Dec. 18 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency's CHEOPS mission got airborne on Wednesday morning. The CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite was successfully launched by a Soyuz rocket, which blasted-off from the Russian Soyuz Guiana Space Center in French Guiana at 3:54 a.m. ET.
"CHEOPS is the first mission dedicated to searching for exoplanetary transits by performing ultra-high precision photometry on bright stars already known to host planets," according to ESA.
So far, scientists have discovered some 4,000 exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including dozens of Earth-like exoplanets -- mostly using data collected by NASA's Kepler satellite.
Astronomers are always looking for new exoplanets, as well as new and better ways to spot them, but, increasingly, scientists are searching for ways to study exoplanets in greater detail. CHEOPS will help researchers do the latter.
"CHEOPS will take exoplanet science to a whole new level," Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said in a news release. "After the discovery of thousands of planets, the quest can now turn to characterization, investigating the physical and chemical properties of many exoplanets and really getting to know what they are made of and how they formed."
"CHEOPS will also pave the way for our future exoplanet missions, from the international James Webb Telescope to ESA's very own Plato and Ariel satellites, keeping European science at the forefront of exoplanet research," Hasinger said.
More specifically, the CHEOPS satellite will work to measure the sizes of of previously discovered exoplanets with unprecedented precision and accuracy. The dimensions data, measured as the exoplanets transit in front of their host stars, will be combined with existing information about their masses to calculate their densities.
"There are so many interesting exoplanets and we will be following up on several hundreds of them, focusing in particular on the smaller planets in the size range between Earth and Neptune," said Kate Isaak, ESA CHEOPS project scientist. "They seem to be the commonly found planets in our Milky Way galaxy, yet we do not know much about them."
The CHEOPS satellite was one of a few payloads carried into space by the Soyuz rocket on Wednesday. The launcher also delivered an Italian Earth-observing satellite into orbit. The Cosmo-SkyMed Second Generation satellite separated from the rocket 23 minute after blastoff. Three experimental CubeSats were also deposited into low-Earth orbit by the Soyuz launcher.