Category Archives: Cosmology

Space-based Gravity Wave Detection System to be Deployed by ESA

Peter Lobner

The first detection of gravitational waves occurred on 14 September 2015 at the land-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Using optical folding techniques, LIGO has an effective baseline of 1,600 km (994 miles). See my 16 December 2015 and 11 February 2016 posts for more information on LIGO and other land-based gravitational wave detectors.

Significantly longer baselines, and theoretically greater sensitivity can be achieved with gravitational wave detectors in space. Generically, such a space-based detector has become known as a Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). Three projects associated with space-based gravitational wave detection are:

  • LISA (the project name predated the current generic usage of LISA)
  • LISA Pathfinder (a space-based gravitational wave detection technology demonstrator, not a detector)
  • Evolved LISA (eLISA)

These projects are discussed below.

The science being addressed by space-based gravitational wave detectors is discussed in the eLISA white paper, “The Gravitational Universe.” You can download this whitepaper, a 1-page summary, and related gravitational wave science material at the following link:


The LISA project originally was planned as a joint European Space Agency (ESA) and National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) project to detect gravitational waves using a very long baseline, triangular interferometric array of three spacecraft.

Each spacecraft was to contain a gravitational wave detector sensitive at frequencies between 0.03 mHz and 0.1 Hz and have the capability to precisely measure its distances to the other two spacecraft forming the array. The equilateral triangular array, which was to measure about 5 million km (3.1 million miles) on a side, was expected to be capable of measuring gravitational-wave induced strains in space-time by precisely measuring changes of the separation distance between pairs of test masses in the three spacecraft. In 2011, NASA dropped out of this project because of funding constraints.

LISA Pathfinder

The LISA Pathfinder (LPF) is a single spacecraft intended to validate key technologies for space-based gravitational wave detection. It does not have the capability to detect gravity waves.

This mission was launched by ESA on 3 December 2015 and the spacecraft took station in a Lissajous orbit around the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point on 22 January 2016. L1 is directly between the Earth and the Sun, about 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth. An important characteristic of a Lissajous orbit is that the spacecraft will follow the L1 point without requiring any propulsion. This is important for minimizing external forces on the LISA Pathfinder experiment package. The approximate geometry of the Earth-Moon-Sun system and a representative spacecraft (not LPF, specifically) stationed at the L1 Lagrange point is shown in the following figure.

L1 Lagrange pointSource: Wikimedia Commons

The LISA Pathfinder’s mission is to validate the technologies used to shield two free-floating metal cubes (test masses), which form the core of the experiment package, from all internal and external forces that could contribute to noise in the gravitational wave measurement instruments. The on-board measurement instruments (inertial sensors and a laser interferometer) are designed to measure the relative position and orientation of the test masses, which are 38 cm (15 inches) apart, to an accuracy of less than 0.01 nanometers (10e-11 meters). This measurement accuracy is believed to be adequate for detecting gravitational waves using this technology on ESA’s follow-on mission, eLISA.

The first diagram below is an artist’s impression of the LISA Pathfinder technology package, showing the inertial sensors housing the test masses (gold) and the laser interferometer (middle platform). The second diagram provides a clearer view of the test masses and the laser interferometer.

LPF technology package 1

Source: ESA/ATG medialab, August 2015LPF technology package 2Source: ESA LISA Pathfinder briefing, 7 June 2016

You’ll find more general information in an ESA LISA Pathfinder overview, which you can download from NASA’s LISA website at the following link:

LISA Pathfinder was commissioned and ready for scientific work on 1 March 2016. In a 7 June 2016 briefing, ESA reported very favorable performance results from LISA Pathfinder:

  • LPF successfully validated the technologies used in the local (in-spacecraft) instrument package (test masses, inertial sensors and interferometer).
  • LPF interferometer noise was a factor of 100 less than on the ground.
  • The measurement instruments can see femtometer motion of the test masses (LPF goal was picometer).
  • Performance is essentially at the level needed for the follow-on eLISA mission

You can watch this full (1+ hour) ESA briefing at the following link:


Evolved LISA, or eLISA, is ESA’s modern incarnation of the original LISA program described previously. ESA’s eLISA website home page is at the following link:

As shown in the following diagrams, three eLISA spacecraft will form a very long baseline interferometric array that is expected to directly observe gravitational waves from sources anywhere in the universe. In essence, this array will be a low frequency microphone listening for the sounds of gravitational waves as they pass through the array.

eLISA constellation 1Source: ESAeLISA constellation 2Source: ESA

As discussed previously, gravity wave detection depends on the ability to very precisely measure the distance between test masses that are isolated from their environment but subject to the influence of passing gravitational waves. Measuring the relative motion of a pair of test masses is considerably more complex for eLISA than it was for LPF. The relative motion measurements needed for a single leg of the eLISA triangular array are:

  • Test mass 1 to Spacecraft 1
  • Spacecraft 1 to Spacecraft 2
  • Spacecraft 2 to Test Mass 2

This needs to be done for each of the three legs of the array.

LPF validated the technology for making the test mass to spacecraft measurement. Significant development work remains to be done on the spacecraft-to-spacecraft laser system that must take precise measurements at very long distances (5 million km, 3.1 million miles) of the relative motion between each pair of spacecraft.

In the 6 June 2016 LISA Pathfinder briefing, LPF and ESA officials indicated that an eLisa launch date is expected in the 2029 – 2032 time frame. Then it reaches its assigned position in a trailing heliocentric orbit, eLISA will be a remarkable collaborative technical achievement and a new window to our universe.

Simulating Extreme Spacetimes

Peter Lobner

Thanks to Dave Groce for sending me the following link to the Caltech-Cornell Numerical Relativity collaboration; Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS):

Caltech SXSSource: SXS

From the actual website (not the image above), click on the yellow “Admit One” ticket and you’re on your way.

Under the “Movies” tab, you’ll find many video simulations that help visualizes a range of interactions between two black holes and between a black hole and a neutron star. Following is a direct link:

A movie visualizing GW150914, the first ever gravitational wave detection on 14 September 2015, is at the following SXS link:

At the above link, you also can listen to the sound of the GW150914 “in-spiral” event (two black holes spiraling in on each other).  You can read more about the detection of GW150914 in my 11 February 2016 post.

On the “Sounds” tab on the SXS website, you’ll find that different types of major cosmic events are expected to emit gravitational waves with waveforms that will help characterize the original event. You can listen to the expected sounds from a variety of extreme cosmic events at the following SXS link:

Have fun exploring SXS.

NSF and LIGO Team Announce First Detection of Gravitational Waves

Peter Lobner

Today, 11 February 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project team announced that the first detection of gravitational waves occurred on 14 September 2015. You can view a video of this announcement at the following link:

The first paper on this milestone event, “Observation of Gravitational Waves From a Binary Black Hole Merger,” is reported in Physical Review Letters, at the following link:

The recorded signals from the two LIGO sites, Livingston, LA and Hanford, WA, are shown below, with the Hanford data time shifted to account for the slightly later arrival time of the gravitational wave signal at that detector location. The magnitude of the gravitational wave signal was characterized as being just below the detection threshold of LIGO before installation of the new advanced detectors, which improve LIGO sensitivity by a factor of 3 to 10.

LIGO signals

Source: NSF/LIGO

This milestone occurred during the engineering testing phase of the advanced LIGO detectors, before the start of their first official “observing run” on 18 September 2015.

Analysis and simulations conducted on the data indicate that the observed gravitational wave signals were generated when two orbiting black holes coalesced into a single black hole of smaller total mass and ejected about three solar masses of energy as gravitational waves.

In the Physical Review Letters paper, the authors provide the following diagram, which gives a physical interpretation of the observed gravitational wave signals.

Binary black holes merge

Note the very short timescale of this extraordinarily dynamic process. The recorded gravitational wave signals yielded an audible “chirp” when the two black holes merged.

With only two LIGO detectors, the source of the observed gravitational waves could not be localized, but the LIGO team reported that the source was in the southern sky, most likely in the vicinity of the Magellanic Clouds.

Localization of black hole merger Source: NSF/LIGO

The ability to localize gravitational wave signals will improve when additional gravitational wave detectors become operational later in this decade.

For more information on the current status of LIGO and other new-generation gravitational wave detectors, see my 16 December 2015 post: “100th Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the Advent of a New Generation of Gravity Wave Detectors.”

Update: 3 October 2017

 Congratulations to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne, all members of the LIGO / VIRGO Collaboration, for their award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the first direct observation of gravitational waves. You can read the press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences here:

You also can read the scientific background on this award on the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences website at the following link:

100th Anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and the Advent of a New Generation of Gravity Wave Detectors

Peter Lobner

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein presented his General Theory of Relativity in November 1915, at the Prussian Academy of Science. Happy Anniversary, Dr. Einstein!

Today, general relativity is being tested with unprecedented accuracy with a new generation of gravity-wave “telescopes” in the U.S., Italy, Germany, and Japan. All are attempting to directly detect gravity waves, which are the long-predicted quakes in space-time arising from cataclysmic cosmic sources.

The status of four gravity-wave telescopes is summarized below.

USA: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)

LIGO is a multi-kilometer-scale gravitational wave detector that uses laser interferometry to, hopefully, measure the minute ripples in space-time caused by passing gravitational waves. LIGO consists of two widely separated interferometers within the United States; one in Hanford, WA and the other in Livingston, LA. These facilities are operated in unison to detect gravitational waves. The Livingston and Hanford LIGO sites are shown in the following photos (Hanford above, Livingston below):

ligo-hanford-aerial-02Source LIGO Caltechligo-livingston-aerial-03Source: LIGO Caltech

LIGO is operated by Caltech and MIT and is supported by the National Academy of Sciences. For more information, visit the LIGO website at the following link:

Basically, LIGO is similar to the traditional interferometer used in 1887 in the famous Michelson-Morley experiment (–Morley_experiment). However, the LIGO interferometer incorporates novel features to greatly increase its sensitivity. The basic arrangement of the interferometer is shown in the following diagram.

LIGO experiment setupSource: LIGO Caltech

Each leg of the interferometer has a physical length of 4 km and is a resonant Fabry-Perot cavity that uses a complex set of mirrors to extend the effective arm length by a factor of 400 to 1,600 km.

On 18 September 2015, the first official “observing run” using LIGO’s advanced detectors began. This “observing run” is planned to last three months. LIGO’s advanced detectors are already three times more sensitive than Initial LIGO was by the end of its observational lifetime in 2007. You can read about this milestone event at the following link:

You also can find much more information on the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) at the following link:

Italy: VIRGO

VIRGO is installed near Pisa, Italy, at the site of the European Gravitational Observatory ( VIRGO is intended to directly observe gravitational waves using a Michelson interferometer with arms that are 3 km long, with resonant Fabry-Perot cavities that increase the effective arm length by a factor of 50 to 150 km. The initial version of VIRGO operated from 2007 to 2011 and the facility currently is being upgraded with a new, more sensitive detector. VIRGO is expected to return to operation in 2018.

You can find much more information on VIRGO at the following link:

Germany: GEO600

GEO600 is installed near Hanover, Germany. It, too, uses a Michelson interferometer with arms that are 600 meters long, with resonant Fabry-Perot cavities that double the effective arm length to 1,200 meters.

You can find much more information on the GEO600 portal at the following link:

Japan: KAGRA Large-scale Cryogenic Gravitational Wave Telescope

The KAGRA telescope is installed deep underground, in tunnels of Kamioka mine, as shown in the following diagram.

img_abt_lcgtSource: KAGARA

Like the other facilities described previously, KAGRA is a Michelson interferometer with resonant Fabry-Perot cavities. The physical length of each arm is of 3 km (1.9 mi). KAGRA is expected to be in operation in 2018.

You can find much more information on KAGARA at the following links: