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Twinkle: A British Space Mission

By Maxine Lenza

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A British satellite will be launched to investigate the atmosphere of far-off planets that may have the potential to harbour life. The ambitious space mission will be led by researchers in the UK, with the satellite being built in Surrey by the Company SSTL, and aims to be launched by 2019.

The planets coming into the spotlight are known as exoplanets, and orbit distant stars, not unlike the Earth orbiting our Sun. Now, 100 of them will come under the gaze of "Twinkle", the unusual name given to the washing machine sized satellite that will be used to study them.

Although the chances of finding life are slim, or as Dr. Marcell Tessenyi said, "the holy grail of space exploration", they may be able to observe planets with a habitable atmosphere. Dr. Tessenyi, the project manager, said "whilst we don't have the final list of exoplanets to be observed, we will be looking at 100 of the brightest planets that have already been discovered." 20 years ago we only knew about the planets within our own solar system, but today, more than 2000 of these exoplanets have been discovered.

The team of scientists, led by University College London (UCL), announced their plan to take a different approach to conventional space agency missions. With just a four year time scale, and costing around £50 million, the mission is ten times cheaper than most space missions, and will be developed and launched in a third of the time.

The team, led by Professor Giovanna Tinetti of UCL, are exploring all options to raise the required £50 million, and one possible solution being investigated is crowd funding, which means members of the public could potentially contribute to a national space mission.

The unusual name, Twinkle, also goes against the norm of space missions; of which, names tend to be acronyms. Instead, the name is designed to be memorable, to encourage both science education and science communication. The name specifically derives from the movement of the exoplanet passing in front of the star that it orbits; this takes a few days, but if sped up, will have the effect of looking like a twinkling star from Earth.

The satellite will orbit the Earth for a minimum of three years, and will face away from the sun, so as to cast its gaze out on to the far off planets, which will be anything from 10 to 100 million light years away. Twinkle will be able to study the atmosphere of these planets, including the levels of carbon dioxide and methane. If all goes well, the satellite will have the capacity to remain in orbit for up to seven years.

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