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Science & Exploration

LISA Pathfinder factsheet

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ESA / Science & Exploration / Space Science

Preparing the technology to test gravitational-wave detection in space

Name The ‘LISA’ in the mission's name stands for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, an earlier concept for a spaceborne observatory for gravitational waves, and now used to describe a class of missions based on the original LISA concept. LISA Pathfinder is testing key technology for future LISA-like space missions to study the gravitational Universe.

Description LISA Pathfinder is testing the technologies needed for future space mission aiming at improving our knowledge of the universe by detecting gravitational waves, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1915. In doing this, LISA Pathfinder will make key measurements of the fabric of spacetime, which will be a crucial component for future fundamental missions as well.

The mission flies a European payload, the LISA Technology Package (LTP), developed by the European scientific community using national funding from seven Member States (Italy, France, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland) and from ESA. An American instrument is hosted on board, the Disturbance Reduction System (DRS), developed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Launch LISA Pathfinder was launched on 3 December 2015.

Status Science operations

Journey LISA Pathfinder travelled from Earth to one of the ‘Lagrangian points’. In these five special places the balance between the gravitational pull from the Sun and Earth allows an object to be stationary in the Sun–Earth system. A spacecraft near one of these points can stay there for long periods of time without the need for major manoeuvres.

LISA Pathfinder is currently orbiting the L1 point, located some 1.5 million kilometres from Earth in the direction of the Sun. The operational phase started on 1 March 2016 and will last six months, but it could be extended up to one year.

Notes LISA Pathfinder uses extremely sophisticated technologies in gravitational sensors, electric propulsion, and laser ranging. The purpose of the mission is to validate the technologies required to detect extremely small movements, a science known as ‘precision metrology’.

LISA Pathfinder will prove the techniques and equipment to detect the relative movement of two solid blocks that are freely floating in space to an accuracy of 10 picometres (1 picometre is equal to one millionth of a millionth of a metre).

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