The contract was signed by European industry to build the Ariel space telescope, which will see aerospace giant Airbus lead the construction. But the UK will scientifically lead on the project, which could see the Ariel telescope launched by 2029. Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, will use its Stevenage facility in the UK, for important structural and avionics work.
The news comes as scientists have tipped that the coming decade will be thriving with fresh insights into the nature of extra-solar planets, or exoplanets.
Over 5,000 have been discovered since the mid-Nineties, but so far little has been understood about them.
Over the next few years, scientists will rump up the analysis of their characterisation, to discover what they are made of and how their atmospheres function (if they have them).
Later this month, NASA is set to launch the $10billion (£7.6billion) James Webb infrared space telescope.
Its purpose will be to take an in-depth look at a handful of exoplanets, imaging them directly and “fingerprinting” the gases in their atmospheres.
But while NASA’s telescope will only look at many tens of exoplanets, Ariel is set to perform a similar function, but for 1000 exoplanets.
Ralph Cordey from Airbus told BBC News: “Webb of course is a general-purpose observatory and it will be doing many other things than just studying exoplanets. But for Ariel – it will be totally focussed on this one job.
“100 percent of its observing time will be dedicated to characterising exoplanet atmospheres.”
Ariel is an acronym for Atmospheric Remote-Sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey.
The stunning space asset was chosen for development by European Space Agency (ESA) member states back in 2018.
The project has been undergoing various feasibility studies ever since.
But now, the new contract will allow Airbus and its 60 industrial partners to speed up the design process and finalise the required technologies.
Ariel keep tabs on every target planet as it moves in front of its host star, monitoring how the starlight changes due to passing through the moving world’s atmosphere to reach the telescope.
This will provide valuable insights for understanding the chemistry of the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
Ariel’s goal is to build a large type-catalogue.
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Astronomers are trying to find out the “typical” conditions on exoplanets to work out the “standard model” for planetary systems.
We currently cannot see hardly any places that appear similar to our own Solar System.
The telescopes mirror system and instrumentation will be assembled and tested at RAL Space on the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire.
But different components will come from all around Europe.
The mirror system will be all aluminium and will need to operate at very low temperatures, down at -230C (40 kelvin).
Paul Eccleston, the chief engineer at RAL Space, said: “We will build the telescope out of aluminium, out of the same material, so that when it goes from room temperature to something that’s very cold – it should all shrink at the same rate; all the surfaces should deform together.
‘If it’s perfectly aligned when warm, it should stay perfectly aligned when cool.
“The challenge is actually being able to manufacture a really large, 1.1m diameter mirror, and to be able to polish that to the level that we need out of a completely flawless block of aluminium that has no inclusions and no differences in grain size.”