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Space NASA Science

Biggest Detector To Look For Gravitational Waves 109

Hugh Pickens sends in coverage in the Telegraph of a joint NASA-ESA experimental mission, to launch around 2020. It involves three spacecraft orbiting the Sun, separated by 3 million miles, each with a payload of two lasers and a 4.6-cm cube of gold-platinum alloy. The point of it all is to look for gravitational waves. The mission is called LISA, a reasonably non-strained acronym for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. The Telegraph makes a point of LISA being the largest experiment ever constructed (in terms of its dimensions). Neither that newspaper nor the project page at NASA mentions how much the experiment will cost, but it's almost certainly an order of magnitude or more above the $66 million estimated for a gravitational wave detector the size of the galaxy, which we discussed last fall.
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Biggest Detector To Look For Gravitational Waves

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  • by TwineLogic ( 1679802 ) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:21PM (#32163498)

    This detector would be 3,000,000 miles across when measured from one man-made component to another. The article linked to as a 'galaxy sized detector' is actually about a proposal to observe pulsars looking for the effect of gravitational waves.

    When observing pulsars, I assume it is not possible to be 100% of what one is seeing, considering that pulsar observations continue to accumulate and scientists have not had the chance to see a pulsar close-up.

    In comparison, using man-made scientific instruments, which are much more under the control of the investigating scientists, to perform the measurement is more trustworthy than observing pulsars. In this regard, the huge scale of the equipment (3 Million Miles) is very significant -- the instruments will be able to make a fine measurement across this distance -- and comparing it with the size of the galaxy is not really a valid comparison.

    On the other hand, the snark-value of the comparison was high, and providing the link without these details only raised the snark-tasticness.

  • Costing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kakapo ( 88299 ) on Monday May 10, 2010 @07:25PM (#32163522)

    From memory, LISA is usually listed as being in the $1.5- $2 billion dollar range, which puts in the same category as Hubble or the forthcoming James Webb telescope.

    Worth every penny, too, in my opinion.

  • by JakartaDean ( 834076 ) on Monday May 10, 2010 @10:58PM (#32165066) Journal

    It's a valid comparison because, when you're using pulsars to detect gravitational waves, the effective size of your detector is the distance from one pulsar to another, which is (some large fraction of) the size of the galaxy. Okay, pulsars aren't man-made - but if we deliberately set out to make the transmitter component of a galaxy-sized gravitational-wave detector, we wouldn't be able to produce anything nearly as suited for the task as they are. They keep time as well as our best clocks, and are trillions of times as powerful as any radio transmitter we could build (and they need to be, if we want to see them at these distances).

    The snarkiness is entirely justified, I think, as a response to the Telegraph's claim that LISA is the largest gravitational wave detector, when it's not. This doesn't mean that it isn't useful, though. LISA and pulsar observations are sensitive to gravitational waves of different frequencies - about 10^-1 and 10^-9 Hz respectively - so they're complementary techniques in the same way that (say) optical and radio astronomy are.

    Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_wave [wikipedia.org] does a pretty good job of describing these things, with the bonus that it doesn't say anything about "proving" Einstein's theory of general relativity. The take-home point is how tiny these waves are. The predicted energy is enough to distort space by 10 ^-20. From the stupid wording in the Telegraph article, the satellites will be 5 million kilometres apart, and will be able to detect displacements of "40 millionths of a millionth of a metre." So, they can detect displacement of 40*10^-12 / 5*10^9 which I get as 8*10^-22, so good enough I guess. The scales are unimaginable to me, at both ends.

  • by SteveFoerster ( 136027 ) <steve AT stevefoerster DOT com> on Monday May 10, 2010 @11:36PM (#32165262) Homepage

    Given how much it will cost to get these things into orbit around the sun, I'm guessing the cost of the actual materials is comparatively trivial.

You are always doing something marginal when the boss drops by your desk.