The European Space Agency has just approved two major Space Missions, according to Science magazine. One, the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), is designed to find planets in orbit around other stars, similar to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. The other, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), will detect gravity waves caused by interstellar catastrophes such as collisions of galaxies and the creation of supermassive black holes.

Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) will hunt for planets

The Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) is due to be launched in 2026 at the cost of a half a billion Euros.

The PLATO will consist of an array of 26 telescopes, each 12 centimeters, that will be capable of monitoring about 50% of the sky in search for planets. Just like the Kepler Space Telescope before it, PLATO will measure the dips in brightness in stars when planets pass in front of them. By so doing, the telescope array will be able to measure the size and orbit of the candidate planets.

Ground-based observatories will follow up to confirm the discovery of Earth-sized planets that are up to 1.5 times the size of Earth orbiting stars like our sun. The PLATO will also be able to measure “star quakes” and, thus, ascertain the age of the solar systems it discovers. The space telescope array is due to be launched in 2026.

Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) has a long and troubled history.

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The idea, which originated around 30 years ago and has been mulled by the ESA since the 1990s, is to fly three spacecraft in formation and, then, using lasers, measure the distance between them with such accuracy that they can detect the passage of gravity waves. Gravity waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, first predicted by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity. They are caused by cosmic events such as the collision of galaxies and creation of black holes.

LISA was supposed to be a joint project between the ESA and NASA. However, the American space agency pulled out of the project due to Obama-era budget cuts, forcing the Europeans to scale back the design and to miss two launch slots. Nevertheless, the detection of gravity waves by the American ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) that occurred in 2015 and the success of the ESA’s LISA Pathfinder mission the following year have breathed new life in the project.

With the change of presidential administrations, it looks like NASA is back in as a partner for LISA, providing 20 percent of the billion euro cost in the form of lasers and telescopes. However, the mission is not due for launch before 2034.