Mission to extra-solar planets approved

Feb 25, 2011

The European Space Agency has backed a £400 million pound mission to study extra-solar planets, led by UCL (University College London). A key objective of the mission is to look for signs of life in planets which are orbiting stars nearby our Sun.

EChO - the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory - is led by Dr Giovanna Tinetti, from the UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy, and is supported by over 150 of Europe's top astronomers. It will consist of a 1.2 metre telescope designed to carry out spectroscopy of the atmospheres of a range of extra solar planets, from giant gas planets (similar to Jupiter in our own Solar System) down to terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of some stars.

The telescope should be launched some time between 2020 and 2022, and will look at the atmospheres of planets that may be orbiting in the "habitable zone" of their stars, where water can exist as a liquid.

"This is tremendously exciting news," said Dr Tinetti. "One of the key aims of our mission is to see if we can detect molecules such as ozone and carbon dioxide in the atmospheres of planets not much bigger than our Earth. These molecules are key biomarkers - signs that life might be, or might have been, present."

EChO will cost about 400 million pounds, and was one of nearly 50 mission proposals made to the European Space Agency. "We had to overcome really tough competition to get selected for further study and possible launch," Dr Tinetti explained.

Dr Tinetti has a strong record in exoplanet research. She led the team that made the first discovery of water in an exoplanet atmosphere, opening up a new era in understanding these alien worlds. EChO will try to and understand the chemical composition and thermal structure of these , through which scientists hope to unveil their physical processes, formation and evolution

Explore further: Up, up and away, in the name of science education

More information: More information about the project from ESA can be found here: sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=48467

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User comments : 4

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5 / 5 (5) Feb 25, 2011
Mission to extra-solar planets approved

Correction/Real headline: New space telescope approved.

This article is an early contender for the worst headline of 2011 award.
not rated yet Feb 25, 2011
11 years of developing ? is only 1 engineer behind this project or what ? 5-7 year is ok, but 11 ? wtf ?

ps. the most stupid title of article i've ever read here
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2011
A waste of money in my opinion. If it can do what it is designed to do, it will find what it is looking for, then what? It isn't going to discover any new science. Money would be better spent on physics, projects to find a way to get there if it's possible. We don't know everything about physics and we can't be sure everything we think we know is right.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 26, 2011
To Moebius;

I totally agree with you. Working 10-12 years on a project that will most likely fail in the sense that, whether they are able to "see" life on another planet, which is certainly debatable, or not, would most likely be pure speculation anyway. And developing the technology to travel that kind of distance will take alot longer than 12 years! It seems as if they are trying to skip around 10-12 steps in the process. Regarding your last observation, I would have to take it even farther: We don't "know" much at all about many things at all and we cannot be "sure" of very many things at all that we "think" we know. But, I guess if the scientists stuck to the facts only, the scientific news (and world) would be rather dull. Peace...

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