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(28 September 2020 – ESA) ESA’s new exoplanet mission, Cheops, has found a nearby planetary system to contain one of the hottest and most extreme extra-solar planets known to date: WASP-189 b.

The finding, the very first from the mission, demonstrates Cheops’ unique ability to shed light on the Universe around us by revealing the secrets of these alien worlds.

Launched in December 2019, Cheops (the Characterising Exoplanet Satellite) is designed to observe nearby stars known to host planets. By ultra-precisely measuring changes in the levels of light coming from these systems as the planets orbit their stars, Cheops can initially characterise these planets — and, in turn, increase our understanding of how they form and evolve.

The new finding concerns a so-called ‘ultra-hot Jupiter’ named WASP-189 b. Hot Jupiters, as the name suggests, are giant gas planets a bit like Jupiter in our own Solar System; however, they orbit far, far closer to their host star, and so are heated to extreme temperatures.

The WASP-189 system: key parameters (courtesy: ESA)

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The WASP-189 system as seen by Cheops (courtesy: ESA)

WASP-189 b sits around 20 times closer to its star than Earth does to the Sun, and completes a full orbit in just 2.7 days. Its host star is larger and more than 2000 degrees hotter than the Sun, and so appears to glow blue. “Only a handful of planets are known to exist around stars this hot, and this system is by far the brightest,” says Monika Lendl of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, lead author of the new study. “WASP-189b is also the brightest hot Jupiter that we can observe as it passes in front of or behind its star, making the whole system really intriguing.”

First, Monika and colleagues used Cheops to observe WASP-189 b as it passed behind its host star – an occultation. “As the planet is so bright, there is actually a noticeable dip in the light we see coming from the system as it briefly slips out of view,” explains Monika. “We used this to measure the planet’s brightness and constrain its temperature to a scorching 3200 degrees C.”

This makes WASP-189 b one of the hottest and most extreme planets, and entirely unlike any of the planets of the Solar System. At such temperatures, even metals such as iron melt and turn to gas, making the planet a clearly uninhabitable one.

Next, Cheops watched as WASP-189 b passed in front of its star – a transit. Transits can reveal much about the size, shape, and orbital characteristics of a planet. This was true for WASP-189 b, which was found to be larger than thought at almost 1.6 times the radius of Jupiter.

“We also saw that the star itself is interesting – it’s not perfectly round, but larger and cooler at its equator than at the poles, making the poles of the star appear brighter,” says Monika. “It’s spinning around so fast that it’s being pulled outwards at its equator! Adding to this asymmetry is the fact that WASP-189 b’s orbit is inclined; it doesn’t travel around the equator, but passes close to the star’s poles.”

Seeing such a tilted orbit adds to the existing mystery of how hot Jupiters form. For a planet to have such an inclined orbit, it must have formed further out and then been pushed inwards. This is thought to happen as multiple planets within a system jostle for position, or as an external influence – another star, for instance – disturbs the system, pushing gas giants towards their star and onto very short orbits that are highly tilted. “As we measured such a tilt with Cheops, this suggests that WASP-189 b has undergone such interactions in the past,” adds Monika.

Monika and colleagues used Cheops’ highly precise observations and optical capabilities to reveal the secrets of WASP-189 b. Cheops opened its ‘eye’ in January of this year and began routine science operations in April, and has been working to expand our understanding of exoplanets and the nearby cosmos in the months since.

“This first result from Cheops is hugely exciting: it is early definitive evidence that the mission is living up to its promise in terms of precision and performance,” says Kate Isaak, Cheops project scientist at ESA.

Thousands of exoplanets, the vast majority with no analogues in our Solar System, have been discovered in the past quarter of a century, with many more to come from both current and future ground-based surveys and space missions.

“Cheops has a unique ‘follow-up’ role to play in studying such exoplanets,” adds Kate. “It will search for transits of planets that have been discovered from the ground, and, where possible, will more precisely measure the sizes of planets already known to transit their host stars. By tracking exoplanets on their orbits with Cheops, we can make a first-step characterisation of their atmospheres and determine the presence and properties of any clouds present.”

In the next few years, Cheops will follow up on hundreds of known planets orbiting bright stars, building on and extending what has been done here for WASP-189b. The mission is the first in a series of three ESA science missions focusing on exoplanet detection and characterisation: it has significant discovery potential also – from identifying prime targets for future missions that will probe exoplanetary atmospheres to searching for new planets and exomoons.

“Cheops will not only deepen our understanding of exoplanets,” says Kate, “but also that of our own planet, Solar System, and the wider cosmic environment.”


‘The hot dayside of WASP-189 b and its gravity-darkened host star seen by CHEOPS’ by M. Lendl et al. appears in Astronomy & Astrophysics.


Cheops is an ESA mission developed in partnership with Switzerland, with a dedicated consortium led by the University of Bern, and with important contributions from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

ESA is the Cheops mission architect, responsible for procurement and testing of the satellite, the launch and early operations phase, and in-orbit commissioning, as well as the Guest Observers’ Programme through which scientists world-wide can apply to observe with Cheops. The consortium of 11 ESA Member States led by Switzerland provided essential elements of the mission. The prime contractor for the design and construction of the spacecraft is Airbus Defence and Space in Madrid, Spain.

The Cheops mission consortium runs the Mission Operations Centre located at INTA, in Torrejón de Ardoz near Madrid, Spain, and the Science Operations Centre, located at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

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All solid motors for Vega-C complete qualification tests

All solid motors for Vega C complete qualification tests

(23 October 2020 – ESA) Europe’s new-generation Vega-C small launch vehicle developed by ESA will increase performance and extend current launch capabilities at Europe’s Spaceport.

The solid rocket motors built for Vega-C under contract to Avio have all completed the hot fire tests to qualify them for flight.

Industry cooperation to build Vega-C (courtesy: ESA)

The first stage P120C, second stage Zefiro-40 and the third stage Zefiro-9 are all fueled by solid propellant. These motors, together with the AVUM+ liquid propulsion upper module, will allow Vega-C to lift payloads of up to 2300 kg to a reference 700 km altitude in polar orbit.

The P120C first stage will burn for 130 s using 142 t of fuel to deliver a liftoff thrust of about 4500 kN. This will take Vega-C to an altitude of about 60 km in the first phase of flight before the second stage takes over.

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Hot firing of P120C solid rocket motor for Vega-C (courtesy: ESA)

Europropulsion, owned jointly by Avio and ArianeGroup, built three P120C models for test. One development and two qualification models have all been static fired successfully at Europe’s Spaceport.

The first qualification model, in the Vega-C configuration, was hot fired in January 2019. The second qualification model, in the Ariane 6 configuration, was hot fired on 7 October. Using the P120C on two launch vehicles has saved on development costs and benefitted economies of scale and created an opportunity for Europe to scale up production.

Vega-C’s second stage, powered by the new Zefiro-40 contains about 36 t of solid propellant.

The Zefiro-40, developed and manufactured by Avio in their Colleferro factory in Italy, was static fired on 8 March 2018 and then again on 10 May 2019 at test facilities in Sardinia.

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Zefiro-40 DM on test bench (courtesy: ESA)

During a burn time of 92 seconds the Zefiro-40 generates an average thrust of 1300 kN which is four times greater than that of an engine of a modern passenger aircraft. This propels Vega-C to an altitude of about 123 km.

The Zefiro-9 will power Vega-C’s third stage. It is an advanced version with a new igniter with respect to the one used on the Vega launch vehicle currently operating at Europe’s Spaceport.

On 1 October, the Zefiro-9 seated on the test bench in Cagliari, Sardinia performed its final qualification hot firing. It burned for 120 s using 10 t of solid propellant. The Zefiro-9 will take Vega-C to an altitude of about 190km.

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Zefiro-9 test fire (courtesy: Avio)

Participating States in Vega-C development are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

“Industry is working very hard and very closely with ESA to complete the end of the qualification programme for Vega-C. Together we are overcoming the obstacles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and we are committed to complete all activities planned for the preparation of the Vega-C maiden flight,” commented Giorgio Tumino, Head of Vega-C development and Chief Technical Advisor for Space Transportation at ESA.

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Masten Space Systems awarded two NASA Tipping Point contracts

Masten Space Systems awarded two NASA Tipping Point contracts

(21 October 2020 – Masten Space Systems) NASA and Masten Space Systems announced that the Space Technology Mission Directorate has chosen Masten for two Tipping Point awards as part of the agency’s Artemis mission to return to the Moon.

The first award is for Masten’s Metal Oxidation Warming System (MOWS) which is being developed in partnership with Penn State as a chemical heating solution to help spacecraft survive in sunlight-deprived lunar environments. The second award will drive completion of Masten’s state-of-the-art aerospace testbed, named Xogdor, to provide the industry an updated flight test analog for critical Artemis technologies.

Masten’s XL-1 lunar lander will deliver NASA and commercial payloads to the Moon’s southern pole by December 2022. (coutesy: Masten Space Systems)

“We are excited to see such an auspicious group of Tipping Point awards this year,” said Masten CEO Sean Mahoney. “It’s an honor to be in such great company with all these amazing awards as NASA’s forward-looking Space Technology Mission Directorate steps up to fund the private companies who are producing out-of-the-box innovations that will take America back to the Moon, to stay.”

In partnership with Penn State, Masten will mature MOWS, a lunar warming solution with electricity cogeneration that allows spacecraft systems to survive the lunar night and operate in shadowed lunar regions. MOWS employs moderate-temperature chemical reactions for thermal control with order-of-magnitude greater specific energy than battery-based approaches. MOWS is useful for both robotic and manned missions, as both require thermal control for extended surface operations.

“MOWS technology benefits both NASA and commercial missions as it significantly expands the scope of lunar exploration missions,” said Matthew Kuhns, chief engineer at Masten. “The ability to survive the lunar night extends mission durations beyond the current capability of around 14 days, allowing missions at least six weeks, two lunar days and one lunar night, and possibly longer, greatly increasing our capacity to perform more science, operate customer payloads, and reduce risk for future Artemis missions on the Moon.”

Masten will mature its Xogdor flight vehicle to operational service to provide an updated system for testing aerospace technologies in a relevant flight environment. Over this three year project, Masten will complete the development and flight testing of a Xogdor vehicle. The defined effort will support risk reduction of technologies through flight testing in pursuit of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars campaign with a focus on building an EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) test capability for near-term lunar missions. Xogdor will be the sixth vehicle in Masten’s line of reusable rockets, which have had more than 600 successful VTVL (Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing) flights over 15 years of heritage.

“Xogdor is poised to become the industry’s state-of-the-art testing analog with performance capabilities far exceeding those of currently available EDL testbeds,” said Masten CTO, Dave Masten. “Through this Masten-NASA partnership, Xogdor will be available to test critical Artemis technologies, including hazard detection instruments, precision landing avionics, innovative flight software, Plume Surface Interaction (PSI) experiments, and other critical EDL experiments as early as 2023.”

“P3 is proud to be supporting Masten with Champ Turbopumps for the Xogdor rocket for this important NASA Tipping Point program,” said Phil Pelfrey, president of P3 Technologies.

“This is the most Tipping Point proposals NASA has selected at once and by far the largest collective award value,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Technology Jim Reuter. “We are excited to see our investments and collaborative partnerships bring about new technologies for the Moon and beyond while also benefiting the commercial sector.”

About Masten Space Systems

Mojave, California-based Masten Space Systems wrangles rocket powered landing from sci-fi into reality, connecting the steps from napkin, to lab, to test site, and all the way to the surface of the Moon. For over 15 years the Masten team has torn down barriers to space, working with partners of all types to create value in the space ecosystem. Masten is the partner of choice for fellow innovators, and explorers who are changing how we access and use space, bringing the benefits of space to the benefit of humans here on Earth.

About NASA STMD’s Tipping Point Program

Through the “Tipping Point” solicitation, NASA seeks industry-developed space technologies that can foster the development of commercial space capabilities and benefit future NASA missions. A technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration will significantly mature the technology, increase the likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and bring the technology to market for both government and commercial applications. The public-private partnerships established through Tipping Point selections combine NASA resources with an industry contribution of at least 25% of the program costs, shepherding the development of critical space technologies while also saving the agency, and American taxpayers, money.

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Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions launches industry’s highest density NAND flash memory module for space applications

Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions launches industrys highest density NAND flash

(21 October 2020 – Cobham) Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions (CAES) today announced the industry’s highest density NAND flash memory device for a range of demanding space applications.

The 4 terabit (Tb) triple-level cell (TLC), NAND Flash Memory Module delivers 32 times the density of the closest competing device while fitting into the same industry-standard 12mm x 18mm plastic-encapsulated microcircuit (PEM) package. With access to unparalleled storage capacity, designers can significantly increase sensor and digital signal processing in applications such as solid-state drives and recorders, reconfigurable computing systems, imaging and communications data buffering applications.

New CAES UT81NDQ512G8T delivers highest density NAND flash memory module for space applications (courtesy: Cobham)

“Our 4Tb NAND Flash Memory Module delivers an order of magnitude boost in memory density at lower power and without any increase in package size,” said Kevin Jackson, vice president, space systems, Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions. “This directly improves the performance and capability of spacecraft instruments, for example, by increasing the signal fidelity and resolution of satellite imaging equipment. At the same time, our tightly-controlled supply chain and extensive testing processes mean that designers no longer have to up-screen commercial flash memory solutions in the hope of finding radiation-tolerant components.”

The new module performs up to 667 mega-transfers per second (MT/s) and is compliant with both Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI) 4.0 and JEDEC NAND Flash Interoperability (JESD230C) specifications. While aerospace designers must screen commercial-grade NAND flash to estimate radiation tolerance and operational lifetime, the new CAES radiation-assured flash modules undergo extensive pre-testing. This includes Total Ionizing Dose (TID) and Single-Event Effects (SEE) characterization on a wafer lot-by-lot basis to ensure optimum radiation hardness. To maximize quality control across its manufacturing supply chain, CAES also applies Parts, Materials and Process (PMaP) failure-mode analysis to monitor for potential variations in the semiconductor fabrication process.

The UT81NDQ512G8T, 4Tb NAND flash module supports NV-DDR3 I/O (667 MT/s), NV-DDR2 I/O (533 MT/s), asynchronous I/O (50 MT/s) speeds and TLC endurance of 3,000 program/erase cycles. The module operates across +2.7 – +3.6V input and +1.14 – +1.26V or +1.7 – +1.95V output voltage ranges and specified to a temperature range of -40°C to +85°C. The 132-ball BGA module is available now in engineering units, with flight models to be released in the second quarter of 2021.

CAES also provides other technologies for commercial, civil, military, and other government spacecraft. With a space pedigree spanning nearly 40 years, CAES offers a full range of solutions for the world’s leading launch vehicles, satellites and space exploration missions. Key capabilities include radiation hardened and high reliability microelectronics, application specific integrated circuits (ASIC), electronic manufacturing services, motion control and positioning, antennas and apertures, radiation effects testing, RF, microwave and millimeter wave microelectronics, motion control devices, power solutions, intellectual property cores, avionic solutions and LEON/SPARC processors.

About Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions

Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions is the largest provider of analog and radiation hardened technology for the United States aerospace and defense industry. With a broad portfolio of off-the-shelf and customized RF, microwave and high reliability microelectronic products and subsystems, CAES offers a complete range of solutions for the entire signal chain from aperture to digital conversion.

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