It doesn't look like much, but once operational, this little satellite could serve as a key tool in the search for extraterrestrial life. Called Cheops, short for CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite, the European-launched device will target solar systems known to host exoplanets. And by analyzing the spectral signatures of these exoplanets, the space-based telescope will help astronomers identify planets capable of harboring life.
The project is part of the European Space Agency's effort to develop low cost and small scale missions that can be quickly put together. Cheops, which will be developed as a partnership between the ESA and Switzerland (along with contributions from other member states), is expected to launch some time in 2017.
Interestingly, the project marks an important turning point as far as the search for exoplanets goes. Cheops will be the first satellite dedicated to scanning known planets for key signatures instead of just searching for them. And this makes complete sense; astronomers have located over 840 planets outside our solar system. It's time we started to take a closer look.
Astronomers will do this by using the transmit method. Aplanet's radius can be measured when it passes in front of its parent star, which can in turn help astronomers calculate such things as its density. It will also help astronomers distinguish between gas giants and rocky super-Earths. Lastly, it will also identify planets that have significant atmospheres (including the composition of its various gasses).
Cheops will do its work in a Sun-synchronous low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 800 km (500 miles) over the course of 3.5 years.
Images: University of Bern.