France Launches Mini Satellite To Explore Mysteries of Distant Gas Giant Planet

What PicSat may look like while orbiting Earth. T. Pesquet ESA / NASA - Lesia / Observatoire de Paris

On Friday, an Indian rocket will carry a tiny French satellite into Earth's orbit, where it will spend a year studying a mysterious young solar system 63 light-years away. The mission, called PicSat, was conceived just three years ago.

The miniature satellite will be focused on Beta Pictoris, a star less than twice the size of our sun that formed between 20 and 26 million years ago. The neighborhood has fascinated scientists since the 1980s, when they realized it was surrounded by a large disk of carbon- and oxygen-rich debris.

Because the star is too old to still be forming planets, all that celestial rubble is likely the remains of miniature planets and hundreds of comets that collide and shatter. Lots of stars sport these debris clouds, but the one surrounding Beta Pictoris is one of the most studied examples.

And in 2010, the plot thickened when astronomers announced they had spotted a giant planet about seven times the size of Jupiter in all that mess, called Beta Pictoris b. The French PicSat will be watching for when that planet crosses between its star and Earth during its orbit.

That's why it's headed to space: If the telescope were stuck on land, it might miss the event if Earth happened to be in the way at the time. A space-bound telescope never needs to sleep. In the case of PicSat, that telescope is just two inches in diameter, a far cry from the giant telescopes here on Earth that gather strength from their size.

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The satellite's path means it won't be able to communicate directly with its control center most of the day. So instead, the French scientists decided to have it broadcast its signal like an amateur radio station, which means anyone can eavesdrop on its messages. The team hopes that will inspire the amateur radio community to take part in the mission as well, posting updates they overhear to the project's website.

PicSat, which has been at the launch site since December, is just one of more than two dozen satellites the Indian rocket will be putting into orbit when it launches on Friday. India's previous launch failed after the satellite was trapped by a heat shield that did not detach properly.