The UK is set to play a leading role in the search for habitable planets orbiting alien stars, following David Willett’s announcement today (11 March 2014) that the UK Space Agency will invest £25 million in ESA’s PLATO mission.
Planned for launch by 2024, the planet hunting mission will see strong involvement from several UK institutes, with Professor Don Pollacco from the University of Warwick providing UK scientific leadership for the European consortium.
With several UK space companies in a strong position to bid for the industrial opportunities that PLATO will produce, the UK’s investment in the mission is also set to secure excellent return, generating economic growth and creating new jobs.
PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) was selected by ESA’s Science Program Committee for implementation as part of its Cosmic Vision 2015-25 Program.
The mission will address two key themes of Cosmic Vision: what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how does the solar system work?
Dr. Chris Castelli, Acting Director of Technology, Science and Exploration at the UK Space Agency said: “With strong involvement from our science community and UK industry, PLATO is an important mission for the UK. It’s also a very exciting mission, as this is the first time we’ve been involved in a spacecraft designed to seek out habitable planets like our own.”
PLATO will monitor relatively nearby stars, searching for tiny, regular dips in brightness as their planets transit in front of them, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight.
By using 34 separate small telescopes and cameras, PLATO will search for planets around up to a million stars spread over half of the sky.
It will also investigate seismic activity in the stars, enabling a precise characterization of the host sun of each planet discovered, including its mass, radius and age.
Professor Don Pollacco from the University of Warwick, said: “PLATO is the logical next step in our search for extrasolar planets. It will revolutionize our knowledge of rocky planets and will enable the first directed search for life around Sun-like stars in the next decade.”
When coupled with ground-based radial velocity observations, PLATO’s measurements will allow a planet’s mass and radius to be calculated, and therefore its density, providing an indication of its composition.
The mission will identify and study thousands of exoplanetary systems, with an emphasis on discovering and characterizing Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone of their parent star -- the distance from the star where liquid surface water could exist.
The UK and PLATO
The UK, together with other ESA member states, will design PLATO’s scientific instruments and finance their development while ESA commissions the spacecraft to be built in European industry. Eleven UK Institutes (Birmingham, Cambridge, Keele, Leicester, Open University, Oxford, Queens Belfast, Queen Mary’s London, St. Andrews, Warwick, UCL MSSL) have involvement in PLATO and Prof. Don Pollacco of Warwick University is the Science Consortium Leader for the mission.
Professor Alan Smith, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, will lead the Focal Plane Array development for the detection system, with support from Leicester and the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge.
The Ground System Exoplanet Analysis software development program is being co-ordinated by Dr. Nic Walton at the IoA in Cambridge.
UK industry is well placed to bid for the build of the spacecraft and the development of the sophisticated CCD detectors needed for PLATO’s camera.
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The four other mission concepts competing for the M3 launch opportunity were: EChO (the Exoplanet Characterization Observatory), LOFT (the Large Observatory For x-ray Timing), MarcoPolo-R (to collect and return a sample from a near-Earth asteroid) and STE-Quest (Space-Time Explorer and QUantum Equivalence principle Space Test).
PLATO joins Solar Orbiter and Euclid, which were chosen in 2011 as ESA’s first M-class missions. Solar Orbiter will be launched in 2017 to study the Sun and solar wind from a distance of less than 50 million km, while Euclid, to be launched in 2020, will focus on dark energy, dark matter and the structure of the universe.
PLATO will be launched on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou by 2024 for an initial six-year mission. It will operate from L2, a virtual point in space 1.5 million km beyond Earth as seen from the Sun.
Data from ESA’s recently launched Gaia mission will help PLATO to provide precise characteristics of thousands of exoplanet systems. These systems will provide natural targets for detailed follow-up observations by future large ground- and space-based observatories.
UK Space Agency
The UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space. It is responsible for all strategic decisions on the UK civil space program and provides a clear, single voice for UK space ambitions.
The Agency is responsible for ensuring that the UK retains and grows a strategic capability in the space-based systems, technologies, science and applications. It leads the UK’s civil space program in order to win sustainable economic growth, secure new scientific knowledge and provide benefits to all citizens.
The UK Space Agency:
* Co-ordinates UK civil space activity
* Encourages academic research
* Supports the UK space industry
* Raises the profile of UK space activities at home and abroad
* Increases understanding of space science and its practical benefits
* Inspires our next generation of UK scientists and engineers
* Licenses the launch and operation of UK spacecraft
* Promotes co-operation and participation in the European Space program