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New Missions

December 19, 2016

Space observatories that don’t take pretty pictures or discover planets in other star systems don’t get a lot of attention. But a couple of European missions that have been operating this year are making big scientific contributions.

Gaia completed the first part of its mission this summer. It plotted the locations of more than a billion stars. It also plotted the distances to more than two million stars. That information will help astronomers produce the most accurate map of our region of the galaxy to date.

Gaia is continuing to watch the stars, and scientists hope that by next year, it’ll have distance measurements to all of its target stars.

LISA Pathfinder tested the concept for a space-based observatory for catching gravitational waves. These waves are produced by merging black holes and other events. They’re so weak, though, that they’re almost impossible to detect. In fact, they weren’t seen directly until just this year. A space observatory could see different kinds of events from those detectable by ground-based observatories.

LISA Pathfinder contained two small cubes of gold and platinum. The goal was to see if the cubes could drift without touching or being pushed around by the surrounding spacecraft — and they did. A full-scale LISA mission would use more than one spacecraft, linked by lasers. Any motion of the cubes inside them should be caused by gravitational waves — ripples in the universe detected from space.


Script by Damond Benningfield


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