Next-generation exoplanet hunter Platon in vacuum test
The study of exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, has exploded over the past decade. Thanks to missions such as the Kepler Space Telescope and CHEOPS, we have discovered a treasure trove of thousands of exoplanets – and the next phase in our understanding of these distant worlds is to learn more about them. Tools like the James Webb Space Telescope will study the atmospheres of exoplanets, and it will be complemented by a future European Space Agency (ESA) telescope called Plato.
Plato is a next-generation exoplanet-hunting satellite, scheduled for launch in 2026. To prepare the telescope and its systems for the rigors of launch and the harsh environment of space, Plato hardware is being tested at ESA’s ESTEC test center and at SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research. More recently, a test version of Plato’s payload module was vacuum tested in a special vacuum chamber to ensure it can withstand the space environment.
The payload was placed in a space simulator for several weeks which recreates the extremely low pressure of space. Plato will be particularly dependent on its cameras to detect exoplanets, with a total of 26 cameras on board, so these cameras also needed to be checked in the vacuum environment. For six weeks, a prototype of the camera was tested by being placed in a model of the spacecraft module called the engineering model.
“It turns out that all the features of the engineering model work as intended,” said project manager Lorenza Ferrari in a statement. “This is good news for Plato in general, and it also shows that our space simulator works extremely well.”
The next step is to verify a version of the 26 cameras, which will be contained in a model called a flight model. This will test whether the cameras retain their essential accuracy not only in the cold conditions of space, but also during the temperature variations experienced during launch.
“Located at the Lagrange point L2, Plato (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) will have 26 of these cameras pointing at the same target stars”, Explain Yves Levillain, Plato Instrument System Engineer. They will acquire images every 25 seconds – every 2.5 seconds for the two central cameras – for at least two years at a time to detect tiny changes in brightness caused by exoplanets transiting these stars.