PLATO mission to find alien life is given the thumbs up

ESA to start the construction of space telescope network

Got Tips? 21 Reg comments

The European Space Agency’s PLATO mission hunting for habitable exoplanets has been given the green light to move from blueprint into construction.

It was previously selected in 2014 as part of the ESA’s Cosmic Vision Programme, but the launch date has been pushed out two years from 2024 to 2026.

The goal is to detect Earth-size planets or super-Earths orbiting around stars in the habitable zone – an area with conditions that might support liquid water and an atmosphere.

The project is led by astrophysicists at the University of Warwick in the UK. Don Pollacco, professor of Physics at Warwick University, said: “The launch of PLATO will give us the opportunity to contribute to some of the biggest discoveries of the next decade answering fundamental questions about our existence, and could eventually lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life.”

In all, 34 small wide-field telescopes are expected to be launched in 2026. Cameras onboard will use transit photometry, a popular method of detecting planets by analyzing the starlight. If the brightness falls periodically, there’s a good chance that it’s caused by a planet crossing the star and partially blocking its light. It’ll give researchers a way to estimate the size of the planet and compare it to Earth’s radius.

To estimate other properties, such as mass, the radial velocity method or Doppler spectroscopy is used. The star’s position will shift slightly due to the tug of a nearby exoplanet companion, and the movement shifts the wavelengths of the light seen through a spectroscope.

The researchers hope to identify promising habitable planets for follow-up observations that will help them probe its atmosphere.

Now that the mission has been granted a green light, industry leaders will be given a chance to make bids to build components of the space telescopes and its software platform.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was on a similar mission, and scientists recently finished sorting possible exoplanets into a catalog. They found 219 possible candidates, and ten of them are about the size of Earth and lie in the habitable zone, meaning we are now aware of over 4,000 exoplanets in total.

It’s still unknown if any of those planets have the right conditions to support life. ®

Sponsored: Webcast: Simplify data protection on AWS


Keep Reading


100 mysterious blinking lights in the night sky could be evidence of alien life... or something weird, say boffins

Either way, we'll take a one-way ticket, please. Now. Thanks. Good

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Light-powered nanocardboard robots dancing in the Martian sky searching for alien life

'We’re proposing an entirely different approach' lead prof tells The Reg

Is there alien life on Earth? Maybe, says Brit 'naut. Well, where did they come from? How about this far-away cluster. Or this 'Godzilla' galaxy...

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations... symbolizing the elements that create truth and beauty.

We don't usually sugar-coat the news but... Alien sugars found in Earth-bound meteorites

More evidence that building blocks for life on our home world replicable in outer space
Green space alien with sombrero and drink on a sun lounger

Top tip: Using AI to detect alien civilizations is dangerous because if it spots anything, even just a blurry blob, people are going to go nuts

Sometimes a cigar-shaped shadow is just a cigar-shaped shadow

Found on Mars: Alien insects... or whatever the hell this smudge is supposed to be, anyway

Pics Wings, heads, Big Foot – or just rocks. You decide
Astronaut on mars . Photo by shutterstock

Briny liquid may be more common on Mars than once thought, unlikely to support life as we know it

Jeez, no need to be so salty
Arecibo observatory

After 1.5 million days of computer time, SETI@home heads home to probe potential signs of alien civilizations

'We're now approaching the point to do the analysis and write-up,' co-founder tells El Reg

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020