KEY POINTS

  • ESA will launch its first exoplanet mission
  • Cheops will study the composition of exoplanets
  • Future ESA missions will study the evolution of life in space 

The European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up to launch its first-ever mission designed to study exoplanets orbiting their host stars. The goal of the mission is to provide the first steps in analyzing planetary formation and the evolution of life in space.

The mission, dubbed as Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite (Cheops), will observe bright stars that are known to host their own system of planets. It will focus on the exoplanets that are about as big as Earth and Neptune.

By analyzing alien worlds within this size range, Cheops aims to gather information regarding the planets’ masses and measurements. This data can help determine the density of planets, which will then allow the ESA to study their structure and composition. Through these details, Cheops will be able to learn if a planet contains liquid oceans or if its surface is mainly rocky or grassy.

According to the ESA, Cheops will be very different from existing exoplanet-hunting missions such as NASA’s TESS and Kepler. Instead of finding new alien planets, Cheops will turn its gaze on known exoplanets of previously identified host stars.

As noted by the agency, Cheops will serve as the precursor of future missions designed to uncover the secrets of exoplanets. Primarily, these future missions will aim to discover how alien planets are formed and how life evolved in space.

“The mission paves the way for the next generation of ESA’s exoplanet satellites – Plato and Ariel – planned for the next decade,” the ESA explained in a statement. “Together, these missions will keep the European scientific community at the forefront of exoplanet research and will build on answering the fundamental question: what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life in the universe?”

The Cheops mission is expected to begin on Dec. 17. The spacecraft will be launched via the Soyuz-Fregat rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Hours before the launch, the ESA will host a special media event to discuss other details of the mission. The event, as well as the actual launch, will be live-streamed by the ESA through its website.

Exoplanet Scientists have discovered that a new medium-sized planet is vanishing at a faster rate than others. Pictured: A hand out image made available by the European Southern Observatory on August 24 2016, shows an artist's impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Photo: Getty Images/M. Kornmesser