Getting one step closer to finding Earth-like planets

A UK-backed mission searching for Earth-like planets has passed a critical milestone review, giving it the green light to continue with development.

The UK Space Agency has provided financial backing for the European Space Agency (ESA) mission, named Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO). This £25m investment will guarantee that UK scientists and engineers, led by the University of Warwick, will be involved in all facets of the mission.

Reaching a mission milestone

Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, commented: “The critical milestone review has confirmed the maturity of the design and the robustness of the build schedule for both the science instruments and the spacecraft they will fly on, so it is now full speed ahead for PLATO.

“The mission offers the exciting potential for a rocky planet with life signatures to be detected using innovative sensors, electronics and software developed in the UK, on a mission with UK science leadership.”

With its launch planned for 2026, the cutting-edge mission to search for Earth-like planets will detect and observe thousands of comparatively bright stars over a huge area of the sky, searching for minuscule, consistent dips in brightness as their planets transit in front of them, momentarily blocking out a minute segment of the starlight. The evaluation of these transits, and of the variations in the starlight, will enable researchers to distinguish the properties of the exoplanets and their host stars.

Finding Earth-like planets

At this time, astronomers have discovered more than 3,000 planets outside of our Solar System which are known as exoplanets, but as of yet, none of these have been demonstrated Earth-like qualities in terms of their size and distance from a Sun comparable to our own. PLATO’s advanced design is anticipated to change this.

Professor Don Pollacco, from the University of Warwick, which leads the PLATO Science Management Consortium, added: “The PLATO project involves the serial production of complicated components and is challenging to both academia and industry. The Critical Milestone is a detailed examination of how these processes will work in practice.

“Any production errors will lead to greater costs and delays so passing this milestone is reaffirming confidence in the hundreds of scientists and engineers that are working on this mission. Our dream of finding lots of planets like the Earth that we can examine in detail is one step closer.”

New frontiers in space science

Filippo Marliani, project manager of PLATO at ESA, concluded: “PLATO continues a European tradition of excellence in all areas of space science. The mission will serve the science community to gather invaluable knowledge of planets in our galaxy, beyond our own Solar System.

“The successful completion of the critical milestone and the formal start of the second phase of this extraordinary mission constitute an important boost of positive energy for the next challenges to be tackled with our industrial, institutional and academic partners.”

The next key landmark for PLATO is the spacecraft critical design review, which is set for 2023.This will authenticate the detailed design of the completed spacecraft before continuing with its assembly.

Following its launch, PLATO will journey to Lagrange point 2 in space, 1.5 million km beyond Earth in the direction away from the Sun. From here the telescope will examine over 200,000 stars throughout its four-year nominal mission.

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