LISA Pathfinder to pave way for gravitational wave detection

LISA pathfinder

The LISA Pathfinder satellite (illustrated), launched on December 3, will test tools needed to detect ripples in spacetime that traverse the universe.


One small step for metal cubes, one giant leap for general relativity. On December 3 from a launchpad in French Guiana, the European Space Agency successfully launched the LISA Pathfinder mission, a satellite that will test technologies needed for a future space-based gravitational wave detector.

Ripples in spacetime generated by cataclysmic cosmic events have yet to be directly detected. Ground-based efforts such as Advanced LIGO are ongoing, but a detector in space would be much more sensitive. LISA Pathfinder will see if two test masses (cubes of a gold-platinum alloy) in free fall can maintain a 40-centimeter separation to an accuracy of 0.01 nanometers while encapsulated within a box that is orbiting a point between Earth and the sun. The ability to precisely control and measure distances between test masses is essential for sensing the subtle oscillations from gravitational waves.

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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