Scientists have spent ages searching for gravity waves from the safety of Earth, but they haven't had the chance to study those waves in space, where they could help make sense of black holes and other objects that distort spacetime. They're one step closer to getting that shot, though. The European Space Agency is almost ready to launch a vehicle, LISA Pathfinder, that will demonstrate the viability of measuring gravity waves in space. When it begins testing in March, Pathfinder won't actually measure gravitational effects at all. It'll instead look for extremely minute (picometer-level) changes between two test masses within the spacecraft, proving that you can achieve the extreme level of precision needed for a gravity wave detector.
Provided the test goes according to the plan, it'll represent the start of a long, long journey. A full-fledged gravity wave detector isn't poised to launch until 2034 -- an entire generation will reach adulthood between then and now. When that machine is operational, however, it could fill in many blanks for astrophysicists. Right now, interference from nearby galaxies prevents scientists from studying the energy from extremely violent cosmic events, such as the merger of supermassive black holes. With a spaceborne gravity detector, it'd be relatively easy to scoop up this data and make more sense of the universe.
[Image credit: ESA/P. Sebirot]