Next European space telescope to study the atmospheres of exoplanets

"Ariel is a logical next step in exoplanet science," said Günther Hasinger, ESA science director.
By Brooks Hays  |  March 20, 2018 at 4:50 PM
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March 20 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency has given the go-ahead to its next medium-class science mission, ARIEL.

The Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey mission was selected on Tuesday as the newest member of the Cosmic Vision program. ARIEL will be the program's fourth medium-class project.

ARIEL's primary scientific mission will be to study the planet formation process around other stars, with a specific focus on the evolution of alien atmospheres.

"ARIEL can really give us a full picture of what exoplanets are made of, how they form and how they evolve," Giovanna Tinetti, a planetary scientist at University College London and lead scientist for the mission, told Nature.

The probe's spectrograph will study changes in light as it passes through the gases surrounding faraway exoplanets, revealing the chemical composition of alien worlds. ARIEL's instruments will be able to measure chemical changes across the surface of an alien planet, as well as changes across different atmospheric layers. Its observations will also reveal seasonal variability among the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.

By analyzing the chemical makeup and evolution of various alien worlds, scientists will be able to more accurately estimate which exoplanets could potential harbor life.

"Ariel is a logical next step in exoplanet science, allowing us to progress on key science questions regarding their formation and evolution, while also helping us to understand Earth's place in the universe," said Günther Hasinger, ESA's director of science.

ESA has plans for three-other medium-class projects, but has yet to launch them.

The Solar Orbiter mission, featuring a probe designed to make close-up observations of the sun, is scheduled to launch in February 2019. The Euclid mission, set to launch in 2020, will focus on the study of dark matter. The PLATO, which launches in 2026, will measure stellar oscillations caused by the orbits of exoplanets.

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