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Europe’s Building a Spaceship to Find Planets Beyond our Solar System

Posted October 12, 2018

With the launch of the TESS space telescope, the world’s eyes will turn to the skies as astronomers, and NASA researchers hunt for exoplanets — planets that exist outside of our home solar system.

While finding them with a satellite or space telescope is exciting, that’s nothing compared to exploring these exoplanets with a spacecraft — and that’s exactly what the European Space Agency is planning.

Image credit: Edvin Richardson via Pexels, CC0 Public Domain

Image credit: Edvin Richardson via Pexels, CC0 Public Domain

Introducing Plato

The Plato mission originally began in 2014 as a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center in Berlin. While the project was first announced in 2014, the ESA wasn’t able to move forward with design and building until 2017.

The goal of this project is to spend at least four years searching the skies for exoplanets. The even loftier goal is to discover habitable planets or even planets that look like Earth and could provide a target for colonization when humanity reaches that stage in its interplanetary travels.

This isn’t the first project designed to find our nearby interstellar neighbors, and it won’t be the last. However, it is the first exoplanet mission focused on finding other planets that are a little bit closer to home.

Lots of Telescopes

Plato can scope out large sections of the sky at a time to aid its search for exoplanets closer to our home system than have been previously discovered.

To that end, the satellite has 26 telescopes mounted on a single platform, and it will get positioned so it can monitor one patch of sky for up to two years. Then it can observe the light of the stars in these nearby systems. If the light dims during the observation period, that means that there is at least one planet orbiting the star, meriting a closer look.

Toward the Future

Plato isn’t quite ready for its first voyage just yet. It’s scheduled to get launched in 2026, and construction just kicked off this year in 2018. What’s in Plato’s near future?

First is the construction stage — actually building the satellite, getting all of the 26 telescopes hooked up and making sure they work and more.

The next stage includes testing — ensuring that the satellite can withstand the harsh environments that it will encounter in outer space. This includes things such as radiation shield testing, fireproofing and flammability testing and making sure that the electronics on the satellite itself can survive the rigors of space travel, including the extreme cold, radiation and lack of oxygen.

Once the satellite launches, it will take up position in what is known as the L2 Virtual Point in space, roughly 1.5 kilometers outside of Earth’s orbit. That will give it a unique perspective, unobstructed by the planet’s atmosphere or magnetosphere like the Kepler telescope is. While Kepler has found some amazing exoplanets, its findings get obscured by the atmosphere.

2026 Launch

Space enthusiasts everywhere should keep a close eye on the Plato project when it launches in 2026. This is the second of three exoplanet satellites that are on track to get launched by the ESA. Cheops will launch sometime next year to start characterizing exoplanets.

Next, Plato is scheduled to launch in 2026, then finally Ariel in 2028 which will study the atmospheres of the exoplanets that are discovered by the previous two satellites.

Once the satellite gets built, the testing phase will begin, and the ESA will see if the Plato satellite will be ready for its 2026 launch window.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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