ESA gives go-ahead for flagship gravitational-wave observatory in space
25 Jan 2024



LISA mission advances to the construction phase.

Artists concept of what LISA will look like in space. It looks like a disc firing lasers.



LISA (the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) has passed a major review: the entire concept - from the definition of the overall mission and operations to the space hardware to be built - stood up to the intense scrutiny of European Space Agency's reviewers. 

Now the space agency's Science Programme Committee (SPC) has confirmed that LISA is sufficiently mature and that mission development can proceed as planned. LISA should go into orbit in the mid 2030s. 

LISA's successful Mission Adoption Review and the adoption by ESA's Science Programme Committee on January 25th was the formal end of the study phase. LISA will now transition into the implementation phase. 

This is a major milestone in LISA's journey to be the first gravitational wave observatory in space. 

The UK has a major involvement in the LISA mission, with significant contributions to the instrument hardware and the on-ground data processing and analysis, supported by funding from the UK Space Agency, which has agreed participation in the mission in principle. 

The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, lead the UK's hardware contribution to LISA - the design and construction of the ultra-precision optical benches that sit at the heart of each LISA spacecraft. The optical benches send and receive laser beams between the LISA spacecraft and combine them together to produce signals that contain the signatures of gravitational waves, and the UK team have developed an innovative robotic system to assist in their construction. 

Our builds​ on the University of Glasgow-led design and build of the optical bench for the LISA Pathfinder mission, which was launched into space in 2015 to test the technology ahead of the full LISA mission. The success of LISA Pathfinder, which performed beyond expectations, helped pave the way for the completion of the Mission Adoption Review. 

Ewan Fitzsimons, Principal Investigator for the UK hardware contribution to LISA at UK ATC said: “The adoption of LISA is a very exciting moment for us, and it's fantastic to see the mission move to the implementation phase, bringing us one step closer to launch. The unique robotic integration technology our team have developed has transformed our capability to construct the optical benches crucial for deciphering the secrets of gravitational waves in space." 

Scientists at the University of Birmingham, University of Glasgow, University of Portsmouth, University of Southampton and University of Cambridge are working on addressing important challenges in LISA data analysis and simulation as part of the LISA Science Ground Segment. As a first-of-its-kind mission, developing robust methods for extracting gravitational-wave signals from the data and understanding their properties will be essential to maximising the science return of the mission. 

Alberto Vecchio, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Birmingham and Principal Investigator of the UK contribution to the LISA Science Ground Segment, said: “LISA is a unique space observatory to precisely map the evolution of the Universe by tracing the pairing up and mergers of black holes from thousands to millions of solar masses. LISA will unveil these cosmic dances all the way to the edge of the Universe and discover tens of thousands of compact objects we know nothing about today. This is going to be a breathtaking journey across the cosmos with so many surprises. For many years the UK has been at the forefront of modelling gravitational wave sources and developing sophisticated analysis techniques for the mission and we are thrilled to be working with our colleagues from all over the world to make LISA a success." 

Karsten Danzmann, Lead of the LISA Consortium, Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz University Hannover, said: “With the Adoption decision, LISA is now firmly established in ESA's programme of missions. We are looking forward to realising LISA in a close collaboration of ESA, NASA, ESA member states and the wider LISA Consortium." 

Carole Mundell, ESA Director of Science, said: “This trailblazing mission will take us to the next level in a really exciting area of space science and keep European scientists at the forefront of gravitational wave research." 

Find out more about UK ATC's role on LISA.