In March 2017, we revealed that the miniature ID101 Visible Photon Counter had been chosen as a vital component of the PicSat nano-satellite. On 12th January 2018, PicSat was successfully launched into earth’s orbit.
The satellite itself weighs just 3.5kg and was placed into orbit at an altitude of 505km by an Indian PSLV rocket. This signals the start of its one-year mission to observe the Beta Pictoris star system, which is “just” 63.4 light years from Earth.
Beta Pictoris is of particular interest to astronomers because it is a relative newcomer in the cosmos. First discovered in 1984, Pictoris B is just 23million years old. Our sun, by comparison, is 4.5 billion years old.
Beta Pictoris is surrounded by a massive disk of dust and debris that could represent the embryonic phase of new planets. By observing the star system, scientists hope to gain new insights into how planetary systems are formed.
In 2009, scientists discovered a massive gas giant (exoplanet) orbiting the star within the debris disk. The planet, named Beta Pictoris b, is seven times more massive than Jupiter (the largest planet in our solar system.
PicSat was built at the Paris Observatory’s LESIA laboratory at a cost of €1.8million. Designed and built in record time, the nano-satellite features a 5cm optical telescope, coupled to a state-of-the-art single-pixel avalanche photodiode by a single-mode optical fiber.
The ID101 photodiode provides extremely precise measurements of the number of photons hitting the telescope at any given time, and the optical fiber, with its very small core, helps to get rid of any background noise.
Beta Pictoris B is expected to pass in front of the star sometime in 2018 (something that won’t happen again for another 18 years). If all goes well, PicSat will enable observers to determine the exact size of the planet, its atmosphere and its chemical composition.
If you would like to follow the progress of the mission, you can do so on the mission website.