ESA launches Cheops, its first mission to explore exoplanets

The European Space Agency has successfully launched its Cheops satellite as part of a mission to explore exoplanets that exist beyond our Solar System. Assuming everything goes according to plan, Cheops will be used to learn more about these distant planets, some of which are believed to be potentially capable of sustaining life. This is the first time the ESA has launched a mission dedicated to these planets.

Exoplanet is the term used to refer to an extrasolar planet, which means one located outside of our Solar System. There are billions of these planets, the evidence of which was discovered in the early 1900s. Humanity received its first confirmation of an exoplanet's existence in 1992, something that has snowballed into the regular discovery of exoplanets due largely to more modern technologies.

Early on December 18, Cheops was launched by the Soyuz-Fregat launcher from an ESA spaceport located French Guiana in South America. Mission control in Spain determined that the launch had been successful. The Characterising Exoplanet Satellite (Cheops) is designed to 'take exoplanet science to a whole new level,' according to the agency's director Gunther Hasinger.

More than 4,000 exoplanets have already been discovered using various technologies over the last couple of decades. With Cheops, officials hope to characterize these known planets in order to learn about their chemical and physical properties, how they were formed, and what they consist of. The satellite will not be used to find new exoplanets.

Among other things, Cheops will make it possible to determine the size of hundreds of exoplanets with what the ESA says is an 'unprecedented' level of accuracy and precision. Combining that data with what is already known about some of these planets, experts will be able to determine what kind of planets we're dealing with — everything from gas giants to habitable planets similar to Earth.

The ESA considers Cheops an S-class (small) mission, meaning it didn't take long to proceed from the mission's conceptualization to the actual launch.