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The University of Southampton

Southampton researchers work on mission to understand more about our Universe

Published: 1 February 2024
Graphic of satellites in space
Artist's impression of the LISA mission satellites in the solar system observing gravitational waves

A mission to send the first gravitational wave detector into space has surpassed a major milestone – and two University of Southampton mathematical physicists played important roles in getting it there.

The LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission has been approved by the European Space Agency (ESA) to advance to the construction phase. It’s a seal of approval from ESA that means LISA, which has been 30 years in the making to date, should go into orbit in the mid-2030s.

LISA will be sent 60 to 70 million kilometres from Earth in an orbit around the Sun to find low-frequency gravitational waves that cannot be detected from Earth. It will open up a first window into our Universe’s extreme phenomena, including the cataclysmic merger of supermassive black holes, each millions of times the mass of our Sun. The discoveries are expected to revolutionise our knowledge of the beginning, evolution and structure of the Universe.

Dr Adam Pound and Professor Leor Barack , from the School of Mathematical Sciences and the STAG (Southampton Theory, Astrophysics and Gravity) institution, have leading roles in developing robust methods for extracting gravitational wave signals from the data LISA will collect, and understanding their properties – which will be essential to maximising the science return of the mission.

Professor Barack leads the LISA ground-segment project, which involves the universities of Birmingham, Glasgow and Portsmouth as well as Southampton. He is responsible for the development of theoretical waveforms to detect and interpret LISA data. He also coordinates this activity within the International LISA Consortium, where he is a core member of the Science Group.

Dr Pound, European Research Council Fellow and Royal Society University Research Fellow, also has a leadership role in the LISA Consortium. He said: “This is a very important moment in the lifetime of the mission, and one we have been working towards for many years. LISA is now truly a reality.”

Dr Pound’s work is on theoretically modelling the collisions of black holes. Outlining the work he is contributing to the LISA mission, he said: “In order to detect and interpret gravitational waves, detectors such as LISA require high precision models of the waves and the systems that generate them. The strongest sources of gravitational waves are binary systems in which two dense objects, such as black holes, orbit around each other, spiral inwards and merge, creating ripples in spacetime. My team works on modelling binaries in which one of the objects is much heavier than the other.”

LISA will hunt for these binaries, which are believed to occur at the centre of many galaxies.

Dr Pound added: “The gravitational-wave signals from these extreme-mass-ratio inspirals house a wealth of information about the working of gravity in its most extreme regime. The interpretation of these signals, which my team’s models will facilitate, will probe the geometry of black holes with unprecedented precision and enable investigations into the fundamental laws of physics themselves.”

Full image caption: Artist's impression of the LISA mission satellites in the solar system observing gravitational waves from a distant galaxy. Image courtesy of the University of Florida / Simon Barke

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