Dr Anna Heffernan named top expert in major space mission

5 days ago

Dr Anna Heffernan. Image: John Ohle Photo

The LISA mission will build and launch the first ever observatory in space dedicated to studying gravitational waves.

Irish waveforms expert Dr Anna Heffernan will help advise on one of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) biggest projects ever.

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission is a €1.75bn ESA project in partnership with NASA, which aims to build and launch the first ever observatory in space dedicated to studying gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time emitted during the most powerful events in the universe, such as the collision and merging of black holes.

Gravitational waves have been detected by ground-based observatories in recent years, by experiments such as Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the European Virgo observatory. However, the LISA mission will be able to observe sources of waves for the first time at frequencies and over distances not possible from Earth.

This observatory will be able to scour the universe for these elusive gravitational waves, spanning millions of kilometres. The mission will study the nature of gravity itself by exploring the waves that originate from some of the most massive and extreme phenomena in the universe.

Making waves

The mission’s science team comprises a group of 20 top experts selected by the ESA to advise during the development and operations of the mission. Among the team is Irishwoman Heffernan, a University College Dublin (UCD) graduate and former PhD researcher of the UCD Relativity Group.

Heffernan has a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics and a master’s degree in quantum fields in fundamental physics. She also has a PhD in general relativity and was a post-doctorate researcher at the Advanced Concepts Team of the ESA at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands. She has been chosen as the group’s ‘waveforms’ expert.

“This an exciting and very significant project,” said Heffernan. “LISA will open a new window on our universe, there is so much science we can do. I was absolutely delighted to be selected, helping ensure we maximise the return of such a groundbreaking mission is a privilege. I am also delighted to be part of the Irish participation in a major international scientific project.”

Heffernan’s involvement was announced at the International LISA Symposium, which is taking place in UCD this week. Speaking at the event, ESA astrophysicist and the mission’s lead project scientist Dr Nora Luetzgendorf said it’s exciting for ESA to look at gravitational waves.

“For many decades it was just theory, starting from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but now we have the technology to really observe these waves, measure them and learn how they can affect us.”

Construction of the observatory is due to start next year and it is set to launch in 2035.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic