The ESA Ariel spacecraft gets closer to surveying exoplanets

10 Aug 2023

Artist's concept of the ESA's ARIEL spacecraft in front of the Earth. Image: ESA/STFC RAL Space/UCL/Europlanet-Science Office

When launched, Ariel will observe roughly 1,000 planets outside of our solar system, to help us learn more about their formation and how they change over time.

Ariel, the European Space Agency (ESA) mission to learn more about exoplanets, has just passed a major development milestone.

The ESA said the mission successfully completed its payload preliminary design review, which demonstrates that it meets all the necessary technical and scientific specifications. The agency said this marks a “crucial step forward” for the mission, which is expected to launch in 2029.

When launched, Ariel will observe roughly 1,000 exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system – to learn more about their atmospheres, metallic compounds and – in some cases – their clouds and seasonal changes.

The mission’s payload contains the essential components of the mission, such as the telescope, the Ariel infrared spectrometer and a fine guidance system, along with supporting hardware and services.

The Ariel payload team prepared 179 technical documents and addressed 364 questions from a panel of ESA experts, who evaluated the feasibility of the payload design. The ESA said this review scrutinised every aspect of the proposed payload to ensure that it meets the requirements of the observation mission.

“This is really a big step for the mission and we are very pleased with the outcome,” said ESA scientist Theresa Lueftinger. “The ESA team, the Ariel Consortium payload team and Airbus put a huge amount of work and effort into the success of this major milestone and the collaboration went extremely well.

“All the elements have been put together and evaluated and we now know that the mission is feasible and we can do the science.”

The Ariel mission is now preparing for a payload critical design review and will begin to manufacture its first prototype models, the ESA said.

The Ariel mission is a collaboration between the ESA and the Ariel Mission Consortium, which includes more than 50 institutes from 16 European countries.

It is hoped that the observations of exoplanets will give insights into the early stages of the formation of planets and how they change over time. The ESA said those findings can help us learn more about our own solar system and lay the groundwork for “future searches for life elsewhere in the universe”.

Other telescopes and spacecraft are already making discoveries in this field. In January, it was revealed that the James Webb Space Telescope discovered its first exoplanet, which appeared to be almost exactly the same size as Earth.

Last year, researchers discovered an exoplanet around 100 light-years away that is in the perfect location to be a ‘water world’ full of deep oceans.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic