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Mission to discover habitable Earths given green light

  • Mission to discover Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone of the solar system – scientifically led by the University of Warwick - given the go-ahead by European Space Agency
  • PLATO will be launched 1.5 million km into space - and will monitor thousands of bright stars over a large area of the sky, looking for regular dips in brightness as planets pass by them
  • It will investigate seismic activity in some of the host stars, and determine their masses, sizes and ages - with unprecedented accuracy
  • Could lead to discovery of could eventually lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life

A mission to discover and characterise Earth-sized planets and super-Earths orbiting Sun-like stars in the habitable zone of the solar system – scientifically led by the University of Warwick - has been given the go-ahead today by the European Space Agency (ESA).

search for planets

Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) will be launched into the ‘L2’ virtual point in space - 1.5 million km beyond Earth, as seen from the Sun – and will monitor thousands of bright stars over a large area of the sky.

The satellite will search for tiny, regular dips in brightness as their planets cross in front of the stars, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight.

The PLATO mission will address fundamental questions such as ‘how common are earth-like planets?’ and ‘is our solar system unusual or even unique?’, and could eventually even lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life.

In addition, PLATO will also investigate seismic activity in some of the host stars, and determine their masses, sizes and ages - with unprecedented accuracy - and helping to understand the entire exoplanet system.

The ESA Science Programme Committee meeting on 20 June agreed to the adoption of the PLATO mission, following its selection in February 2014. This means it can move from a blueprint into construction.

don

Professor Don Pollacco, the PLATO Science Coordinator and Professor of Physics in Warwick’s Department of Physics, commented:

“The UK community has always been strong in this science area. 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, industry 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.

UK scientists and engineers in collaboration with the UK Space Agency are leading participants involved in all aspects of the mission and have leading roles in the science, the detectors and their readout electronics, and the software actually used to find and characterise the planets.

Image 1: Artist's impression of the many different types of planetary system thought possible - credit DLR Institute of Planetary Research, Germany

Image 2: Professor Don Pollacco - credit University of Warwick

20 June 2017

Further information, contact:

Luke Walton, International Press Officer

+44 (0) 7824 540 863

+44 (0) 2476 150 868

L dot Walton dot 1 at warwick dot ac dot uk