NASA Gives Up on LISA

By Sean Carroll | April 6, 2011 3:49 pm

Sorry to bump Julianne’s fun post further down the page, but lots of news today. This particular piece of news is not fun: NASA is abandoning LISA, the planned Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, as well as IXO, an X-ray satellite observatory (formerly “Constellation X”). Steinn has some of the ugly details. Short story: money is tight, and the James Webb Space Telescope is taking all of it. (Not that JWST is completely immune from danger itself…)

LISA is not completely dead: the European Space Agency will keep the planning alive. But this is a serious step, not just a feint in a budget negotiation; the LISA International Science Team is being disbanded, told to pack up and go home. Hopefully the ESA will continue to push forward, and individual researchers in the US can somehow find money to still think about gravitational-wave astrophysics from space. It’s possible that a smaller mission could be put forward, but it’s not as if NASA has extra money they’re looking to spend right now.

Of all the concepts for big astrophysics missions in space, LISA is my favorite. Unlike LIGO, which strains as hard as possible and hopefully will detect something once its upgraded, LISA would be bombarded with gravitational waves, and the trick will be picking out the interesting signals from above the ambient noise. (That’s a problem we don’t mind having.) I was part of the original Beyond Einstein roadmap team (pdf) that packaged LISA and Constellation-X together with a dark energy mission to create an ambitious but realistic plan for NASA cosmology that Congress and the OMB could get behind. That was in 2002, before wars and tax cuts and financial catastrophes sapped the government of its ability to pay for anything. The best-laid plans of mice and men and NASA panels, as the saying goes.

LISA’s science is not just achievable, it’s incredibly interesting. It would detect thousands of binary systems within our galaxy, as well as numerous inspirals of middleweight black holes into supermassive ones in other galaxies, giving us incredibly detailed access to the spacetime metric near a black hole. As a side benefit, the wavelength is just right for looking at gravitational waves that might be produced in the early universe if the electroweak phase transition is especially violent. I remember giving a talk to particle physicists planning the International Linear Collider (another possibly doomed endeavor) back in 2003. It was great to see their eyes light up when I told them about this connection between satellite observatories and particle accelerators — at a meeting dominated by budget worries, it was a tiny oasis of actual science.

Hopefully things will somehow work out, but there’s not a lot of reason for optimism at the moment. We’ll see how things go.

  • z

    Europe is looking more and more appealing.

    Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures. We have tax cuts for the rich so Obama is “forced” to cut programs for the poor and cut science. The one billion the US spent in a week for Libya would have paid for LISA.

  • Mikey

    Let’s add this to the lesson from Apple – don’t name a new project “Lisa.”

  • Eugene

    One day, we will talk about this the way we talked about the SSC.

  • Doug A

    Is there any linkable proof available supporting this rumor?

  • Sean

    Doug– there is an email that went out to all members of the LISA science team. But I don’t think it’s been posted anywhere yet.

  • gbob

    Z, don’t kid yourself. LISA, if it ever gets built, will cost way more than $1B, just like JWST now costs way more than the $1B the proponents originally said it would. And that is the real reason you wont have any significant NASA space science programs other than JWST for most of the next decade.

  • Richard E.

    This is genuinely sad. On the one hand, LISA has been something like commercial fusion — it is always N years into the future, where N is some constant of order 10. On the other hand, LISA would provide a genuinely revolutionary way to look at the heavens.

    There is no upside to this.

  • George Musser

    This isn’t the first time NASA has canceled LISA – the project was “deferred indefinitely” during the agency’s budget squeeze of 2006. Let us hope it can rise from the dead once more.

  • Charles Dunn

    Actually the astrophysics decadal survey killed LISA and IXO by rating them behind WFIRST and the Explorer program. At this priority, NASA did not have the budget to to LISA on the timescale required for the ESA Cosmic Visions Large mission (and LISA was not yet selected for this in anycase).

  • Bernard Kelly

    Advanced LIGO is supposed to go live in 2014. If all goes well there, perhaps LISA (or whatever they call it) will get renewed interest by late 2015.

    Richard E.: LISA may have suffered from future creep like fusion, but I suspect many missions do, and some of them do actually get built/launched and come on line.

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  • Z

    Advanced LIGO will go live by 2014, but it won’t achieve design sensitivity until several years after that date. So, realistically, don’t expect any gravitational wave detections for at least 5 years.

    Perhaps the millisecond pulsar groups will beat LIGO at “directly” detecting GWs

  • Herman

    After sitting in on a Kip Thorne lecture last year, this sad news took the wind out of my sails.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Europe is looking more and more appealing.

    Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures. We have tax cuts for the rich so Obama is “forced” to cut programs for the poor and cut science. The one billion the US spent in a week for Libya would have paid for LISA.

    In all honesty, the Republicans don’t have the better track record for funding fundamental research. Also, keep in mind that now that he doesn’t have a majority in both houses of Congress, one can’t pin everything one doesn’t like on Obama. In particular, the “tax cuts for the rich” smell more Republican.

  • Dave

    Cut the defense budget in half and give it to NASA and its private contractors.
    Cease the Bush Tax Cuts and instead invest in a full spectrum of science and research.
    End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    We spend $190 million A DAY in Afghanistan alone, while cutting programs that could supply insight into the nature of reality and ultimately the origin of all existence.

    We’re a doomed species, advanced enough to realize the tragedy of our collective stupidity.

  • Georg

    On the other hand, LISA would provide a genuinely revolutionary way to look at the heavens.

    Right, and in such instances always something extremely interesting was found.
    (often not the thing one looked for:=)

  • réalta fuar

    Completely out of my field, and LISA’s potential has always been grand, but it’s my meager understanding that there are still significant technological hurdles that have not yet been met (I like the comparison above to commercial fusion). This seems unique to me for a project which has had so much support. My impression is that a lot has been taken for granted in terms of whether or not LISA COULD be completed, as designed.

  • John

    “And that is the real reason you wont have any significant NASA space science programs other than JWST for most of the next decade.”

    Nonsense. I would remind you that WMAP was an explorer class mission.

  • Fred

    I just found out and I’m really bummed.

    I found out about LISA when I was in first year when I asked my lecturer about the speed of gravity and gave me a cool 30 minute lecture that ended up with this experiment. It’s probably what kept me from switching out of physics into something else.

    This is why I don’t understand politics of the United States. They spend untold billions each year on its military (300? 200?) and then they always want to cut the budget of places like NASA. Why not just transfer stuff to NASA? I imagine it’s not that simple, but still.

  • Julianne

    I think it’s wrong to frame this as “JWST killed LISA and IXO” or “The Decadal Survey killed LISA and IXO”. The space science budget is a very small fraction of NASA’s total budget and the money is there to solve the JWST issues without gutting space science, if NASA would treat it as an agency wide issue. The JWST shortfall was largely a NASA project management failure (according to the Casani report), resulting indirectly from Constellation squeezing everything out, but all of space science is paying the price.

  • Phil

    This is really sad news, lets hope ESA can continue, what about the Chinese? hasn’t anyone tried to collaborate with them? They seem to long of cash and looking for some space glory.

  • valatan

    @Philip Helbig: The tax cuts for the rich were extended while the Democrats still had both houses. The Democrats chose to ‘take it off the table’ for the election.

  • wtf

    “Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures.”

    Idiot talk like that has got to stop. Obama and the Democrats cannot strangle opponents into voting their way. Complain about the people CUTTING science budgets, you genius internet people. Don’t complain about how the political system disallows hand to hand combat.

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  • JT

    @Fred: There are many issues with the politics and budget of the US, not the least of which is that it is hard to get 308,745,548 (# of US residents in 2010 according to the census) people to agree on what we should spend our money on. Especially when most of them can’t even identify most federal agencies or politicians other than the president. If you’re interested, the 2010 US budget numbers can be found here: . First of all note that we spent 1.4 trillion more than we brought in. The claim is that’s the reason why we’re headed for a federal shutdown tomorrow (although it appears to be more of the petty policy battles over things like funding NPR).

    @Julianne: In NASA’s FY2012 budget request (available on NASA’s website), science gets $5B out of a total of $18B, not an insignificant fraction. JWST gets ~$400M per year of this $5B every year for the foreseeable future, presumably until in launches. Again, not insignificant when you consider that the $5B funds all of science, not just astrophysics.

    Bottom line is that NASA doesn’t have the money to do any big astrophysics (and maybe planetary) missions in the next decade. This makes both the recent Astrophysics and Planetary decadal surveys dead-on-arrival. Europe has no choice but to go it alone because they have a chunk of money that they are supposed to start spending in 2015. I sincerely hope that the European gravitational wave community can pull together and get something going, perhaps in the interim fortunes in the US will change and we can contribute when the time comes.

  • Ian

    A few billion dollars is just pennies as far as defense spending, or the US GDP, is concerned. The NSF doesn’t have much funding; neither does NASA. They’re not priorities. They are just something that gets low-level investment over time with the hope of eventually producing or figuring out something interesting. The reason this is stupid is the trend of science throughout history is clear – good science always results in world-altering advances in our way of life and our state of knowledge. Virtually nothing else does, notable exceptions being humanities-based social development (democracy, …), and engineering, which essentially amounts to further development of scientific ideas.

    I want to propose that the most efficient way to reduce wasteful defense spending (a bipartisan measure) while strengthening US science (again bipartisan) is to repeal the Mansfield amendment of 1973. This is the amendment that barred the DOD from funding any scientific research without clear practical application – in other words, basic research. This kills two birds with one stone: bipartisan support, reduces the “size” of government by eliminating wasteful defense spending, and bolsters US science, thus making the nation more competitive. Win, win.

  • michele zanolin

    As it stands, this post is just a rumor. (you should show links to some official statements )

  • Rajkumar T

    Sure, it will come up. Lot of researchers hard work will not be trashed. Only matter of time.

  • Sam Gralla


    (Is this kind of post allowed on these reputable forums?)

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  • Brian Too

    Forgive me for being a contrarian here, but it’s more than a little overreaching to suggest that LISA “… would detect thousands of binary systems within our galaxy, as well as…”. This assumes that LISA will work and that gravity waves exist.

    LIGO has been looking for several years and hasn’t detected a thing. OK, you claim that LIGO’s detection threshold isn’t sufficiently high. Why then have considerable millions of dollars been poured into LIGO? Why ever build an instrument that isn’t up to the job?

    I’m pro-science and even I can understand that gravity wave detection might have to be put on the back burner for a few years. Money is tight. Given that reality I’d far rather fund extrasolar planet detection missions, which are wildly productive, than gravity wave detectors. Which haven’t produced a d*mn thing. Gravity wave projects are looking suspiciously like fusion research, which is to say all promise and no delivery.

    When times are tough you prioritize and cut the weak projects.

  • Suetonius

    “I’d far rather fund extrasolar planet detection missions, which are wildly productive,”

    Wildly productive of what? Breathless press releases announcing the discovery of yet another ball of gas or piece of rock? In fact, extrasolar planet “research” has about as much credibility as searches for a cure for cancer. “We have found ANOTHER planet! Sure, we knew already that there are other balls of rock out there, but this has the potential to CHANGE THE WAY WE SEE THE PLACE OF THE HUMAN RACE IN THE COSMOS. blah blah blah…” It was always boring and it is even more boring now. Comparing it with gravitational wave astronomy is ludicrous.

  • Surprised

    I’m going to go ahead and surprise myself and agree with @Brian. LIGO needs a detection before this is a viable mission.

    Look: The reality is that if LISA got funded, it would be the huge beast eating up all of the space science funding. Everyone would be angry at it (see JWST) and with science goals that are in no way clear to the general public.

  • JT

    Love LISA, think it’s awesome, and am good friends with key folks on the project. It’s still wildly expensive for the current budget, but more than anything, it’s like another poster commented (though Julianne disagreed) — the Decadal Survey killed LISA. The community and it’s representatives did not prioritize LISA or IXO on top, but instead as medium priority technology developments. Kiss of death. But it’s what the majority of the community wanted — which is supposed to be the whole purpose of a Decadal.

    that said — it’s not that NASA just pulled out of LISA and IXO. They also pulled out of Euclid (Dark Energy), and Laplace (a mission to Jupiter’s moons). There is not funding folks.

    Better to use the collective creativity of the community to think of new inexpensive ideas than keep hoping for for the Billion dollar plus flagships.

    (by the way, yes WMAP was an Explorer — but check the cost actuals — it was about 5 times the current Explorer cost cap).

    We need some creative new ideas that are implementable in these tough times.

  • tough times?

    “We need some creative new ideas that are implementable in these tough times.”

    How about working to kick Obama out of office and a true progressive into office? Or reaching out and enguaging the public for science, even if you don’t get tenure (sigh) from your dumb colleagues? If Obama didn’t cave on almost everything, including tax cuts for top brackets, there wouldn’t be much of a deficit problem. The ‘tough times’ are noticeably devoid for certain segments of the population.

    I see lots of cowardice here, not just from Democrats, but scientists and researchers who have resigned themselves to the current situation.

  • tim

    No LISA?! What a blow. Here’s an idea: rename LISA the ‘God Signal Explorer’ and let the Templeton Foundation pick up the price tag. That’s half a problem solved. Atheists just need to wait another generation or so for the other half to resolve itself…

  • petergreat

    As a graduate student, LISA has captured my imagination ever since childhood, as it has been mentioned in so many pop-sci books as a wonderful experiment that will take place in the future, as something everyone should be waiting for. Sad to see it’s not going to happen any time soon.

  • Shantanu

    petergreat, that’s one reason you shouldn’t believe all pop-sci books
    I think LISA still has many technological hurdles to surmount. Also anyone know the status
    of LISA path-finder and how this decision impacts that ?

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  • Tony

    Let’s not mince words about the mismanagement of JWST though. Sure it’s cheap compared to the defense budget. But right now the projected cost of JWST is nearing the cost of the Large Hadron Collider.

  • JT


    LISA Pathfinder is not formally affected by this change. It is predominantly a European mission with some token involvement from NASA. NASA is bound by prior agreements with ESA to deliver their portion of the experiment, known as ST-7. In fact, it is my understanding that ST-7 has been delivered to Europe and the delays are due to some issues with European hardware, particularly the microthrusters. Ironically, the ST-7 payload is a different kind of microthruster that was developed in the US and seems to work. What is the European mission-formally-known-as-LISA team going to do without this key piece of NASA technology?

  • réalta fuar

    @Suetonious You got the ludicrous right but your possession arrow is pointing in the wrong direction.

  • Jimbo

    We see clearly here, the perennial myopia of the US govnt., even unable at this time to keep its dysfunctional self operating. Many have lamented the demise of the SSC, Misson to Mars, & now LISA, perhaps the most grandiose experiment in the history of science, & one exemplary of our emergence as an advanced civilization. Orbiting our star, would’ve been a technology of 15 Giga-meters in size (1/10 A.U.), dwarfing the LHC, but engaged in physics as fundamental. Even applied physics projects, with practical goals such as the Space Elevator (est.$50B) are now hanging (no pun) by a thread.
    Assuming the US govnt. continues to operate, the next shuttle will launch Sam Ting’s alpha magnetic spectrometer, an instrument designed to search for dark matter & antimatter in space.
    A Nobel laureate (J/psi -`74), Prof. Ting has gone to hell & back to save, shepherd & reinvent his project, only to emerge triumphant. This is cause for hope, but LISA’s axing does not bode well for the evolution of the human species, beyond its terrestrial niche.
    Freeman Dyson hypothesized Five classes of evolution for emergent civilizations, dependent upon their hierarchical control of energy sources. Currently, we are a struggling class I, & yet we stand upon the precipice of ascending to class II via solar power satellites, currently under study by PG&E and Wash.St.U. Such a grandiose project would seem impossible financially, without a dedicated consortium of countries & governments. Sadly, LISA’s demise does not bode well for our ascendancy up the galactic totem pole, nor does the utter lack of vision evidenced by the US Govnt., continually mired in mediocrity, and unable to aspire to any project which transforms our world, & uplifts our vision to the stars.

  • Heinrich Monroe

    @ Suetonius April 7th, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    “Wildly productive of what? Breathless press releases announcing the discovery of yet another ball of gas or piece of rock? In fact, extrasolar planet “research” has about as much credibility as searches for a cure for cancer.”

    I just want to add my skepticism about extrasolar planet detection. This is, in general, a very good thing, and research is always good. But the holy grail, which is detection of an Earth-like planet, is somewhat of a yawner. Why? Well, because I’d be *absolutely dumfounded* if one didn’t exist. Given the enormous number of larger planets already found in a wide range of orbits, it’s a little hard to conceive that smaller chunks aren’t around in habitable zones. It’s nice to find one, but it has the smell of flag-planting rather than science. LISA would probe entirely new science directions and tell us things that are really new, instead of just pointing at things that we really wouldn’t be that surprised to find. I’m after surprises, rather than checking off boxes. Yes, such a discovery would get you an above-the-fold news article, but then where are you after that?

    There are a wide range of things that we’d be absolutely dumfounded about if they didn’t exist, and while chasing them down offers some sense of relief, one has to do some simple prioritization. Does anyone, in their wildest dreams, believe that Earth-like extrasolar planets DON’T exist?

    I guess if you find one, that’s an obvious target for searches for life, but our knowledge about the formation of life is so incomplete, it’s somewhat presumptuous to say that such targets should be restricted to Earth-like masses in habitable zones around middling-mass main sequence stars.

    What am I missing here?

  • Neil Cornish

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of LISA’s death are greatly exaggerated. The current LISA project within NASA has been instructed to stand-down, and the LISA International Science Team (which I was a member of) has been disbanded. But this is not the end of the story. NASA is not going to walk away from space based gravitational wave astronomy. The 2010 Decadal report for astrophysics strongly endorsed the LISA mission concept and its science goals, and NASA is expected to find ways to implement these recommendations. The way forward won’t be easy, but expect to see a re-designed and re-named LISA project at NASA. The science opportunity is just too compelling to let die. It is not a question of if we see a gravitational wave detector in space, but when.

  • Anonymous_Snowboarder

    @ToughTimes – do you really, honestly, think that the American public are going to jump up and down and get behind you to fund a gravity wave detection project when we have nearly 20% ‘under’-employed? When they struggle to pay the supermarket bill let alone gas for the car? When we have $50 TRILLION in unfunded liabilities? And @Dave, trying to say ‘well we can cut all of this so we can spend on what I like’ is very much part of the problem and also ignoring the fundamental issue – the US is broke. I’ll step on some toes on this website but funding programs such as this one which are unlikely to offer any tangible improvement in the lives of the ordinary citizens is just not tenable anymore. These and similar projects are luxuries which are now victims of across the board government largess the past 75 years. Simply put, Grampa and Grandma, Mommy and Daddy spent our future and left us the tab.

  • Bob Thompson

    Luckily NASA had enough money to put that dopey global warming satellite into space. Dumb stupid, idiot liberals.

  • oracle


    You are completely wrong!!!

    The problem is not that there is not enough money available for food, providing jobs and other important things the ordinary citizens need to improve their lives AND cool science.
    The real problem is the addiction of the US governement to playing war games around the world which sucks all of the resources in like a big fat blackhole growing even bigger and fatter!
    Just cut the defense budget to an appropriate size; this will lead to an acceptable solution of all financal problems of the nation the ordinary citizens AND scientist can live with!

  • pat b

    the reason the JWST is eating cosmology missions is because it was designed as an all or nothing mission. The design is a monster, it is way beyond anyone’s capabilities, and it’s consuming all observatory dollars. I will note for the record that a spare Hubble Mirror is available. It’s sitting in the Air and Space Museum. A decent approach would take that spare mirror, mount it into a
    Hubble Frame, put some modern electronics in it and send it up to GEO-Sync orbit.

    Yes it would be unservicable, but, we know many of the bugs, we could put it on a Delta 4 heavy, and
    let it do Long look missions, which would be relatively easy. This spacecraft could be built for 2-3 hundred million and flown and operated for no more then $500Million. Sitting in GEO, it could talk to a dedicated ground station so it wouldn’t need TDRSS time and it wouldn’t need heavy comms management.

    With that kind of Stare Time it could work IR, UV and Deep Field and hunt for planetary signal.

    This would leave money for LISA

  • Mike

    Let them outsource LISA to bring the cost down.Stop funding wars.Who needs them anyway???

  • Michael Smith

    If you think the cancellation of the LISA is bad, can you believe that while scouting talent for a science documentary I want to make explaining my theories about time displacement.

    I was arrested and put on trial for child molestation. (Los Angeles County).

    Regardless, I ‘am still going forward.

  • Chanda

    Okay people, just thought I’d point out that LISA isn’t cancelled, for a few reasons, starting with the fact that it was never guaranteed in the first place by NASA or the ESA, and ending with the fact that essentially the ESA dumped NASA because of how tiny NASA’s budget is. And if you bother to properly read the President’s budget request for NASA for the last couple of years along with this year’s, you’ll see that JWST isn’t actually sucking up all the money. Blame Wall Street/Afghanistan/your money-sucking economy-destroying cause of the week. The entire agency is being shrunk to the tune of about $2.2 billion over the next few years. That’s not JWST. That’s some people thinking that we can “win the future” by defunding pure science. (Thankfully the people who funded CERN when the WWW was invented were not this stupid.)

    The headline of this blog entry significantly exaggerates what is going on. The real facts of what happens next are here:

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  • Radhakrishna

    it is sad. LISA is one of the ambitious project. Crunch of money should not stop the project. If the same was the case with some of the ambitious project of earlier times – building of accelerators, sending men to moon, launching of various space crafts, establishing Hubble, Chandra and other powerful telescopes, sequencing genes … , we the mankind would be the looser. Let Obama and his men stop funding heavily on defence and divert them to Science projects like LISA so that our understanding of the universe and nature to reach new frontiers.

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  • Brian Too

    Wow, there’s some pretty apocalyptic talk on this thread! The US is finished, humankind is a writeoff, my dreams of greatness by proxy are irrepairably damaged, etc.

    We are going through a temporary financial problem. Most likely. It’s not like the world hasn’t faced problems before and considerable numbers of those were far, far worse than now. All we have to do is exile all the irresponsible financial types and hope there are more than a dozen left to keep the system running (hah!).

    If LISA has merit it will be back, though perhaps in a different form.

    Meanwhile I maintain that proven successful and productive projects are what need to be protected and nurtured at this time. Bleeding edge projects with a 50-95% chance of failing are a waste of time and political capital during a financial pinch. Especially if they are expensive to begin with and very likely to overrun their initial budgets. By a lot!

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  • Donkey Hoteee

    Just as I was thinking we might really do something new and significant … another sign of America’s decline slaps me in the face.

    LISA won’t go away, it’s too important to science and our future. It will just go elsewhere; to other countries and private contractors, (maybe even American ones, but that’s probably too much to hope for).

    I hope all you extremely wealthy Americans are thoroughly enjoying those beautiful homes, private jets, fancy cars, massages, gourmet meals and other perks that the Bush tax cuts and a total lack of fiscal restraint and regulatory oversight have helped to finance.

    I’ve lost all respect for you.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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