Astronomers now know of more than 4, 000 planets orbiting stars other than our sun, but they do not know for sure if any single one of them could hold life. The European Space Agency hopes to answer this question with its up-and-coming PLATO space-based telescope array, which it officially approved on Tuesday for an expected launch date of 2026.
PLATO, short for Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars, will deploy a satellite with 34 onboard telescopes that will scan wide swaths of deep space and observe thousands of stars at a time. The telescopes will look for rocky planets that are in the “habitable zone” of orbit around their stars. The most promising planets might get further scrutiny, according to the researchers, who add that they hold out hope of eventually discovering actual life on one or more planets.
“The launch of PLATO will give us the opportunity to contribute to some of the biggest discoveries of the next decade answering fundamental questions about our existence, and could eventually lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life,” said Don Pollacco, physics professor at the University of Warwick and one of the project’s participating researchers.
PLATO’s telescopes will scan for any undiscovered planets by analyzing the stars’ light. If there are recurring dips in brightness, it may be evidence of a planet. The telescopes will zero in on stars showing these patterns and not only determine if there are planets, but also assess the planet’s size, mass, and atmosphere, as well as the star’s size and age.