitations are the environmental interferences and their arm length, each separated from the others by about 2.5 million kilometers. Whereas, LISA will consist of three satellites in a triangular formation. This configuration will make it possible to sense gravitational waves but for lower frequencies than observable on Earth hence bending the sensitivity range.

Each LISA satellite will contain freely floating test masses, which will serve as references for measuring the minimal spatial distortions caused by the passage of gravitational waves. The mission will use laser interferometry techniques to detect infinitesimal variations in the distances between these masses. This method is made possible by advanced technology that allows for a level of precision never before achieved in space.

The main innovation of LISA will consist of the possibility of observing, in addition to gravitational waves from millions of systems, large-scale cosmic phenomena. Such phenomena include the merging of supermassive black holes and the formation of galactic structures that are invisible to observers on Earth. Furthermore, this satellite positioning in space will avoid most seismic and environmental interference which restricts Earth-based observers, thereby allowing LISA to operate with never-before-achieved sensitivity and frequency range.


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Trial mission’s groundbreaking success

Before the LISA mission, technology as well as the underlying concepts were tested via ESA’s LISA Pathfinder mission. LISA Pathfinder was launched in 2015 and represented a critically step towards the realization of the main mission, serving as a testbed for all key technologies that were to be implemented in the spacecraft.

Artist's impression of LISA Pathfinder. Credits: ESA–C.Carreau
Artist’s impression of LISA Pathfinder. Credits: ESA–C.Carreau

This mission indeed demonstrated the possibility of isolating free-falling test masses in space, an essential requirement for the detection of gravitational waves. The successes of the Pathfinder confirmed that the advanced measurement techniques planned for LISA are achievable, thus establishing a solid foundation for the future main mission.


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Latest Developments and Future Implications

Approaching the 2035 launch, LISA demonstrates notable progress in its technological development, particularly in gravitational wave detection and satellite-to-satellite communication. The mission includes the deployment of a three-spacecraft constellation via an Ariane 6 rocket, a critical milestone in its advanced preparation phase.

LISA has a scientific value by probing aspects of the universe from Earth inaccessible, opening new paths in the understanding of gravitation and cosmology. With this launch, the ESA mission will not only achieve the completion of the panorama of space observation means, but it will define a new standard in astrophysical research with eventually revolutionary instances upon space science and theoretic physics.

Federico Airoldi

Federico Airoldi

Coder, developer and content creator. I am dedicated to spreading my love of space exploration and inspiring others to join me in the pursuit of new frontiers. Page owner of Airo_spaceflight.

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