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NASA, ESA to Create Laser-Powered “Space Antenna” around the Sun

September 15, 2019

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have teamed up to create a space-based gravitational-wave observatory consisting of three laser-emitting spacecraft that will orbit the Sun in a triangular formation 2.5 million kilometers apart from one another. 

The purpose of the audacious mission, which is called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), is to detect faint gravitational waves, which are ripples in space time, emitted by extreme cosmic events like black hole collisions. The existing gravitational-wave observatories are ground-based and subject to significant interference. 

The first prototype was announced in mid September by Swiss research firm CSEM and will be presented to the Optical Society’s 2019 Laser Congress from September 29 to October 3. 

LISA isn’t expected to launch until the 2030s, largely because of the enormous demands placed on the lasers that are at the core of gravitational wave observation. The laser components in LISA must function individually and collectively and meet exacting power output, wavelength, noise, stability and purity requirements.

The prototype was tested in a specialized test station that don’t quite match conditions in space around the Sun. To assess the system’s stability, the team used “a cavity-stabilized ultra-narrow 1560 nanometer laser, an optical frequency comb, an active H-maser and temperature-stabilized low-drift photodetectors as references for measuring the stability of the system’s frequency and amplitude.”

The results weren’t perfect, but researchers are confident with more testing they’ll be able to get the electronic and optical components ready in time. 

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