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LISA Pathfinder: viewing the Universe in a new light via a ‘physics lab in space’

LISA Pathfinder programme will demonstrate, in orbit, the technologies for LISA, the ESA–NASA Laser Interferometer Space Antenna gravity wave observatory.

LISA Pathfinder will be launched in 2015. It will be packed with radical instrumentation and technology to pave the way for LISA, the world's first space-based gravity wave detector which will open a new window on the Universe by measuring gravitational waves generated by exotic objects such as collapsing binary star systems and massive black holes. LISA is a candidate mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 programme.

The basic principle of LISA is to measure the changes in distance between freely floating 'test masses', literally, small gold/platinum blocks held in place by carefully controlled electrostatic fields. LISA will rely on three core technologies to be tested by LISA Pathfinder: gravitational reference sensors, laser interferometry and micro-Newton thrusters. But instead of a separation of 5 million km as in the three-spacecraft LISA mission, LISA Pathfinder will use test masses only 30cm apart and placed on a single spacecraft.

The key driver for the LISA programme is that scientists predict gravitational waves should still be echoing from the very first second of the formation of the Universe. Detection of these waves would be the most fundamental discovery that LISA could make.

Airbus Defence and Space was competitively selected by ESA to build LISA Pathfinder, and is responsible for delivering the integrated spacecraft ready for launch. The project is led by Airbus Defence and Space Ltd in Stevenage, UK. Airbus Defence and Space Germany is the industrial lead for one of the mission’s two advanced instrument packages, the LISA Technology Package (LTP) provided by European institutes and ESA.

 

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