A mission which will ultimately test Einstein's Theory of General Relatively and provide us with a detailed insight into the behaviour of some of the most exotic objects in the Universe, supermassive black holes, moved a step closer today with a formal agreement being signed between NASA and the European Space Agency for the technology demonstrator mission, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) Pathfinder.
The ESA-initiated mission, which is currently due for launch to the L1 Lagrange point between Earth and the Sun in early 2010, is aimed at demonstrating the technologies needed for a planned future joint ESA-NASA mission, LISA, to detect gravitational waves in space and test Einstein's theory. Einstein predicted that ripples in space time criss-cross the Universe and by detecting these ripples LISA will open a completely new field of astronomy.
For LISA to work properly scientists must be able to guarantee that a mass can float freely in space completely undisturbed and they will have to control the spacecraft position with an accuracy of a few millionths of a millimetre. These are the technologies to be tested in the LISA Technology Package (LTP) onboard LISA Pathfinder.
Professor Keith Mason, CEO of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said, "LISA is an ambitious mission which relies on technologies that have never been built before. By collaborating on demonstrator missions such as LISA Pathfinder these new technologies can be developed and tested in space - the only place where they can be truly verified."
UK scientists from Imperial College London, University of Birmingham, University of Glasgow are LISA Pathfinder collaborators, alongside UK industry including Astrium (UK) who are the spacecraft main contractor and SciSys Ltd as software architect.
Dr Harry Ward from Glasgow University, the UK representative on the ESA LISA Pathfinder Science Team, said "LISA Pathfinder gives us a unique opportunity to push major technology boundaries. LISA - and many other extreme precision gravitational investigations - require test bodies that are extremely well shielded from external, non-gravitational, disturbances. With LTP we will achieve inertial purity of test body motion better by many orders of magnitude compared with the current state-of-the-art."
Professor Tim Sumner, a UK LISA Pathfinder collaborator and member of the LISA International Science Team, from Imperial College London said," LISA Pathfinder is a major stepping stone towards the LISA project. The UK has been working hard on this mission for the last 15 years because of the prospects of verifying one of the central predictions of general relativity and of making such fundamentally different observations of objects throughout the Universe which provides an enormously rich new discovery opportunity."
According to today's agreement, which was signed by ESA's Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and NASA's Administrator Michael Griffin at Le Bourget Air Show in Paris, ESA will design, develop, launch and operate the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft. A consortium of European scientific institutes will provide the LTP, consisting of two test-masses in a nearly perfect gravitational free-fall and a sophisticated system to measure and control their motion with unprecedented accuracy.
NASA will provide the Disturbance Reduction System Package (or DRS). The DRS, that will make use of the LTP sensors and metrology capability, is designed to test the drag-free attitude control as well. The inclusion of both the LTP and DRS packages on board will make it possible to compare and assess the performance of the two types of actuators and relevant software, in preparation for LISA.
The UK is providing three major subsystems for LTP. The University of Glasgow is building the ultra-stable interferometer that is used to monitor the test-mass motion, the University of Birmingham is providing the measurement readout electronics, and Imperial College is supplying a charge management system that prevents build-up of electrostatic charge on the test masses.
Gill Ormrod - Science and Technology Facilities Council Press Office
Tel: +44 1793 442012. Mobile: +44 781 8013509
Franco Bonacina - ESA Press relations
Tel: +33 (0) 1 5369 7155. Email: Franco.Bonacina1@esa.int
UK Science contacts
Professor Tim Sumner, Imperial College London
Tel: 020 75947552
Professor Mike Cruise, University of Birmingham
Tel: 0121 4143978
Dr Harry Ward , University of Glasgow
Tel: 0141 330 4705
Notes to editors
ESA website - http://www.esa.int/science/lisapathfinder
Science and Technology Facilities Council The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge-exchange partnerships.
The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:
The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh
The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council is a partner in the UK space programme, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.