Category Archives: Exoplanets

What About TESS?

What is going on with the newest exoplanet detecting spacecraft – TESS? By all accounts we are moving closer to the start of observations.

I tend to be amused by the mission as I get the feeling TESS already has more work than it can do. Oh it’s a great position to be in but the “poor” mission team has to decide the observational priorities. I’d like to be a fly on the wall during some of those meetings!

NASA: After a successful launch on April 18, 2018, NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is currently undergoing a series of commissioning tests before it begins searching for planets. The TESS team has reported that the spacecraft and cameras are in good health, and the spacecraft has successfully reached its final science orbit. The team continues to conduct tests in order to optimize spacecraft performance with a goal of beginning science at the end of July.

Every new mission goes through a commissioning period of testing and adjustments before beginning science operations. This serves to test how the spacecraft and its instruments are performing and determines whether any changes need to be made before the mission starts observations.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Dr. George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

Kepler Pauses Activities

2,650 new planets for the Kepler mission. The image above is the “first-light” image from the Kepler spacecraft taken on 08 April 2009.

There is a lot of different numbers reported for exoplanets, I like to stick to the Exopplanet Data Explorer at exoplanet.org.

With fuel on the spacecraft running low Kepler now pauses to download more data.

NASA: Earlier this week, NASA’s Kepler team received an indication that the spacecraft fuel tank is running very low. NASA has placed the spacecraft in a hibernation-like state in preparation to download the science data collected in its latest observation campaign. Once the data has been downloaded, the expectation is to start observations for the next campaign with any remaining fuel.

Since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, staring at a patch of sky towards the constellation of Cancer it previously studied in 2015. The data from this second look will provide astronomers with an opportunity to confirm previous exoplanet candidates and discover new ones. Returning the data back to Earth is the highest priority for the remaining fuel.

To bring the data home, the spacecraft must point its large antenna back to Earth and transmit the data during its allotted Deep Space Network time, which is scheduled in early August. Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode. On August 2, the team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and maneuver the spacecraft to the correct orientation and downlink the data. If the maneuver and download are successful, the team will begin its 19th observation campaign on August 6 with the remaining fuel.

NASA will provide an update after the scheduled download. The agency has been monitoring the Kepler spacecraft closely for signs of low fuel, and expects it to run out of fuel in the next few months.

As engineers preserve the new data stored on the spacecraft, scientists are continuing to mine existing data already on the ground. Among other findings, recently 24 new planet discoveries were made using data from the 10th observation campaign, adding to the spacecraft’s growing bounty of 2,650 confirmed planets.

Image: NASA/Ames/J. Jenkins

ESA’s Next Science Mission

Funny how things progress. Not that long ago other planetary systems were unknown altogether and now we know they are really common place. We’ve even gotten to the point where we going to be looking at the chemical composition of their atmospheres. That’s one of the goals of Ariel or the Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey mission.

Image: (Artist’s impression): ESA/ATG medialab, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

ESA – 20 March 2018 The nature of planets orbiting stars in other systems will be the focus for ESA’s fourth medium-class science mission, to be launched in mid 2028.

Ariel, the Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey mission, was selected by ESA today as part of its Cosmic Vision plan.

The mission addresses one of the key themes of Cosmic Vision: What are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life?

Thousands of exoplanets have already been discovered with a huge range of masses, sizes and orbits, but there is no apparent pattern linking these characteristics to the nature of the parent star. In particular, there is a gap in our knowledge of how the planet’s chemistry is linked to the environment where it formed, or whether the type of host star drives the physics and chemistry of the planet’s evolution.

Ariel will address fundamental questions on what exoplanets are made of and how planetary systems form and evolve by investigating the atmospheres of hundreds of planets orbiting different types of stars, enabling the diversity of properties of both individual planets as well as within populations to be assessed.

Observations of these worlds will give insights into the early stages of planetary and atmospheric formation, and their subsequent evolution, in turn contributing to put our own Solar System in context.

“Ariel is a logical next step in exoplanet science, allowing us to progress on key science questions regarding their formation and evolution, while also helping us to understand Earth’s place in the Universe,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

“Ariel will allow European scientists to maintain competitiveness in this dynamic field. It will build on the experiences and knowledge gained from previous exoplanet mission
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The Kepler 90 System

The busy week of launches wasn’t the only thing going on of course, NASA announced the discovery of an eighth planet around a star called Kepler-90. The discovery was made using AI and the system is as large as our own.

Big news indeed.

From NASA: Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. This artist’s concept depicts the Kepler-90 system compared with our own solar system.

The newly-discovered Kepler-90i — a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days — was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers “learn.” In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded changes in starlight caused by planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.

NASA Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel

TRAPPIST-1

Using a collaboration of telescopes including TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South,  seven new exo-planets have been found. Yesterday I eluded to all of them in the Goldilocks zone, that is not true but THREE of them are and ALL of the planets are relatively Earth-sized!

The star TRAPPIST-1 is a dwarf star,  TRAPPIST-1 is only estimated to be only eight percent (8%) of our Sun, so it’s really small.

You will notice these planets are collectively very close to their parent star and that means very fast orbital periods, ranging from just a-(Earth)day-and-a-half for the closest planet (b) to only about 20 days for the most distant planet (h).   Since the parent star is smaller and cooler that means the Goldilocks zone is much different than our own is.  Click the graphic above to be able to see the data.

 

Join The Search

If you have not participated in Zooniverse before, give it a try. I do a couple of the projects and will be doing this one too.

Backyard Worlds: Planet 9

Here is a description from Zooniverse I got in an email:
In this project you’ll be searching through images from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, hunting for objects such as brown dwarfs and low-mass stars in our Solar System’s neighbourhood. You may find an object closer than Proxima Centauri (the closest star to the Sun) or even discover the Sun’s hypothesized ninth planet, which models suggest might appear in these images!

Verified 1284 New Planets

keplerupdate

Among the 1,284 newly found planets, nine of them are in the Goldilocks zone, where liquid water (and possibly life as we know it) could exist.  The count for these planets is now 21.

Here’s the press release:

NASA’s Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

“This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”

Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates, the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of “planet.” An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques.

“Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. “This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe.”
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