It’s Official, it’s PLATO!

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the European Space Agency has officially selected the third M-Class mission to form part of its Cosmic Vision Programme (which covers the period 2015-2025). The lucky winner is PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and  Oscillations of stars) and it will detect extra-solar planets by monitoring relatively nearby stars, searching for tiny, regular dips in brightness as planets transit in front of them. It will also study astroseismological activity, enabling a precise characterisation of the host star of each planet discovered, including its mass, radius and age.

plato_satelliteIt is expected that PLATO will find and analyse thousands of  such exoplanetary systems in this way, with an emphasis on discovering and characterizing Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone of their parent star. PLATO will be launched on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou by 2024 for an initial six-year mission. It will operate from the Second Lagrange Point, or L2 for short. It’s an intriguing design consisting of 34 small telescopes (left).

PLATO joins Solar Orbiter and Euclid, which were chosen in 2011 as ESA’s first two M-class missions. Solar Orbiter will be launched in 2017 to 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.

The decision to select PLATO wasn’t exactly a surprise as it was singled out as the leading candidate by an expert panel last month, but there was nevertheless some nervousness among certain senior astronomers at the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday in advance of the formal decision. I suspect they’ll all be out celebrating tonight!

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