New Space-Based Observatory to Seek Earth-like Planets

Sunday, 23 Feb 2014 05:19 PM

By Greg Richter

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A new observatory based in space will search out planets similar to Earth which may have the building blocks of life.

The European Space Agency last week announced the choice of PLATO for its latest medium-class science mission.

PLATO, short for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars, will use 34 separate small telescopes and cameras to search for planets around up to a million stars in more than half the sky, ESA says.

It is set to launch by 2024.

The mission's two goals are to find the conditions necessary for planet formation and life and to see how the solar system works.

"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," an ESA press release read.

PLATO also will check seismic activity in the stars, allowing scientists to determine the mass, radius and age of each planet's sun. Each planet's mass and radius also can be calculated, including its density, which can give clues to its composition.

The presence of liquid water on the surface of a planet is vital to the formation of life.

"PLATO, with its unique ability to hunt for Sun–Earth analogue systems, will build on the expertise accumulated with a number of European missions, including CoRot and Cheops," said Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration. "Its discoveries will help to place our own solar system’s architecture in the context of other planetary systems."

The mission is set to launch on a Soyuz rocket from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on an initial six-year mission. It will be stationed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

PLATO beat out four other concepts for the M3 launch: 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.)

"The question of whether life exists on other planets is arguably one of the most intriguing questions in science today," Mario Livio, senior astrophysicist with the Space Telescope Science Institute, told the website TechNewsWorld.  "The discovery of life in an extrasolar system will constitute a revolution that will rival the Copernican and Darwinian ones."

While welcoming the news, one American scientist lamented the fact that the United States, once the leader in space exploration, no longer holds that title.

It "indicates how far the United States has fallen behind in comparison with our European and Russian partners in space exploration," UCLA professor William Newman told TechNewsWorld.

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