Skip to main content

Next-generation exoplanet hunter Plato goes through vacuum testing

The study of exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, has exploded in the last decade. Thanks to missions like the Kepler Space Telescope and CHEOPS, we’ve discovered a 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 an upcoming telescope from the European Space Agency (ESA) called Plato.

Plato is a next-generation exoplanet-hunting satellite, set for launch in 2026. To get the telescope and its systems ready for the rigors of launch and the harsh environment of space, Plato hardware is undergoing testing at ESA’s ESTEC Test Centre and at SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research. Most recently, a test version of Plato’s payload module has been vacuum tested in a special vacuum chamber to ensure it can stand up to the space environment.

A test version of the payload module of ESA's exoplanet-detecting Plato spacecraft underwent a prolonged vacuum soak within Europe’s largest thermal vacuum chamber, to evaluate its endurance of space conditions.
A test version of the payload module of ESA’s exoplanet-detecting Plato spacecraft underwent a prolonged vacuum soak within Europe’s largest thermal vacuum chamber, to evaluate its endurance of space conditions. ESA-Remedia

The payload was placed into a space simulator for several weeks which recreates the extremely low pressure of space. Plato will be particularly reliant on its cameras for detecting exoplanets, with a total of 26 cameras on board, so these cameras needed to be checked in the vacuum environment as well. Over six weeks, a prototype of the camera was tested by being placed into a model of the spacecraft module called the engineering model.

“It turns out that all features of the Engineering Model function as expected,” said Lorenza Ferrari, the project manager, 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 check a version of all 26 cameras, which will be contained in a model called the flight model. This will check whether the cameras maintain their all-important accuracy during not only the cold conditions of space but also during the temperature variations experienced during launch.

“Located at the L2 Lagrange point, Plato (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) will have 26 of these cameras pointing at the same target stars,” explained Yves Levillain, Plato’s 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 shifts in brightness caused by exoplanets transiting these stars.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
How James Webb peers into the atmospheres of far-off exoplanets
Illustration of a planet on a black background. The planet is large and rocky. Roughly two-thirds of the planet is lit, while the rest is in shadow.

We are entering a new period of exoplanet astronomy, with a recent announcement that the James Webb Space Telescope has detected its first exoplanet. The promise of Webb is that it will be able to not only spot exoplanets but also study their atmospheres, which would mark a major step forward in exoplanet science.

Studying exoplanets is extremely challenging because they are generally far too far away and too small to be observed directly. Very occasionally, a telescope is able to directly image an exoplanet, but most of the time researchers have to infer that a planet is present by looking at the star around which it orbits. There are several methods for detecting planets based on their effects on a star, but one of the most commonly used is the transit method, in which a telescope observes a star and looks for a very small dip in brightness which happens when a planet passes between the star and us. This is the method Webb used to detect its first exoplanet, named LHS 475 b.

Read more
James Webb gets most detailed look yet at an exoplanet’s atmosphere
New observations of WASP-39b with the JWST have provided a clearer picture of the exoplanet, showing the presence of sodium, potassium, water, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in the planet's atmosphere. This artist's illustration also displays newly detected patches of clouds scattered across the planet.

One of the big advances promised by the James Webb Space Telescope is the ability to investigate exoplanets in greater detail than ever before. Webb has already imaged its first exoplanet and made the first detection of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet atmosphere, but now astronomers have used the telescope to get the most in-depth look yet at the atmosphere of planet WASP-39 b.

Webb uses instruments called spectrometers which break light down into different wavelengths to see which ones have been absorbed by various molecules in an atmosphere. This allows researchers to see spectra of the planet's atmosphere, telling them what elements are present, which the researchers describe as a "game changer" for the study of exoplanets.

Read more
Strangely chonky exoplanet has astronomers puzzled
Artist’s conception of a gas giant exoplanet orbiting around a Sun-like star. The young exoplanet HD 114082 b revolves around its Sun-like star within 110 days at a distance of 0.5 astronomical units.

Astronomers recently discovered a hefty exoplanet orbiting a star similar to our sun. At just 15 million years old, this chunky planet is a baby by galactic standards, old, but it has researchers puzzled due to its tremendous density.

The planet, called HD 114082 b, is similar in size to Jupiter, but seems to have eight times its mass. It's common for astronomers to discover gas giants similar to or larger than Jupiter, but it's very unusual to discover a planet this dense and heavy.  “Compared to currently accepted models, HD 114082 b is about two to three times too dense for a young gas giant with only 15 million years of age,” said lead author Olga Zakhozhay in a statement.

Read more