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ESA’s search for Earth’s ‘twin’ starts in 2026

The PLATO mission will use 26 telescopes to search for habitable planets.

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today that it is officially adopting the PLATO mission. PLATO, which stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars, is a planet-hunting project that will look for Earth twins -- planets just like our own.

So far, scientists have found thousands of exoplanets -- planets outside of our solar system -- many of which were a result of the TRAPPIST and Kepler missions. Just this week NASA announced that the Kepler telescope spotted ten Earth-sized planets among a batch of 219. But it's hard to get much detail about planets so far away, and that's where PLATO comes in.

PLATO's data will come from a satellite loaded up with 26 telescopes. They'll survey large areas of the sky for up to two years at a time in order get a good look at distant exoplanets and the stars they orbit. The telescopes will spot exoplanets as they pass in front of and dim the light of their stars. PLATO will then analyze the mass, radius and age of each one.

Past ESA missions include a failed Mars lander and the spectacular Rosetta mission that ended last September. Last year the agency announced future missions to the moon.

PLATO will search for and characterize what's sure to be many planets orbiting several hundred thousands of stars with the larger goal being to locate habitable planets and Earth twins. The researchers on the project expect they'll collect several petabytes of data throughout the mission, which is scheduled to last a minimum of four years. PLATO's launch is scheduled for 2026.