Space research at KU Leuven: missions that inspire big dreams

Let’s first state the obvious: the universe is endlessly fascinating. When the first ever picture of a black hole was released this spring, it easily made front pages. The researchers at KU Leuven are also filled with amazement. Our university is a partner in numerous space missions of ESA, the European Space Agency. We’re highlighting three: PLATO, ARIEL, and LISA. Each of them are missions that inspire big dreams: from new earths to the darkest corners of the universe, to the beginning of everything. Launching them is still a pipe dream at the moment, but the clock is ticking. In space research, the next decade means ‘tomorrow’.

PLATO: Finding planet B

  • Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars

  • Maps potentially habitable exoplanets and their parent stars

  • Set to launch in 2026

  • Budget: 500 million euros

  • Conny Aerts is co-inventor and Belgian Principal Investigator. Among other things, KU Leuven is responsible for the simulator, and the assembly and testing of 26 cameras

Professor Conny Aerts of the Institute of Astronomy is the Belgian Principal Investigator (B-PI) of PLATO. In 2026, this space mission will start looking for a second planet Earth, to sum it up in ambitious terms.

“With PLATO, we want to find exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system – that are sufficiently similar to our earth to allow for life to exist”, says Aerts. Today, there are over 4,000 known exoplanets. Most of them, however, are giant gas planets and, thus, unfit for life as we know it. PLATO will specifically look for ‘earths’. “Habitable primarily means that the planet orbits its parent star in the habitable zone – not too hot, not too cold – and has an appropriate density – no gas, for example.”

Professor Conny Aerts: “With PLATO, we want to find exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system – that are sufficiently similar to our earth to allow for life to exist.” | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

The PLATO satellite will build an entire catalogue, creating a bit of order in the zoo of planets that is the universe. To do this, the satellite will use a battery of 26 cameras – that KU Leuven is helping to develop – to scan a large part of the southern skies for a year, after which it will turn to the northern skies for a year. The goal is to spot ‘transits’: the moment when a planet passes between us and its parent star. “During such a transit, the planet blocks a fraction of the light of its sun. In doing so, it temporarily dims the apparent brightness of the star. We will measure these dips in brightness, and with this info, we’ll be able to categorise stars and planets based on age and size. Over the course of two years, we will monitor hundreds of thousands of stars, and we hope to spot around 5,000 exoplanets.”

“You also have to be willing to look to one side long enough. If you look for less than a year, you might miss the transit of a planet such as Earth, which has an orbital period of one year around the Sun.”

Unprecedented accuracy

Conny Aerts has been part of the PLATO mission from the very beginning. A huge advantage for her team, she says. “We are the first people to get access to the results of PLATO. But more importantly: I was able to define what we will be researching. In other words, PLATO literally does what I want (laughs). I’m quite proud of that: there’s only a 1% change that your satellite proposal is accepted.”

And what Aerts wants to research is asteroseismology: the oscillations of stars. “Each star oscillates because of its internal activity. Our Sun also has oscillations of around 5 minutes each. It’s one of the few ways to discover something about the internal structure and, subsequently, the life and age of a star. With PLATO, we will apply this technique on a large scale to weigh, measure and date all visible stars with unprecedented accuracy.”

Why does this need to be done from space? Because the Earth’s atmosphere puts a spanner in the works. “If you look at the stars from earth, you’ll see that they always ‘flicker’ a bit: their light is hindered by turbulence in our atmosphere. Due to this veil, we can only observe the large oscillations from here, meaning we can only discover the large planets. But with this mission we want to find the smaller planets. This requires unhindered measurements of deviations on a scale of parts per million, which is only possible in space.”

ARIEL: All aboard

  • Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey
  • Searches the atmosphere of exoplanets for molecules that allow for life to exist
  • Set to launch in 2028
  • Budget: 450 million euros
  • Bart Vandenbussche is the Belgian Principal Investigator. Among other things, KU Leuven is responsible for the coordination of the development and construction of the telescope.

High time to talk about ARIEL, a satellite that will, in a sense, share jobs with PLATO. First, PLATO will detect a variety of planets around bright star. Two years later, in 2028, ARIEL will further examine the atmosphere of hundreds of hot planets. The goal is to better comprehend the overall picture of exoplanet atmospheres. This is necessary, because for a planet to be habitable, it not only needs a good orbit and density, the chemical composition of the atmosphere also has to be adequate. Is there enough oxygen, for instance? Or better yet: carbon dioxide, methane or ozone? These types of molecules determine the chance of life.

Bart Vandenbussche: “Travelling to inhabitable planets? A lifetime wouldn’t be enough to get there. We are purely doing this to expand our knowledge.” | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

But what are the chances of this happening exactly? Bart Vandenbussche, research coordinator at the Institute of Astronomy and the Belgian Principal Investigator (B-PI) of ARIEL, makes an educated guess. “Of the 5,000 somewhat planets that PLATO will find, we estimate that 5 to 10 will actually be habitable. Next step: going there? No, we are purely doing this to expand our knowledge. A lifetime wouldn’t be enough to get there. The stars and planets we will find with PLATO will already be a thousand times closer than what we found with the NASA Kepler telescope. But the closest star, Proxima Centauri, is still 40 trillion kilometres away: that’s a four with 13 zeroes. That’s simply too far, even if we do manage to someday travel at the speed of light.”

“Isn’t it remarkable that the Institute of Astronomy is providing the Belgian principal investigators for PLATO and ARIEL”, concludes Conny Aerts. “KU Leuven is extremely good at continuously translating hard science to the ESA engineering world. That is what’s so important in space research. Because what we want to know is one thing, which device to use to measure this is another.”

LISA: Back to the Big Bang

  • Laser Interferometer Space Antenna
  • First space station for the observation of gravitational waves
  • Set to launch in 2034
  • Budget: 2 billion euros
  • Thomas Hertog is the Belgian Principal Investigator and chair of the Fundamental Physics Working Group. Among other things, KU Leuven is responsible for the templates that make the shape of the waves readable, and the design of readout electronics for the image sensors.

Does PLATO sound ambitious? Then what about LISA, the space mission that will measure gravitational waves from 2034 onwards. Three satellites will be launched into space and will form a giant triangle, floating 2 million kilometres apart. In the heart of each satellite will be a test mass, a golden nugget, freely floating inside. When a gravitational wave – a cosmic ripple – passes through the triangle, the distance between the golden nuggets in each satellite will slightly change. LISA is massive in every sense: the project costs around 2 billion euros, and over 1,000 scientists are working on it.

Theoretical physicist Thomas Hertog is chair of the Fundamental Physics Working Group of LISA. His office is that of a true theorist: books with formulas, stacks of paper with formulas, a blackboard with even more formulas. What is Hertog looking for in space? “There has never been a theory that was formulated without the input of observations. I don’t want to lose sight of reality”, says Hertog.

“Very specifically, I hope to test the limits of Einstein’s theory of relativity with LISA. Einstein already predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916. But we also know that his theory cannot be applied inside black holes and for the Big Bang. And we’re convinced that gravitational waves from those extreme corners of our universe can tell us something about where and how Einstein’s theory fails.”

Tip of the iceberg

Thomas Hertog: “Over the past 400 years, we’ve mapped the history of the ‘illuminated’ universe. Now, we’ll write the parallel history of the dark side of the universe.” | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

Explaining what these gravitational waves are exactly is no easy feat. “They’re ripples in the fabric of space time that are generated when large masses start to move. If two black holes circle each other and merge, for instance, the fabric of space begins to vibrate, just as waves on water. These ripples spread out into the universe at the speed of light. What they’re made of? They’re pure geometry, no particles whatsoever are involved.”

We have known about the waves for a while now: they were first detected in observatories on Earth in 2015, and these researchers won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery in 2017. So why do we still need to go to space? “Because these first observations from Earth are merely the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of gravitational waves constantly pass through our planet”, says Hertog. “And Earth itself is too small to detect the low frequency waves: there’s no room for an experiment of 2 million kilometres.”

We’re entering a new phase with LISA, says Hertog. “Over the past 400 years, we’ve mapped the history of the ‘illuminated’ universe on the basis of light waves. Now, we’ll write the parallel history of the dark side of the universe. By observing gravitational waves, we can peer deeper into the universe than ever before: from areas impenetrable by light to the first galaxies, and even the young universe right after the Big Bang. I expect surprises. Every time mankind looked at the universe with new eyes we have been surprised by what we found. That’s what I expect from LISA as well.”

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