Green light to PLATO, ESA's exoearth hunter

With this mission Europe will lead the search for potentially habitable exoplanets. The Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia participates in the project


Yesterday, the scientific committee of the European Space Agency (ESA) decided to take the last step towards the development of what will be its great project in the search for extrasolar planets, PLATO mission. The adoption of the mission, selected in February 2014 for the Cosmic Vision program, determines the moment at which the construction of PLATO (planetary Transits and stellar oscillations) begins.
The mission will detect thousands of new exoplanets with the method of transits, small eclipses produced when a planet that revolves around a star crosses our field of vision. PLATO will focus especially on the search for planets of the size of the Earth or larger (what is known as "superearths") that revolve around stars similar to the Sun in the zone of habitability, or region where the conditions could allow the existence of liquid water on the surface. "This will generate a census of the planets that are capable of generating life on their surface" says Rafael Garrido, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC ) that participates in the mission.

The observations that PLATO will make from space will be complemented by measures of ground telescopes. This way, it will be possible to know the size, density and age of the different planets, and even if they have atmosphere or moons.

PLATO will not only measure the small decrease in the brightness of the star that the transits cause, but also study the stellar oscillations, produced by the movement of the gas inside the stars. This technique, known as asteroseismology, has some similarity with terrestrial seismology and allows to know the interior of the stars and to determine essential parameters such as their density, composition or internal dynamics.

The mission, instead of using a single lens or mirror, is composed of a set of twenty-six telescopes that will provide sufficient precision to find smaller planets than the Earth located at a distance to its star similar to that between our planet and The Sun. These telescopes can be combined in different ways, working as a single telescope or divided into groups, giving unprecedented capabilities to, for example, observe weak and bright objects simultaneously. PLATO will be equipped with the largest camera system ever sent to space, with a total of eighty million pixels.

This mission will be a milestone in Spanish technological participation in European space missions. In particular, the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) will be responsible, in collaboration with the University of Granada, of the design and construction of the main electronic unit of the mission.
The Center for Astrobiology (CAB, INTA-CSIC) and the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC) also participate in the mission, in collaboration with several companies in the aerospace sector.


Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC)
Unidad de Divulgación y Comunicación
Silbia López de Lacalle - sll[arroba] - 958230532