Researchers from CSIC and UIB participate in the redesign of the LISA project, the first spatial observatory of gravitational waves

The European Space Agency (ESA) initiated a process in February to choose the next mission of the space program 2015-2025. Among the candidates is the first gravitational wave observatory in space, called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), in which NASA has worked since the beginning. However, due to cost overruns on the mission of the James Webb Space Telescope and the priorities established by the Astronomy Decadal Survey in August 2010, the U.S. space agency recently announced that it is impossible to work with the LISA project in economic terms of financing agreed within the time frame required by the ESA. Thus, the European agency has begun the process of redesigning LISA to make it compatible with a European-only budget, a process involving scientists from the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

LISA team collaboration, as well as the other two European missions proposals (IXO, Internacional X-ray Observatory; and EJSM, European Jupiter System Mission, a mission to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa), has initiated a process to redesign the mission and their scientific objectives with the intention of adapting to a scenario in which only ESA provides funding. Next year the European Space Agency will formally adopt a new strategy due to the withdrawal of NASA, and then decide which of the three missions is better suited to this strategy.

Meanwhile, ESA scientists and engineers support the LISA science team and the other missions to achieve the best redesign in the shortest possible time. Among the scientists who were recently elected by ESA to carry out this new proposal is Alberto Lobo, a researcher at the Space Science Institute (Spanish National Research Council, CSIC), who since 2005 is in the LISA international science team member. The new proposal must be completed in February 2012, when ESA will decide which of the three missions will be released first.

Spain participates actively and in a consolidated way in the LISA project. On the one hand, it has designed, manufactured and delivered a substantial package of hardware and software for LISA Pathfinder, the technology mission precursor of LISA, and prepares to monitor the flight and mission data exploitation. The Spanish contribution is the fourth when it comes to budget for a consortium of seven European countries (Germany, Italy, UK, Spain, Switzerland, France and Holland). This participation is supported by the National Center for Particle Physics, Astroparticle and Nuclear Physics (CPAN), a Consolider-Ingenio 2010 consisting of over 400 scientists and 26 research groups in these areas of physics.

Participation of the UIB

The two nacional groups researching for LISA in Spain are in Barcelona and Palma. The Space Science Institute of Barcelona develops instrumentation for LISA Pathfinder and LISA, and discusses various sources of gravitational waves. The group of Relativity and Gravitation in the UIB, directed by Prof. Carles Bona, has extensive experience in data analysis tasks for gravitational wave detectors and simulations of radiation sources, in particular black hole binary systems through its participation in LIGO and GEO600, two projects are also dedicated to the detection of gravitational radiation, but operated on the ground.

UIB researchers involved in the redesign of the LISA project are the associate professors Alícia Sintes and Sascha Husa, the Chair of Theoretical Physics at the UIB, Porf. Carles Bona, Dr. Dennis Pollney and Dr. Milton Ruiz, and Ph.D. students Àlex Vañó.

Gravitational waves

If, when accelerating electric charges (for example, an antenna), an electromagnetic field is created that propagates in the form of electromagnetic waves outward from the source, accelerated mass movement also generates gravitational waves that propagate outwards from the source. These waves carry information on the properties of the source, hence its importance for the observation of the universe. Gravitational waves are a prediction of the theory of general relativity by Albert Einstein and even today have been only partially detected. Gravitational waves appear as tiny variations in the distances between test masses (the analogue of a radio receiver). In the LISA project, these measurements are performed on masses hosted on satellites spaced five million kilometers.

LISA will detect signals from different sources of gravitational radiation, as the merging of black holes at the center of galaxies or the capture of smaller objects, compact binary systems in our galaxy and other sources of cosmological origin, including the relic radiation of very early post-Big Bang phases. The measurement of these signals provide information on a wide range of unanswered questions: the birth and history of galaxies and massive black holes, the behavior of general relativity and space-time in their extreme limit, the history expansion of the universe, the physics of dense matter and stellar remnants, and possibly a new feature of the early universe physics or string theory.

Congress in Palma

Next September will take place in Palma the conference Astro-GR, a regular meeting of international experts in gravitational astronomy that held in Barcelona in 2009. The central theme of this edition will be the impact and the scientific potential of the new mission LISA.

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