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UK-led space telescope to detect what exoplanets are made of

UK-led space telescope to detect what exoplanets are made of

2020-11-16

UK-led space telescope to detect what exoplanets are made of

It is dubbed the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey, or Ariel.

Following government funding, UK research institutions – including UCL, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space, Technology Department and UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Cardiff University and University of Oxford – will play a critical role in the mission.

The goal of Ariel is to understand the links between a planet’s chemistry and its environment by charting 1,000 known planets outside our own Solar System. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) expects this will provide scientists with a clearer picture of what exoplanets are made of, how they were formed and how they will evolve.


For example, Ariel could be able to detect signs of well-known ingredients in the planets’ atmospheres such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane. It will also detect metallic compounds to decipher the overall chemical environment of the distant solar system.

For a select number of planets, says the UKSA, Ariel will also perform a deep survey of their cloud systems and study seasonal and daily atmospheric variations.

“We are the first generation capable of studying planets around other stars,” said Professor Giovanna Tinetti, Principal Investigator for Ariel from University College London. “Ariel will seize this unique opportunity and reveal the nature and history of hundreds of diverse worlds in our galaxy. We can now embark on the next stage of our work to make this mission a reality.”

Once in orbit, Ariel will share its data with the general public.

Pictured above is an example spectrum Ariel could measure from light passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

Ariel has been undergoing a review process throughout 2020 and is now slated for launch in 2029.

“Thanks to government funding, this ambitious UK-led mission will mark the first large scale study of planets outside the Solar System, and will enable our leading space scientists to answer critical questions on their formation and evolution,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway.

“It is a testament to the brilliant work of the UK space industry, our incredible scientists and researchers led by University College London and RAL Space and our international partners that this mission is ‘lifting off’. I look forward to watching it progress towards launch in 2029.”

Some 4,374 worlds have been confirmed in 3,234 systems since the first exoplanet discoveries in the early 1990s, says the UKSA.

Images: ESA/STFC RAL Space/UCL/UK Space Agency/ATG Medialab

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