Cambridge researchers get backing for cosmic vision

Jul 19, 2010
Cambridge researchers get backing for cosmic vision

( -- A proposal to design a spacecraft that would seek out habitable planets beyond our own solar system could become reality after receiving support from the UK Space Agency.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy will play a major role in the "PLATO" project, which is one of three initiatives that have together been granted £3.65 million of preparatory funding by the Agency.

Only two of the projects will ultimately see the light of day, however. The final decision about which will receive full funding rests with the , which will announce its decision in June 2011.

PLATO stands for "Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars" and was selected from more than 50 original ideas that will now go forward for detailed technical and cost assessments.

If granted full support, it will focus on seeking out new Earths far beyond our solar system, orbiting distant stars in our galaxy, the .

The craft would be powerful enough to detect rocky in the "", which is the region around a star where can exist.

Using a suite of space telescopes on board a single spacecraft, PLATO would pick up these planets as they pass in front of their stars, blocking the star light and causing a brief and tiny dimming effect.

The mission would focus on solar systems that are close enough to then be scanned by subsequent projects and ground-based telescopes for "biosignatures" that might indicate life. Biosignatures are traces of molecules or structures that it is unlikely could exist without life, such as biogenic fabrics in rocks, or atmospheric gases.

It is envisaged that the spacecraft would launch between 2017 and 2020, travelling into space on a Fregat rocket. It would cost an estimated 475 million Euros to develop. The UK and other ESA member states would be responsible for designing both the spacecraft itself and the scientific instruments on board.

The University of Cambridge is one of seven British institutions which are involved in the project. Researchers from the Institute of Astronomy will lead the development of the PLATO exoplanet processing system, finding, from the PLATO data, those stars with planets, and importantly, those stars with "Earth-like" planets. Dr. Nic Walton will also co-ordinate the Ground System Exoplanet Analysis software for the project.

Further information about the PLATO initiative and the other projects which have received UK Space Agency funding, can be found at:  

Explore further: NASA's reliance on outsourcing launches causes a dilemma for the space agency

Related Stories

ESA chooses 3 scientific missions for further study

Feb 19, 2010

Dark energy, habitable planets around other stars, and the mysterious nature of our own Sun, have been chosen by ESA as candidates for two medium-class missions to be launched no earlier than 2017.

Kepler Set to Launch Tonight on Planet Finding Mission

Mar 06, 2009

( -- The Kepler spacecraft and its Delta II rocket are "go" for a launch tonight that is expected to light up the sky along Florida's Space Coast at 10:49 p.m. EST as the rocket lifts off from ...

Europe looks forward to COROT launch

Dec 19, 2006

On 27 December, COROT is to be launched into space on a unique astronomy mission: its twin goals are to detect exoplanets orbiting around other stars and to probe the mysteries of stellar interiors as never ...

NASA Releases Kepler Data on Potential Extrasolar Planets

Jun 16, 2010

( -- NASA's Kepler Mission has released 43 days of science data on more than 156,000 stars. These stars are being monitored for subtle brightness changes as part of an ongoing search for Earth-like ...

Innovative avionics enable search for habitable planets

Mar 09, 2009

The search for habitable planets continues with the March 6 launch of the Kepler spacecraft, the latest in NASA's series of low cost, highly focused Discovery missions. Kepler, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., ...

Recommended for you

Crash test assesses plane emergency locator transmitters

Jul 03, 2015

The Cessna 172 airplane dangled 82 feet in the air – looking almost like it was coming in for a landing, except for the cables attaching it to a huge gantry at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, ...

NASA image: Curiosity's stars and stripes

Jul 03, 2015

This view of the American flag medallion on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity was taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 44th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Sept. 19, 2012). ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.