ESA to launch space observatory to hunt for Earth-like planets

20 Feb 2014

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it is to launch a space-based observatory as part of its PLATO (planetary transits and oscillations of stars) mission.

Due to launch ten years from now in 2024, the ESA mission will address two key themes of cosmic vision: what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how the solar system works.

The incredibly powerful telescope 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.

Using a series of 34 separate small telescopes and cameras, will have an arduous task ahead of it as it will attempt to search the millions and millions of stars within the observatory’s field of view.

It will also investigate seismic activity in the stars, enabling a precise characterisation of the host sun of each planet discovered, including its mass, radius and age.

PLATO will be the third space observatory of its kind to be launched by the ESA and will follow on from the launch of Solar Orbiter and Euclid who are also expected to launch in the hunt for possible life-bearing medium-class planets as part of the ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015–25 Programme.

The first of the three satellites to be launched is Solar Orbiter in 2017 which will 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.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic