“Cheops will take exoplanet science to a whole new level,” said Günther Hasinger, the European Space Agency’s director of science about the world’s newest orbiting telescope whose name stands for CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite that launched early on Wednesday morning aboard a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. It was the second try after Tuesday’s first launch attempt was delayed and some equipment was replaced.
The satellite –whose mission is to examine stars already known to be host to hopefully habitable exoplanets, focusing on stars with exoplanets that range between Earth’s mass and Neptune’s –will circle Earth just along the terminator, the division between day and night down below, with its camera permanently pointed away from the sun, toward the dark.
Cheops will observe bright stars that are already known to host planets, measuring minuscule brightness changes due to the planet’s transit across the star’s disc. The mission, reports the ESA, will target Earth- to Neptune-sized planets and will provide information about the character of the planets: that is, if they are rocky, gassy, icy or perhaps harbor oceans. This is a critical step in understanding the nature of planets beyond our own Solar System.
Cheops shares the ride into space with the Italian space agency’s Cosmo-SkyMed Second Generation satellite and three CubeSats: ESA’s OPS-SAT and the French space agency’s CNES’s EYE-SAT and ANGELS satellites.
Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the last three decades, reports Dennis Overbye of the New York Times, by ground-based astronomers like Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, of the University of Geneva, who were awarded the Nobel Prize this year and discovered the first known exoplanets from Earth using the wobble method. Dr. Queloz was in attendance at the launch.
“Cheops will help us reveal the mysteries of these fascinating worlds, and take us one step closer to answering one of the most profound questions we humans ponder: are we alone in the Universe?” said Kate Isaak, the mission’s project scientist.