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By Dirk Lorenzen
2020 will be the year of Mars. The red planet will approach Earth in early October to within 62 million kilometers. Four space agencies are set to take advantage of this close encounter and send spacecraft to Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its ExoMars rover on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome. ExoMars is set to land on the surface, dig into the soil and look for traces of past life. They will be looking for possible living microbes about half a meter below the Martian surface. Above it, harmful cosmic radiation makes life as we know it impossible.
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>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Kelly Kizer Whitt
Venus is often mistaken for a plane because of its brilliance; it shines more brightly than all the other planets because of its location close to Earth and its thick, reflective clouds. The common phrase "the evening star" usually doesn't refer to a star at all; it's Venus. When it stands alone in the west after sunset, as it has over the past month, Venus is the first bright object to burst through the fading twilight.
By Andrea Germanos
While the Trump administration continues to wage a war on science, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Wednesday shared "remarkable" findings: seven 'Earthlike' planets in the habitable zone of a single star "relatively close" to the planet we call home.
"This is an amazing discovery," said Yale University astronomy Prof. Deborah Fischer to MSNBC. "On a scale of one-to-ten, this is off the scale. This is jaw-droppingly exciting," she added.
Located in the constellation Aquarius and about 40 light-years away from Earth, these rocky exoplanets (so called because they're outside our solar system) could all potentially hold water. They are around the TRAPPIST-1 star, which is slightly larger than Jupiter. It's an "ultracool dwarf" star, which means, according to a NASA press statement, that it is "so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system."
Three of the exoplanets were discovered using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile in 2016, with the additional four being discovered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The findings were also laid out Wednesday in the journal Nature.
"This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star," said Michaël Gillon, lead study author and astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium.
"This discovery," added Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC, "could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life."
"Answering the question 'are we alone?' is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal," Zurbuchen said.
The TRAPPIST-1 website offers more details on the newly discovered system and NASA Spitzer has this new video about how it came together:
Furthering the public dissemination of the information, a group of NASA scientists and exoplanet experts took part Wednesday in a Reddit AMA, where they provided more details on the discovery and next steps.
"[T]o find, identify and announce" an oxygen-rich atmosphere is hopefully just years away, said Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at MIT. Natalie Batalha, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center expected that "the surface gravity of most of these planets is similar to that on Earth" and said that being able to see things like potential vegetation or surface features like continents would require technology beyond that held by NASA's James Webb Telescope, which launches in 2018.
Still as NASA explained, it "will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone and other components of a planet's atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets' temperatures and surface pressures–key factors in assessing their habitability."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.