Europe’s PLATO Spacecraft Will Hunt For Earth-like Planets

Posted: Jun 21 2017, 8:48am CDT | by , Updated: Jun 21 2017, 8:55am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Europe’s PLATO Spacecraft will Hunt for Earth-like Planets
Europe's largest exoplanet research mission, PLATO. Credit: ESA

The launch of mission is scheduled for 2026

An unmanned spacecraft designed to search for habitable planets will be launched into space by the end of 2026. European Space Agency has announced the official adoption of the mission on June 20.

There has been a lot of talk and excitement over many Earth-like planets discovered recently by Kepler spacecraft. PLATO, the largest European exoplanet research mission, is aiming to discover more potential exoplanet candidates that orbit around their host stars' habitable zone and have Earth-like atmosphere.

The spacecraft is carrying several small yet powerful telescopes. By using the telescopes, PLATO will survey half the sky for at least four years and will study about a million stars with exquisite precision.

“Using observations of stellar vibrations, PLATO will for the first time fully characterize these stars and their planets with regard to mass, radius, and age", said Prof. Dr. Laurent Gizon, head of the PLATO Data Center. "This will revolutionize the study of the evolution of exoplanets and their host stars. The ultimate goal of the mission is to find an Earth-twin.”

Gizon adds. “We are very pleased that PLATO has reached adoption and that the mission is now moving forward into its next decisive phase.”

The mission was selected by an expert panel in 2014. The name PLATO is an acronym that stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars. It is equipped with not one but a bunch of 26 telescopes, making it possible to gaze at very large area of sky at once. Each telescope is 12 centimeters in diameter. The mission’s launch was originally scheduled for 2024 but now it has been pushed back to 2026.

PLATO will measure the vibrations of stars to determine the sizes, masses, and ages of the planetary systems it finds and thus offer a better understanding of a system as a whole.

"With this concept and the high precision of the instrument we will find rocky planets orbiting sun like stars and will be able to characterize them accurately.” Prof. Dr. Heike Rauer from German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin, who is the Principal Investigator of the mission said.

Over the past 20 years, thousands planetary systems have been discovered. But almost all of these systems differ significantly from our Solar System. PLATO firmly will establish whether systems like our own Solar System exist. If yes then how common they are in our galaxy.

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