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Will NASA (re)join the (e)LISA space mission for detecting gravitational waves?

eLISA (Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is one of the leading projects in the newly born field of gravitational wave astronomy. Two key landmark successes came together in 2016 that have sparked great enthusiasm for the potential of the eLISA proposal; first, LIGO published in February the first detection of Einstein-gravity waves, and secondly, the LISA pathfinder probe, designed to test the technical challenges of the eLISA mission, found eLISA to be feasible. The advisory panel even encouraged the possibility of an earlier launch date, which would move the launch from the mid 2030s to 2029.

The following is a synopsis of the mission design - for more depth, see the whitepaper. Three satellites forming the vertices of an equilateral triangle (side length 1 million km!) will be launched into a heliocentric orbit, trailing the Earth by 20°. Like LIGO, eLISA is based on a Michelson interferometer design; two spacecrafts make up the endpoints of the interferometer arms and send and receive laser light to a source craft, which then measures the changing arm length through phase differences in the light. However, the core variable eLISA is measuring is the changing non-geodesic acceleration between a pair of test masses housed in free-fall in the source spacecraft. Combined with interferometric measurements on additional test masses housed in each arm, a signal and noise spectrum can be established on the contracting and expanding spacetime between the masses due to gravitational waves. eLISA can measure the frequency, phase, and polarity information of the incoming waves to identify high-magnitude gravitational events, such as inspiraling black hole binaries.

Formerly LISA, eLISA was intended to be a joint endeavor between NASA and ESA. In 2011, a lack of funding led to NASA removing itself from the efforts of the mission. The mission development is currently led by ESA with limited participation by NASA, but resource constraints on ESA's part may create a compelling need for more U.S. - European collaboration. Currently ESA permits a maximum of 20% contribution from NASA; will this change?

Will NASA rejoin as a larger partner in the eLISA mission, meeting or exceeding 20% contribution in funding?

Resolution is positive if by mid-September 2017, credible media report indicates that NASA has re-entered the eLISA collaboration as a significant partner, committing at least 20% of the project budget.


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