NASA has announced it will provide new scientific capabilities to the forthcoming ESA exoplanet-hunting ARIEL mission with a tool that’s able to see the chemical ‘fingerprint’ of exoplanet atmospheres. The instrument, called CASE (Contribution to ARIEL Spectroscopy of Exoplanets), will allow scientists to study the compositions, temperatures and chemical processes in the atmospheres of planets.
The European Space Agency’s ARIEL mission (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) is planned for launch in 2028.
During its four-year mission, the space telescope will study about 1,000 exoplanets to find out what they’re made of, how they formed and how they evolve.
ARIEL will be the first spacecraft devoted to observing hundreds of exoplanet atmospheres.
ARIEL will use the transit method to gather data: ‘staring’ at the exoplanet to observe the starlight that streams through its atmosphere as it passes in front of its host star, and comparing that with the light emitted by the exoplanet’s atmosphere before and after it disappears behind its star.
The spacecraft will focus on exceptionally hot exoplanets in our Galaxy such as gas giants similar to Jupiter and so-called super-Earths.
The CASE instrument will be sensitive to light at near-infrared wavelengths and will specifically observe clouds and hazes to find out how common they are and how they influence the composition of planetary atmospheres.
It will also allow measurements of an exoplanet’s albedo, the amount of light the planet reflects.
CASE will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“I am thrilled that NASA will partner with ESA in this historic mission to push the envelope in our understanding of what the atmospheres of exoplanets are made of, and how these planets form and evolve,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“The more information we have about exoplanets, the closer we get to understanding the origins of our Solar System, and advancing our search for Earth-like planets elsewhere.”
The ARIEL spacecraft with CASE on board will be in the same orbit as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in 2021.
Both will travel around 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, before they are inserted into their planned orbit to begin making their observations.