Queen's scientists take a step closer to discovering life-bearing planets

The discovery of new life-bearing planets is a step closer as the result of a new space mission involving physicists from Queen’s University Belfast.

Known as PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars), the mission is designed to seek out planets far beyond earth’s solar system, orbiting stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

PLATO is one of three missions to share in a £3.65million development grant from the UK Space Agency. The European Space Agency will build two of the three and launch into orbit between 2017 and 2020.

Planet hunter Professor Don Pollacco, from Queen’s School of Maths and Physics, is Principal Investigator of the international PLATO Science Consortium. He said: “The discovery of life-bearing planets is one of the major scientific and philosophical challenges of our time and at Queen’s we have been active in this area for many years. Already our SuperWASP experiment, using ground-based telescopes, has discovered 43 ‘exo-planets’ so far. “We envisage that the new PLATO spacecraft would be launched between 2017 and 2020, on a Russian Soyuz Fregat rocket. We hope it will be powerful enough to detect rocky planets in the habitable zones of sun-like stars, those regions around a star where liquid water can exist. In other words, it could find new earths.

“Using a suite of space telescopes on a single spacecraft, PLATO would detect these planets by picking up a brief and tiny dimming of light as they pass in front of their stars, blocking their brightness.

“The mission would focus on solar systems close enough to be scanned for bio-signatures, or signs of life by later missions and ground-based telescopes.”

If selected for full development, the UK, together with other ESA member states, will design PLATO’s scientific instruments and finance its development, while ESA would commission the spacecraft to be built in European industry.

Second only to the United States in space science, the UK's thriving space sector contributes £6.5bn a year to the UK economy and supports 68,000 jobs.

The International PLATO Science Consortium involves seven UK institutions (Queen’s University Belfast, Queen Mary University of London, University College London, University of Leicester, Open University, University of Cambridge and Warwick University).