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USQ joins next-gen mission to explore skies above alien worlds

Stephen Kuper
USQ joins next-gen mission to explore skies above alien worlds

A team from the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) is joining forces with a growing number of international scientists as part of the search for new planets, building their own satellite dedicated to investigating alien atmospheres.

Twinkle Space is set for launch in 2024 with the University of Southern Queensland in the pilot’s seat. The university’s Centre for Astrophysics is the first Australian organisation announced as a founding partner in the ‘out-of-this-world’ UK-based project.

A team of planet hunters, including researchers like Nataliea Lowson, will join the mission to analyse the atmospheres of exoplanets, providing radical insights into worlds orbiting distant stars.

“We’re excited to announce our involvement in this major mission, as this light-weight satellite will enable breakthrough research in astronomy,” Lowson said.


She added, “We’ve already been doing fascinating work in confirming new exoplanets through programs like the NASA’s TESS mission but Twinkle will bring us much ‘closer’ to those alien worlds.

The Twinkle satellite is currently being built in the UK and will launch into a low-Earth orbit within three to four years. It will perform exoplanet and solar system science for a minimum of seven years.

Astrophysicist Duncan Wright said this was a new area of astronomy, which until now has mostly been restricted to giant Jupiter-like planets.

“But with new space telescopes like Twinkle, the University of Southern Queensland can be involved in observing the atmospheres of Neptune-like planets and possibly even rocky super-Earth worlds. It opens up new science and new collaboration possibilities for the university and for Australia,” Wright said.


Lowson explained, “Twinkle will give us insight into atmospheric features using infrared spectrometers that analyse light transmitted through, and emitted or reflected by, the skies above these planets.

“A satellite telescope like Twinkle would be dedicated to this work, and University of Southern Queensland is helping to define its scientific goals.”

Twinkle is a seven-year space science mission that will unravel the story of planets within our galaxy.

Collaborative international surveys will deliver visible and infrared spectroscopy of thousands of targets, enabling scientists to produce transformative research on exoplanet atmospheres, solar system objects, stars and stellar discs. Scientists worldwide can join the mission and shape its science agenda through a simple membership program.

Twinkle is being designed in collaboration with leading satellite and instrument manufacturer Airbus. The high-heritage approach to the design and component selection will deliver a high-specification astronomy satellite within the short time frames usually associated with commercial satellites. The satellite will operate in a low-Earth, sSun-synchronous polar orbit, maximising opportunities for science observations along the ecliptic plane.

Blue Skies Space provides rapidly-delivered, cost-effective space science facilities. The company has developed a new class of satellites to provide high-quality data to the global scientific community, transferring the benefits of new commercial space sector developments to academic research. Twinkle is the first step in the team’s vision to create new opportunities for transformative scientific research.

Blue Skies Space has assembled an experienced team who have previously worked at organisations such as NASA, Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology, Caltech and UCL, bringing a wealth of expertise in space science, satellite engineering, satellite construction and operations.

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