Brit boffins want £50 million to launch exoplanet observatory

Twinkle, twinkle little satellite

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A bunch of UK boffins led by University College London (UCL) is looking for funds for an exoplanet-watching satellite – but we're not talking Kepler-level money.

The group hopes that £50 million – including launch costs – will be enough to kick off a three-year mission to get Surrey Satellite Technology to build a spacecraft to carry an instrument package being developed by UCL.

The Twinkle proposal, announced at the university here, with a mission to check out at least 100 exoplanets in the Milky Way.

The mission, explained to Astronomy Now, would use Twinkle's main instrument, an infrared spectrograph, to examine planets like rocky super-Earths (in the mass range up to ten times that of Earth) and “hot Jupiters” (gas giants near their star). Large planets near bright stars might even yield enough data to map their clouds and surface.

The Twinkle project's media release notes that its lead scientist is professor Giovanna Tinetti, who worked on both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescope projects.

“Knowledge of the chemical composition of exoplanet atmospheres is essential for understanding whether a planet was born in the orbit in which it is currently observed or whether it has migrated from a different part of its planetary system” the press release continues.

The makeup of atmospheres – driven by collisions with other objects, the loss of lighter molecules, volcanic activity or even the presence of organic molecules or life – gives strong hints about the history of a planet and its ability to sustain life.

Tinetti adds that a platform outside Earth's atmosphere is needed to conduct this kind of analysis, since the light filtered through a planet's atmosphere “is only about one ten thousandth of the overall light from the star”. ®


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