PicSat’s target is the massive star Beta Pictoris, some 60 light years from Earth in the southern constellation of Pictor (The Painter’s Easel), and its planet Beta Pictoris b — a gassy giant.
From Earth orbit, it will seek to learn more about the faraway planet by observing the next time it transits its host star, appearing as a dot on the bright surface as seen from our perspective.
This once-in-18-year transit is expected some time in 2018.
By measuring how much light a planet blocks out as it transits its star, astronomers can glean details about its size and the composition of its atmosphere.
PicSat comes equipped with a telescope for observation, and solar panels to power all its systems.
Discovered in 1984, Beta Pictoris has a mass about 1.8 times that of our Sun.
It is young in astronomical terms — only about 20 million years old compared to the Sun’s 4.5 billion years.
It is surrounded by a huge disc of gas and dust — the materials from which planets, asteroids and comets are formed — making it an ideal subject for studying the mechanism by which solar systems evolve.
Beta Pictoris b is about 16 times larger and 3,000 times more massive than Earth, with eight-hour days. It orbits its star at a distance eight times that of Earth to the Sun.
In 2014, scientists said the planet spins at a breakneck speed of some 25 kilometres per second (90,000 kph or 56,000 miles per hour).
Built at the Paris Observatory’s LESIA laboratory, with European backing, PicSat has a total budget of 1.5 million euros ($1.8 million).