A European satellite designed to detect the gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago has reached orbit.
Lisa Pathfinder, built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and its partners, blasted off from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, atop a Vega rocket shortly after 4am this morning.
The spacecraft, to be placed into the so called L1 point between the Earth and the Sun where the gravitational pull of both celestial bodies is equal, carries an experiment designed to prove the existence of the Einsten-predicted phenomenon.
Gravitational waves, also referred to as the ripples of spacetime, are curvatures of spacetime that propagate similarly to waves in the vicinity of heavy bodies.
The deviations are so minute that they wouldn’t flex a million kilometre long ruler affected by two orbiting black holes by more than the width of an atom.
Einstein’s predictions have not yet been experimentally proven, something LISA pathfinder would like to change.
The spacecraft carries two gold-platinum cubes, both 46 mm in size, placed 38 cm apart. Completely isolated from all other external forces, the cubes will be in the state of perfect free fall with the only force acting on them being gravity.
By monitoring their relative position with extreme precision, the scientist would be able to collect data on the existence of gravitational waves.
"Detecting gravitational waves is extremely difficult,” said Arvind Parmar, head of ESA's Scientific Support Office. “The technology is a leap forward. There are something like a thousand scientists interested in this area in general, and I expect that number to increase.”
After reaching its final destination, some 1.5 million km away from Earth, LISA (short for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), will spend about six months testing the technology.
The €400m (£283m) mission paves the way for a future ambitious project that foresees setting up of an observatory in space to measure gravitational waves. ESA said this future gravitational wave detector would be the world's largest man-made structure ever.