UK leads new European exoplanet mission – parabolic arc

Artist impression of an exoplanet system. (Credit: ESA)

PARIS (ESA PR) — The UK has been given a leading role in developing a space telescope that will investigate the atmospheres of distant worlds.

The mission, called Ariel, will study the gases that surround some 1,000 extrasolar planets to answer fundamental questions about how they formed and evolved.

Due to its launch in 2029, it will be the first mission dedicated to this type of analysis.

About £30 million in funding is being provided by the UK as part of an agreement with ESA member states that have confirmed roles for the mission.

Artist impression of ESA’s Ariel exoplanet satellite. (Credit: Airbus)

At the proposal of an international consortium led by University College London (UCL), Ariel was selected from 26 proposals by ESA to become the next ‘middle-class mission’ in its science programme.

It is the third of a trio of ESA special exoplanet missions, following Cheops – which launched in 2019 – and Plato, which was set to launch in 2026.

The UK will lead Ariel’s general science and lead a consortium of 17 countries building the mission’s payload module.

UK experts will also be responsible for developing the cryocooler and optical ground support equipment, as well as scientific operations and data processing.

Scientists from UCL and Cardiff University will lead the performance analysis, testing and refining the complex algorithms that will process the data returned by Ariel. A team from the University of Oxford will provide the equipment to test Ariel’s payload telescope and optical elements.

Giovanna Tinetti, principal investigator and chief of science development for Ariel at UCL, said: “Ariel will help us better understand the planets in our galaxy. By studying hundreds of different worlds in different environments, we will see our own planet in context, allowing us to get a better idea of ​​why the Earth formed the way it did.”

ESA’s new and future exoplanet missions. (Credit: ESA)

“We are very grateful to the UK Space Agency and the UK Government for their continued support and commitment to advancing planetary science, enabling us to understand worlds beyond and within our solar system.”

Teams from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space facility at Harwell Campus will build and test the Ariel payload module, managing hardware contributions from other consortium countries, while the STFC technology department develops the £5.5 million cryogenic active cooling system .

Paul Eccleston, Ariel Consortium Program Manager and Chief Engineer at RAL Space, said: “We welcome the agreement and commitment of the UK Space Agency to make this partnership possible. I am delighted that the UK is playing a leading role in the mission and proud of the progress the consortium has already made in cargo design and these tires will only get stronger as we move towards launch.”

British Science Secretary George Freeman said: “This is an incredibly important commitment to UK space science and technology, a major milestone for the National Space Strategy and a boost to our ambitions to grow our £16.5 billion commercial space sector to grow.”

“By investing £30m and taking the helm of the entire Ariel consortium – the first time in a decade we have secured leadership for a mission of this magnitude – we are placing the UK at the heart of international space research and we are opening up new opportunities for aerospace companies and academics across the country.”

Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science, said: “Ariel is a key mission to ESA’s Space Science program and one of our leading missions studying planets beyond the solar system. This commitment from the UK Space Agency and our science partner institutions in the UK is a big step forward for Ariel, and we look forward to working closely together as we carry out the mission.”

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