European Space Agency formally adopts Ariel, the exoplanet explorer

Photo shows: Artists impression of the ESA Ariel
RAL Space Ariel

The European Space Agency (ESA) has formally adopted Ariel, the first mission dedicated to study the nature, formation and evolution of exoplanets.

More than 50 institutes from 17 countries have been working over the past 5 years to develop the science goals and design the instrumentation which will enable Ariel to survey a diverse sample of around 1000 planets outside our own solar system.

The mission has passed a rigorous set of reviews which it has been undergoing throughout 2020 to prove the technical feasibility and science case and has now received approval from ESA’s member states, confirming that the team can work towards a launch in 2029.

UK institutions have provided the leadership and planning for Ariel, including University College London, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space, based at Harwell Campus in Didcot, UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh and the University of Oxford. UK contributions are funded by the UK Space Agency.

Science Minister, Amanda Solloway said: “Thanks to government funding, this ambitious UK-led mission will mark the first large scale study of planets outside the solar system, and will enable our leading space scientists to answer critical questions on their formation and evolution.

“It is a testament to the brilliant work of the UK space industry, our incredible scientists and researchers led by University College London and RAL Space and our international partners that this mission is ‘lifting off’. I look forward to watching it progress towards launch in 2029.”

Ariel will be the first mission dedicated to measuring the chemical composition and atmospheric thermal properties of hundreds of transiting exoplanets (an exoplanet or, extrasolar planet, is a planet outside the Solar System). Ariel will provide a picture of a diverse range of exoplanets: from extremely hot to temperate, from gaseous to rocky planets orbiting close to their parent stars.

Professor Giovanna Tinetti, Principal Investigator for Ariel from University College London said, “We are the first generation capable of studying planets around other stars. Ariel will seize this unique opportunity and reveal the nature and history of hundreds of diverse worlds in our galaxy. We can now embark on the next stage of our work to make this mission a reality.”​

he Ariel Consortium Project Manager, Paul Eccleston, of STFC RAL Space, said “This represents the culmination of lots of preparatory work by our teams across the world over the last 5 years in order to demonstrate the feasibility and readiness of the payload. We now go full speed ahead to fully develop the design and start building prototypes of the instrumentation on the spacecraft.”

The Ariel mission consortium teams from across Europe will now move on to build and prototype their designs for the payload of Ariel and plan for receiving and processing the data. The industrial contractor for the spacecraft bus, which will support the payload coming from the nationally funded consortium teams, will be selected in the summer 2021. ​