UK to lead exoplanet mission with £30m investment

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Scheduled for launch in 2029, Ariel’s mission is to understand the links between a planet’s chemistry, its evolution and its host star, by characterizing the atmospheres of 1,000 known planets outside our solar system.

This is the first space mission dedicated to this analysis and will bring a radical change in our understanding of the composition of exoplanets, their formation and their evolution. Scientific data will be communicated to the scientific community and the general public at regular intervals throughout its planned four-year operational phase.

Ariel, which was proposed by an international consortium led by University College London (UCL), has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) from among 26 submitted proposals to be the next “middle class mission” in its program scientific. The UK will lead the mission’s overall science and lead a 17-nation consortium building the mission’s payload module.

This investment is the first major long-term commitment the UK has made to space science since the publication of the National Space Strategy and the leadership role will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the academic base of the UK space sector.

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 grow our £16.5 billion commercial space sector.

By investing £30m and taking the lead of the entire Ariel Consortium – the first time in a decade that we have taken the lead on a mission of this magnitude – we are putting the UK at the heart of research space, providing new opportunities for space companies and academics across the country.

The £30m is provided through the UK Space Agency’s National Space Science Program and comes on top of the more than £6m the agency has already provided to support UK teams during the phase Ariel’s study period until March 2022.

This investment will ensure UK science leadership on the mission and integrate delivery of Ariel’s payload module, cryocooler and optical ground support equipment, as well as science operations and data processing .

UK organizations contributing their expertise to the UK’s role as mission consortium principal investigator and payload manager include University College London (UCL), Cardiff University, Oxford University and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) RAL Space at the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire.

Professor Giovanna Tinetti, Mission Consortium Principal Investigator for Ariel at UCL, said:

Ariel will be transformational in helping us understand the planets in 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 within. of this one.

Paul Eccleston, Ariel Consortium Program Manager and Chief Engineer at RAL Space, said:

We welcome the agreement and commitment of the British Space Agency 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.

RAL Space teams will build and test the Ariel payload module, managing material contributions from other countries in the consortium, while the STFC Technology department is developing the £5.5 million cryogenic active cooling system.

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. The Oxford University team will provide the equipment to test the telescope and the optical elements of Ariel’s payload.

Günther Hasinger, Scientific Director of ESA, 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.

A payload design review will be completed later this year, with the design expected to be finalized by 2025. A flight acceptance review will be completed in early 2029 ahead of launch later in the year.

Ariel’s full name is the Great Infrared Exoplanet Survey by Atmospheric Remote Sensing. You can find out more about the mission via the Ariel YouTube channel, created by UCL and ESA.

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