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Scientists hope Cosmic Vision will find distant planets

The UK Space Agency has awarded £3.65million to help scientists prepare for three new space missions, including one hoping to find Earth-like planets in deep space, supported by Queen Mary, University of London.

Friday 16 July 2010

Two spacecraft concepts have been studied during the assessment phase: (left) concept from Thales Alenia Space, and (centre) concept from EADS Astrium. Copyright: ESA
Two spacecraft concepts have been studied during the assessment phase: (left) concept from Thales Alenia Space, and (centre) concept from EADS Astrium. Copyright: ESA

Professor Ian Roxburgh from Queen Mary's Astronomy Unit is working with scientists from five other UK institutions on the PLATO (PLanetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars) mission that seeks to identify potentially habitable 'exo-planets', which orbit stars other than our own Sun.

In June 2011, the scientists will learn which two of the three missions will be built and launched between 2017 and 2020 as part of the European Space Agency (ESA) Cosmic Vision programme.

Professor Roxburgh explained the purpose of the proposed mission: "PLATO is designed to seek out planets far beyond our solar system, orbiting nearby bright stars in our Galaxy, the Milky Way. It would be powerful enough to detect rocky planets in the habitable zone - the region around a star where liquid water can exist: in other words, to find new earths if they are out there.

"Using a suite of space telescopes on a single spacecraft, PLATO would detect these planets as they pass in front of their stars, blocking the star light and causing a brief and tiny dimming. The mission would focus on solar systems close enough to be scanned for bio-signatures, or signs of life by later missions and ground-based telescopes." The properties of the parent stars will be determined by studying their oscillations, which is Professor Roxburgh's area of special expertise.

Commenting on all the awards from the UK Space Agency, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "We are committed to supporting Britain's thriving space industry, and this money will help to ensure that UK scientists working on these ambitious projects maintain our country's position as leaders in space science within Europe. These exciting missions will help unlock some of the greatest mysteries of our Universe, and have huge potential in furthering our knowledge of space science."

If selected for development, the UK, together with other ESA member states, will design PLATO’s scientific instruments and finance their development while ESA would commission the spacecraft to be built in European industry. The funding from the UK Space Agency will help prepare PLATO for next year’s competitive decision.

Working alongside Queen Mary in the design of PLATO are five other UK institutions: Queens University Belfast, UCL, University of Leicester, the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh and University of Cambridge.

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