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UK takes lead in exoplanet mission with £30 million investment

Christian Fernsby |
The UK Government will invest £30 million to secure the UK’s leading role in developing a space telescope to explore exoplanets.

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Due to launch in 2029, Ariel’s mission is to understand the links between a planet’s chemistry, its evolution and its host star, by characterising the atmospheres of 1,000 known planets outside our solar system.

It is the first space mission dedicated to this analysis and will provide a step-change in our understanding of what exoplanets are made of, how they were formed and how they evolve.

Scientific data will be released to the scientific community and general public at regular intervals throughout its planned four-year operational phase.

Ariel, which was proposed by an international consortium led by University College London (UCL), was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) from 26 proposals put forward to be the next ‘medium class mission’ in its science programme.

The UK will lead the overall science of the mission and head up a consortium of 17 countries building the mission’s payload module.

The investment is the first major long-term commitment that the UK has made to space science since the publication of the National Space Strategy and the leadership role will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the UK space sector’s academic base.

The £30 million is provided through the UK Space Agency’s National Space Science Programme and is in addition to more than £6 million the Agency has already provided to support UK teams during Ariel’s study phase up to March 2022.

This investment will secure the UK’s scientific leadership of the mission and will incorporate the delivery of Ariel’s payload module, cryogenic cooler and optical ground support equipment, as well as science operations and data processing.

Teams at RAL Space will build and test the Ariel payload module, managing hardware contributions from other consortium nations, while the STFC Technology department is developing the £5.5 million cryogenic active cooler system.

Scientists at UCL and University of Cardiff will lead performance analysis, testing and fine-tuning the complex algorithms that will process the data returned from Ariel. The University of Oxford team will deliver the equipment to test Ariel’s payload telescope and optical elements.

A payload design review will be completed later this year, with the design expected to be finalised by 2025. A flight acceptance review will be completed in early 2029 ahead of launch later that year.

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