Aerospace & Defence

ESA approves the design of the PLATO satellite

23rd June 2017
Enaie Azambuja

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the design of the PLATO satellite. Researchers and engineers at KU Leuven and the University of Liège (ULg) will be closely involved in the development. Plato is a space mission dedicated to hunting tens of thousands of Earth-like exoplanets revolving around nearby stars similar to our Sun. The launch is scheduled for 2026. PLATO will consist of 26 identical telescopes – each with its own camera – that will be fitted to the spacecraft platform.

As a result, it will be possible to monitor the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars for years. This will pave the way for the discovery of exoplanets in the habitable zone of their host star. The search will be based on tiny, regular dips in the brightness of stars. These occur when a planet crosses in front of them, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight.

The mission will also conduct asteroseismological studies of the host stars. The vibrations of the star will be closely examined. From this information the researchers can deduce the mass, radius, and age of the star and its planets.

These data are necessary to properly describe a planet and to find out whether it’s potentially habitable. PLATO will operate from the second Lagrange point (L2). That is a virtual point in space located 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, seen from the line connecting Earth and the Sun.

After three years of design, it’s now time to put the theory into practice. Scientists and engineers of KU Leuven and ULg are closely involved in the building of PLATO. The cameras, for instance, will be tested at the Centre Spatial de Liège. KU Leuven is responsible for the planning of 8% of the observation time offered to researchers in astronomy around the world who want to use PLATO.

The approval of the design is a new step forward in a long process. Researchers from the Institute of Astronomy have been preparing the space mission for over ten years. Professor Conny Aerts, Belgium’s lead researcher for PLATO, is eagerly looking forward to the launch: “I’ve been involved in the PLATO concept and the basic design of the mission from the very start, which is already more than ten years ago. At the time, it was my dream to be able to work with PLATO data before my retirement. That’ll be a tight deadline...”

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