This little satellite will investigate a curious star and its planet

This artist's view shows the planet orbiting the young star Beta Pictoris.

Story highlights

  • A nanosatellite will observe an exoplanet as it passes in front of its host star later this year

(CNN)On Friday, a small satellite named PicSat launched in an attempt to make a big observation: watching an exoplanet passing in front of its star this year.

The nanosatellite, about 2.3 inches in diameter, is the size of three apples stacked on top of each other and uses about 5 watts of power -- the same as an economical light bulb. It was designed and built by scientists and engineers at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Paris Observatory in France.
    It will study the Beta Pictoris system, 63.4 light-years from Earth. The Beta Pictoris star is very bright, but it's surrounded by a giant disk made of dust, gas and debris -- the leftovers of the star's formation. And to astronomers, this 23-million-year-old-star is quite young.
      The star was discovered to be orbited by a giant gas exoplanet in 2009, dubbed Beta Pictoris b. The planet is seven times more massive than Jupiter and orbits its star at the same distance as Saturn orbits our sun, though Beta Pictoris b orbits within the debris disk.
      If PicSat's one-year mission goes according to plan, the scientists could determine the exact size of the planet, its atmosphere and its chemical composition.
      In September 2014, the 30th anniversary of the star's discovery was celebrated at a conference in Paris. Scientists realized that the planet would pass in front of its star sometime between summer 2017 and summer 2018. It won't happen again for 18 years.
        An artist's depiction of the satellite once its in orbit.
        And the planet will only actually be crossing in front of its star for a few hours.
        In order to observe the transit and narrow down the time when the planet would pass in front of the star, it would need to be monitored continuously. The scientists knew that was possible only from space, and decided to see what they could put together in three years' time.
        They didn't want to reinvent the wheel, PicSat principal investigator Sylvestre Lacour said. Instead, using the CubeSat structure developed in the United States largely for educational purposes, they focused on the payload.