By Matthias Klaus
The CHEOPS mission blasted off from Kourou, French Guiana atop a Russian Soyuz rocket on Wednesday. The launch came 24 hours after a first attempt was delayed shortly before liftoff because of a software problem in the upper stage of the rocket.
Measuring the Light Intensity of Stars<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjE5MTUzNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNDA1NzA1OH0.TzDY5CAha95abpZxLvY0YOBthJQdjywq9N_ALavWmuo/img.jpg?width=980" id="2a4ff" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="86838a7d686624bcd566e823c74cf6fb" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>CHEOPS stands for "CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite," a satellite for the exploration of exoplanets. Despite the fact that exoplanets are incredibly far away from us (far outside our solar system, orbiting around distant stars), the mission is actually not that expensive.</p><p>"CHEOPS is a small mission in terms of scope, cost and also in terms of the time it takes to develop the mission," says Kate Isaak, a scientific coordinator of CHEOPS. "The mission is to measure the size of planets orbiting nearby suns."</p>
A Closer Look at Known Exoplanets<p>"By combining the size of the planets with their mass, something we can measure with telescopes on Earth, we learn a lot about the composition of the planets and their evolution," says Isaak.</p><p>All these differences are, of course, very small, since the stars and planets observed are several light years away. In order to be able to measure them at all, any disturbance must be excluded.</p><p>That's the reason why such observations are best made using space-based telescopes rather than those on Earth. The Earth's atmosphere would simply get in the way. CHEOPS is designed to target planets that are larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune.</p>
Will CHEOPS Find Aliens?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjE5MTUzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDQ5NTcxNX0.lBqib6i7kz4pC-54HrMG8aARzD5bPKnP087bT1J6CWM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7e8bd" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b0cd3b54bd1a7aa0e7a8367083f40733" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>The mission will take three and a half years. But, this time, the question of all questions will not be answered.</p><p>"The question of whether we are alone in the universe is certainly one of the most fundamental questions ever," says Isaak. But CHEOPS will not get that far. "Other satellites have shown that there are planets beyond our solar system. So it is clear that there are exoplanets. What we want to show now is what these smaller rock planets are like and how they evolve."</p><p>After all, it should be possible to identify at least some planets on which extraterrestrial life is at least conceivable.</p><p>"What we are looking for now are the best planetary candidates for future exploration by other satellites such as the James Webb Space Telescope or by observatories [such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO)] in South America. From there, we can study the atmospheres of these candidates and search for molecules characteristic of the presence of life." </p>
Modular Research Satellite Design<p>In addition to the scientific findings that the CHEOPS mission will provide, the ESA looking for ways of making research satellites cheaper. The satellite developers have come up with new technologies for this purpose.</p><p>"Satellites are very expensive and very complex to build. And these programs always take a very long time," says Richard Southworth of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC). He is responsible for controlling the CHEOPS satellite.</p><p>"With CHEOPS, the idea was to see if we could do it better, a little faster and less costly. We have tried to keep the probe relatively simple and above all to use parts that have flown on other missions before. These components will then be less expensive and more reliable because they have already been tested."</p><p>ESA also saves on the transport of the probe into space: CHEOPS flies on a Soyuz rocket as cargo. So the project shares the travel costs with another — in this case an Italian — satellite.</p><p>And even if the satellite is already in the sky, there is still an opportunity to reduce costs. The CHEOPS researchers use the flying telescope only 80 percent of the time. The rest of the time others can rent it for their own research. </p>
Scrapping Already Firmly Scheduled<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjE5MTU0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzc3ODI0NX0.h-bqOvXXkdhdhIo-e6KzWmlZtKwH3OKdsSZtWKIPVsE/img.jpg?width=980" id="c2d15" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0639d4915814601201f2f1469b4ec52c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>The research itself will then begin after a test period of several months. But what happens to CHEOPS when the project is finished?</p><p>"It's planned to operate for three and a half years," says satellite controller Southworth. "But the design of the satellite should ensure that we could also fly for five years if there is money and interest. In the end, we deactivate the satellite and initiate de-orbiting."</p><p>The satellite will first be switched into a passive mode so that it can no longer interfere with radio signals or other satellites.</p><p>"Finally, we will also make an orbit correction. This will lead to the satellite's safe return to Earth. That means CHEOPS won't become space debris in the long run."</p><p>In the end, the probe will burn and disintegrate when entering the earth's atmosphere.</p>
Researchers with the European Space Agency (ESA) have mapped in stunning detail the extensive retreat of South America's Patagonian ice fields, where some glaciers are melting at the highest rates on Earth and contribute to global sea level rise.
In a report this week, ESA revealed that between the years 2011 and 2017, Patagonia's ice fields receded at a rate of more than 21 gigatonnes (Gt)—21 billion metric tons—a year, the equivalent to adding 0.06 millimeters to global sea level.
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[Editor's note: On Dec. 28, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) celebrated its 38th birthday. The ESA was enacted on Dec. 28, 1973, to prevent the loss or harm of endangered and threatened species, and to preserve the ecosystems upon which these species depend. Thanks to the many grassroots environmental organizations that work hard every day to protect this historic legislation.]
Arizona’s narrow-headed garter snake is rapidly disappearing and needs Endangered Species Act protection in order to avoid extinction, according to a status report submitted Dec. 28 by the Center for Biological Diversity and two Arizona herpetologists. The report responds to an announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month that the agency is preparing a proposed rule to protect the northern Mexican garter snake and is also evaluating whether the narrow-headed garter snake warrants federal protection.
“Declines of the northern Mexican garter snake and the narrow-headed garter snake are symptomatic of widespread declines in the aquatic fauna of the Southwest,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the center who focuses on protection of imperiled amphibians and reptiles. “These snakes depend on native fish and amphibians as prey, and the widespread loss of these snakes and their prey reflects a severe collapse of the food web in Southwest rivers and streams.”
The introduction and spread of nonnative species, such as sunfish, bass and crayfish—as well as the destruction of their streamside habitats due to livestock grazing, water withdrawal, and agricultural and urban sprawl—are the main culprits in the decline of the Mexican and narrow-headed garter snakes. Collection and killing by humans is also driving their declines.
“We’re pleased that the service is taking steps toward federal protection for these highly imperiled snakes,” said Giese. “Endangered Species Act protection will put these snakes on the path toward recovery, but the window of opportunity is closing fast.”
The northern Mexican and narrow-headed garter snakes have undergone dramatic range-wide declines in the U.S. and are now almost entirely limited to small, isolated populations that are at risk of extirpation. The center petitioned for the Mexican garter snake in 2003, and it has been a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection since 2008. Under a historic settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision about protection for the Mexican garter snake in fiscal year 2013.
If the service concludes that Endangered Species Act protection is warranted for the narrow-headed garter snake, the agency expects to publish a combined rule to list both snakes as threatened or endangered throughout their ranges and designate proposed critical habitat by the end of 2012.
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