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How a future gravitational wave detector in space will reveal more about the universe

LISA Pathfinder, which launched in 2015, demonstrated the technology needed for a gravitational-wave observatory in space. Called LISA, that is expected to launch in 2037.
LISA Pathfinder, which launched in 2015, demonstrated the technology needed for a gravitational-wave observatory in space. Called LISA, that is expected to launch in 2037. (Image credit: C. Carreau/ESA)

Gravitational waves will be mapped to unprecedented high detail when a new gravitational wave detector mission launches in 2037. This will observe black holes, neutron stars and other objects, a new study notes.

The paper looks ahead to when the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) from the European Space Agency will fly into space to measure gravitational radiation over a broad band at low frequencies. The mission will follow on from a successful test mission, LISA Pathfinder, that concluded 16 months of work in 2017.

Scientists now expect that LISA may find gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time, by scrutinizing events called extreme mass ratio inspirals. These events occur when a black hole or super-dense neutron star (typically, the remnant of a supernova) spirals into a black hole millions of times the mass of the sun.

Related: Gravitational wave treasure trove shows black holes, neutron stars colliding

It takes tens of thousands of orbits before the object meets its demise within the supermassive black hole, researchers noted. The "inspiralling" creates "long signals" that will allow scientists to seek deviations against industry measurements such as Einstein's theories of relativity, or the standard model of particle physics that describes fundamental physics processes.

LISA, new models indicate, will be able to probe gravitational interactions along with a quantum phenomenon called scalar fields. These fields describe how every point of the universe has a value or strength measurable with the field, but that the field does not point in any particular direction. A comparable example is a temperature map of the local weather forecast.

This illustration shows a black hole emitting jets of fast-moving plasma above and below it, as matter swirls around in an orbiting disk. (Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Scalar fields have little importance in the modern universe, but some scientists suggest the early universe was rich in these fields, so rich that it is possible that cosmic inflation (the sudden growth of the universe shortly after the Big Bang) is attributable to this phenomenon.

"We have now shown that LISA will offer unprecedented capabilities in detecting scalar fields, and this offers exciting opportunities," participating study author Thomas Sotiriou, director of the University of Nottingham center of gravity, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Artist's impression showing the core of the LISA Pathfinder technology package, which consists of two gold-platinum cubes kept in close to a perfect free-fall state. (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Sotiriou suggested LISA's work could be applicable for studies of inflation, the nature of dark matter, the nature of gravity or the behavior of elementary particles.

A paper (opens in new tab) based on the research was published Feb. 10 in Nature Astronomy. The work was led by Andrea Maselli of Italy's Gran Sasso Science Institute.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.