LISA Pathfinder mission set to launch on ESA’s Vega rocket
Arianespace, on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA), has a Vega rocket poised ready for a planned Dec. 2, 2015, launch from Kourou, French Guiana. The payload for this flight is the LISA Pathfinder, formerly known as Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology-2 (SMART-2) spacecraft.
LISA Pathfinder is a mission designed to validate hardware for detecting gravitational waves – ripples in space-time – the very essence of what constitutes our universe. The mission, set to last 150 days, was scheduled to take off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou at 04:15 GMT on Dec. 2 (23:15 EST on Dec. 1), on what would have been a 105-minute ride into the blackness of space, but, due to an anomaly, it has been postponed for a possible launch sometime on December 3.*
If the flight of the Vega rocket is successful, LISA Pathfinder should separate from the rocket’s final stage at approximately 06:00 GMT. Shortly thereafter, it should transmit its first signals back to mission handlers on Earth.
Members at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, are hopeful that after riding Vega aloft, LISA Pathfinder will carry out a science mission lasting some 180 days.
The spacecraft will circle the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point, located some 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth in the direction of the Sun.
“LISA Pathfinder is a complex mission,” said Flight Director Andreas Rudolph. “Even after we’re safely in space, we will have to make seven or eight thruster burns in the first 10 days to take it as safely as possible through Earth’s radiation belts and get it onto the correct trajectory. We won’t arrive at around L1 until late in January, and until then teams will be working intensively to ensure that the thruster burns go as planned, that our navigation is correct and that we ensure the instruments and all flight systems are working normally.”
As is the case with any mission that is about ready to leave the launch pad, the team has been kept busy conducting simulations and practicing for contingency scenarios should they arise.
“Throughout 2015, the mission team have spent many hours sitting ‘on console’, using simulation software and real flight hardware to practice all stages of the mission,” said Ian Harrison, spacecraft operations manager. “We’ve practiced routine situations as well as contingencies, so that everyone knows what to do if something goes wrong.”
One of the more difficult aspects of LISA Pathfinder is the fact that the spacecraft will be utilizing higher frequency X-band transmissions for communications purposes.
“X-band is typical for a craft that will voyage 1.5 million kilometers from Earth,” said Fabienne Delhaise, ground operations engineer, “but is not common for satellites in low orbit, which is where LISA Pathfinder starts out. This means our ground stations must point especially accurately and use a special adapter to catch signals just after separation, when the craft is still near Earth.”
The Vega (Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata) booster is an expendable launch vehicle employed by Arianespace for smaller payloads weighing approximately 661 to 5,516 lbs (300 to 2,500 kg). The rocket began development in 1998 and carried out its first launch on Feb. 13, 2012.
Vega is primarily tasked with hoisting scientific and Earth-observation satellites to polar and low-Earth orbits (LEO). The rocket was given its name, in part, for the brightest star in the Lyra constellation. Vega doesn’t use strap-on solid rocket boosters. Vega is composed of three stages: the P80 first, Zefiro 23 second, and Zafiro 9 third stage. Vega’s upper module is itself a rocket, dubbed AVUM.
With the launch set to take place approximately 24 hours from now, ESA officials expressed confidence that the spacecraft, launch vehicle, spaceport, and team are ready and prepared to provide the mission with its start.
“Our mission teams are ready, the tracking stations are ready and our carefully developed ground systems are ready,” said Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations.
* This article was updated at 14:44 EST, Dec. 1, 2015.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.