After NASA’s withdrawal from partnership with Europe

Science team begins to rethink LISA design

April 14, 2011

It was just in February this year that ESA kicked off the process of picking the next major mission in its Cosmic Vision program, with presentations at a meeting of Europe's astronomers and planetary scientists in Paris. Among the favorites was the first gravitational wave observatory in space, called LISA, which had already been given a high scientific priority in the USA by NASA's 2007 Beyond Einstein review and by American astronomers' 2010 Decadal Review of Astronomy. But now NASA has admitted that cost overruns on its James Webb Space Telescope mission will remove so much money from its program that it cannot commit to being an equal partner with ESA on any major science mission in the near future.

ESA's management has reacted swiftly to this news because it must still find the best use for the whole of its space science budget for the rest of this decade. The LISA project team, as well as those of the other two missions - IXO (a proposed space X-ray observatory) and JGO (a proposed mission to explore Jupiter's moons) - have been asked to rethink their designs and scientific objectives to see if they can fit within a European-only funding envelope and still return good scientific results. Over the next year it is expected that ESA will officially adopt a new strategy in view of the NASA withdrawal, and then decide which of the three missions will best fit that strategy. Meanwhile, ESA scientists and engineers are supporting the science team of LISA as well as the other missions so that they arrive at the best possible redesign in a very short time.

The Albert Einstein Institute, as the world's largest research institute dedicated to exploring all aspects of Einstein's theory of gravitation, general relativity, is a major contributor to the LISA mission. “The European LISA team is working hard on the redesign now. We are optimistic that we can fit the new conditions and still deliver outstanding science by opening the gravitational wave window in space”, says Karsten Danzmann, European Mission Scientist for LISA and director at the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany. “We hope that NASA will at least become a minor partner in a redesigned, smaller and less expensive LISA mission, and meanwhile we are benefiting greatly from the input of our US colleagues, who want to see LISA fly and do its unique science even if they do not get full partnership in it. "

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