UCL space missions get the go-ahead

March 3, 2011, University College London
This illustration depicts the extrasolar planet HD 189733b with its parent star peeking above its top edge. Credit: NASA/ESA

University College London space scientists are involved in two out of four missions that have been selected by the European Space Agency to compete for a launch opportunity at the start of the 2020s.

EChO - the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory - will search for signs of life on planets which are orbiting stars nearby our sun. Led by Dr. Giovanna Tinetti, UCL Physics and Astronomy, and supported by over 150 of Europe's astronomers, the mission conisists 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 in the of some stars.

"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."

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

The second mission, LOFT - the Large Observatory For Timing - will study the fast-moving, high-energy environments that surround , and pulsars - objects that can produce sudden and very rapid bursts of X-rays. The UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory has a strong involvement in the science team (Dr. Silvia Zane and Dr. Roberto Mignani) as well as the engineering team of the mission.

LOFT will carry two instruments, the Large Area Detector (LAD) and the Wide Field Monitor (WFM), to be operated in parallel and search for fast X-ray variability. The MSSL engineering group will be key in developing the design of of the on-board electronics, including the payload data handling units, the instrument control units, the flight digital electronics and the power supply units on board the spacecraft. Other contributions of MSSL include technical support in the spacecraft design and in the construction of the micro-channel plate detectors of the Large Area Detector (LAD), the main instrument aboard LOFT.

"This mission has terrific potential," said Dr. Zane. "We are really looking forward to the possibility of flying an X-ray instrument capable of performing such high time resolution observations. This is a very ambitious goal that will open a new window on our understanding of the strongest gravitational fields in the Universe."

Both spacecraft were sected from nearly 50 mission proposals made to the . "We had to overcome really tough competition to get selected for further study and possible launch," said Dr. Tinetti.

Explore further: Mission to extra-solar planets approved

Related Stories

Mission to extra-solar planets approved

February 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 ...

Europe looks forward to COROT launch

December 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 before. COROT ...

Kepler Set to Launch Tonight on Planet Finding Mission

March 6, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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 Launch Complex 17-B ...

Europe goes searching for rocky planets

October 26, 2006

The COROT space telescope is proceeding smoothly towards its launch in December 2006. Once in orbit, COROT will become the first spacecraft devoted to the search for rocky planets, similar to our own Earth.

Recommended for you

Black hole spin cranks-up radio volume

January 12, 2018

Statistical analysis of supermassive black holes suggests that the spin of the black hole may play a role in the generation of powerful high-speed jets blasting radio waves and other radiation across the universe.

NASA team first to demonstrate X-ray navigation in space

January 11, 2018

In a technology first, a team of NASA engineers has demonstrated fully autonomous X-ray navigation in space—a capability that could revolutionize NASA's ability in the future to pilot robotic spacecraft to the far reaches ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 03, 2011
almost the same article was added here few day ago

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.