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A new, private orbital space telescope preparing to help ramp up search for habitable planets
Blue Skies Space is counting down to 2024 when the world's first commercial orbiting telescope platform, Twinkle, will provide an essential new class of satellite in the growing search for habitable exoplanets in our galaxy.
With funding rounds finalized and satellite construction to start early next year, Twinkle will provide faster, next-generation monitoring and analysis equipment in a much more accessible form than the Hubble Space Telescope or the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope.
University College London (UCL) astronomy postdoc Marcell Tessenyi conceived the idea back in 2014 to develop the planet’s first commercial astronomy project that would operate as a low-cost alternative outside of space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency who operated the billion-dollar Hubble and Spitzer.
"Hubble can take spectroscopic measurements, which split light into different colors, when it looks at far-away targets," Blue Skies Space CEO Tessenyi told Space.com. "That tells us something about the different types of chemical compounds in the atmosphere of the exoplanets. But Hubble can only do that for a limited range of wavelengths, so there is always uncertainty. We don't know for sure what we are looking at."
However, it wasn’t simply the shortcomings of the data that limited progress in the field, but also the issue of the blossoming exoplanet community wrangling time on the government-led space telescopes with researchers studying other astronomical phenomena.
"The technical and scientific aspects of this project were relatively easy," Tessenyi noted. "The more difficult component was the skepticism that came from many different people in the community initially because it was an entirely new model."
Blue Skies Space began life by attracting monies from private supporters with the aim to sell scientific data similar to how SpaceX books space station trips or Planet sells Earth-observation images. UK small-satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) joined the venture from its inception to bolster credibility issues and cement its final mission design.
"Over the years, we have spoken at various conferences and given lectures to hundreds of scientists," Richard Archer, who is responsible for partnerships development at Blue Skies Space, told Space.com. "Frequently, we see scientists from other fields, such as solar system science, being interested in the capabilities of our mission. They are interested in joining the project and helping us shape the mission."
Twinkle is now validated by more than 10 international universities and is flush with ESA funding. Construction by European aerospace titan Airbus is scheduled to begin in early 2022.
"My Ph.D. was on understanding what are the technical requirements needed for satellites to be able to observe in a comprehensive manner exoplanet atmospheres so that we can start building a real understanding of what these planets are made of," Tessenyi explained to Space.com. "At that time, there were only a few measurements that were carried out by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, but there were all sorts of limitations in the data because these satellites were not built to do observations of exoplanets."
At a fraction of the cost of normal space agency missions, the 770-pound Twinkle spacecraft, equipped with a 20-inch telescope, will acquire spectroscopic exoplanet measurements as adeptly as the 31-year-old Hubble.
"We are a commercial provider of a service for data," Tessenyi said. "Universities can buy a subscription to our satellites and access the data sets they would otherwise not be able to get. We will aim to recover the cost of the satellite, and if we are successful, to use the proceeds from satellite data sales to start co-funding the second generation of a satellite with a goal to deliver a whole series of satellites in the long-term."