Any project manager will tell you that a phased review project system is the way to go. Whether or not you agree with that statement, the process has been widely adopted by space exploration organizations around the world. They form the basis of many of the best-known projects, and the completion of their phases are events to be celebrated by both the people who work on them and the general public. Now LISA, ESA’s attempt to build a 2.5 million kilometer long interferometer in space, has passed its feasibility phase and is moving towards building some prototype technologies.
LISA is the culmination of more than forty years of research on how best to capture gravitational waves emanating from black holes throughout the universe. The system they devised, known as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), was originally selected for development in 2017, with a goal of launching in 2034. It was chosen as part of the Cosmic Vision Program and will join missions such as PLATO and Solar Orbiter. as one of the flagships of ESA’s exploration programme.
There is still a lot of time left for development, and the LISA team will need all that time to work on advancing the technology. Fortunately, they already have a head start on some of them, as the LISA Pathfinder mission was already launched in 2015. This mission demonstrated that the general idea of LISA, that two satellites could stay in place relative to each other with extreme precision, it is feasible.
That knowledge was crucial to completing “Phase A” of the LISA project plan, also known as the Feasibility Phase. This is the phase of the project where concept studies and models have the highest priority, and nothing has yet been physically built for the main mission. At the end of the phase there is a “Mission Formulation Review”, where a team of experts from ESA, NASA and others reviewed the progress of the mission and gave their blessing to move on to the next stage of development.
The next stage is the “Refinement Phase”, where all technologies and systems for mission success are developed, as are international partnerships and launch agreements. At the end of this phase, known as “Phase B1,” is the official “adoption” of the mission, at which point the project team will begin physically building the systems that will be launched into space.
When it gets there, it will join another ESA mission, known as Athena, to observe colliding black holes in X-rays (Athena) and gravitational waves (LISA). Putting the two data sets together could lead to discoveries even more remarkable than that of the first gravitational wave ever measured by LIGO here on Earth.
LISA has many more doors to go through before it can start collecting real data that could be used in those discoveries. With another 12 years or more in development, a lot may change between now and the spacecraft’s eventual launch. Hopefully, all technologies will work perfectly the first time, although, as any engineer will tell you, that will never happen, no matter how fervently project management hopes it will.
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Timeline of gravitational images
Credit – ESA