Super-Earths Will Be The Focus Of ESA Satellite Cheops
October 22, 2012

Super-Earths Will Be The Focus Of ESA Satellite Cheops

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced Friday October 19 that its new small Science Program mission, called Cheops (CHaracterizing ExOPlanets Satellite), will focus on nearby, bright stars that are already known to have planets in their orbit.

The mission, expected to launch in 2017, will search for the telltale signs of transits as planets pass across the face of their host stars. To do this, Cheops will employ high-precision monitoring techniques to measure star brightness. This should allow for an accurate measurement of the radius of the planet. And for planets with a known mass, the density will be revealed, providing an indication of internal structure. These key parameters will help scientists to understand the formation of planets--those that are a few times the mass of the Earth (super-Earths) and larger. Cheops will also identify planets with significant atmospheres and constrain the migration of planets during the formation and evolution of their parent systems.

This is the first of a new line of missions ESA is developing as part of its Science Program. Future missions in the Science Program should be low cost and developed relatively quickly in order to offer greater flexibility in response to new ideas from the scientific community. These Small-class science missions could also pave the way for broader Medium- and Large-class missions in the ESA Science Program´s future, as well as provide a natural complement to future such missions.

Several ESA Member States have offered substantial contributions to the Cheops mission, with Switzerland partnering with the ESA directly.

“This continues the 40-year success story of Swiss scientists and industry at the forefront of space science,” said Professor Willy Benz, Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern.

“Cheops will enable scientists to conduct comparative studies of planets down to the mass of Earth with a precision that simply cannot be achieved from the ground,” said Professor Alvaro Giménez-Cañete, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

However, this mission will provide unique targets for more detailed studies of exoplanet atmospheres by next-generation telescopes now in development, including the ground-based European Extremely Large Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Cheops will operate in a Sun-synchronous low-Earth orbit at an altitude of about 500 miles. The planned mission life is 3.5 years, with part of the observing time being open to the scientific community.