PLATO mission to find alien life is given the thumbs up

ESA to start the construction of space telescope network


The European Space Agency’s PLATO mission hunting for habitable exoplanets has been given the green light to move from blueprint into construction.

It was previously selected in 2014 as part of the ESA’s Cosmic Vision Programme, but the launch date has been pushed out two years from 2024 to 2026.

The goal is to detect Earth-size planets or super-Earths orbiting around stars in the habitable zone – an area with conditions that might support liquid water and an atmosphere.

The project is led by astrophysicists at the University of Warwick in the UK. Don Pollacco, professor of Physics at Warwick University, 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 all, 34 small wide-field telescopes are expected to be launched in 2026. Cameras onboard will use transit photometry, a popular method of detecting planets by analyzing the starlight. If the brightness falls periodically, there’s a good chance that it’s caused by a planet crossing the star and partially blocking its light. It’ll give researchers a way to estimate the size of the planet and compare it to Earth’s radius.

To estimate other properties, such as mass, the radial velocity method or Doppler spectroscopy is used. The star’s position will shift slightly due to the tug of a nearby exoplanet companion, and the movement shifts the wavelengths of the light seen through a spectroscope.

The researchers hope to identify promising habitable planets for follow-up observations that will help them probe its atmosphere.

Now that the mission has been granted a green light, industry leaders will be given a chance to make bids to build components of the space telescopes and its software platform.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was on a similar mission, and scientists recently finished sorting possible exoplanets into a catalog. They found 219 possible candidates, and ten of them are about the size of Earth and lie in the habitable zone, meaning we are now aware of over 4,000 exoplanets in total.

It’s still unknown if any of those planets have the right conditions to support life. ®

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Massive rugby ball-shaped planet emerges from scrum of space 'scope sightings
    It was worth a try

    Just over 1,500 light-years away in the constellation of Hercules there’s a rugby ball-shaped exoplanet orbiting a star. It’s the first time astronomers have been able to detect such an unusual shape of an alien world.

    Most planets are more or less spherical due to gravitational forces that pull matter equally in from all sides, yet WASP-103b appears to be elongated. The planet is in an orbit close to its host star, and experiences strong tidal forces that appear to have deformed its surface.

    The object, twice the radius and 1.5 times as massive as Jupiter, whizzes around its star, WASP-103, in less than a day. A team of astronomers were able to detect its shape after recording detailed measurements of 12 of its orbits using ESA’s Cheops space observatory, and comparing them with previous observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

    Continue reading
  • Alien life on Super-Earth can survive longer than us due to long-lasting protection from cosmic rays
    Laser experiments show their magnetic fields shielding their surfaces from radiation last longer

    Life on Super-Earths may have more time to develop and evolve, thanks to their long-lasting magnetic fields protecting them against harmful cosmic rays, according to new research published in Science.

    Space is a hazardous environment. Streams of charged particles traveling at very close to the speed of light, ejected from stars and distant galaxies, bombard planets. The intense radiation can strip atmospheres and cause oceans on planetary surfaces to dry up over time, leaving them arid and incapable of supporting habitable life. Cosmic rays, however, are deflected away from Earth, however, since it’s shielded by its magnetic field.

    Now, a team of researchers led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) believe that Super-Earths - planets that are more massive than Earth but less than Neptune - may have magnetic fields too. Their defensive bubbles, in fact, are estimated to stay intact for longer than the one around Earth, meaning life on their surfaces will have more time to develop and survive.

    Continue reading
  • Pack your bags – we may have found the first planet outside of our galaxy
    Alas, we will have to wait 70 years to confirm the sighting

    Astronomers have for the first time discovered what looks like a planet outside the Milky Way, judging by a study published this week in Nature.

    Over 4,000 exoplanets have been spotted orbiting stars in our galaxy since the early 1990s when scientists confirmed the Solar System isn’t a unique formation.

    Our Sun is just one star among the 100 billion or so stars in the Milky Way. Our galaxy, in turn, is just one among the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. It’s only natural to assume therefore that there must be exoplanets circling stars in other galaxies, too, though astronomers have never managed to find one so far away until now.

    Continue reading
  • Astroboffins reckon they've detected four hidden exoplanets by probing distant radio waves
    It could help us find more exoplanets far out in the universe

    Astronomers may have stumbled upon four exoplanets when surveying distant red dwarf stars using only low-frequency radio waves.

    An international team of researchers led by the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, observed 19 M-type stars - ranging from 13 to 156 light-years away - using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), the world’s largest ground-based radio telescope that can detect frequencies less than 200MHz. M-type stars are known for being small, cool, and dim. Although they aren’t as visible as other stars like the Sun, they can be studied using radio waves.

    They commonly undergo intense magnetic activity that power stellar flares and bursts of radio light. These outbursts were identified with the help of deep learning, Benjamin Pope, a co-author of the study and an astrophysics lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia, told El Reg.

    Continue reading
  • Good: Water vapor signal detected for first time on distant planet. Bad: Er, we'll let one of the boffins explain
    Hey, look, it's the galaxy's Florida

    Evidence of what was once possibly water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere in a distant world for the first time – though one of the scientists involved in the discovery told us this would-be interstellar getaway is "completely inhospitable."

    Wasp-33b, spotted in 2015, is a hot and huge Jupiter-ish gas giant. Located about 400 light-years from us, its orbit is so small that a single year on this alien world lasts a little over 24 Earth hours. The short distance between itself and its sun, HD 15082, means that it bears the brunt of the star's heat.

    “The atmosphere is already over 2,000 degrees Celsius, as it is so close to its host star – a distance that would place it well within the orbit of Mercury to our Sun,” said physics assistant professor Neale Gibson, co-author of a paper published (preprint) in The Astrophysical Journal Letters detailing Wasp-33b.

    Continue reading
  • We've seen things you people wouldn't believe. An exoplanet building its own moons
    400 light-years away, satellites are forming

    Pic Astronomers have for the first time spotted what appears to be a moon-forming ring of matter around a young exoplanet, and described their findings in a paper published on Thursday.

    Orbiting a star 400 light-years away, PDS 70c is an otherworldly Jupiter-like gas giant that is particularly interesting to planet watchers. Unlike most other confirmed exoplanets, PDS 70c and its neighbor PDS 70b are not yet fully grown. So much so, when they were discovered in 2018 and 2019 respectively, it was the first time researchers were able to directly image a protoplanet.

    The latest observations have confirmed PDS 70c is harboring another astronomical gem: it’s surrounded by a cloud of gas and dust in which satellites are slowly taking shape.

    Continue reading
  • Habitable-zone exoplanet potentially spotted just around the corner in Alpha Centauri using latest telescope technique
    Space is about to look a lot clearer, thanks to adaptive optics

    Astronomers who devised a technique to capture direct images of nearby potentially habitable exoplanets have found what could be a world orbiting a star a mere 4.3 light years away from Earth in the Alpha Centauri group.

    Details of the technique were published in Nature Communications on Wednesday, and it involves adding a secondary telescope mirror to today's ground-based 'scopes. The extra mirror mitigates the effect of Earth's atmosphere scattering incoming infrared light. A filter or mask is also applied to make it easier to pick out light reflected off a planet orbiting a star.

    “Earth’s atmosphere distorts the light due to warm pockets of turbulent air that have different optical properties,” Kevin Wagner, first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona, told The Register. “This causes a sort of blurring effect, which a computer keeps track of in real time, and sends signals to the [secondary] mirror to counteract. This is broadly known as adaptive optics.”

    Continue reading
  • Don't give up on Planet Nine yet: Hubble 'scope finds just such a world a mere 336 light-years away
    Massive planets at far out distances from their stars are possible after all

    The Hubble Space Telescope has spied a previously unknown exoplanet with similar properties as our Solar System's hypothetical object Planet Nine. This newly spotted body is living on the outskirts of another solar system 336 light-years away.

    Astronomers have not yet glimpsed Planet Nine after it was predicted that the massive body may be orbiting our Sun on the outer edges of our Solar System. The evidence for such a planet could explain why the orbits of some distant Kuiper Belt objects beyond Neptune were so strange.

    New readings from the Hubble Space Telescope point to just such a body orbiting a star 336 light years away. An exoplanet, dubbed HD 106906 b, has been tracked by a team of researchers led by those at the University of California, Berkeley, who analysed images taken over a 14-year period of the exoplanet to estimate its orbit.

    Continue reading
  • Pack your bags! Astroboffins spot 24 'superhabitable' exoplanets better than Earth at supporting complex life
    Just a short 100 or more light years away

    Astrobiologists have found 24 exoplanets that, compared to Earth, may have environments better suited to complex life like that found on our world.

    A team led by Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor at the planetary habitability and astrobiology at the Technical University Berlin, devised a checklist of requirements that an alien world must meet in order to be classed as a “superhabitable” planet, capable of supporting complex, oxygen-based lifeforms as seen here on Earth. After going through the records on 4,000 exoplanets, the team identified 24 candidates that tick the boxes, though bear in mind all of them are at least 100 light years away.

    Complex life is defined as organisms that are “macroscopic and multicellular,” Schulze-Makuch, also an adjunct professor at Washington State University in the US, told The Register. ”On a superhabitable planet, we would expect this type of life in addition to microbial life as well as animal-like and plant-like life.

    Continue reading
  • We're on our way already: Astroboffins find 5 potentially habitable Tatooine-like systems from Kepler 'scope
    Perhaps gigantic puffy exoplanets aren't as hostile to life as previously thought

    Astronomers believe five binary-star systems identified by NASA’s now-defunct Kepler Space Telescope could have the right properties to support extraterrestrial life, according to new calculations.

    "Life is far most likely to evolve on planets located within their system's habitable zone, just like Earth,” said Nikolaos Georgakarakos, first author of a paper on the planets, and a research associate at New York University Abu Dhabi.

    “Here we investigate whether a habitable zone exists within nine known systems with two or more stars orbited by giant planets. We show for the first time that Kepler-34, -35, -64, -413 and especially Kepler-38 are suitable for hosting Earth-like worlds with oceans."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022