European Space Agency Plans Exoplanet Hunter Spacecraft: PLATO Mission To Seek Out Super-Earths, Alien Life

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced this week that it has given the green light to its planet-hunting project, PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars), which will ultimately see a spacecraft launched that will search for exoplanets and signs of alien life. Scheduled for a four-year mission, PLATO’s primary goal is to detect habitable exoplanets, particularly Earth twins and super-Earths.

After three years in its definition phase, PLATO now enters its implementation phase, which will see the deep space spacecraft constructed and launched. At the same time, the software for analyzing the observational data retrieved by the craft will be developed at the PLATO Data Center, located at the Max Planck Institute in Ottingen, Germany. According to Space Daily, PLATO will be the first planet-hunting spacecraft to have the capability of detecting and characterizing Earth-like exoplanets around Sun-like stars, concentrating on stellar candidates nearer to Earth.

“Using observations of stellar vibrations, PLATO will for the first time fully characterize these stars and their planets with regard to mass, radius, and age,” says Prof. Dr. Laurent Gizon, director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) and head of the PLATO Data Center. “This will revolutionize the study of the evolution of exoplanets and their host stars.”

Thus far, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered, most by NASA’s Kepler telescope and CoRoT, a mission led by French Space Agency and the ESA, including a recent batch of 219 candidates detected by the Kepler telescope, which was announced on Monday, June 19. But PLATO’s mission will direct its attention to stars much more near Earth, where the exoplanets can be characterized with much greater detail than those discovered further away.

The spacecraft is set for a tentative launch date sometime in 2026.

On Wednesday, June 21, the University of Warwick, whose scientists will take part in the project, issued a statement corroborating the ESA’s decision to move into the implementation phase.

“The PLATO mission will address fundamental questions such as ‘how common are Earth-like planets?’ and ‘is our solar system unusual or even unique?’,” the university said, according to Agence France-Presse, adding that the project “could eventually even lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life.”

blue earthlike exoplanet
The PLATO mission is charged with not only finding exoplanets but finding Earth twins and/or super-Earths. [Image by Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock]

PLATO, upon completion, will consist of 26 telescopes mounted on a satellite platform. This array will enable astronomers to gather data from a large area of sky at one time. As its name suggests, PLATO detects exoplanets by noting the dimming of a parent star as a planet passes, or transits, in front of it.

watery alien exoplanet
Earthlike exoplanets may hold the key in finding alien life. [Image by Svet_Feo/Shutterstock]

The telescopes will be trained on an area for up to two years at a time. This is done to hopefully detect the transiting (twice) of an Earth-like exoplanet. PLATO’s field of view will be altered several times during the lifetime of its mission.

As Space Daily reported, many European partners will collaborate on the PLATO project, with Germany taking the lead. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin will direct the overall mission. Data processing will be conducted at the Max Planck Institute’s PLATO Data Center.

[Featured Image by Inga Nielsen/Shutterstock]