Its suite of 26 small telescopes and cameras, reminiscent of the compound eye of an insect, will allow it to ‘stare’ at a large number of the nearest and brightest stars, with the aim of discovering Earth-sized planets orbiting Sun-like stars in the ‘habitable zone’ – the distance from the star where liquid water could exist at the surface.
Professor Don Pollacco, from the University of Warwick, which leads the PLATO Science Management Consortium, said:
'The PLATO project involves the serial production of complicated components and is challenging to both academia and industry. The Critical Milestone is a detailed examination of how these processes will work in practice.
'Any production errors will lead to greater costs and delays so passing this milestone is reaffirming confidence in the hundreds of scientists and engineers that are working on this mission. Our dream of finding lots of planets like the Earth that we can examine in detail is one step closer.
The UK has a major role in many aspects of the mission. In addition to Warwick’s involvement, scientists and engineers at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory are responsible for the development of the camera electronics for the telescopes. The detectors are produced by Teledyne e2v in Chelmsford, and a team of UK scientists coordinated by Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy is developing the Exoplanet Analysis data processing system.
Filippo Marliani, project manager of PLATO at ESA, said:
'Plato continues a European tradition of excellence in all areas of space science. The mission will serve the science community to gather invaluable knowledge of planets in our galaxy, beyond our own Solar System.
'The successful completion of the critical milestone and the formal start of the second phase of this extraordinary mission constitute an important boost of positive energy for the next challenges to be tackled with our industrial, institutional and academic partners.'
The next major milestone for PLATO is the spacecraft critical design review in 2023, which will verify the detailed design of the complete spacecraft before proceeding with its assembly. After launch, PLATO will travel to Lagrange point 2 in space, 1.5 million km beyond Earth in the direction away from the Sun. From this point the telescope will observe more than 200 000 stars during its four-year nominal mission
The government’s National Space Strategy outlines the long-term plans to grow the UK space sector and make Britain a science and technology superpower, expanding our horizons with space science and exploration missions like PLATO.