UK team to lead European mission to study new planets

The ARIEL (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) mission was selected as the next European Space Agency (ESA) science mission, putting UK leadership at the heart of research into planets that lie outside our solar system -- exoplanets.

Thousands of exoplanets have now been discovered with a huge diversity of masses, sizes and orbits, but very little is known about their chemical composition, formation, or their evolutionary links to their host stars.

ARIEL will carry out the first ever large-scale survey of exoplanets specifically to examine their atmospheres. It will study hot, Jupiter-size planets close to their stars, and so will help scientists understand the key processes which form planetary systems and affect how they evolve.

Leicester experts are contributing to the mission- Leigh Fletcher and Matt Burleigh from the Department of Physics and Astronomy have helped develop the science case and Matt is a member of the consortium science team. He will be helping to define the target list with planets found by our Next Generation Transit Survey, and Leigh will be able to simulate and model the spectra of the atmospheres of the planets ARIEL observes.

Dr Burleigh said: “We know that many of the planets we’ve discovered around other stars are vastly different to those in our own solar system, and we are all excited at the prospect of studying them in detail. ARIEL will be the first space telescope dedicated to observing their atmospheres, and its launch date can’t come fast enough!"

Science Minister Sam Gyimah said: “British involvement in this incredibly exciting new mission demonstrates how integral our world-leading scientific expertise is in solving some of space’s greatest mysteries.

“The UK is a go-to destination for research and discovery, being home to some of the brightest and best talent. Through our modern Industrial Strategy and record funding for R&D, increasing investment to around £12 billion by 2021, we will continue to do all we can to boost our world-leading science sector and build a Britain fit for the future.”

ESA’s Science Programme Committee chose ARIEL for the fourth medium class science mission (M4) in its Cosmic Vision Programme. Subject to further review, the UK Space Agency will provide a multi-million pound investment package to support UK leadership of the project.

Dr. Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “It is thanks to the world-leading skills of our innovative space community that a UK-led consortium has been chosen to take forward the next ESA science mission. This demonstrates what a vital role we continue to play in European collaboration on research in space.

“The ARIEL mission is a prime example of the scientific innovation underpinning the wider economy. It relies on the UK’s science and engineering expertise, which are at the forefront of the Government’s Industrial Strategy.”

Space Park Leicester:

Space Park Leicester is an ambitious initiative to develop a global hub and collaborative community based on space and space-enabled technologies . Based in Leicester, adjacent to the National Space Centre, the Park's first building are expected to be ready in 2019. It is part of the Leicestershire Enterprise Zone and was formally launched in March 2017 as part of the Government's Midlands Engine strategy with an allocation of £12.87 million.

The Space Park is a collaboration between the University of Leicester, the City of Leicester and the Leicester and Leicestershire Economic Partnership (LLEP). When fully open, the Park will combine University research and teaching facilities with a range of research institutions and international commercial partners. Alongside the development of a new generation of cutting-edge satellite technology, the site will be home to detailed analysis of space-enabled data that can transform sectors such as international communications, resource management, environmental monitoring and disaster relief.

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  • The University of Leicester’s leading role in space research and technologies will be represented at the GREAT Festival of Innovation from 21 - 24 March in Hong Kong organised by the UK’s Department for International Trade. Space science researcher and aspiring astronaut Dr Suzie Imber will join representatives of the University in talking about some of the latest exciting developments to come from space science and space-enabled technologies. The GREAT Festival of Innovation will explore how innovation impacts the way we LIVE, WORK, PLAY and LEARN with an impressive line-up of thought leaders and entrepreneurs from business, education, culture, media and technology.