Belfast Telegraph

Queen’s to boldly go into space in search of planets like Earth

The discovery of new life-bearing planets is a step closer as the result of a new space mission involving physicists from Queen’s University in Belfast.

Known as PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars), the spacecraft is designed to seek out planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way galaxy far beyond Earth’s solar system.

PLATO is one of three missions to be given a share of a £3.65m development grant from the UK Space Agency.

In June 2011, The European Space Agency (ESA) will choose two of the three missions to build and launch into Earth orbit between 2017 and 2020.

Professor Don Pollacco, from Queen’s School of Maths and Physics, is principal investigator with the international PLATO Science Consortium.

He said: “The discovery of life-bearing planets is one of the major scientific and philosophical |challenges of our time and at Queen’s we have been active in this area for many years. Already our SuperWASP experiment, using ground-based telescopes, has discovered 43 ‘exo-planets’ so far.

“We envisage that the new PLATO spacecraft would be launched between 2017 and 2020, on a Russian Soyuz Fregat rocket.

“We hope it will be powerful enough to detect rocky planets in the habitable zones of sun-like stars, those regions around a star where liquid water can exist.

“In other words, it could find new ‘Earths’.

“Using a suite of space telescopes on a single spacecraft, PLATO would detect these planets by picking up a brief and tiny dimming of light as they pass in front of their stars.

“The mission would focus on solar systems close enough to be scanned for bio-signatures, or signs of life, by later missions and

ground-based telescopes.” If selected for full development, the UK, together with other ESA member states, will design PLATO’s scientific instruments and finance its development, while ESA would commission the spacecraft to be built by European industry.

Second only to the United States in space science, the UK space sector contributes £6.5bn a year to the UK economy and supports 68,000 jobs.

The International PLATO Science Consortium involves seven UK institutions — Queen’s University Belfast, Queen Mary University of London, University College London, University of Leicester, Open University, University |of Cambridge and Warwick |University.

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