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Europe’s CHEOPS mission will shed light on strange new worlds – EarthSky




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Artist’s concept of the just-launched CHEOPS space telescope, which will study hundreds of exoplanets in greater detail than ever before. Image via ESA/ ATG medialab/ DLR.

After a one-day delay, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched its CHEOPS mission last week, on the morning of December 18, 2019, from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. CHEOPS is the first ESA mission dedicated to studying exoplanets, those distant worlds orbiting other stars. NASA’s planet-hunting space missions, first Kepler and now TESS, have been finding new exoplanets. CHEOPS will study hundreds of exoplanets already known to exist – out of 4,000-plus now confirmed – to determine their sizes, masses, densities and possible atmospheres.

In this way, CHEOPS will take us some steps along the road of finding out what many exoworlds are actually like, not an easy task.

CHEOPS stands for CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite. The telescope will reside in a sun-synchronous orbit around Earth at an altitude of more than 400 miles (700 km). Kate Isaak, CHEOPS project scientist, said in a statement:

We are very excited to see the satellite blast off into space. 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. They seem to be the commonly found planets in our Milky Way galaxy, yet we do not know much about them. CHEOPS will help us reveal the mysteries of these fascinating worlds, and take us one step closer to answering one of the most profound questions we humans ponder: are we alone in the universe?

Watch the launch below:


Heike Rauer, Director of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, said:

More than 4000 exoplanets have been discovered in the Milky Way, yet we still know far too little about these distant worlds in our cosmic neighborhood. We are all eager to see which ‘faces’ the planets characterized by CHEOPS will show us.

So how does CHEOPS observe these planets?

Like some other telescopes, it will watch as the planets transit in front of their stars, as seen from Earth. As Juan Cabrera Perez, Head of the Extrasolar Planets and Atmospheres Department at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, explained:

We could describe this fluctuation in brightness as a ‘mini stellar eclipse’, as the transiting exoplanet reduces the intensity of the light from the star for a short time. This fluctuation can be measured and analyzed – an area in which we can contribute suitable tools and many years of experience.

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Rocket launch from low angle with flame beneath rocket and many bright spots in foreground.

Cool photo of CHEOPS launch, December 18, 2019. Image via ESA/ S. Corvaja.

CHEOPS will focus on some of the most common exoplanets discovered so far, ranging in size from Earth to Neptune, or about approximately 6,000 to 30,000 miles (10,000 to 50,000 km) in diameter. Using data from the transits, CHEOPS can determine the size, mass and density of the planets. All of these are important in order for scientists to figure out the planets’ compositions. Some will be rocky like Earth, while others will have deep, gaseous atmospheres like Neptune or even Jupiter or Saturn. Knowing this will also help scientists determine which of these worlds might be potentially habitable. Of course, rocky planets similar in size to Earth, or a bit larger – super-Earths – would be the most interesting in this regard. Nicola Rando, CHEOPS project manager, said:

Both CHEOPS instrument and spacecraft are built to be extremely stable, so as to measure the incredibly small variations in the light of distant stars as their planets transit in front of them. For a planet like Earth, this amounts to the equivalent of watching the sun from a distant star and measuring its light dim by a tiny fraction of a percent. Now we are looking forward to the first part of the operational activities, making sure that the satellite and instrument perform as expected, ready for scientists to perform their world-class science.


CHEOPS will also be able to find out which of these planets do have atmospheres and whether they have clouds. This will help differentiate between deep, gaseous primordial atmospheres with no real solid surface beneath them, and thinner atmospheres like those on terrestrial planets such as Earth, Venus or Mars.

CHEOPS is just the first of three planned ESA missions to study exoplanets.

The Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) space telescope, expected to launch in 2026, will focus on searching for “Earth-like” planets, ones that are rocky and about the same size as Earth orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. So far, most such worlds have been found orbiting red dwarf stars, the most common type of star in our galaxy. CHEOPS, however, will look for these planets around sun-like stars. It will also be able to determine the age of these planetary systems with more accuracy than possible before.

A couple of years later, in 2028, ESA will launch the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL) mission, which will study the atmospheres of exoplanets. As well as atmospheric composition, this will help scientists develop a comprehensive catalog of exoplanetary orbits, radii, masses, densities and ages.

All three of these exciting missions, and others, will greatly increase our knowledge of these exotic, far-off worlds.

Diagrams of spacecraft with text annotations on black background.

View larger. | Timeline of ESA and NASA exoplanet missions, including CHEOPS. Image via ESA.

As Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said:

CHEOPS will take exoplanet science to a whole new level. 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.

The CHEOPS mission is a partnership between ESA and Switzerland with additional contributions from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. More than 100 scientists and engineers are involved. The nominal mission is expected to last 3 1/2 years. While the CHEOPS science team has the bulk of observation time, 20% of the time is reserved for other scientists from around the world.

CHEOPS and the coming follow-up missions will open an exciting new chapter in exoplanetary study. What fascinating discoveries will they make?

Bottom line: ESA has successfully launched its CHEOPS space telescope to study hundreds of exoplanets in more detail than ever before.


Via German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Read more: Visit CHEOPS website

Paul Scott Anderson

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NASA will launch the CAPSTONE mission on Monday, June 27 –



Rocket Lab's Electron rocket sits atop the launch pad at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand for a rehearsal before the CAPSTONE launch.

A small satellite is preparing to pave the way for something much greater: a fully grown lunar space station. NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite is scheduled to launch on Monday and then travel to a unique lunar orbit on the Pathfinder mission Artemis programwhich seeks to return humans to the moon later this decade.

capstone He rides aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which will take off from the private company’s Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand. Rocket Lab made headlines in May using a helicopter to catch a falling booster missile. CAPSTONE is scheduled to launch at 6 AM ET on June 27 with live coverage starting an hour earlier. You can watch the event in the agency website or ApplicationOr, you can watch it on the live stream below.

NASA Live: The official broadcast of NASA TV

About a week after the CAPSTONE mission, the probe’s flight will be available through NASA Eyes on the solar system Interactive 3D visualization of data in real time.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission will send a microwave-sized satellite into near corona orbit (NRHO) around the moon. The satellite will be the first to sail its way around this unique lunar orbit, testing it for the planned date Moon Gatea small space station intended to allow a permanent human presence on the moon.

NRHO is special in that it is where the gravitational force of the Moon and Earth interact. This orbit would theoretically keep the spacecraft in a “beautiful gravitational spot” in a near-stable orbit around the Moon, according to to NASA. Therefore NRHO is ideal because it will require less fuel than conventional orbits and will allow the proposed lunar space station to maintain a stable line of communication with Earth. But before NASA builds its gateway into this highly elliptical orbit, the space agency will use CAPSTONE — which is owned and operated by Colorado-based Advanced Space — to test its orbital models.

Artist’s concept of CAPSTONE.
GIF: NASA/Daniel Rutter

Six days after launch from Earth, the upper stage of the Electron rocket will launch the CAPSTONE satellite on its journey to the Moon. The 55-pound (25-kilogram) cube vehicle will perform the rest of the four-month solo journey. Once on the moon, CAPSTONE will test the orbital dynamics of its orbit for about six months. The satellite will also be used to test spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology and unidirectional range capabilities that could eventually reduce the need for future spacecraft to communicate with mission controllers on Earth and wait for signals from other spacecraft to relay.

NASA is systematically putting together the pieces for the agency’s planned return to the Moon. The The fourth and final rehearsal for the space agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) went wellpaving the way for a possible launch in late August.

more: This small satellite linked to the moon can make a path to the lunar space station

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Astronaut view of New Zealand's North Island –



Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features the North Island of New Zealand. The photo was captured as the International Space Station (ISS) approached the southernmost extent of its prograde 51.6 degree orbit. 

From this vantage point – and with the perfect weather conditions – astronauts can get a clear view of the North Island of New Zealand, according  to ESA.

“Looking towards the northwest, the astronaut photographer captured the mottled-green island that separates the Tasman Sea from the South Pacific Ocean. On the other side of Cook Strait, South Island peeks out from beneath the cloud cover,” reports ESA.

“Seven bays surround the North Island and define its distinctive shape. The inland landscape includes grasslands (lighter green areas), forests (darker green areas), volcanic plateaus, and mountain ranges formed from sedimentary rocks.”

Lake Taupō, located in the center of the North Island, is a crater lake inside a caldera formed by a supervolcanic eruption. The lake borders the active volcano Mount Ruapehu, which has the highest peak in New Zealand. 

“The volcanic nature of the island arises from its location on the tectonic plate boundary between the Indo-Australian and Pacific Plates,” says ESA. “This plate boundary is part of the vast Pacific Ring of Fire, and leads to significant geothermal activity and earthquakes in the region. Additional volcanoes, including Egmont Volcano (Mount Taranaki), also dot the North Island landscape.”

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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Artemis 1 moon mission could launch as soon as late August –



NASA officials have declared the Artemis 1 moon rocket’s most recent “wet dress rehearsal” a success and are hopeful the mission can get off the ground as soon as late August.

The Artemis 1 stack — a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket topped by an Orion capsule — is scheduled to roll back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on July 1, where the massive vehicle will undergo repairs and preparations for its coming launch. 

Artemis 1, the first launch for the SLS, will send an uncrewed Orion on a roughly month-long mission around the moon. The mission has experienced several delays, and most recently the rocket’s certification to fly has been held up by incomplete fueling tests — a key part of the wet dress rehearsal, a three-day series of trials designed to gauge a new vehicle’s readiness for flight. 

Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission explained in photos 

The Artemis 1 stack first rolled from the VAB to KSC’s Pad 39B in mid-March, to prep for a wet dress rehearsal that began on April 1. But three separate attempts to fill the SLS with cryogenic propellants during that effort failed, sending the stack back to the VAB for repairs on April 25. The most recent wet dress try, which wrapped up on Monday (June 20), didn’t go perfectly, but NASA has deemed it good enough to proceed with preparations for launch.

Operators were able to fully fuel SLS for the first time, bringing the launch simulation much further along than any of the attempts in April. A leak from the core stage’s engine cooling system “umbilical” line was detected during Monday’s fueling test, but mission managers determined that the deviation didn’t pose a safety risk and continued with the simulation’s terminal count. That ended up being the right decision, Artemis 1 team members said.  

Mission operators were able to run a “mask” for the leak in the ground launch sequencer software, which permitted computers in mission control to acknowledge the malfunction without flagging it as a reason to halt the countdown, according to Phil Weber, senior technical integration manager at KSC. Weber joined other agency officials on a press call Friday (June 24) to discuss the plans for Artemis 1 now that the wet dress is in the rear view mirror.

The software mask allowed the count to continue through to the handoff from the mission control computers to the automated launch sequencer (ALS) aboard the SLS at T-33 seconds, which ultimately terminated the count at T-29 seconds. 

“[ALS] was really the prize for us for the day,” Weber said during Friday’s call. “We expected … it was going to break us out [of the countdown] because the ALS looks for that same measurement, and we don’t have the capability to mask it onboard.” 

It was unclear immediately following the recent wet dress if another one would be required, but mission team members later put that question to rest.

“At this point, we’ve determined that we have successfully completed the evaluations and required work we intended to complete for the dress rehearsal,” Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for Common Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters, said on Friday’s call. He added that NASA teams now have the “go ahead to proceed” with preparations for Artemis 1’s launch.

Before it can be rolled back to the VAB, however, the stack will undergo further maintenance at Pad 39B, including repairs to the quick-disconnect component on the aft SLS umbilical, which was responsible for Monday’s hydrogen leak. 

There’s also one more test technicians need to perform at the pad. Hot-firing the hydraulic power units (HBUs), part of the SLS’ solid rocket boosters, was originally part of the wet dress countdown but was omitted when the countdown was aborted. Those tests will be completed by Saturday (June 25), according to Lanham. Following the hot-fire tests, operators will then spend the weekend offloading the HBUs’ hydrazine fuel.

Once back in the VAB, NASA officials estimate it’ll take six to eight weeks of work to get Artemis 1 ready to roll back to Pad 39B for an actual liftoff. Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager at KSC, outlined some of the planned maintenance on Friday’s call. 

Related: NASA’s Artemis program of lunar exploration

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Among other tasks, technicians will perform standard vehicle inspections, hydrogen leak repairs, “late-stow” for the payloads flying on Orion, and software loads to the SLS core stage and upper stage. They will also install flight batteries.

“Ultimately, we want to get to our flight termination system testing,” Lanham said. “Once that’s complete, we’ll be able to perform our final inspections in all the volumes of the vehicle and do our closeouts.”

After that work is complete, the Artemis 1 stack will roll out from the VAB once again, making the eight to 11-hour crawl back to Pad 39B on July 1. Whitmeyer said on Friday that the late-August launch window for Artemis 1, which opens on Aug. 23 and lasts for one week, is “still on the table.”

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