Selected: The Gravitational Universe

28th November 2013

ESA decides on next Large Mission Concepts

Numerical simulation of the gravitational waves emitted during the merger of two neutron stars into a black hole.
© Numerical simulation: Bruno Giacomazzo & Luciano Rezzolla (Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute)
Scientific visualization: Michael Koppitz (Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute)/Zuse Institute Berlin)

The Gravitational Universe will be one of the two science themes to be explored by ESA's next two Large (L-class) missions – this was decided today by ESA's Science Programme Committee (SPC).

The suggested mission to probe the Gravitational Universe is the evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA). It will study the universe in a unique way – completely differently from any other space observatory – by detecting gravitational waves. Observations of gravitational waves in space will answer key scientific questions about the astrophysics of the cosmic dawn and the physics and evolution of the universe. According to ESA's decision, eLISA will be the third L-class mission, following JUICE and Athena+.

“We are very pleased with this decision. It will provide revolutionary research opportunities in astrophysics and fundamental physics,” says Karsten Danzmann, designated spokesperson of eLISA, director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) and professor at the Leibniz Universität in Hannover, Germany. “We will immediately begin to optimize technologies already being developed for eLISA. These key technologies for eLISA will get their first test in space with the launch of ESA's LISA Pathfinder (LPF) mission in 2015”, Danzmann continues.

“For the UK, the decision is great news. The very significant UK Space Agency investment in developing the LISA Pathfinder payload will now bear fruit and with eLISA we can look forward to a rich scientific output from what promises to be one of the most important astronomical observatories of our time.", says Dr. Henry Ward, who leads the University of Glasgow LPF and eLISA work.

The observation of gravitational waves in space will provide powerful insight into the fundamentals of gravity, and into Einstein's theory that predicted the waves in 1916. A gravitational wave observatory in space will open up hidden chapters in the history of the Universe by listening to the waves made by the earliest black holes, by thousands of binary stars, and probably by the Big Bang itself. By seeing how the waves from early black holes are stretched out as they move toward us through the expanding Universe, the observatory will even study the mysterious dark energy.

The proposed eLISA mission is designed to be complementary to existing and planned ground-based gravitational wave observatories. Earth- and space-based gravitational wave observatories target different parts of the gravitational wave spectrum, searching for ripples in the fabric of space-time created by the most violent events in the Universe, such as the coalescence of black holes. Gravitational waves carry with them information about their origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot be obtained using other astronomical tools.

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