Monday, February 24, 2014

Meet PLATO, the Next Big Exoplanet Hunter

Meet PLATO, the Next Big Exoplanet Hunter

Yesterday, the European Space Agency announced its decision to get into the exoplanet-hunting game with the PLATO space telescope. The Plato (which stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillators of stars) is a total boon for exoplanet enthusiasts. Since NASA's Kepler space observatory is no longer running at full capacity due to malfunctioning flywheels, scientists need another eye in the sky to scan for promising life-supporting planets. As a result, Plato may end up being a sort of Kepler 2.0, though the ESA has a different strategy for planet-hunting than NASA.

The mission is categorized as “M-class,” which means it will cost about 600 million euros, cheap enough that the ESA won't need outside help (in contrast to their “L-class” missions like JUICE—the JUpiter Icy Moons Explorer—which will require partnering with other agencies). The Plato is slated for launch in 2024 on a Soyuz-Fregat rocket, and will operate from the second Lagrange point, an orbital pivot it will share with the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope.

The idea is to zero in on stars with absolute magnitudes between 4 and 8, which are relatively bright, so that planetary transits will be easy to spot. But while the ESA has limited the range of stellar magnitudes they'll look for, they've enormously expanded the overall field of view. Plato will be able to scan up to 3,600 square degrees whereas Kepler only has a scope of 115 deg2.

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