The LISA Pathfinder satellite exceeded the expectations after its first tests in space, the European Space Administration (ESA) announced Tuesday. The spacecraft was launched last year to test elements of the laser measurements system that would be used on a future observatory for gravitational waves.
The ESA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA Pathfinder) demonstrated that two test masses can be put in free fall with a relative acceleration, which is sufficiently free of noise to meet the requirements needed for space-based observation for the recently found gravitational waves, as reported by APS Physics.
“With LISA Pathfinder, we have created the quietest place known to humankind,” said Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics director Karsten Danzmann in a statement. “Its performance is spectacular and exceeds all our expectations by far.”
LISA Pathfinder is a spacecraft with a two-kilogram cube inside of a high-purity gold and platinum alloy that is currently in space almost entirely free of any force rather that the gravity itself. The project aims that a spacecraft of such qualities will be able to function as a space-based observatory as it will also be able to detect signals from supermassive black hole collisions and other violent events that are not possible to see from Earth.
The mission was a complex first test for further launches. The LISA Pathfinder will be incorporated in three spacecraft that will create by 2034 the gravitational wave observatory. The LISA observatory will follow an orbit around the sun trailing fifty million kilometers behind the Earth, according to a Phys.org.
Gravitational waves are, from a more simplistic point of view, ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by the most energetic events in the universe, such as supernovae, black hole mergers, and others. This ones were confirmed by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).
They are a new discovery that proved one of the predictions made by Albert Einstein about 100 years ago, the theory of general relativity. Such finding has encouraged the scientific community to study the unknown phenomenon further.
Exploiting the new field
The discovery made by LIGO showed a frequency of around 100 Hz, but the gravitational waves span the much broader spectrum, the ESA stated. To detect the more quantity of exotic events that produce these lower frequencies, it is crucial to open access to gravitational waves at low frequencies between 0.1 mHZ and 1Hz.
“This requires measuring tiny fluctuations in distance between objects placed millions of kilometres apart, something that can only be achieved in space, where an observatory would also be free of the seismic, thermal and terrestrial gravity noises that limit ground-based detectors,” the ESA wrote in a press release.
A crucial step for such attempt was placing the two test masses in free fall and monitoring their relative positions as they moved under the effect of gravity alone. According to the ESA, this was tough even in space due to several sources, including the solar wind and pressure from sunlight can affect and disturb the experiment.
What do gravitational waves mean for humanity?
Experts from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) shared before the U.S. Congress possible findings from their most recent announcement, the confirmation of gravitational waves. The congressional panel members asked LIGO scientists about what does the discovery mean for humanity, science and innovation, as reported by Space.
Sheer inspiration have been shared with the scientific community and the general public, but that is closely followed by the ability to build a stronger, international workforce and to create spin-off technologies, the scientists said.
The window to this new world of gravitational waves has just been cracked open, said David Shoemaker, project leader for Advanced LIGO and director of the LIGO Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“As we open it wider and more people look out on the landscape, we will be rewarded with discoveries that will, time and time again, give us all, scientists, students, leaders and laypersons, a thrill of understanding things much bigger than ourselves,” added Shoemaker.
Other scientists qualified the discovery as a beginning, not an end. It marks the birth of gravitational-wave astronomy, a new tool for understanding the cosmos, said aid Fleming Crim, assistant director for the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
Even though experts cannot accurately predict what is it that they are going to find out about the universe, they are sure that it will be substantial. For this reason, they focus on keeping up with research, and with this comes the Advanced LIGO.
The continued study of gravitational waves holds great promise for future surprises, so researchers are continuing to improve the sensitivity of LIGO’s detectors, which could help to gather other relevant data about the phenomenon.
This Advanced LEGO is designed to be three times more sensitive than its predecessor, which caught the data that confirmed Einstein’s theory, and should begin observations with an even greater reach this summer, Crim said. However, some efforts are being made by the international community to advance this research such as the LISA Pathfinder.