Netherlands to build laser pointer for ESA black hole space mission

The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) has been granted €1.39mn to finish development of its high-precision laser targeting mechanism. This will support one of ESA’s most ambitious missions: tracing and studying black holes with the aim of unraveling the history of the universe — humanity’s most challenging puzzle.

Specifically, ESA’s so-called LISA will be the first space-based observatory designed to study gravitational waves. These are ripples in the space-time continuum that occur during the most powerful cosmic events, such as pairs of supermassive black holes merging or colliding.

In recent years, Earth-based observatories have been able to detect only low-frequency gravitational waves. But mergers of supermassive black holes, events that happened right after the Big Bang, and neutron stars spiraling into black holes in between galaxies all generate extremely high-frequency gravitational waves. These waves are also so long that can only be detected by space-based observatories spanning millions of kilometres.

LISA will sit in a heliocentric orbit at a whopping 50 million kilometres away from Earth. It will consist of three individual spacecraft, with a distance of about 2.5 million kilometres between each other. To put this into perspective, the distance between our planet and the Moon is 385,000km.

ESA LISA mission, three spacecraft placed in triangular formation