Searching for Earth's twin
The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research establishes data centre for the European space mission PLATO to search for exoplanets
“PLATO will discover planets like our own, capable of harbouring life”, says Laurent Gizon, Director at the MPS. Exoplanet science has made tremendous progress in recent years thanks to the CoRoT mission of ESA/CNES and NASA’s Kepler mission. However, these pioneering missions were not designed to detect new worlds orbiting near-by stars.
PLATO will for the first time fully characterize these stars and their planets. The ultimate goal of the mission is to find an Earth-twin: “PLATO will enable us to find planets that orbit their star in the habitable zone: planets where liquid water is expected, and where life as we know it can be maintained”, says Heike Rauer from DLR, who will lead the mission.
In order to reach this ambitious goal, PLATO is equipped not with one, but with an array of 34 telescopes mounted on a single satellite. By surveying a very large fraction of the sky for six years, PLATO will study the full diversity of stars and planetary systems across our galaxy. “PLATO will finally give us the big picture”, says Gizon.
When an exoplanet passes in front of its host star, the starlight is slightly dimmed. PLATO will detect such planetary transits and characterize thousands of rocky planets (including Earth twins) as well as icy or giant planets by providing exquisite measurements of their radii, masses, and ages. In order to determine these planet properties, it is essential to know the radii, masses, and ages of their host stars. Only asteroseismology, the study of stellar oscillations, can provide the level of accuracy that is needed.
In the years prior to launch, the MPS will establish the PLATO Data Centre, which will coordinate with other PLATO Data Processing Centers across Europe. Housed in the brand new building of the MPS on the Göttingen University Campus, the PLATO Data Center will process one million stellar light curves to generate the final scientific data products: the radii, masses, and ages of confirmed planets. “The PLATO catalogue will be a treasure for generations of astronomers to come. It will contain prized targets for the search for life outside our solar system”, says Gizon.