LISA Pathfinder launched on gravitational experiment
After a one-day delay, the LISA Pathfinder mission was successfully launched on board a Vega rocket. The mission took to the skies early Thursday morning at 1:04 a.m. local time (04:04 GMT) on Dec. 3, 2015, from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The spaceport is most noted for Ariane rocket launches for the European Space Agency (ESA).
The launch was delayed from Dec. 2 due to technical concerns regarding the thermal readiness of the upper stage engine. The engine had to start two times to place the spacecraft into the correct orbit, so it was crucial to make sure the engine would re-ignite in the temperature extremes it would endure. After an extra day of analysis, it was decided to proceed with the launch.
The objective of the LISA Pathfinder is to test the technology needed to look for gravitational waves. These ripples in spacetime were predicted by Albert Einstein when he published his General Theory of Relativity over 100 years ago on Dec. 2, 1915. While the theory of the gravity waves has been around for some time, the technology to test these infinitesimally small waves is only now being developed. Einstein’s theory predicts that these waves or fluctuations in spacetime should be universal.
“This is an extremely challenging mission that will pave the way for future space-based projects to observe gravitational waves, opening a new window to explore the cosmos,” said Paul McNamara, LISA Pathfinder’s project scientist. “Gravitational waves are an entirely fresh and different way to study the universe, providing an important complement to the well-established approach of astronomy, based on observing the light emitted by celestial bodies.”
The core of the LISA Pathfinder is a pair of identical gold-platinum cubes. The two 1.81-inch (46 millimeters) cubes are spaced exactly 1.4961 inches (38.000 millimeters) apart. Additionally, the complicated equipment on the spacecraft is designed to cancel out the effects of external forces, except gravity. These cubes will experience the purest free-fall ever produced. The laser interferometer on board will measure the movements of these cubes to within 0.01 nanometers as they float free from other forces. Scientist hope that this level of sensitivity will tease out the elusive gravity waves.
Constructed by Airbus Defense and Space, the spacecraft has an operational mass of 1,060 pounds (480 kilograms). The mission is expected to last 1 year, but LISA Pathfinder is equipped with enough Cold Gas propellant for an extended mission.
LISA Pathfinder is a precursor to the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA) mission – a network of three satellites that will be positioned more than 620,000 miles (1 million kilometers) apart. Using an 8 inch (20 centimeter) wide laser interferometer, eLISA will be one of the largest and most sensitive instruments ever created. It will measure the stretching and squeezing of spacetime by the gravity waves. Scientists hope to measure the frequency, phase, and polarization of these waves.
The Vega rocket is the newest launcher for ESA, first launched in 2012. With a height of 98 feet (30 meters) and a diameter of 9.8 feet (3 meters), the vehicle is designed for launching smaller up to between 3,150 pounds (1,430 kilograms) to 4,328 pounds (1,963 kilograms), depending on the desired orbit. LISA Pathfinder was the sixth successful flight of the design, designated VV06. To date, all launches of the Vega rocket have been successful. There are currently seven more launches planned with this design.
The spacecraft separated from the upper stage booster 1 hour and 45 minutes after liftoff. Controllers plan to raise the spacecraft to its operational orbit in six critical engine burns. In a little over two weeks, LISA Pathfinder will be propelled to its final destination, orbiting the stable Lagrange Point L1 over 932,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away.
Video courtesy of Arianespace
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.