Yesterday, the European Space Agency said goodbye to one of its spacecraft that has helped pave the way for a new method of studying the Universe: the LISA Pathfinder, a car-sized probe that has been testing out technology needed to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time – called gravitational waves – from space.
LISA Pathfinder was always meant to be the opening act for a future mission called the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA. Meant to launch sometime in the 2030s, LISA will consist of three spacecraft that will live in orbit around the Sun and form the first space-based observatory for detecting gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves have only been detected a few times from Earth, but a space-based detector like LISA could potentially pick up even more. Once LISA is in space, there will be no way to fix it if something goes wrong.
That’s why ESA launched the LISA Pathfinder mission at the end of 2015: to test out crucial tech that will be used on LISA, as well as to better understand what the spacecraft will experience in the space environment.
LISA Pathfinder is situated a million miles from Earth, but there’s still the possibility that radio waves from the spacecraft could interfere with other satellite communications and radio telescopes.
Thanks to LISA Pathfinder, ESA is feeling very confident about LISA, which could help pick up whole new types of waves.