A planet-hunting probe has taken its first photos, and they're better than expected!
CHEOPS (opens in new tab) (CHaracterising ExOplanets Satellite), a planet-hunting exoplanet telescope from the European Space Agency (ESA), launched into space on Dec. 18, 2019, atop a Soyuz rocket from Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.
After the successful launch (opens in new tab), the telescope's cover opened on Jan. 29, 2020; the team behind the satellite waited with bated breath for the device to snap its first images, confirming that everything was working properly and nothing was damaged during launch.
"The first images that were about to appear on the screen were crucial for us to be able to determine if the telescope's optics had survived the rocket launch in good shape," Willy Benz, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and Principal Investigator of the CHEOPS mission, said in a statement about this waiting period. "When the first images of a field of stars appeared on the screen, it was immediately clear to everyone that we did indeed have a working telescope."
But, not only did these first images confirm that CHEOPS is working properly – , they also turned out better than anticipated. The first pictures, Benz said, "are smoother and more symmetrical than what we expected from measurements performed in the laboratory." He added that "these initial promising analyses are a great relief and also a boost for the team."
The images themselves are blurry, but that was expected as the telescope had been intentionally defocused to allow for better photometric precision: Defocusing the telescope allows for greater precision because it smooths out the light over many pixels, according to the statement.
So, while the image isn't super clear, it's precise, which is necessary for the probe to spot small changes in the brightness of stars outside of our solar system — observations that will help the probe to spot exoplanets transiting, or passing, in front of their star.
The team will continue to test the telescope and scrutinize the images it takes over the next couple of months. "We will analyze many more images in detail to determine the exact level of accuracy that can be achieved by CHEOPS in the different aspects of the science program," David Ehrenreich, CHEOPS project scientist at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, added in the statement. "The results so far bode well."
CHEOPS is designed to spot transiting exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system passing in front of their star) and characterize them. The probe will "make high-precision observations of the planet's size as it passes in front of its host star," according to a mission description (opens in new tab) from the European Space Agency (opens in new tab) (ESA) officials. "It will focus on planets in the super-Earth to Neptune size range, with its data enabling the bulk density of the planets to be derived — a first-step characterization towards understanding these alien worlds."
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