Europe's exoplanet-hunting CHEOPS mission extended through 2026

"We have only begun to scratch the top of CHEOPS's potential."

Until at least 2026, Europe's CHEOPS mission will keep exploring worlds outside of our solar system.

On March 9, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that CHEOPS will continue its exoplanet-studying mission for at least three more years, with the possibility of extending it further until 2029. This mission includes choosing "golden target" worlds for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to conduct more in-depth research on.

CHEOPS (short for "Characterising Exoplanet Satellite," which will be launched in December 2019 from ESA's spaceport in French Guiana) is intended to investigate planets with sizes between that of Earth and Neptune as they pass the faces of bright stars. However, it has produced remarkable outcomes with objects much larger than these.

The project has advanced the study of exoplanets beyond basic detection, allowing for a more thorough examination of these planets' atmospheres as well as precise measurements of their size and shape. CHEOPS is crucial in our search for planets that might harbor life because it can transmit exoplanets with intriguing atmospheric makeup to more potent observatories like JWST.

CHEOPS group leader Willy Benz, a retired professor of astronomy at the University of Bern in Switzerland, declared in a statement that "in this regard, the mission has been highly effective" (opens in new tab). "The CHEOPS precision has exceeded all predictions and enabled us to characterize some of the most intriguing exoplanets," the authors write.

The finding that the 2014-first discovered gas giant WASP-103 b has a distended, flattened form resembling a rugby ball is an illustration of CHEOPS' addition to science. By analyzing the brightness decrease the planet causes as it transits the face of its star, the ESA probe was able to make this conclusion in 2021.

It was revealed that WASP-103 b's compressed form is thought to be the product of tidal interactions with its parent star, and this was the first time an exoplanet's shape had been so precisely determined.

Additionally, CHEOPS has had an effect locally. A band of dust has been found to encircle Quaoar, a dwarf planet in our solar system, just this year as a result of data from the probe. The ring is unique because it is located farther from its parent body than any ring previously found, which casts doubt on ideas about how such formations are created.

CHEOPS's main scientific mission was originally only supposed to last until September 2023, or three and a half years, but the ESA said the spacecraft is in great condition after spending more than three years in Earth orbit.

Throughout this period, CHEOPS has handled the challenges of space admirably, enduring cosmic ray bombardment and high-energy radiation while its working crew on Earth labored to keep the ship functioning throughout the worldwide pandemic.

There are still lots of fascinating chances for CHEOPS to observe. The mission team wants to find the first exomoon, which is a moon circling a world outside of the solar system, for instance. Exomoons are difficult to detect because of their tiny size and the faint trace they leave as they pass in front of a star, but the CHEOPS team believes the spacecraft is sensitive enough to make a discovery of this kind.

"The possibilities of CHEOPS have barely been touched. With the satellite, there is a lot more research that can be done, and we anticipate investigating it during the expansion "said Benz. Experts are curious to see what unexpected findings CHEOPS will present next, but it is already clear that the system will keep making new finds for years to come.