Europe’s exoplanet hunting mission CHEOPS has been extended to 2026
The European space probe CHEOPS will study planets outside our solar system until at least 2026.
The European Space Agency (ESA) announced on March 9th that CHEOPS has completed its exoplanet-Study mission – which involves the selection of “Golden Target” worlds for deeper study by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – for at least another three years, with the potential to extend to 2029.
Launched in December 2019 from ESA’s Cosmodrome in French Guiana, CHEOPS (short for Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite) is designed to study planets between Earth and Neptune in size as they cross or pass the face of bright stars. But it has achieved impressive results with objects well outside that size range.
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The mission has taken exoplanet science beyond simple detection to deeper study of these worlds’ atmospheres and accurately measuring their size and shape. Exoplanets with interesting atmospheric compositions can then be passed on to more powerful telescopes JWSTmeaning CHEOPS plays a key role in our hunt for planets that could potentially support life.
“In this respect, the mission was extremely successful,” said Willy Benz, leader of the CHEOPS consortium, professor emeritus of astrophysics at the University of Bern in Switzerland, in a opinion (opens in new tab). “The precision of CHEOPS has exceeded all expectations and has enabled us to determine the properties of several of the most interesting exoplanets.”
An example of CHEOPS’ contribution to science was the discovery that gas giant WASP-103 b, first discovered in 2014, has an elongated, flattened shape resembling that of a rugby ball. ESA’s spacecraft made this finding in 2021 by studying the dip in brightness caused by the planet as it passes the face of its star.
WASP-103 b’s condensed form is thought to be the result of tidal interactions with its parent star, and the revelation marked the first time the shape of an exoplanet has been so well defined.
CHEOPS has also had an impact closer to home. Just this year, observations from the spacecraft revealed that Quaoar, a dwarf planet in our solar system, is surrounded by a ring of dust. The ring is extraordinary because it is farther from its parent body than any previously discovered ring, challenging theories of how such structures form.
CHEOPS’ primary science mission was originally scheduled to last just three and a half years, until September 2023, but ESA said the spacecraft is in excellent condition after more than three years in Earth orbit.
During that time, CHEOPS has admirably weathered the rigors of space, such as cosmic ray and high-energy radiation bombardment, while its operations team on Earth worked to keep the spacecraft operational during the global pandemic.
There are still many exciting observation opportunities for CHEOPS. For example, the mission team hopes to discover the first with the spaceship exo moon — a moon orbiting a planet outside the solar system. Exomonds are difficult to detect due to their comparatively small size and thus the faint signature they produce when passing in front of a star, but the CHEOPS team believes the spacecraft is sensitive enough to perform such detection.
“We have 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,” said Benz. “Scientists are excited to see what surprising results CHEOPS will bring next; it is now certain that CHEOPS will continue to make new discoveries for years to come.”
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