LISA Pathfinder launch

This morning at 04:04 GMT, LISA Pathfinder was launched from the spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana. I’ve written about LISA Pathfinder over on my science blog, here, so go take a look at that if you’ve never heard of it and have no idea what I’m on about.


LISA Pathfinder is pretty important to a bunch of physicists at the University of Glasgow. Some of the physicists in the research group I work in (The IGR, or Institute for Gravitational Research) had a big part to play in building it. Hell, I did a small research project with them as an undergrad, so it’s important to me too.

Since it’s important, a bunch of us stayed up late last night to watch the launch. We went up to the Acre Road Observatory in Maryhill. It’s a cool facility owned by the University and mostly used for teaching astronomy students. It’s been recently renovated though, and the director wants to get more use out of it just generally, so of course we were welcome to use it for our launch party.


We all arrive at 23:30 or so, poured ourselves a glass of wine, snacked on crisps, nuts, soup and chilli (kindly provided by some of the LISA team) and settled in to watch countdown screens and official programming by ESA (the European Space Agency). We also set up a live stream to chat to our colleagues in Hanover, Germany at the AEI (Albert Einstein Institute) who had also had a huge part to play in making Pathfinder happen.

At 1 am Dr Ewan Fitzsimmons (yep), a physicist who’s worked both at the IGR and in industry on Pathfinder, gave a talk about what we could expect to happen and about what had already happened to get us this far. I’ve never attended a scientific talk at 1 am with a glass of wine in my hand before. I recommend it, though. It did wonders for my attention span.

After Ewan’s talk, Dr David Robertson, an IGR researcher, gave a short, more specific talk about the “optical bench.” The part of Pathfinder that Glasgow has done the most work on. It was in this talk that we learned about the terrifying testing the bench had to go through. It’s basically a lump of glass for guiding laser light with, but to launch glass into space you have to make sure it’s really strong, durable glass. Normal glass would shatter. One of the tests was impact testing, which involved lifting it to a height and then dropping it. Pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to do with glass but it survived.


We refreshed our glasses and then moved onto a LISA Pathfinder quiz, designed to entertain us until the last few minutes of launch. I was amazed at how quickly launch came around. Before I new it we were down to the last ten minutes. Then the last ten seconds.

Pathfinder didn’t explode on the launch pad (always a fear) but we waited until the VEGA rocket it was launching with was well clear of the Earth and down to it’s last thrust stage before we opened the champagne and sliced the cake. What can I say? It’s not every day you successfully launch a space mission. Fizz and cake is justified.

By this point it was a little after 5am. Most of us started to get up to head home. I caught the first bus out of Maryhill to Glasgow’s Centre and was in bed by 6am. Now we need to wait until early February to hear whether the payload is ok. We might as well relax a bit.

Originally posted here:


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