Space-based probe passes tests for gravitational wave detection

illustration of LISA Pathfinder

LISA Pathfinder (illustrated) has demonstrated that gravitational waves can be detected with an observatory in space.


Gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime, can be detected with a space-based observatory, researchers say.

LISA Pathfinder, a European Space Agency satellite launched on December 3, 2015, has been testing technologies needed to put a gravitational wave detector in space. By avoiding the rumblings that detectors on the ground have to deal with, a space-based observatory can peer much deeper into space. At a news conference on June 7, mission scientists announced that the orbiting facility has surpassed the precision needed for future missions to detect spacetime disturbances.

That precision equates to measuring changes in the distance between two free-floating cubes, 38 centimeters apart, of roughly a millionth of a millionth of a meter. LISA Pathfinder can’t detect gravitational waves; it only shows that a space-based facility can measure such subtle changes. A full-blown gravitational wave detector, planned to launch around 2030, will track the distance between three satellites millions of kilometers apart.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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