The European spacecraft CHEOPS will continue to study planets outside our solar system until at least 2026.
THE European Space Agency (ESA) announced on March 9 that CHEOPS will continue its exoplanet-survey mission – which includes the selection of “golden target” worlds for further investigation by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – for at least three years, with the possibility of extending this period until 2029.
Launched in December 2019 from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana, CHEOPS (short for “Characterising Exoplanet Satellite”) is designed to study planets between the size of Earth and that of Neptune when they cross, or transit, the faces of bright stars. But it has had impressive results with objects well outside this size range.
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The mission has taken the science of exoplanets beyond simple detection, towards a deeper investigation of the atmospheres of these worlds as well as the precise measurement of their size and shape. Exoplanets with interesting atmospheric compositions can then be transmitted to more powerful telescopes like JWSTwhich means that CHEOPS plays a key role in our hunt for planets that could potentially harbor life.
“In this regard, the mission was extremely successful,” said Willy Benz, CHEOPS consortium leader, professor emeritus of astrophysics at the University of Bern in Switzerland. statement (opens in a new tab). “The accuracy of CHEOPS exceeded all expectations and allowed us to determine the properties of many of the most interesting exoplanets.”
An example of CHEOPS contribution to science was the discovery that the gas giant WASP-103b, first spotted in 2014, has a distended and flattened shape similar to that of a rugby ball. The ESA spacecraft made the decision in 2021 by examining the dip in brightness caused by the planet as it transits the face of its star.
The compressed shape of WASP-103b is thought to be the result of tidal interactions with its parent star, and the reveal marked the first time an exoplanet’s shape was so well defined.
CHEOPS has also had an impact closer to home. Again this year, observations from the spacecraft were used to discover that Quaoar, a dwarf planet in our solar system, is surrounded by a ring of dust. The ring is exceptional because it is farther from its parent body than any previously discovered ring, challenging theories about the formation of such structures.
CHEOPS’ primary science mission was originally only scheduled for three and a half years, until September 2023, but ESA said the spacecraft was in excellent health after more than three years in Earth orbit.
During this time, CHEOPS coped admirably with the rigors of space, such as the bombardment of cosmic rays and high-energy radiation, while on Earth, its operations team worked to keep the spacecraft operational during the global pandemic.
There remain many exciting viewing opportunities for CHEOPS. For example, the mission team hopes to use the spacecraft to discover the first exomoon — a moon orbiting a planet outside the solar system. Exomoons are difficult to spot due to their relatively small size and therefore the faint signature they cause as they pass in front of a star, but the CHEOPS team believe the spacecraft is sensitive enough to make such detection.
“We’ve only scratched the surface of CHEOPS capabilities. There’s a lot more science that can be done with the satellite, and we look forward to exploring that during the expansion,” Benz said. “Scientists are eager to discover the surprising results that CHEOPS will bring next; what is certain now is that CHEOPS will continue to make new discoveries for years to come.”
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