Awards and Prizes

Nicolas Cowan leading Canada’s scientific contribution to the Ariel mission

An artist's view of the Ariel Space Telescope. (Credit: European Space Agency)
An artist's view of the Ariel Space Telescope. (Credit: European Space Agency)

In the ever-expanding realm of space exploration, each new mission heralds a leap forward in our understanding of the cosmos. The Ariel Space Telescope, a pioneering effort led by the European Space Agency (ESA), is an exciting new step forward in the quest to better understand planets beyond our Solar System. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has now announced they will officially contributing to this groundbreaking mission. Thanks to this contribution, iREx member Nicolas Cowan has been appointed co-Principal Investigator of the Ariel mission and will join ESA‘s Ariel Science Team. In addition to his work with iREx, Nicolas Cowan is also a member of the Trottier Space Institute, a Professor at McGill University’s Department of Physics and Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, as well as a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Planetary Climates.

Nicolas Cowan, iREx member and Professor at McGill University, has been named co-Principal Investigator of ESA’s Ariel mission. (Credit: McGill University)

Set to launch in 2029, the Ariel mission marks an unprecedented endeavor – the first-ever astronomy mission dedicated to studying the atmospheres of a diverse range of exoplanets. Exoplanets hold the promise of unlocking insights into planet formation, atmospheric phenomena, and even the potential for habitability beyond Earth.

The Ariel mission is poised to inspect the atmospheres of approximately a thousand exoplanets using a range of cutting-edge techniques. By combining transit and emission spectroscopy, the telescope will provide a comprehensive view of these distant worlds. Transit spectroscopy involves studying the light that filters through an exoplanet’s atmosphere as it passes in front of its host star, revealing crucial information about its chemical composition. Emission spectroscopy, on the other hand, focuses on the light emitted by the exoplanet itself, offering insights into temperature variations within its atmosphere.

Canada’s involvement in the Ariel mission extends beyond scientific expertise. The CSA will contribute essential components known as cryoharnesses, intricate electrical data cables that play a crucial role in transmitting signals between the telescope’s detectors and the spacecraft’s computer. Canada has expertise in this field, having previously contributed similar technology to other missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Ariel mission is currently in the phase of its experiment’s design. Prof. Cowan and his colleagues will need to select which celestial targets to observe and which observational and analysis techniques to use to optimally leverage the telescope’s capabilities. These choices will shape the mission’s scientific agenda, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries.

Beyond Prof. Cowan’s role in Ariel, up to 12 Canadian astronomers will gain privileged access to Ariel’s data. Canada and iREx’s involvement in the Ariel mission is fantastic news for the Canadian astronomical community and the global exoplanetary field of research. Congratulations to Nicolas Cowan, and best of luck to the entire Ariel team for the mission’s next steps!