THE UNIVERSITY of Warwick has been given the green light to launch a mission to discover and characterise planets in the solar system’s habitable zone.
The European Space Agency (ESA) Science Programme and Committee met on June 20 to give Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) the go ahead – meaning the project can now move from blueprint to construction.
The mission, scientifically led by the university, proposes launching a satellite 1.5 million km into space, where it will monitor thousands of bright stars over a large area of sky.
The satellite will search for tiny, regular dips in brightness as planets cross in front of the stars, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight.
The mission will address questions such as ‘how common are earth-like planets?’ and ‘is our solar system unusual or even unique?’ – and could eventually lead to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life.
It will also investigate seismic activity in some of the host stars, and determine their masses, sizes and ages to help understand the entire exoplanet system.
Professor Don Pollacco of Warwick University is the PLATO science coordinator and said: “The launch of PLATO will give us the opportunity to contribute to some of the biggest discoveries of the next decade answering fundamental questions about our existence, and could eventually lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life.”
In the coming months, businesses will be asked to make bids to supply the spacecraft platform.
Its payload and control and analysis software will be constructed by agencies and institutes across Europe.
University of Warwick is working alongside scientists and engineers in collaboration with the UK Space Agency on the mission.