A brand-new space telescope just launched into orbit. It will take an unprecedented look at alien planets circling distant stars.
A new space telescope launched into Earth orbit Wednesday morning. The CHaracterizing ExOPlanets Satellite (CHEOPS) was originally scheduled to launch on Tuesday, but the launch sequence was interrupted just 1 hour and 25 minutes before liftoff. The telescope is expected to take an unprecedented look at planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. CHEOPS will try to determine whether exoplanets are made of gas, like Neptune, or rock, like Earth. It will also search for atmospheres, which could be a sign that a planet might host alien life.
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A new space telescope just launched into Earth orbit, where it's expected to take an unprecedented look at some of the 4,000 mysterious planets scientists have discovered outside our solar system. The CHaracterizing ExOPlanets Satellite (CHEOPS) was originally scheduled to launch Tuesday morning from Kourou, French Guiana. However, just 1 hour and 25 minutes before liftoff, the automated launch sequence of the Soyuz-Fregat rocket slated to carry it to space was interrupted. After some faulty equipment was replaced, the launcher and its cargo successfully lifted off at 5:54 a.m. local time Wednesday morning. The rocket also carried an Italian defense satellite and five nano-satellites called CubeSats. CHEOPS aims to take a closer look at exoplanets (the term for worlds outside our solar system) smaller than Saturn. Its camera lens, which measures 32 centimeters in diameter, is designed to study the size and mass of known exoplanets. Importantly, CHEOPS will also look for atmospheres on those far-away worlds — a requirement for any planet to host life. "CHEOPS will help us reveal the mysteries of these fascinating worlds," Kate Isaak, a physicist on the CHEOPS telescope team, said in a press release, "and take us one step closer to answering one of the most profound questions we humans ponder: Are we alone in the universe?" A new tool for studying exoplanets Like other space telescopes, CHEOPS will watch for tiny dips in stars' brightness that are caused by planets passing in front of them — called transits. Unlike previous telescopes, however, CHEOPS will not scan the skies for never-before-seen transits. Instead, it will focus on bright stars that scientists already know have planets between the size of Earth and Neptune in their orbit.
By measuring the radius and mass of these planets as they pass between Earth and their stars, CHEOPS will allow scientists to figure out whether the worlds are gaseous, like Neptune, or rocky, like Earth. The space telescope could also determine whether some planets have atmospheres. That could enable the worlds to support liquid water (and therefore alien life) on their surfaces.
Additionally, CHEOPS will look for any planets that past telescopes may have missed in known star systems and attempt to discern visible features like rings or moons. All this information will help scientists identify planets that future telescopes could study for signs of life. CHEOPS is the first of the European Space Agency's "S-class missions," which will cost under 50 million euros ($55.7 million). Beyond observations that are already planned and scheduled, the ESA will allot 20% of the telescope's time to scientists who have applied to use it for specific projects. You can watch a video of the launch below.
This post has been updated with news about the successful launch.SEE ALSO: A handful of new telescopes are about to transform the hunt for alien life and our understanding of the universe itself Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: This telescope can see a car on the Moon — here’s what it could find in space
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CHEOPS has been fully commissioned in orbit