LEONARDO: “ExOPlanet Satellite” exceeding all performance expectations

The CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite, better known as CHEOPS the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) mission launched in December 2019, to determine, among other things, whether planets of other solar systems have conditions that are hospitable for life. At the end of January 2020, CHEOPS opened its “sophisticated eyes” for the first time to take a look out at the Universe – observing the space with an in-depth look at extrasolar planets and hunting for unknown worlds through the telescope made by Leonardo. The telescope’s optical system developed by Leonardo is based on aspherical mirrors and collimation optics on the focal plane (mirror and lenses).

This optical system enables CHEOPS to observe and measure the precise size of those planets that attenuate their light for short periods while orbiting by bright stars. By observing this slight fluctuation of light, the system is able to accurately calculate the mass and size of the planet, gathering vital information for the scientific community. “The photo confirms – said Enrico Suetta Leonardo’s VP CTO & Capability Space – that the true heart of the mission lies with the optics of the telescope made by Leonardo in Campi Bisenzio”.

In fact, the Leonardo-made telescope can observe a star for hours and keep the image within the same group of pixels with an extraordinary stability, even while the satellite continues to move around its orbit.

This stability is achieved by the excellent performance of the Leonardo equipment, along with the bespoke pointing algorithms, helping scientists to fulfill the CHEOPS mission’s objectives. Specifically, Enrico Suetta said that “the CHEOPS telescope – equipped with its primary mirror of only 320 mm in diameter – has shown, in its in-orbit commissioning phase, the photometric precision necessary to capture the information needed to study the composition of exoplanets”.

After nearly three months in-orbit, CHEOPS has successfully completed its testing phase, exceeding all performance expectations. The satellite is now transitioning towards routine science operations and scientists have started observing their chosen selection of stars and planetary systems to showcase what the mission can achieve.

More than 4,000 planets are known to be orbiting stars other than the Sun. These breathtaking images will help researchers understand the structure of each planet, and whether it has rocky or gaseous origins.

True to its heritage of excellence in developing precision instruments for exploration, Leonardo – commissioned by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) – designed and built the eyes of the telescope for the CHEOPS satellite as it orbits 700km above Earth, together with the researchers of INAF (Italian National Institute for Astrophysics) of Padua and Catania, a number of small and medium-sized enterprises, and in collaboration with the University of Bern (Switzerland).