The CHEOPS Space Telescope celebrates its first 1,000 days in orbit

Artist’s impression of the CHEOPS Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

After 1,000 days in Earth orbit, the CHEOPS Space Telescope has shown almost no signs of wear. Under these conditions, it could continue to reveal the fascinating details of many exoplanets for many years to come. CHEOPS is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Switzerland, led by the University of Bern (UNIBE) in collaboration with the University of Geneva (UNIGE).

Since its launch from the European Spaceport in French Guiana, on December 18, 2019, the CHEOPS telescope in Earth orbit has demonstrated its functionality and accuracy beyond expectations. During this time, it revealed the characteristics of many wonderful planets outside our planet Solar System (Exoplanets) and became a major tool for astronomers in Europe and the world.

In more than a million minutes of observing time, CHEOPS has revealed exoplanets from every angle: their night sides when they pass in front of their stars, their day sides when they pass behind their stars and all the phases in between, just like the Moon. “The accurate data we collected from CHEOPS has paid off: more than fifty scientific papers have been published or are in the process of being presented by the more than one hundred scientists who make up the CHEOPS scientific team and work at dozens of institutions across Europe,” reports Willy Benz, Emeritus Professor of Physics. Astronomer at the University of Bern and President of the CHEOPS Consortium.

The international scientific team has accomplished this despite being unable to meet physically to operate the device due to the pandemic. Now, for the first time since the launch of CHEOPS, all concerned scientists can finally gather in Padua, Italy, from September 12-14. “It’s the first time in three years that we can get together,” says expedition scientist David Ehrenreich and professor of astronomy at the University of Geneva. “It’s great to celebrate what we’ve discovered in 1,000 days and discuss what we’ll do next.”

The results include, for example, the characterization of extremely hot atmospheres in which iron vaporizes on planets so close to their stars that it is deformed into rugby ball shapes by immense gravitational forces. “By discovering a system of six planets, five of which orbit their star in fragile harmony, CHEOPS has also given us glimpses into the formation of planetary systems,” says Ehrenreich.

Earlier this year, the program space telescope It once again demonstrated its astonishing accuracy by measuring the faint light reflected from a planet located 159 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. “Although this planet, HD 209458b, is certainly the most studied exoplanet ever, we had to wait 22 years for CHEOPS and its incredible accuracy and dedication to be able to measure visible light reflected from its atmosphere,” Benz says.

Valuable and lasting assets

“Even after 1,000 days in orbit, CHEOPS is still working like a charm and showing only very small signs of wear, due to energetic particles emitted by the sun,” says Andrea Fortier, a CHEOPS instrument scientist from the University of Bern. Under these conditions, the researcher expects CHEOPS to continue observing other worlds for some time. “It will continue its mission around Earth until at least September 2023, but the CHEOPS team is working with the European Space Agency and the Swiss Space Office to extend the mission until the end of 2025 and possibly beyond,” says Fortier.

CHEOPS’ capabilities can continue to serve the scientific community well, even now that the James Webb Space Telescope is operational. “We are convinced with its high accuracy and flexibility, CHEOPS can act as a bridge between other instruments and Webb, as the powerful telescope needs accurate information about potentially interesting observational targets. CHEOPS can provide this information—and thus improve Webb’s operation,” notes Wylie. Benz. This is already happening, as the Webb Telescope will observe, later this year, many of the systems highlighted by CHEOPS.

CHEOPS Space Telescope Cover Open

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