Vega rocket blasts off with gravity-hunting satellite

BERLIN: A Vega rocket bearing a European prototype satellite blasted into space early on Thursday on a mission to search for ripples in space and across time, a phenomenon predicted but never proven by physicist Albert Einstein 100 years ago.


The launch lit up the night sky at the launch site in French Guiana, just north of the Equator in South America, before the rocket disappeared into the clouds, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

The trailblazing Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, spacecraft will spend about six months testing a technique to detect ripples in space and across time.

The ripples, known as gravitational waves, are caused by massive celestial bodies warping space, similar to a bowling ball rolling across a trampoline.

“Detecting gravitational waves is extremely difficult. The technology is a leap forward, and this technology is on LISA Pathfinder,” Arvind Parmar, head of ESA Scientific Support Office, said in a news briefing.

LISA Pathfinder is also expected to pave the way for an even more ambitious project that would set up an observatory in space, a gravitational wave detector that would be the world’s largest man-made structure ever.

The LISA Pathfinder mission, which costs about 400 million euros, will send the spacecraft about 1.5 million km towards the sun over about six weeks, where it will assume an orbit that keeps it right between the sun and Earth.

Once it is in place, it will collect data for six months that scientists hope will reveal gravitational waves.

ESA expects around 50 scientists to visit ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, next year to work with LISA.

“There are something like 1,000 scientists interested in this area in general, and I expect that number to increase. This is the new area that people are going to be working in,” ESA’s Parmar said.

LISA Pathfinder was the sixth launch for the four-stage Vega European rocket, which made its debut in 2012.

The launch was delayed from Wednesday to review engineering data about how much heating the rocket’s liquid-fuelled fourth-stage would be subjected to during flight.