Institute of Astronomy

ESA exoplanet PLATO mission moves towards construction

Published on 20/06/2017 

The ESA SPC meeting on 20-21 June has now agreed to the adoption of the PLATO mission, following its selection in February 2014. This means it can move from a blueprint into construction. In the coming months industry will be asked to make bids to supply the spacecraft platform. Whilst its payload and control and analysis software will be constructed by agencies and institutes across Europe.

Following its launch in 2026, PLATO will monitor thousands of bright stars over a large area of the sky, searching for tiny, regular dips in brightness as their planets cross in front of them, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight.

The mission will have a particular emphasis on discovering and characterising Earth-sized planets and super-Earths orbiting Sun-like stars in the habitable zone – the distance from the star where liquid surface water could exist. PLATO will address fundamental questions such as “How common are earth-like planets?” and “Is our solar system unusual or even unique?”. In addition, PLATO will also investigate seismic activity in some of the host stars, and determine their masses, sizes and ages, with unprecedented accuracy and helping to understand the entire exoplanet system.

To make these incredibly accurate observations PLATO will be based at the ‘L2’ virtual point in space 1.5 million km beyond Earth as seen from the Sun (it’s this distance that helps the stability of the spacecraft and hence its ability to make such fine observations over a prolonged period).

UK scientists and engineers in collaboration with the UK Space Agency are leading participants involved in all aspects of the mission and have leading roles in the Science, the detectors and their readout electronics, and the software actually used to find and characterise the planets.

Prof Don Pollacco, the PLATO Science Coordinator, said “The UK community has always been strong in this science area. The launch of PLATO will give us the opportunity to contribute to some of the biggest discoveries of the next decade answering fundamental questions about our existence and could eventually lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life”.

Dr Nicholas Walton, the PLATO Consortium lead of the PLATO Exoplanet Analysis System, said ”The PLATO satellite will generate a huge volume of data in observing over a million potentially planet hosting stars. The UK will be leading the development of the sophisticated exoplanet data analysis system that will effectively tease out the faint signals in the data which will reveal those extra-solar planets most likely to be similar to our own Earth."

Further information concerning the opportunities that the PLATO mission will bring to the UK Space sector can be found in the UK Space Agency release.


Prof Don Pollacco (University of Warwick)


Mobile: 07788992294


Prof Alan Smith (MSSL, University College London)  



Dr Nicholas Walton (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge)  


Page last updated: 20 June 2017 at 17:54