UK to Boost Funding for PLATO ‘Planet Hunter’ Space Mission

Following last month’s announcement by the European Space Agency (ESA) that the PLATO Mission had been selected as the third medium-class science mission for the agency’s Cosmic Vision programme, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has today announced a further £25m of UK funding to support the project.

The PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillation of stars) mission has been labelled the ESA’s ‘planet hunter’. Its 34 telescopes will be utilised to monitor nearby stars, searching for dips in their brightness as planets pass in front of them. It will also monitor seismic activity in the stars to determine their characteristics, and conduct ground-based radial velocity observations (a planet’s speed towards and away from the star).

Bringing these elements together, PLATO will then be able to calculate the mass and radius of the star’s planets, identifying their density and composition and therefore determining whether these planets match the planetary characteristics required to support life that are found here on earth.

Today’s extra funding announcement will ensure that the UK continues to be at the heart of an important pan-European Space project – designing & manufacturing key components in the lead up to PLATO’s expected launch in 2024. The UK’s role is likely to be found in both the production of the spacecraft itself and the camera system that sits behind the telescope suite. This system will incorporate 136 charge-coupled devices (CCDs) which have been produced and are the largest ever flown in space at 1 metre squared and with 2.5billion pixels.

More information on the ESA Cosmic Vision strategy for 2015-2025 and the PLATO Mission itself can be found on their website: http://sci.esa.int/cosmic-vision/46510-cosmic-vision/