The European Space Agency, a collective agency founded in 1975, recently announced intent to launch a new satellite. The satellite will be known as PLATO, an acronym for Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars and will be built by the European Space Agency (ESA) in pursuit of locating planets which could serve as a new home for the people of Earth. The satellite will be ready to be launched by the year 2024.
This is not the first attempt at finding habitable planets. Recently in the news has been NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. The Kepler Space Telescope was designed to locate potentially habitable planets in what is known as the Goldilocks zone. A Goldilocks zone is the area surrounding a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold to support life. Scientists have defined the ability to support life as the range of temperatures that will allow water to remain liquid at the surface of the planet.
The Kepler mission was launched in 2009 and concentrated on the stars in only the Cyngus and Lyra constellations. During its mission, the Kepler Space Telescope monitored and categorized more than 150,000 stars and their orbiting planets. The data gathered during this mission indicated that it is possible that as many as one in five stars comparable to the sun may have a planet similarly sized to the Earth, orbiting in the Goldilocks zone.
More than 1000 of these planets, known as exoplanets, have already been discovered. The closest of these exoplanets could potentially be less than twelve light years away, which would be close enough for viewers to see without mechanical aids. Unfortunately for scientists, the Kepler Space Telescope went out of commission in May 2013. The extended mission of the telescope would have been to obtain further data in order to refine the closest planetary possibilities.
After being launched, the ESA satellite will have several missions. One of the main missions of the ESA’s PLATO satellite will be to search out and obtain more precise data about planets which may be able to provide a new home for the inhabitants of Earth. The satellite will also search in detail for signs of life among these planets in the Goldilocks zone with each of its 34 telescopes and cameras. It will be an attempt at gathering data on approximately one million stars and their planets.
The search for habitable planets will not be the only goal of PLATO. The satellite will also investigate the seismic activity of the stars as well as the density and size of each of the planets. Additionally, the satellite will be gathering data in pursuit of the workings of the solar system. The PLATO mission was chosen by ESA as part of its Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 Programme.
Cosmic Vision 2015-202 is the ESA’s current program in support of long term planning for scientific space missions. The program was devised to provide stable support of missions that typically take many years to come to fruition. The PLATO satellite, and its mission, is one of the newly chosen medium class space missions. PLATO will be launched by 2024 from Europe’s Kourou Spaceport. The mission is predicted to initially take six years.
The lengthy mission of the satellite will be based upon data collected from the recently launched Gaia mission. The Gaia mission will provide the initial data on the characteristics of many exoplanets and their surrounding systems. With this data, compiled over the next ten years, the PLATO satellite will be able to focus on specific areas for follow-up examination.
When PLATO launches, it will collect data from a point approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. It will concentrate on providing more detailed results from the data already collected by ESA. The mission will increase scientific knowledge about the formation of the solar system, the beginnings of life, and planet formation conditions. The ultimate goal of both the European Space Agency and the PLATO satellite will be to search for other habitable planets and locate a new home planet for future exploration.
By Dee Mueller