A pioneering satellite is on its way to an orbital perch 930,000 miles away from Earth to test a new technique for detecting elusive ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves.
Predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, the waves are caused by massive objects, such as black holes and neutron stars, moving rapidly in space.
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The LISA Pathfinder satellite, launched late Wednesday night from Europe's Kourou, French Guiana, spaceport will demonstrate new technologies that will ultimately be used to detect gravitational waves, which so far have eluded capture by ground-based observatories due to Earth's seismic noises -- everything from earthquakes, tremors, traffic and even the weather.
"A gravitational wave observatory will measure tides, very small tides, not produced by the moon, but produced by astrophysical objects like black holes in very distant galaxies," said William Weber, a LISA Pathfinder scientist with the University of Trento in Italy.
The European Space Agency's LISA Pathfinder satellite contains two small cubes, placed 15 inches apart, that have been isolated so that they experience nothing but gravitational forces. Using a precise laser measuring system to measure the cubes' motions, scientists will be able to test the technologies that will be scaled up into a full space-based gravitational wave detector called the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or eLISA.
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If successful, scientists expect the technique to open an entirely new branch of astronomy that relies not electromagnetic radiation emissions, such as radio, infrared, optical and X-ray light, but on the twisting and turning of the interwoven fabric of space and time itself.
Einstein theorized that gravity, like light, travels in waves. But while electromagnetic waves transverse through space and across time, gravitational waves result from the warping of space-time. Light rays can even get trapped in places where the gravitational pits are extremely deep, such as in black holes.
"Gravitational waves are changing the distance of points in space. So if you have two test masses ... and you measure the distance between them very precisely and a gravitational wave passes by, it will change the distance," said Oliver Jennrich, LISA Pathfinder deputy project scientist.
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"Einstein discovered gravitational waves as a mathematical equation very early on, but he had his doubts about them ever being measurable, not because they didn't exist but because he said ‘for all practical purposes, the effect is so weak we will never see them.' "Even great minds, geniuses, can be wrong," Jennrich added. "If you look at extremely large masses, we are considering gravitational waves to be measurable."
It will take about six weeks for LISA Pathfinder to reach its intended orbit, and another three months to prepare for science operations. The primary mission will last about six months.
Although LISA Pathfinder isn't designed to seek out gravitational waves itself, scientists expect the proof-of-concept mission to pave the way for eLISA, which will use three satellites, formation flying in a triangle more than 620,000 miles apart, to detect gravitational waves. eLISA is planned for launch in 2034.