Extrasolar Planets and Planetary Systems

Proxima Centauri b in front of its host star
Artist’s impression of Proxima Centauri b in front of its host star. In the background one can see the double-system Alpha Centauri. The planet is at least 1.27 times heavier than Earth and is a very interesting case for habitability studies.

ESO/M. Kornmesser


Extrasolar planets contextualise the Solar System among a large number of planetary systems with very different properties. Many extrasolar planets show characteristics which are not realised in the Solar System and provide challenges to theories of planetary formation and evolution. Whether or not the evolution of the planets and moons in the Solar System is typical for their class of objects is still unknown. A key element of this research theme is the search for small, terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of host stars and their characterisation. In particular determining the nature of the planets found in terms of their mean density, age and atmospheres is key to place our Earth into context and identify whether Earth is unique or not.

The institute has contributed to the first dedicated space mission to search for extrasolar planets – the French-international mission CoRoT and was part of the first secure detection of a terrestrial planet outside the Solar System, CoRoT-7b. The institute contributes with hardware and data analysis to ESA’s first Small Mission CHEOPS, characterising known exoplanets via precise photometry. Furthermore, the institute leads the international instrument consortium of ESA’s M3 mission PLATO, dedicated to detect and characterise small planets in habitable zones of solar-like stars. Participation in data analysis of NASA´s TESS satellite as well as ground-based facilities dedicated to exoplanetary search complement the broad range of the institute’s expertise in that field.

The diversity of planets realised in the universe results in challenges to our understanding of planetary formation and evolution. New methods are required to interpret the statistical information on bulk planetary properties resulting from the planetary search surveys. DLR's Institute of Planetary Research addresses this by the development of numerical tools to study the evolution of planets in a statistical approach.