A European rocket lifted-off into the midnight sky over French Guiana on Thursday ferrying the LISA Pathfinder craft into a deep Earth-Sun orbit to research new technologies to understand and detect gravitational waves.
Designed as a platform to test new electronics and thrusters for a future spacecraft, LISA Pathfinder will set the stage as the European Space Agency and NASA develop steps in studying ripples in the fabric of space-time. The experimental spacecraft, valued at nearly 400M EUROS, is scheduled to operate for six months first by operating its science module before starting up a propulsion module.
The pioneering mission began a day late due to a last minute technical issue with the rocket’s upper stage. Engineers worked through the night on Tuesday to clear Vega for flight. The Arianespace launch team then started the official countdown eight hours prior to the rocket’s ignition.
Lift-off of the lightweight Vega occurred on time at 11:04 p.m. EST (1:04 am local time) from the Kourou Space Center located on the edge of the Amazon jungles of South America. Overcast skies helped create a brightness as the core main engine throttled the rocket stack up and out over the mid-Atlantic waters.
“After many years of development and testing on the ground, we are looking forward to the ultimate test which can only be run in space,” Project Scientist Paul McNamara of the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder said. “In a few weeks, we will be exploring the very nature of gravity in space, gaining the confidence to build a full-scale space observatory to study the gravitational Universe in the future.”
Nearly two minutes into the ascent, the spent solid fueled first stage separated from Vega’s second stage allowing the ignition of its smaller engine. Minutes later, the third stage was activated.
The LISA Pathfinder separated during a precise moment at 12:49 a.m. as it began a huge elliptical orbit of the Earth. The spacecraft will spend the next eight weeks maneuvering to place it around the Sun-Earth Lagrangian L1 point nearly 1.5 million km away from Earth and towards the Sun. The spacecraft’s exact orbit is designed to give LISA a quiet environment far away from a planet’s influence, and at the same time in position to communicate with Earth based ground stations by way of X-band.
“Vega has delivered once more, and now the challenge begins for the scientists,” stated Alvaro Gimenez, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, moments after spacecraft separation. “This was not a routine launch – because of its special trajectory, but also because of the very special payload.”