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LISA chosen by ESA to move forward?
The February 2016 detection of gravitational waves by the earth-bound LIGO observatory heralded the beginning of gravitational-wave astronomy. Much as other forms of astronomy collect information by observing visible light, infrared, or x-rays, gravitational-wave astronomy observes the universe via the ripples in space-time that emanate from cosmic events, such as the collision of black holes.
In response to the newfound interest in gravitational waves, the European Space Agency chose "The Gravitational Universe" as the theme for its L3 mission, slated for a 2034 launch. ESA's call for mission proposals closed in January 2017.
One of the proposals submitted is for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a mission that would comprise three spacecraft, arranged in a triangle. As gravitational waves pass by the antenna, the ripples in gravity will change the distance between the points in a manner detectable by the primary spacecraft. The distance between the spacecraft is large – ten times larger than the orbit of the moon.
Technology for this proposed mission was proven on a test mission, LISA Pathfinder, which launched in 2015. The smaller craft showed that two test masses could be isolated from all forces but gravity, and that the detector could pick up discrepancies in the laser signal on the minuscule picometer scale. LISA Pathfinder's mission was recently extended to June 2017.
The LISA mission has had a turbulent funding history. The mission was first proposed to the ESA in the 1990s and gained additional traction with the participation of NASA, promised in 1997. NASA withdrew in 2011, however, citing budget cuts. ESA then asked the proposed L1 missions, including LISA, to reformulate lower-cost versions. The revamped New Gravitational wave Observatory was passed over for funding in 2012.
But the mission's luck changed with the L3 mission proposals. LIGO's discovery prompted a resurgent interest in gravitational wave astronomy and led to the ESA's mission theme. At the same time, LISA Pathfinder had returned successful results, proving out the mission's technology. Finally, NASA rejoined the project, although as a junior partner. (Whether the US contribution will rise to the level of 20% is subject of another question).
Will ESA select the LISA mission as its L3 mission, to launch in 2034?
This question will resolve as positive if LISA is chosen as ESA's mission for study by May 31, 2017.
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