On Thursday, a Vega rocket will boost LISA Pathfinder into space to pave the way to a future mission for detecting gravitational waves. Once aloft, ESA’s mission control teams will pace the ultra high-tech spacecraft through the critical first days of the journey to its final destination.
At 04:04 GMT (05:04 CET) on Thursday, 3 December, ESA’s LISA Pathfinder is set to lift off on a 30 m-tall Vega rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, for a 105-minute ride into orbit.
Liftoff was previously planned for 2 December, but was delayed by one day to thoroughly check a technical issue with the launcher.
LISA Pathfinder is a demonstrator to help open up a completely new window into the Universe: it will test new technologies needed to measure gravitational waves in space. Predicted by Albert Einstein, these waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime produced by massive celestial events, such as the merging of black holes.
Detecting gravitational waves would be an additional confirmation of General Relativity, and greatly improve our knowledge of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe.
Separation from Vega is expected at 05:49 GMT (06:49 CET), marking the moment when controllers at ESA’s ESOC operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, take over the satellite.
First contact is expected two minutes later, around 05:51 GMT (06:51 CET) via the ground station at Kourou.
After confirming LISA Pathfinder’s status and overall health, ground teams will start an intensive cycle of crucial and complex orbit-raising manoeuvres.
These will include firing the mission’s propulsion module six times during mid-December to raise its initial orbit, before beginning a six-week cruise phase to its operational orbit some 1.5 million km from Earth in a sunward direction.
After arriving at the final working orbit, the propulsion module will be discarded in later January, and, after about three months of setting-up and calibration, the science mission will begin in March.
The liftoff will be streamed live via two separate programmes on Wednesday: launch webcast live from Kourou, 03:44 GMT (04:44 CET) start; and a media briefing live from ESOC, 05:30 GMT (06:30 CET) start.
LISA Pathfinder launch timeline
The timeline below is subject to change. An expanded version is available on ESA’s Rocket Science blog.
2-3 December 2015
|L–09:10:00||18:54:00||19:54:00||Flight Control Team ‘on console’ in ESOC Main Control Room; start of prelaunch activities|
|L-09:00:00||19:04:00||20:04:00||ESOC teams begin monitoring spacecraft and ground systems, receiving live telemetry from LISA Pathfinder on top of Vega via umbilical|
|L-08:00:00||20:04:00||21:04:00||Start of Vega countdown|
|L-06:00:00||22:04:00||23:04:00||Start of ESOC network countdown; mission controllers continue monitoring LISA Pathfinder|
Vega Inertial Reference System on;
Vega telemetry starts flowing
|L-05:05:00||22:59:00||23:59:00||Flight Director conducts first formal check of ground segment launch readiness: confirms that teams, systems and stations are ready|
|L-04:55:00||23:09:00||00:09:00||Flight Director reports ground segment status to Kourou launch control centre|
|L-04:20:00||23:44:00||00:44:00||Activation of Vega onboard computer and loading of flight program|
|L-02:40:00||01:24:00||02:24:00||Mobile gantry withdrawal (45 mins)|
|L-01:55:00||02:09:00||03:09:00||Alignment and checks of Inertial Reference System (after withdrawal of gantry)|
Vega telemetry transmitter on (after withdrawal of gantry)
Vega transponders on
|L-00:55:00||03:09:00||04:09:00||Flight Director conducts Go/NoGo roll call in Main Control Room|
|L-00:35:00||03:29:00||04:29:00||Spacecraft Operations Manager conducts final briefing with ground tracking stations|
|L-00:34:00||03:30:00||04:30:00||Launcher system ready|
|L-00:25:00||03:39:00||04:39:00||Flight Director conducts final formal check of ground segment launch readiness: confirms that teams, systems and stations are ready|
|L-00:15:00||03:49:00||04:49:00||LISA Pathfinder on internal power||Flight Director confirms ground segment ready for liftoff to Kourou launch control centre|
|L-00:10:00||03:54:00||04:54:00||Last Kourou weather report before launch|
|L-00:04:00||04:00:00||05:00:00||Start of Vega synchronized sequence|
|L-00:00:08||04:03:52||05:03:52||Last possible launch abort|
|00:00:00||04:04:00||05:04:00||Vega first stage ignition|
|L+00:01:53||04:05:53||05:05:53||Separation of first stage|
|L+00:01:54||04:05:54||05:05:54||Second stage ignition|
|L+00:03:37||04:07:37||05:07:37||Separation of second stage|
|L+00:03:49||04:07:49||05:07:49||Third stage ignition|
|L+00:06:30||04:10:30||05:10:30||Separation of third stage|
|L+00:07:29||04:11:29||05:11:29||Fourth stage first burn|
|L+00:16:23||04:20:23||05:20:23||Fourth stage shutdown|
|L+01:41:19||05:45:19||06:45:19||Fourth stage second burn|
|L+01:42:53||05:46:53||06:46:53||Fourth stage second shutdown|
|L+01:45:33||05:49:33||06:49:33||LISA Pathfinder release command|
|L+01:45:33||05:49:33||06:49:33||SEPARATION||LISA Pathfinder separates from fourth stage; begins automatic sequence|
|L+01:47:03||05:51:03||06:51:03||Acquisition of signal (earliest) from satellite via Kourou station|
|L+01:48:00||05:52:00||06:52:00||ESOC issues test command|
|L+01:55:10||05:59:10||06:59:10||Fourth stage third burn, for deorbiting|
|L+01:55:17||05:59:17||06:59:17||Fourth stage shutdown|
|L+02:10:00||06:15:00||07:14:00||LISA Pathfinder end of automatic sequence. In stable, Sun-pointing mode. ESOC teams continue checkout|