PARIS (ESA PR) — The United Kingdom has secured a leading role in the development of a space telescope that will probe the atmospheres of distant worlds.
The mission – called Ariel – will study the gases that shroud some 1,000 extrasolar planets to answer fundamental questions about how they formed and evolved.
Scheduled for launch in 2029, this is the first mission dedicated to this type of analysis.
Some £30m of funding is being provided by the UK under an agreement with ESA member states which confirmed the roles of the mission.
Proposed by an international consortium led by University College London (UCL), Ariel was selected by ESA from among 26 proposals submitted to be the next “middle class mission” in its science programme.
It is the third in a trio of ESA’s dedicated exoplanet missions, following Cheops – which was launched in 2019 – and Plato, which is scheduled to launch in 2026.
The UK will lead the global science of Ariel and lead a 17-nation consortium building the mission’s payload module.
British experts will also support the development of the cryocooler and optical ground support equipment, as well as science operations and data processing.
Scientists from UCL and Cardiff University will lead the performance analysis, test and refine the complex algorithms that will process the data returned by Ariel. A team from Oxford University will provide the equipment to test the telescope and the optical elements of Ariel’s payload.
Giovanna Tinetti, Principal Investigator and Science Development Lead for Ariel at UCL, said: “Ariel will be transformational in helping us understand the planets of our galaxy. By studying hundreds of diverse worlds in different environments, we will see our own planet in context, giving us a better idea of why Earth formed the way it did.
“We are very grateful to the UK Space Agency and the UK Government for their continued support and commitment to advancing planetary science, helping us to understand the worlds beyond our solar system as well as the inside of it.”
Teams at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space facility on the Harwell campus will build and test the Ariel payload module, managing hardware contributions from other consortium nations, while the STFC technology department develops the system active cryogenic cooling of £5.5 million.
Paul Eccleston, Ariel Consortium Program Manager and Chief Engineer at RAL Space, said: “We welcome the UK Space Agency’s agreement and commitment to enable this collaboration. I am delighted that the UK is playing a leading role in the mission and proud of the progress the consortium has already made in designing the payload. These ties will only grow stronger as we move towards launch.
UK Science Minister George Freeman said: “This is a hugely important commitment for UK space science and technology, marking a major milestone for the national space strategy and reinforcing our ambitions to develop our space sector. business of £16.5 billion.
“By investing £30million and taking the lead of the entire Ariel Consortium – the first time in a decade that we have been given leadership of a mission of this magnitude – we are putting the UK at the heart of international space research, offering new opportunities. for space companies and academics across the country.
Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Chief Science Officer, said: “Ariel is a very important mission for ESA’s space science program and is part of our advanced mission fleet that studies extrasolar planets. This commitment from the UK Space Agency and our partner science institutions in the UK is a big step forward for Ariel, and we look forward to working closely together on the implementation of the mission.