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A second land is being searched. The Czech Republic has developed shipping boxes for spacecraft cameras

A second land is being searched.  The Czech Republic has developed shipping boxes for spacecraft cameras

Are we alone in space? It would be strange that there were life forms on Earth in all parts of the universe. But no evidence to the contrary was found. So scientists are focusing on finding other planetary systems, especially those in which life would be possible.

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The PLATO spacecraft, armed with an army of cameras, will set off for space exploration in 2026. The Czechs are also involved in the mission – they are developing software to remove noise from images and have now produced special boxes that safely transport sensitive camera equipment.

Planets outside our solar system are called exoplanets. Ancient philosophers already believed in it, and Giordano Bruno or Isaac Newton made more specific assumptions. The first steps in discovering certain exoplanets took place in the late 1980s, but the real breakthrough dates back to the 1990s. In 1995, astronomers described a planet orbiting 51 pegasus, a star very similar to the sun.

Since then, the list of exoplanets is constantly expanding, with a handful of new elements added every day, 4,715 of which have been confirmed so far, and another 2,000 and a half pending verification. They are planets of different types, often giant gaseous balls orbiting near their star, and lasting up to four Earth days, or small rocky planets.

Life chances

However, the objects most observed are those that can have a similar relationship with Earth and the Sun – rocky planets roughly the size of Earth, which take about 365 days to orbit the star, and are located in what is called the habitable zone. In other words, they have life-like conditions, like running water.

“We are primarily looking for life as we know it from Earth, simply because we know it works this way.” Says Peter Kabat. It does not hide the ambition of discovering the “twin” of Earth somewhere in space this decade. He’s not just saying it from the scaffold, except that he’s leading the exoplanet research group on the star suiteStronomics AS CR, Also coordinates the Czech activities of the PLATO (Planetary Transits and Star Oscillations) mission, a project of the European Space Agency.

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The mission has the search for the second Earth directly in the job description, and its first phase began in 2014, and the whole effort should culminate with the launch of the PLATO probe 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth’s surface. Interestingly, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which “hunted” exoplanets between 2009 and 2018, traveled a hundred times farther.

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Peter Kabat of the Astronomical Institute of ASCR (CC)

Thanks to Kepler, there are a lot of exoplanets in the database, at least half of which have been discovered, about thirty of them resembling Earth. PLATO also plans to identify at least a few dozen twins from the Blue Planet. But unlike its predecessor, it will focus on the planetary companions of the bright stars.

Like a needle in a haystack

How is something so far away from us that we cannot even imagine it being searched for? very Difficult. “Exoplanets do not glow nearly on their own, so they disappear in the light of their orbiting star. Therefore, indirect detection methods are mostly used.” Peter Kabat explains. One of the primary methods is the eclipse method – if a planet orbits a star, it enters the observer’s angle of view from time to time by covering the star. From our point of view, the light source will weaken at that time.

The hawk’s eye is clearly necessary for such a change in light intensity to be noticeable – especially when we’re talking about cosmic dimensions. And even that is not enough. The optical systems that the PLATO probe will bring into space must be very sensitive. They will consist of twenty-six cameras and will see thousands of stars.

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Cooperation between Czech science and industry

The Czech Republic is participating in the preparation of an international mission in all fields. He is involved in the scientific research of the project, the preparation of the programs, and he also designs, produces and tests the devices. The Astronomical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic is developing software that uses image processing from cameras to improve measurement accuracy, and specifically Mary Karjalainen develops calibration algorithms to remove thermal noise – simply put, the program will be able to improve image quality.

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The camera is about 80 cm high, and its position in the box is controlled by several sensors.

However, the evaluation of the images from the cameras will be at the end of the entire series, it is necessary to first bring the probe into space. Czech scientists also participate in this partial mission. Currently, in collaboration with engineers from SAB Aerospace, they have designed enclosures for transporting highly sensitive cameras. Do not allow a speck of dust or dirt to get into the appliances. Any trauma can be fatal for them.

Aluminum containers consist of two boxes, inside of which the environment is more complicated than that of operating room. The containers are equipped with a spring system so that the camera is not exposed to danger due to any vibrations, which in turn is controlled by a series of sensors. In total, Brno will produce 33 containers, with seven sites running through the cameras.

But that’s not all – the Czechs were also tasked with the full construction and development of the service unit, which consisted of the PLATO probe. The unit contains the command, navigation and control systems and solar panels. The two-ton probe should be designed by engineers to survive the start, flight to space, and eight years’ residence in space.

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The inner box is in the outer container

“The whole job is to make big teams and it requires individual components differently in terms of production and design. They are all required because without software, no data will be processed and without containers, even if they are only intended to transport and protect the bundled cameras, the devices will not be able to transport across Europe between sites. “. Petr Kabáth summarizes and notes that the mission is currently moving to the stage when scientists begin to determine which fields of view the cameras in space will focus their lenses on.

Ground branch

It is also necessary to mention the project associated with the Astronomical Institute of ASCR. Together with his German and Chilean colleagues, he wants to build a new telescope at the La Silla Observatory in South America. According to the scientist, it will be an Earth-based Czech contribution to the PLATO space mission. “The spacecraft will observe more than a million stars and will need to feature spectroscopy, which is exactly what PlatoSpec will make possible from 2023.”

Peter Kapat and I talk about the search for the second Earth and the spectroscopic method in a journal A / Science and Research.

There is also a four-part series on the social networks of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic Exoplanet hunters.

Source: The Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Author: Jana Bečvářová, External Relations Department of SSČ AS CR

Photo: Unsplash; Jana Blavik, SSČ AS CR External Relations Department; SAP Aerospace

Read more about Plato’s mission.