France is set to launch a champagne box-sized mini satellite into Earth orbit on Friday to study a mysterious, juvenile planet system in our Milky Way galaxy, mission controllers said.
The PicSat orbiter's target is the massive star Beta Pictoris, some 60 light years from Earth in the southern constellation of Pictor (The Painter's Easel), and its planet Beta Pictoris b—a gassy giant.
Built at the Paris Observatory's LESIA laboratory, with European backing, PicSat is due to be launched in the early-morning hours of Friday on an Indian PSLV rocket.
It will orbit our planet at an altitude of some 500 kilometres (310 miles), hoping to learn more about Beta Pictoris b by observing the next time it transits its host star, appearing as a dot on the bright surface as seen from Earth's perspective.
Beta Pictoris b [wikipedia.org], the only currently known exoplanet in the system, has a mass of about 7 Jupiter masses and orbits at a distance of around 9.2 AU.
The PicSat mission will continuously monitor for a transit, which could last for up to a few hours, in order to alert more powerful observatories [spacedaily.com]:
The nominal PicSat mission will last for one year. When the start of a planetary or other transit is observed, the 3.6-meter telescope from the European Southern Observatory in La Sille, Chile, will also be immediately put into action to observe Beta Pictoris using the powerful HARPS instrument. These data combined will allow an even better understanding of the phenomenon.