Champagne box-sized satellite launched to probe distant planet

France launched 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.

Weighing in at 3.5 kilogrammes (7.7 pounds), the PicSat satellite was hoisted into space by an Indian PSLV rocket, and placed into orbit at an altitude of 505 kilometres (314 miles), according to the Paris Observatory, involved in the project.

PicSat’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.

From Earth orbit, it will seek to learn more about the faraway planet by observing the next time it transits its host star, appearing as a dot on the bright surface as seen from our perspective.

This once-in-18-year transit is expected some time in 2018.

By measuring how much light a planet blocks out as it transits its star, astronomers can glean details about its size and the composition of its atmosphere.

PicSat comes equipped with a telescope for observation, and solar panels to power all its systems.

Discovered in 1984, Beta Pictoris has a mass about 1.8 times that of our Sun.

It is young in astronomical terms — only about 20 million years old compared to the Sun’s 4.5 billion years.

It is surrounded by a huge disc of gas and dust — the materials from which planets, asteroids and comets are formed — making it an ideal subject for studying the mechanism by which solar systems evolve.

Beta Pictoris b is about 16 times larger and 3,000 times more massive than Earth, with eight-hour days. It orbits its star at a distance eight times that of Earth to the Sun.

In 2014, scientists said the planet spins at a breakneck speed of some 25 kilometres per second (90,000 kph or 56,000 miles per hour).

Built at the Paris Observatory’s LESIA laboratory, with European backing, PicSat has a total budget of 1.5 million euros ($1.8 million).

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