Euopean Space Agency

Space probe sets off on mission to find gravitational waves

Scientists hope craft will confirm ripples in space and time predicted but not proved by Albert Einstein

The European Space Agency has launched a pathfinder probe from French Guiana tasked with carrying out an experiment aimed to detect gravitational waves — ripples in space and across time predicted but never proved by physicist Albert Einstein 100 years ago.

"The purpose of this spacecraft is to eventually detect something that Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts and hasn't been detected yet, which is gravitational waves," said Francisco Diego, a senior research fellow at University College London’s department of physics and astronomy. "We believe and we anticipate that this is the way gravity travels in space."

The trailblazing Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, spacecraft could help researchers develop technology to allow them to detect more than just the 4 percent of matter in the universe current telescopes can see.

LISA will spend about six months testing a technique to detect ripples in space and across time. These gravitational waves are caused by massive celestial bodies warping space — similar to a bowling ball rolling across a trampoline.

"What that basically says is, when a gravitational wave passes by the Earth, we get stretched and squeezed," said Paul McNamara, a LISA Pathfinder project scientist. "We are trying to build a detector which will allow us to measure the stretching and squeezing of the fabric of space-time as the gravitational wave is passing." 

Scientists hope the LISA Pathfinder will pave the way for an even more ambitious project that would set up an observatory in space to detect gravitational waves. The large-scale experiment, consisting of three satellites placed over 600 miles apart, is planned for launch in 2034.

If successful, the instrument would allow researchers to detect some of the 96 percent of matter in the universe scientists are not able to see now with current telescopes.

"When we open the gravitational wave window to the universe, we are seeing completely new objects, things that we have never been able to see before and never will be able to see using electromagnetic spectrum," McNamara said.

The LISA Pathfinder mission, which costs some $424 million, will send the spacecraft about 932,000 miles toward the sun over about six weeks, where it will assume an orbit that keeps it between the sun and Earth. Once it is in place, it will collect data for six months that scientists hope will reveal gravitational waves.

"We are really on the cusp of observing the universe in a whole new way," McNamara said. "The results of these experiments will have enormous applications that we cannot even imagine."

Al Jazeera and Reuters. With additional reporting by Tareq Bazley.

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