The European Space Agency (ESA) has finally chosen the mission to be funded as its third M-class (Medium Class) science mission. The successful project was the PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) mission which is designed to search out planets orbiting stars in other solar systems.
The mission is planned to be launched by a Soyuz rocket in 2024 and will use 34 high powered telescopes and cameras during its six year mission to examine regular dips in the brightness of nearby stars. This light dip phenomenon is indicative that a planet is transiting the planet and partially blocking out its sunlight. The stars’ seismic activity will also be measured which will allow each planet’s mass, diameter and density to be calculated and give an indication of its constituents. Emphasis will be made to discover planets capable of sustaining life.
The PLATO spacecraft will be placed in a halo orbit at the L2 Lagrangian point 1.5km from Earth where the Sun and Earth’s gravitational fields balance.
The four other mission concepts which lost out for the M3 launch opportunity were: EChO (the Exoplanet CHaracterisation Observatory) – a similar mission to PLATO looking for life-bearing planets, LOFT (the Large Observatory For x-ray Timing) examining neutron starts and black holes, MarcoPolo-R (to collect and return a sample from a near-Earth asteroid) and STE-Quest (Space-Time Explorer and QUantum Equivalence principle Space Test) which was a gravitational test of Einstein’s Equivalence Principle.
PLATO joins Solar Orbiter and Euclid, which were chosen in 2011 as ESA’s first M-class missions. Solar Orbiter will be launched in 2017 to study the Sun and solar wind from a distance of less than 50 million km, while Euclid, to be launched in 2020, will focus on dark energy, dark matter and the structure of the Universe.
PLATO will be launched on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou by 2024 for an initial six-year mission. It will operate from L2, a virtual point in space 1.5 million km beyond Earth as seen from the Sun.