Portuguese astrobiologist chosen by ESA
to lead the scientific community of the Ariel mission

The Ariel mission will study the atmospheres of around a thousand exoplanets. The European Space Agency has nominated Zita Martins
to be the liaison point with the scientific community.

How did exoplanets originate? How do they evolve? What are they made of? Therese are some of the questions that the European Space Agency (ESA) Ariel mission will seek to answer from 2029, when it is scheduled to be launched on the new European launcher, the Ariane 6. This is an adventure that will put the scientific knowledge beyond the limits of the solar system, being ESA’s ambition to investigate the chemical composition and the thermic properties of around a thousand exoplanets (planets that orbit a star other than the sun and which, therefore, belong to another planetary system).

We know today that the planetary formation process is frequent. It is also quite diverse. There is a wide variety in the masses, orbits and different configurations of the planetary systems. The Ariel mission is here to contribute to expanding the knowledge about the nature of the planets”, explains Cláudio Melo, Science Officer at the Portuguese Space Agency – Portugal Space.

Portugal had already a relevant position on the scientific component of the Ariel mission through the consortium led by the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço. Still, the country saw its participation reinforced recently with the selection of the astrobiologist Zita Martins, MIT Portugal co-director, to the position of Community Scientist of the Ariel Science Team. The Portuguese scientist will be responsible for “representing the scientific community, especially in the field of astrobiology”, also complementing “other areas of knowledge of the scientific team”.


A astrobióloga Zita Martins. © José Aponte


When data from exoplanets are collected, it will be necessary to “know how to share and use these data with the scientific community”, and one of Zita Martins’ roles in the mission is to advise in this regard, bringing a “different point of view” in the data analysis. Thus, the astrobiologist will have an “active voice” and be at the forefront, part of a “reduced nucleus, working directly with ESA”.


The recognition of Portuguese science

The selection of Zita Martins for the position of Community Scientist of the mission’s team of scientists reinforces the Portuguese participation in Ariel. Furthermore, it reaffirms the national presence at the forefront of this European mission. “It is a huge prestige for me and for Portugal, which has a strong contribution”, stresses Zita Martins.

Before this selection, the astrobiologist was already in the Ariel – Portugal consortium, led by the researcher Pedro Machado, from the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA). For the national representative in this European space mission, this will be the first time it will be possible to “directly study in detail the composition of the atmospheres of other worlds”. Therefore, the Ariel mission will have “a huge importance in space exploration”.

In addition to leading this consortium, composed of researchers from IA, from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon and Porto, and the Instituto Superior Técnico, Pedro Machado also has the role of co-investigator and coordination, with Gabriela Gili, of one of the working groups in the science component. Also relevant is the participation of the IA instrumentation group in the mission, which contributes to the technical component for the tests and calibration of the telescope. But the national presence in this adventure beyond our planetary system does not end here.



The Portuguese industry is also on this mission

When Pedro Machado says that the “Portuguese flag” in the mission has been growing, he also refers to the national industry participation in Ariel, represented by Active Space Technologies and ML Analytics.  

Active Space Technologies will manufacture the “most visible part of the Ariel mission”, the space telescope casing, in Portugal. The company, based in Coimbra, has “pushed the project of critical subsystems”, supporting the consortium led by RAL Space in every phase of the mission — from design through to testing to manufacturing.

ML Analytics, based in Loures, recently won the  Machine Learning Data Challenge promoted by ESA. The competition was based on a “set of data that contained synthetic data, identical to those that the mission will generate, and subject to the types and levels of noise that will be characteristic of its sensors”, says Luís Simões, the company’s chief technical officer. The winning model from ML Analytics performed “already in the order of magnitude of precision required by the mission”.

But how does Artificial Intelligence boost the knowledge on exoplanets? Through tools capable of processing future mission data with the necessary precision: “Artificial Intelligence will be, like a microscope, a specialized instrument that reveals to us the reality that hides in a noisy signal, and that would, otherwise, be outside of our reach. Questions such as the existence of life in other planets may be answered by applying AI to data such as the one that the Ariel mission will generate”, explains Luís Simões.

For the ML Analytics’ chief technical officer, the company’s contribution demonstrates that in the Portuguese space sector, there are “competencies for the development of state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence solutions for problems with the levels of demand present in the space sector”.

A “quantum leap” to the future

The Ariel Mission will study exoplanets through spectroscopy. This technique allows measuring a planet’s chemical “fingerprints” as it crosses in front of its host star or passes behind it.

“The instruments aboard the Ariel mission will allow spectroscopic observations to obtain pictures that will make possible to study and to characterize the atmosphere of these planets with a high degree of detail thanks to the quality of observations provided by the mission instruments”, specifies Marta Gonçalves, Science and Education Officer at the Portuguese Space Agency – Portugal Space.

What practical application could this mission have in the life of ordinary citizens? Pedro Machado recalls that the spectrographs developed to represent a “quantum leap” in space technology so that future applications are foreseen in “other areas, outside of space”. “I foresee applications in medicine, in what regards climate change, in agriculture”, says the Portuguese representative at the Ariel mission, who recalls: “It is not new that space exploration influences life on Earth.” An example of this is the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), used daily by the ordinary citizen and by other services, such as postal service, the satellite television service or weather forecast.

Portugal Space
15 of December, 2021