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Mission to extra-solar planets approved

25 February 2011

Mission to extra-solar planets approved


The European Space Agency has selected a mission to study extra-solar planets led by UCL (University College London) as one of its top missions for further study. A key objective of the mission is to look for signs of life in planets which are orbiting stars nearby our Sun.

EChO - the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory - is led by Dr Giovanna Tinetti, from the UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy, and is supported by over 150 of Europe's top astronomers. The mission should be launched some time between 2020 and 2022, and will look at the atmospheres of planets that may be orbiting in the "habitable zone" of their stars, where water can exist as a liquid.

"This is tremendously exciting news," said Dr Tinetti. "One of the key aims of our mission is to see if we can detect molecules such as ozone and carbon dioxide in the atmospheres of planets not much bigger than our Earth. These molecules are key biomarkers - signs that life might be, or might have been, present."

EChO will cost about 400 million pounds, and was one of nearly 50 mission proposals made to the European Space Agency. "We had to overcome really tough competition to get selected for further study and possible launch," Dr Tinetti explained.

EChO will consist of a 1.2 metre telescope and will carry out spectroscopy of the atmospheres of a range of extra solar planets, from giant gas planets (similar to Jupiter in our own Solar System) down to terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of some stars. The mission will to try and understand the chemical composition and thermal structure of these planets, through which scientists hope to unveil their physical processes, formation and evolution.

Dr Tinetti has a strong record in exoplanet research. She led the team that made the first discovery of water in an exoplanet atmosphere, opening up a new era in understanding these alien worlds.

Notes for Editors

1. For more information, please contact Giovanna Tinetti on 020 7679 3511, mobile 0791 25617, e-mail g.tinetti@ucl.ac.uk

2. Alternatively, please contact Clare Ryan in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3846, mobile: +44 07747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: clare.ryan@ucl.ac.uk.

3. More information about ESA can be found here: http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. Alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 13,000 undergraduate and 9,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £700 million. www.ucl.ac.uk