CHEOPS, the habitable planet hunter from Spain

  • Society

CHEOPS, the habitable planet hunter from Spain

CHEOPS was developed and built almost entirely by Spanish firms. Photo: Spanish Association of Defence and Aerospace Technology Companies (TEDAE).
El satélite CHEOPS was developed and built almost entirely by Spanish firms. Photo: Spanish Association of Defence and Aerospace Technology Companies (TEDAE).ha sido construido casi íntegramente por empresas españolas. Foto: AIRBUS

CHEOPS is a milestone in the history of the Spanish aerospace industry. It is the first European Space Agency (ESA) satellite to be developed and built almost entirely in Spain. Moreover, it will be first ESA S-class mission. Budgeted at 50 million euro, the mission, led by Airbus Spain, will be carried out by a consortium of 24 partners from 11 countries. Seven of the partners are from our country: Airbus, GMV, Crisa, RYMSA ESPACIO, IberEspacio, Invertia and HV Sistemas.

CHEOPS – CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite – is the first mission dedicated to searching for exoplanetary transits by performing ultra-high precision photometry on bright stars already known to host planets. In short, CHEOPS is a ‘planet hunter’, searching for habitable planets outside our solar system.

First step of a big project

‘The mission’s main science goals are to measure the bulk density of super-Earths and Neptunes orbiting bright stars and provide suitable targets for future in-depth characterisation studies of exoplanets in these mass and size ranges. By unveiling transiting exoplanets with high potential for in-depth characterisation, CHEOPS will provide suitable targets for future instruments suited to the spectroscopic characterisation of exoplanetary atmospheres,’ says Andrés Borges, who in in charge of the programme.

However, CHEOPS is only the first step in a huge space exploration project and the predecessor of PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars). PLATO’s objective is to find and study a large number of extrasolar planetary systems, with emphasis on the properties of terrestrial planets in the habitable zone around solar-like stars. PLATO has also been designed to investigate seismic activity in stars, enabling the precise characterisation of the planet host star, including its age.

Nerve centre in Torrejón de Ardoz

The CHEOPS mission will be operated from the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), whose headquarters are in Torrejón de Ardoz, in the region of Madrid, financed by the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI). Along with the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness, CDTI is the representative of Spain at ESA.

A golden opportunity for the Spanish aerospace industry

CHEOPS got under way in July 2013. ‘Stage one consisted in a competition with another European aerospace company. Upon completion of stage one, ESA reviewed the work done by the two firms and awarded us the contract for stage two in May 2014,’ Mr Borges explains. ‘Since then, we’ve been working on satellite development,’ he adds. Thus, CHEOPS is the first ESA mission to have been awarded to our country in an open competition – a fact that confirms the strength of the Spanish aerospace industry.

 ‘CHEOPS is not only a milestone in the history of the Spanish aerospace industry but also a golden opportunity to increase competitive advantage. Ever since the days of the SMOS mission or the PAZ and Ingenio satellites, Airbus Spain has been demonstrating what an able major partner it is in aerospace projects. It is our country’s champion for involvement in ESA and other large-scale projects,’ Mr Borges observes.

Working on the final details

CHEOPS is scheduled to be assembled by the end of this year. After that, it will be tested functionally and environmentally and reviewed to certify it can fly. After this series of tests, it will be ready for launch. This will happen in Kourou, French Guiana, in late 2018.

When launched, CHEOPS will study optic and infrared lights in individual stars for almost four years, searching for heavenly bodies with terrestrial properties and, therefore, apt for life. When it reaches the end of its lifespan, the satellite will begin to lose height and eventually disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere.