Essex firm aids space search

TECHNOLOGY created by an Essex firm is set to search for Earth-like planets as part of a space mission.Imaging sensors designed and manufactured by Chelmsford-based e2v will capture detailed telescopic images from the COROT space telescope, which was launched on December 27 to examine “star quakes” and to search for extra-solar Earth-like planets.

TECHNOLOGY created by an Essex firm is set to search for Earth-like planets as part of a space mission.

Imaging sensors designed and manufactured by Chelmsford-based e2v will capture detailed telescopic images from the COROT space telescope, which was launched on December 27 to examine “star quakes” and to search for extra-solar Earth-like planets.

COROT, which stands for Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits, is part of the PROTEUS small satellites programme and is a space telescope with a 30cm aperture.

The pioneering mission is led by the French national space agency, CNES, and involves COROT travelling in circular polar orbit around the Earth at 827km altitude for two and a half years.


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Dr Ralph Holtom, e2v's aerospace imaging business manager, welcomed the new phase in space exploration.

“COROT is an exciting programme as it is the first mission to hunt for rocky planets like Earth around other stars,” he said.

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“Whilst many giant, gaseous, Jupiter-like plants have been found around other stars before, these have been at least ten times the size of Earth and whilst scientifically of enormous interest, they are unlikely to be of much interest in terms of extra-terrestrial life in a form as we would know it.

“The excitement of COROT is that it searches for the much smaller, rocky planets, which might support life more like our own. Other missions like NASA's Kepler and ESA's Gaia will follow using e2v's CCDs, which will add more and more to our knowledge of other planets. This really is the start of a new phase of our exploration of space.”

Four back-thinned, frame transfer charge coupled imaging devices, or CCDs, from e2v have been integrated into COROT's focal plane, and will capture images of stars.

The 2,048square pixel e2v devices will help the space telescope examine “star quakes”, or vibrations which change the brightness of the stars. This will enable scientists to work out a star's age, size and chemical make-up.

COROT will also be looking for signs of extra-solar habitable planets. The e2v imaging devices will detect the planets as they cross the discs of their parent stars, causing a dip in the brightness of the parent star, just as an eclipse of the sun darkens the Earth. However, COROT will be looking for events millions of times weaker than our familiar solar eclipse.

The sensors will need to operate in very cold temperatures in the depths of space, sensing light in the visible waveband.

Astronomers hope that between 10 and 40 rocky planets may be found.

Sarah.chambers@eadt.co.uk

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