Somewhere in the vast universe at this very instant, unimaginable forces are bending space and time as we peacefully and politely eat our pastrami on rye for lunch. While detonating stars and supermassive black holes are doing these dark deeds and altering the very fabric of infinity, the European Space Agency's LISA Pathfinder spacecraft is about to embark on a mission to measure and detect these elusive fluctuations.
The launch of this compact scientific observatory will take place later this fall, when LISA is sent to a point in space 1 million miles away named the L1 LaGrange, where it will set up shop to conduct experiments and feel out these faint gravitational waves with its host of precision instruments, able to make minute measurements of small distance changes between distant objects.
“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,” explained LISA Pathfinder project scientist Paul McNamara. "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 LISA Pathfinder mission is mankind's first attempt to record and monitor the effects of these sensitive spacetime ripples, testing fundamental technologies for gravitational wave detection in a small, confined space. The main experiment will drop a pair of 1.8-inch solid gold–platinum cubes separated by 15 inches inside two electrode housing boxes, shielding the cubes from the disrupting effects of the solar wind. Its high-precision laser interferometer will monitor the relative postions of the two cubes as they enter their free-fall state.
This initial mission will blaze a trail for future explorations aboard space-based gravitational wave observatories that can eventually distinguish the distance between two objects a million kilometers (621,000 miles) apart fluctuate by a millionth of a millionth of a meter. That's some slight variation!
The LISA spacecraft had been on display to the public until last week at IABG’s test center in Ottobrunn, Germany, when it was relocated in preparation for its November launch from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.