|Mission type||Space observatory|
|Mission duration||4 years (plus 4 years of possible mission extensions)|
|Manufacturer||OHB System AG|
|Start of mission|
|Launch date||Planned for 2026|
|Launch site||Kourou ELS|
|Reference system||Sun–Earth L2|
|Collecting area||2250 deg2|
|Wavelengths||Visible spectrum: 500 to 1000 nm|
PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) is a space observatory under development by the European Space Agency for launch in 2026. The mission goals are to search for planetary transits of up to one million stars, to discover and characterize rocky extrasolar planets around yellow dwarf stars like our sun, subgiant stars, and red dwarf stars. The emphasis of the mission is on earth-like planets in the habitable zone around sun-like stars where water can exist in liquid state. It is the third medium-class mission in ESA's Cosmic Vision programme and named after the influential Greek philosopher Plato, the founding figure of Western philosophy, science and mathematics. A secondary objective of the mission is to study stellar oscillations or seismic activity in stars to measure stellar masses and evolution and enabling the precise characterization of the planet host star, including its age.
PLATO was first proposed in 2007 to the European Space Agency (ESA) by a team of scientists in response to the call for ESA's Cosmic Vision 2015–2025 programme. The assessment phase was completed during 2009, and in May 2010 it entered the Definition Phase. Following a call for missions in July 2010, ESA selected in February 2011 four candidates for a medium-class mission (M3 mission) for a launch opportunity in 2024. PLATO was announced on 19 February 2014 as the selected M3 class science mission for implementation as part of its Cosmic Vision Programme. Other competing concepts that were studied included the four candidate missions EChO, LOFT, MarcoPolo-R and STE-QUEST.
In January 2015 ESA selected Thales Alenia Space, Airbus DS, and OHB System AG to conduct three parallel phase B1 studies to define the system and subsystem aspects of PLATO, which were completed in 2016. On 20 June 2017, ESA has adopted PLATO in the Science Programme, which means that the mission can move from a blueprint into construction. In the coming months industry will be asked to make bids to supply the spacecraft platform.
The PLATO Mission Consortium that is responsible for the payload and for major contributions to the science operations is led by Prof. Heike Rauer at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research. The design of the Telescope Optical Units is made by an international team from Italy, Switzerland and Sweden and coordinated by Roberto Ragazzoni at INAF (Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica) Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova. The Telescope Optical Unit development is funded by the Italian Space Agency, the Swiss Space Office and the Swedish National Space Board.
PLATO is an acronym, but also the name of a philosopher in Classical Greece; Plato (428–348 BC) was looking for a physical law accounting for the orbit of planets (errant stars) and able to satisfy the philosopher's needs for "uniformity" and "regularity".
The goal is to find planets like Earth, not just in terms of their size but in their potential for habitability. By using 26 separate small telescopes and cameras, PLATO will search for planets orbiting from 300,000 to one million stars. The main objective of PLATO is to elucidate the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life. To achieve this objective, the mission has these goals:
- Discover and characterize a large number of close-by exoplanetary systems, with a precision in the determination of the planet radius up to 3%, of stellar age up to 10%, and of the planet mass up to 10% (the latter in combination with on-ground radial velocity measurements)
- Detect and characterize Earth-sized planets and super-Earths in the habitable zone around solar-type stars
- Discover and characterize a large number of exoplanetary systems to study their typical architectures, and dependencies on the properties of their host stars and the environment
- Measure stellar oscillations to study the internal structure of stars and how it evolves with age
- Identify good targets for spectroscopic measurements to investigate exoplanet atmospheres
PLATO will differ from the COROT and Kepler space telescopes in that it will study relatively bright stars (between magnitudes 4 and 11), enabling a more accurate determination of planetary parameters, and making it easier to confirm planets and measure their masses using follow-up radial velocity measurements on ground-based telescopes. Its dwell time will be longer than that of the TESS NASA mission, making it sensitive to longer-period planets.
The PLATO payload is based on a multi-telescope approach, involving a set of 24 "normal cameras" working at a readout cadence of 25 sec and monitoring stars fainter than mV = 8 (apparent visual magnitude), plus two "fast cameras" working at a cadence of 2.5 sec, and observing stars in the magnitude range 4 to 8. The cameras are based on a fully dioptric telescope including six lenses; each camera has an 1100 deg2 field, and a lens diameter of 120 mm. Each camera is equipped with its own CCD focal plane array, consisting of four CCDs with 4510 x 4510 pixels.
The 24 "normal cameras" will be arranged in four groups of six cameras with their lines of sight offset by a 9.2° angle from the +ZPLM axis. This particular configuration allows surveying a total field of about 2250 deg2 per pointing. The satellite will be rotated around the mean line of sight by 90° every three months, for a continuous survey of exactly the same region of the sky.
- Cosmic Vision, ESA program (2015-2025)
- List of projects of the European Space Agency
- List of space telescopes
- Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), NASA, launched in 2018
- "PLATO - Camera Telescope Optical Units". INAF- Osservatorio Astrofisico di Catania. 2014. Retrieved 20 February 2014.
- PLATO spacecraft to find new Earth-like exoplanets. June 21, 2017, Max Planck Society.
- Amos, Jonathan (29 January 2014). "Plato planet-hunter in pole position". BBC News. Retrieved 2014-01-29.
- "Plato". European Space Agency. European Space Agency. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
- Isabella Pagano (2014). "PLATO 2.0". INAF- Osservatorio Astrofisico di Catania. Retrieved 20 February 2014.
- Cosmic Vision M3 candidate missions presentation event. Announcement and registration. (21 January 2014)
- "ESA selects planet-hunting PLATO mission". European Space Agency. Retrieved 19 February 2014.
- "ESA Selects Thales Alenia Space for PLATO Phase B1 Study". Via Satellite. 12 January 2015. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
- "Gravitational wave mission selected, planet-hunting mission moves forward". sci.esa.int. Retrieved 2017-06-21.
- PLATO: detailed design of the telescope optical units. Authors: D. Magrin, Ma. Munari, I. Pagano, D. Piazza, R. Ragazzoni, et al., in Space Telescopes and Instrumentation 2010: Optical, Infrared, and Millimeter Wave, Edited by Oschmann, Jacobus M., Jr.; Clampin, Mark C.; MacEwen, Howard A. Proceedings of the SPIE, Volume 7731, pp. 773124-8 (2010)