The European CHEOPS spacecraft will continue to investigate planets outside our solar system until at least 2026.
He European Space Agency (ESA) announced on March 9 that CHEOPS will continue its exoplanet-Survey mission, which includes the selection of “golden target” worlds for further investigation by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), for at least another three years, with the potential to extend this further to 2029.
Launched in December 2019 from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana, CHEOPS (short for “Characterising Exoplanet Satellite”) is designed to study planets between Earth and Earth sizes. Neptune as they cross, or transit, the face of the bright stars. But he has had impressive results with objects well outside this size range.
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The mission has taken the science of exoplanets beyond simple detection, to deeper investigation of the atmospheres of these worlds, as well as precise measurement of their size and shape. Exoplanets with interesting atmospheric compositions can be passed to more powerful telescopes like JWSTwhich means that CHEOPS plays a key role in our search for planets that could support life.
“In this regard, the mission has been extremely successful,” said Willy Benz, head of the CHEOPS consortium, emeritus professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern in Switzerland, in a statement. statement (opens in a new tab). “The accuracy of CHEOPS has exceeded all expectations and has allowed us to determine the properties of several of the most interesting exoplanets.”
One example of CHEOPS’ contribution to science was the discovery that the gas giant WASP-103 b, first seen in 2014, has a distended and flattened shape similar to that of a rugby ball. The ESA spacecraft made this determination in 2021 by examining the drop in brightness the planet causes as it transits across the face of its star.
WASP-103 b’s compressed shape is thought to be the result of tidal interactions with its parent star, and the disclosure marked the first time the shape of an exoplanet had been so well defined.
CHEOPS has also had an impact closer to home. Just this year, spacecraft observations were used to discover that Quaoar, a dwarf planet in our solar system, is surrounded by a ring of dust. The ring is exceptional in that it is farther from its parent body than any previously discovered ring, challenging theories about how such structures form.
Initially, CHEOPS’s main science mission was only planned to last three and a half years, until September 2023, but ESA said the spacecraft is in excellent health after more than three years in Earth orbit.
During this time, CHEOPS has coped admirably with the rigors of space, such as cosmic ray bombardment and high-energy radiation, while on Earth its operational team worked to keep the spacecraft operational during the global pandemic.
Many exciting viewing opportunities remain for CHEOPS. For example, the mission team hopes to use the spacecraft to discover the first exomoon — a moon orbiting a planet outside the solar system. Exomoons are difficult to detect due to their comparatively small size and therefore the weak signature they produce as they pass in front of a star, but the CHEOPS team believes the spacecraft is sensitive enough to make such detection. .
“We have only scratched the surface of the capabilities of CHEOPS. Much more science can be done with the satellite, and we look forward to exploring it during the extension,” Benz said. “Scientists are eager to find out what amazing results CHEOPS will bring next; what is certain now is that CHEOPS will continue to make new discoveries for years to come.”
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