After two years in orbit, the CHEOPS space telescope has exceeded expectations. By reliably revealing details of some of the most fascinating exoplanets, it has quickly become a key instrument for astronomers in Europe and has led to fruitful collaborations throughout the continent. CHEOPS is a joint mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Switzerland, under the aegis of the University of Bern in collaboration with the University of Geneva.

Since its launch from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, on December 18 2019, the CHEOPS telescope in Earth’s orbit has demonstrated its functionality and precision beyond expectations. That it would ever to get to that point was never a certainty and would have almost been impossible due to the Corona virus pandemic.

A key part of European astronomy

“We were very lucky that things went so smoothly. After years of preparation, construction and testing, it is amazing to think that if the launch had been delayed only two more weeks, things could have gone very differently”, Willy Benz, Professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern and head of the CHEOPS consortium, recalls. Due to the pandemic, access to the operation centre was very limited. Luckily, just shortly before large parts of Europe went into shutdown, all the necessary checks were completed and the telescope could run in an automated operation mode. This allowed the scientists working with CHEOPS to operate the instrument remotely and thus gather all the observational data they needed to do their research – and they did so quite diligently.

Thus far, nearly 100 scientists, coming from 40 institutions all over the continent, have thus far had the chance to benefit from the unique capabilities of CHEOPS. This has led to impactful research published in nearly 30 scientific papers. Findings include the characterization of blisteringly hot planet atmospheres that evaporate iron, the detection of planetary systems that orbit their star in near perfect harmony or the measurement of the structure of icy super-Earths. “CHEOPS has demonstrated its flexibility, reliability and high precision on many occasions – for example by revealing details of planets and planetary systems that remained hidden from other instruments, like NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite (TESS)”, mission scientist David Ehrenreich, who is also a Professor of astronomy at the University of Geneva says.

A valuable asset for the future

The capabilities CHEOPS could continue to serve the scientific community well, even with the launch of the next generation of instruments – such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) of NASA. “We are convinced with its high precision and flexibility, CHEOPS can act as a bridge between instruments like TESS and the JWST, as the JWST needs precise information on potentially interesting observation targets. While TESS can detect many targets, CHEOPS can help to filter out the most promising ones and thus optimize the operation of the 10 billion $ instrument that is the JWST”, Willy Benz points out.

“We also hope that scientific advances will allow us to extend the research foci of CHEOPS to study the atmospheric circulations and clouds on exoplanets or to detect the first moon around an exoplanet”, David Ehrenreich adds. Whether these goals will be attainable will also depend on the decision of ESA to extend the operation period of CHEOPS, which is scheduled to end next autumn, to 2025. In any case: an exciting year lies ahead for the “Swiss” telescope in space.