Alien-seeking space observatory to hover between Earth and sun

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The search for alien worlds has received an unprecedented burst of energy, with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) vote this week to fund a 34-telescope observatory that will scan the sky for habitable planets, from a fixed spot between Earth and the sun.

he new PLATO mission (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars) projects a 2024 launch of the observatory, which will seek out the Earth-like planets believed to orbit neighboring stars, as part of ESA’s Cosmic Vision program.

“PLATO will begin a completely new chapter in the exploration of extrasolar planets” said Heike Rauer, an astrophysicist with the German Aerospace Center, who leads the PLATO mission. “We will find planets that orbit their star in the life-sustaining ‘habitable’ zone: planets where liquid water is expected, and where life as we know it can be maintained.”

In the past 20 years, search missions run by both ESA and NASA have located over 1,000 exoplanets orbiting alien suns. But of those, very few dwell at habitable distances from their suns, and those that do are unlivable for other reasons. None of the identified exoplanets has yet yielded precise determinations of its mass, radius, or age.

PLATO’s focus on life-likely planets sets it apart from existing planet-seeking missions, as does its destination: a so-called Lagrangian point between the Earth and the sun, where the two bodies’ competing gravitational pulls will hold the satellite in place.

Unlike points on Earth, or in the orbital paths of other satellites, this stable location will allow the observatory to scan its interstellar quarry continuously, without Earth itself blocking half the sky, the blinding interruption of terrestrial daylight, or the blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere.

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