New ESA Plato mission to search for exoplanets

(ORDO NEWS) — ESA is working on a new mission called Plato. It is aimed at finding exoplanets and will be launched in 2026.

Astronomers expect to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone thanks to Plato’s ability to detect small planets in wider orbits than other telescopes.

The Netherlands Institute for Space Research SRON is contributing to the project by testing Plato’s cameras in a specially designed space simulator.

SRON researchers have completed prototype testing and all functions are working as expected. The chamber cage is now undergoing vacuum loading tests at ESA. They will last one month and will determine its endurance in space conditions.

To simulate the extreme conditions of space, scientists from the SRON Institute built a simulator and adapted it to the Platon tests.

It provides ultra-low pressure and low temperatures and also generates artificial starlight. The mechanism, which continues to operate in these extreme conditions, moves the camera to provide maximum visibility. Researchers can determine, to within one millionth of a circle, which direction the camera is facing.

For six weeks, the Plato prototype camera went through an extensive testing program to demonstrate the required performance and ensure that it would not be affected by the cycling of all kinds of anticipated temperatures.

During the spring and summer, additional simulators in Paris and Madrid will replicate SRON test results on the same camera, providing the necessary cross-calibration between the three installations.

The final version of the satellite, called the Flight Model, will contain 26 cameras. To keep up with the launch schedule in 2026, testing of each will be split between Groningen (SRON), Paris (IAS) and Madrid (INTA). SRON will receive the first of eight Polet cameras this fall. Testing will be completed by the end of 2023.

The optical bench, which will hold 26 cameras, is also undergoing vacuum loading tests at ESA’s largest thermal vacuum chamber in Europe to test its endurance in space conditions.

Tests include “thermal cycling” to evaluate how the optical bench responds to temperature changes between light and dark, and “thermal balance” to measure the operating temperature it maintains under those conditions.

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