The history of the universe: beam us up, Scotland

02 December 2013

Scottish scientists will be at the heart of a space mission to detect the ripples in space time caused by events in the Universe.

The Science Programme Committee of the ESA (European Space Agency) has announced that one of its two Large (L-class) missions will be to probe the ‘Gravitational Universe’ by establishing a gravitational wave observatory in space. This study will aim to detect gravitational waves and open up hidden chapters in the history of the Universe by listening to the waves made by the earliest black holes, and probably by the Big Bang itself.
 
Gravity is the engine behind many of the processes in the Universe, and much of its action is dark – it emits no electromagnetic radiation at all. Opening a gravitational window on the Universe will let us go further than any alternative. Gravity has its own messenger: Gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time. They travel essentially undisturbed and let us peer deep into the formation of the first seed black holes, exploring redshifts as large as z?~?20, prior to the epoch of cosmic re-ionisation.

The proposed evolved Laser Interferometry Space Antenna (eLISA), is planned to launch in 2034. It will build upon technologies already developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) for the ESA’s LISA Pathfinder probe. LISA Pathfinder, due for launch in 2015, will demonstrate key eLISA technologies in space, including the ultra-sensitive optical measurement system built at the University of Glasgow.
 
eLISA will be the first ever mission to study the entire Universe with gravitational waves. The all-sky monitor will offer a wide view of a dynamic cosmos using gravitational waves as new and unique messengers to unveil the Gravitational Universe. It can, says the University,  probe the entire Universe, from its smallest scales around singularities and black holes, all the way to cosmological dimensions.
 
As well as investigating the origins of the Universe, observation of gravitational waves will provide insight into the fundamentals of gravity, and into Einstein's theory that predicted the waves originally, in 1916. By observing how waves from early black holes are stretched out as they move toward us through the expanding Universe, the observatory hopes to shed light on the mystery of dark energy.
 
Between 2014 and 2020, eLISA technology will be optimised, followed by the final mission selection and commitment of international partners. In 2024 the industrial implementation will begin, with the payload supplied by a European consortium which also provides the flight hardware for LISA Pathfinder. The eLISA launch is planned for 2034.
 


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