James Webb Space Telescope’s Giant Sunshield Test Unit Unfurled First Time

GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – The huge Sunshield test unit for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been successfully unfurled for the first time in a key milestone ahead of the launch scheduled for October 2018.

Engineers stacked and expanded the tennis-court sized Sunshield test unit last week inside the cleanroom at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California.

NASA reports that the operation proceeded perfectly the first time during the test of the full-sized unit.

The Sunshield and every other JWST component must unfold perfectly and to precise tolerances in space because it has not been designed for servicing or repairs by astronaut crews voyaging beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space, William Ochs, Associate Director for JWST at NASA Goddard told me in an exclusive interview.

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom.  Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom. Credit: NASA/ESA

The five layered Sunshield is the largest component of the observatory and acts like a parasol.

Its purpose is to protect Webb from the suns heat and passively cool the telescope and its quartet of sensitive science instruments via permanent shade to approximately 45 kelvins, -380 degrees F, -233 C.

The kite-shaped Sunshield provides an effective sun protection factor or SPF of 1,000,000. By comparison suntan lotion for humans has an SPF of 8 to 40.

Two sides of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Credit: NASA
Two sides of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Credit: NASA

The extreme cold is required for the telescope to function in the infrared (IR) wavelengths and enable it to look back in time further than ever before to detect distant objects.

The shield separates the observatory into a warm sun-facing side and a cold anti-sun side.

Its five thin membrane layers also provides a stable thermal environment to keep the telescopes 18 primary mirror segments properly aligned for Webb’s science investigations.

JWST is the successor to the 24 year old Hubble Space Telescope and will become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

NASA has overall responsibility and Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST.

Webb will launch folded up inside the payload fairing of an ESA Ariane V ECA rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

In launch configuration, the Sunshield will surround the main mirrors and instruments like an umbrella.

During the post launch journey to the L2 observing orbit at the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point nearly a million miles (1.5 million Km) from Earth, the telescopes mirrors and sunshield will begin a rather complex six month long unfolding and calibration process.

The science instruments have been mounted inside the ISIM science module and are currently undergoing critical vacuum chamber testing at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center which provides overall management and systems engineering.

Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The mirror segments have arrived at NASA Goddard where I’ve had the opportunity to observe and report on work in progress.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing JWST, MMS, ISS, Curiosity, Opportunity, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Sunshield test unit on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is unfurled for the first time at Northrup Grumman.  Credit: NASA
Sunshield test unit on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is unfurled for the first time at Northrup Grumman. Credit: NASA

The Search for Alien Life Could Get A Boost From NASA’s Next-Generation Rocket

In three years, NASA is planning to light the fuse on a huge rocket designed to bring humans further out into the solar system.

We usually talk about SLS here in the context of the astronauts it will carry inside the Orion spacecraft, which will have its own test flight later in 2014. But today, NASA advertised a possible other use for the rocket: trying to find life beyond Earth.

At a symposium in Washington on the search for life, NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld said SLS could serve two major functions: launching bigger telescopes, and sending a mission on an express route to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror of 6.5 meters (21 feet), will in part search for exoplanets after its launch in 2018. Next-generation telescopes of 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) could pick out more, if SLS could bring them up into space.

“This will be a multi-generational search,” said Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She added that the big challenge is trying to distinguish a planet like Earth from the light of its parent star; the difference between the two is a magnitude of 10 billion. “Our Earth is actually extremely hard to find,” she said.

Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.
Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.

While the symposium was not talking much about life in the solar system, Europa is considered one of the top candidates due to the presence of a possible subsurface ocean beneath its ice. NASA is now seeking ideas for a mission to this moon, following news that water plumes were spotted spewing from the moon’s icy south pole. A mission to Europa would take seven years with the technology currently in NASA’s hands, but the SLS would be powerful enough to speed up the trip to only three years, Grunsfeld said.

And that’s not all that SLS could do. If it does bring astronauts deeper in space as NASA hopes it will, this opens up a range of destinations for them to go to. Usually NASA talks about this in terms of its human asteroid mission, an idea it has been working on and pitching for the past year to a skeptical, budget-conscious Congress.

But in passing, John Mather (NASA’s senior project scientist for Webb) said it’s possible astronauts could be sent to maintain the telescope. Webb is supposed to be parked in a Lagrange point (gravitationally stable location) in the exact opposite direction of the sun, almost a million miles away. It’s a big contrast to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was conveniently parked in low Earth orbit for astronauts to fix every so often with the space shuttle.

An Artist's Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.
An Artist’s Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.

While NASA works on the funding and design for larger telescope mirrors, Webb is one of the two new space telescopes it is focusing on in the search for life. Webb’s infrared eyes will be able to peer at solar systems being born, once it is launched in 2018. Complementary to that will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will fly in 2017 and examine planets that pass in front of their parent stars to find elements in their atmospheres.

The usual cautions apply when talking about this article: NASA is talking about several missions under development, and it is unclear yet what the success of SLS or any of these will be until they are battle-tested in space.

But what this discussion does show is the agency is trying to find many purposes for its next-generation rocket, and working to align it to astrophysics goals as well as its desire to send humans further out in the solar system.

360 Degrees of Milky Way at Your Fingertips

Touring the Milky Way’s a blast with this brand new 360-degree interactive panorama. More than 2 million infrared photos taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope were jigsawed into a 20-gigapixel click-and-zoom mosaic that takes the viewer from tangled nebulae to stellar jets to blast bubbles around supergiant stars.  

Magnetic loops carry gas and dust above disks of planet-forming material circling stars, as shown in this artist's conception. These loops give off extra heat, which NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detects as infrared light. The colors in this illustration show what an alien observer with eyes sensitive to both visible light and infrared wavelengths might see. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Magnetic loops carry gas and dust above disks of planet-forming material circling stars, as shown in this artist’s conception. These loops give off extra heat, which NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope detects as infrared light. The colors in this illustration show what an alien observer with eyes sensitive to both visible light and infrared wavelengths might see. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The new composite, using infrared images taken over the past decade, was compiled by a team led by UW-Madison astronomer Barbara Whitney and unveiled at a TEDactive conference in Vancouver, Canada Thursday. Unlike visual light, infrared penetrates the ubiquitous dust concentrated in the galactic plane to reveal structures otherwise obscured.


Catching a GLIMPSE of the Milky Way in this short video presentation

“For the first time, we can actually measure the large-scale structure of the galaxy using stars rather than gas,” explained Edward Churchwell, UW-Madison professor of astronomy and team co-leader. “We’ve established beyond the shadow of a doubt that our galaxy has a large bar structure that extends halfway out to the sun’s orbit. We know more about where the Milky Way’s spiral arms are.”

Named GLIMPSE360 (Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire project), the deep infrared survey captures only about 3% of the sky, but because it focuses on the plane of the Milky Way, where stars are most highly concentrated, it shows more than half of all the galaxy’s 300 billion suns.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy with several prominent arms containing stellar nurseries swathed in  pink clouds of hydrogen gas. The sun is shown near the bottom in the Orion Spur. Credit: NASA
The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy with several prominent arms containing stellar nurseries swathed in pink clouds of hydrogen gas. The sun is shown near the bottom in the Orion Spur. Credit: NASA

Using your imagination to hover high above the galactic plane, you’d see the Milky Way is a flat spiral galaxy sporting a stubby bar of stars crossing its central bulge. The solar system occupies a tiny niche in a minor spiral arm called the Orion Spur two-thirds of the way from the center to the edge.  At 100,000 light years across, the Milky Way is vast beyond comprehension and yet it’s only one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

Bubbles of gas and sites of star formation are seen in this close up from a region in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit:
Bubbles of gas and sites of star formation are seen in this close up in a region in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit:

While you and I sit back and marvel at all the stellar and nebular eye candy, the Spitzer images are helping astronomers determine where the edge of the galaxy lies and location of the spiral arms. GLIMPSE images have already revealed the Milky Way to be larger than previously thought and shot through with bubbles of expanding gas and dust blown by giant stars.

Spitzer can see faint stars in the “backcountry” of our galaxy — the outer, darker regions that went largely unexplored before.

Barbara Whitney, co-leader of the GLIMPSE360 team
Barbara Whitney, co-leader of the GLIMPSE360 team

“There are a whole lot more lower-mass stars seen now with Spitzer on a large scale, allowing for a grand study,” said Whitney. “Spitzer is sensitive enough to pick these up and light up the entire ‘countryside’ with star formation.”

The new 360-degree view will also help NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope target the most interesting sites of star-formation, where it will make even more detailed infrared observations.

When you play around with the interactive mosaic,  you’ll notice a few artifacts here and there among the images. Minor stuff. What took some getting used to was  how strikingly different familiar nebulae appeared when viewed in infrared instead of visual light. The panorama is also available on the Aladin viewing platform which offers shortcuts to regions of interest.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the new Cosmos TV series, gave the third line of our “cosmic address” as the Milky Way after ‘Earth’ and ‘Solar System’. After a few minutes with GLIMPSE360 you’ll  better appreciate the depth and breadth of our galactic home.

BUDGET 2015: Flying SOFIA Telescope To Be Shelved For ‘Higher-Priority’ Programs Like Cassini

NASA is prepared to axe an airborne telescope to keep “higher-priority” programs such as the Saturn Cassini mission going, according to budget documents the agency released today (March 4). We have more information about the budget below the jump, including the rationale for why NASA is looking to shelve its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

NASA’s  has been flying the telescope for just over three years and recently took some nice snapsnots of the M82 supernova that astronomers have been eager to image. The agency’s administrator, however, said SOFIA has had its shot and it’s time to reallocate the money for other programs.

“SOFIA has earned its way, and it has done very well, but we had to make a choice,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden in a conference call with reporters regarding the fiscal 2015 $17.46 billion budget request. He added that NASA is in discussions with partner DLR (the German space agency) to look at alternatives, but pending an agreement, the agency will shelve the telescope in 2015.

In a short news conference focusing on the telescope only, NASA said the observatory had been slated to run for another 20 years, at a cost of about $85 million on NASA’s end per year. (That adds up to $1.7 billion in that timeframe by straight math, but bear in mind the detailed budget estimates are not up yet, making that figure a guess on Universe Today’s part.) DLR funds about 25% of the telescope’s operating budget, and NASA the rest.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during a flight in 2010. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during a flight in 2010. Credit: NASA

“SOFIA does have a rather large operating cost compared to other missions, second only to Hubble [Space Telescope],” said NASA chief financial officer Beth Robinson in the second conference call. “There is a distinct trade in the operating mission universe about how many keep going and how much you free up (for new missions).”

The telescope isn’t the only such “trade” NASA made, Robinson added. Although not an exhaustive list, she said funding for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) is not in the base budget request, nor funding to accelerate development of the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.

SOFIA examines a “unique” part of the infrared spectrum, added NASA’s Paul Hertz, who heads the astrophysics division, but he noted infrared science is also performed by the Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Coming up soon is the James Webb Space Telescope. Also, the budget allocates development money for a new infrared observatory called Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Below are other notable parts of the 2015 budget. These are high-level statements missing some detail, as the rest of NASA’s documentation won’t be released publicly until late this week or early next.

The full mosaic from the Cassini imaging team of Saturn on July 19, 2013… the “Day the Earth Smiled”
The full mosaic from the Cassini imaging team of Saturn on July 19, 2013… the “Day the Earth Smiled”

– NASA’s budget falls overall to $17.46 billion, down one percent from $17.64 billion. Planetary science and human exploration each had nearly equal reductions of around three percent, with education taking the deepest cut (24%) in high-level categories as NASA moves to consolidate that directorate with other agencies.

– Funding continues for 14 operating planetary missions, which are presumably the same 14 missions that are contained here. (That list includes Cassini, Dawn, Epoxi, GRAIL, Juno, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rover/Opportunity, Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity, MESSENGER, New Horizons and Rosetta.) Separately, James Webb Space Telescope funding stays about the same as fiscal 2014, keeping it on track for a 2018 launch.

– NASA plans a mission to Europa. This was identified as the “second highest priority Flagship mission for the decade” in the National Research Council planetary science decadal survey, which called for a mission for “characterization of Europa’s ocean and interior, ice shell, chemistry and composition, and the geology of prospective landing sites.” NASA has allocated $15 million in fiscal 2015 for this mission, but it’s unclear if it’s going to be a big mission or a small one as the agency is still talking with the science community (and presumably checking its budget, although officials didn’t say that). If this goes through, it would fly in the 2020s.

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

– NASA’s humans-to-asteroid mission gets some more money. The agency requests $133 million for goals including “advancing solar electric propulsion and capture systems, and conduct of the Mission Concept Review in which the mission architecture will be established.” During the conference call with reporters, Bolden said the asteroid capture mission is a key step for NASA’s aim to have a manned Mars mission in the 2030s.

– Funding continues for NASA’s commercial crew program and Orion/Space Launch System program. It remains to be seen if the amounts allocated will be enough for what industry insiders hope for, but on a numbers basis, the Orion/SLS infrastructure funding falls to $2.78 billion (down 12% from $3.115 billion in FY 2014) and commercial crew funding increases to $848.3 million (up 20% from $696 million in FY 2014). Note the 2014 numbers are not finalized yet. NASA says the commercial funding will allow the program to maintain “competition”, although details are under wraps as the agency is evaluating proposals.

The International Space Station is extended to 2024. That news was made public in early January, but technically speaking that is a part of the fiscal 2015 budget.

There’s far more to the budget that could be covered in a single news article, and it should be noted there was an entire aviation component as well. We encourage you to check out the budget documents below for the full story so far.

2015 budget presentation

– 2015 budget overview

2015 budget overall fact sheet

2015 budget category fact sheets (science, aeronautics research, space technology, etc.)

60 Billion Habitable Planets in the Milky Way Alone? Astronomers say Yes!

A new study suggests that the number of habitable exoplanets within the Milky Way alone may reach 60 billion.

Previous research performed by a team at Harvard University suggested that there is one Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of each red dwarf star. But researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University have now extended the habitable zone and doubled this estimate.

The research team, lead by Dr. Jun Yang considered one more variable in their calculations: cloud cover. Most exoplanets are tidally locked to their host stars – one hemisphere continually faces the star, while one continuously faces away. These tidally locked planets have a permanent dayside and a permanent nightside.

One would expect the temperature gradient between the two to be very high, as the dayside is continuously receiving stellar flux, while the nightside is always in darkness. Computer simulations that take into account cloud cover show that this is not the case.

The dayside is covered by clouds, which lead to a “stabilizing cloud feedback” on climate.  It has a higher cloud albedo (more light is reflected off the clouds) and a lower greenhouse effect. The presence of clouds actually causes the dayside to be much cooler than expected.

“Tidally locked planets have low enough surface temperatures to be habitable,” explains Jang in his recently published paper. Cloud cover is so effective it even extends the habitable zone to twice the stellar flux. Planets twice as close to their host star are still cool enough to be habitable.

But these new statistics do not apply to just a few stars. Red dwarfs “represent about ¾ of the stars in the galaxy, so it applies to a huge number of planets,” Dr. Abbot, co-author on the paper, told Universe Today. It doubles the number of planets previously thought habitable throughout the entire galaxy.

Not only is the habitable zone around red dwarfs much larger, red dwarfs also live for much longer periods of time. In fact, the Universe is not old enough for any of these long-living stars to have died yet. This gives life the amount of time necessary to form. After all, it took human beings 4.5 billions years to appear on Earth.

Another study we reported on earlier also revised and extrapolated the habitable zone around red dwarf stars.

Future observations will verify this model by measuring the cloud temperatures. On the dayside, we will only be able to see the high cool clouds. A planet resembling this model will therefore look very cold on the dayside. In fact, “a planet that does show the cloud feedback will look hotter on the nightside than the dayside,” explains Abbot.

This effect will be testable with the James Webb Space Telescope.  All in all, the Milky Way is likely to be teeming with life.

The results will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters (preprint available here).

WISE Nabs the Closest Brown Dwarfs Yet Discovered

We now know our stellar neighbors just a little better, and a new discovery may help tell us how common brown dwarfs are in our region of the galaxy. Early this week, researchers at Pennsylvania State University announced the discovery of a binary brown dwarf system. With a parallax measurement of just under 0.5”, this pair is only 6.5 light years distant making it the third closest system to our own and the closest example of the sub-stellar class of objects known as brown dwarfs yet discovered.

Named WISE J104915.57-531906, the system was identified by analysis of multi-epoch astrometry carried out by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The discovery was made by associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds Kevin Luhman. The system’s binary nature and follow up observations were confirmed by spectroscopic analysis carried out by the Gemini Observatory’s Multi-Object Spectrographs (GMOS).

Animation showing the motion of WISE 1049-5319 across the All-WISE, 2MASS & Sloan Digital Sky Survyies from 1978 to 2010. (Credit: NASA/STScI/JPL/IPAC/University of Massachusetts.)
Animation showing the motion of WISE 1049-5319 across the All-WISE, 2MASS & Sloan Digital Sky Surveys from 1978 to 2010. (Credit: NASA/STScI/JPL/IPAC/University of Massachusetts.)

This find is also the closest stellar system discovered to our own solar system since the discovery of Barnard’s star by astronomer E.E. Barnard in 1916. Incidentally, Barnard’s star was the center of many spurious and controversial claims of extrasolar planet discoveries in the mid-20th century. Barnard’s star is 6 light years distant, and the closest star system to our own is Alpha Centauri measured to be 4.4 light years distant in 1839. In 1915, the Alpha Centauri system was determined to have a faint companion now known as Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years distant. The Alpha Centauri system also made headlines last year with the discovery of the closest known exoplanet to Earth. WISE 1506+7027 is the closest brown dwarf to our solar system yet discovered. This also breaks the extended the All-WISE survey’s own previous record of the closest brown dwarf released in 2011, WISE 1506+7027 at 11.1 light years distant.

When looking for nearby stellar suspects, astronomers search for stars displaying a high proper motion across the sky. The very first parallax measurement of 11 light years distant was obtained by Friedrich Bessel for the star 61 Cygni in 1838. 61 Cygni was known as “Piazzi’s Flying Star” for its high 4.2” proper motion across the sky. To giving you an idea of just how tiny an arc second is, a Full Moon is about 1800” in diameter. With a proper motion of just under 3” per year, it would take WISE 1049-5319 over 600 years to cross the same apparent distance in the sky as viewed from the Earth!

An artist's conception of looking back at Sol from the binary brown dwarf system WISE 1049-5319, 6.5 light years distant. (Credit: Janella Williams, Penn State University).
An artist’s conception of looking back at Sol from the binary brown dwarf system WISE 1049-5319, 6.5 light years distant. (Credit: Janella Williams, Penn State University).

“Based on how this star system was moving in images from the WISE survey, I was able to extrapolate back in time to predict where it should have been located in older surveys,” stated Luhman. And sure enough, the brown dwarf was there in the Deep Near-Infrared Survey of the Southern Sky (DENIS), the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) and the Sloan Digitized Sky Survey (SDSS) spanning a period from 1978 to 1999. Interestingly, Luhman also points out in the original paper that the pair’s close proximity to the star rich region of galactic plane in the constellation Vela deep in the southern hemisphere sky is most likely the reason why they were missed in previous surveys.

The discovery of the binary nature of the pair was also “an unexpected bonus,” Luhman said. “The sharp images from Gemini also revealed that the object actually was not just one, but a pair of brown dwarfs orbiting each other.” This find of a second brown dwarf companion will go a long way towards pinning down the mass of the objects. With an apparent separation of 1.5”, the physical separation of the pair is 3 astronomical units (1 AU= the Earth-Sun distance) in a 25 year orbit.

Size comparison of stellar vs substellar objects. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).
Size comparison of stellar vs substellar objects. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).

Brown dwarfs are sub-stellar objects with masses too low (below ~75 Jupiter masses) to sustain the traditional fusion of hydrogen into helium via the full proton-proton chain process. Instead, objects over 13 Jupiter masses begin the first portion of the process by generating heat via deuterium fusion. Brown dwarfs are thus only visible in the infrared, and run a spectral class of M (hottest), L, T, and Y (coolest). Interestingly, WISE 1049-5319 is suspected to be on the transition line between an L and T-class brown dwarf. To date, over 600 L-type brown dwarfs have been identified, primarily by the aforementioned SDSS, 2MASS & DENIS infrared surveys.

General location of WISE 1049-5319 in the constellation Vela. Note its proximity to the galactic plane. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
General location of WISE 1049-5319 in the constellation Vela. Note its proximity to the galactic plane. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

This discovery and others like it may go a long ways towards telling us how common brown dwarfs are in our region of the galaxy. Faint and hard to detect, we’re just now getting a sampling thanks to surveys such as WISE and 2MASS. The James Webb Space Telescope will do work in the infrared as well, possibly extending these results. Interestingly, Luhman notes in an interview with Universe Today that the potential still exists for the  discovery of a brown dwarf closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri. “No published study of the data from WISE or any other survey has ruled out this possibility… WISE is much more capable of doing this than any previous survey, but the necessary analysis would be fairly complex and time consuming. It’s easier to find something than to rule out its existence.” Said Luhman. Note that we’re talking a nearby brown dwarf that isn’t gravitationally bound to the Sun… this discussion is separate from such hypothetical solar companions as Nemesis and Tyche…and Nibiru conspiracy theorists need not apply!

The WISE 1049-5319 system is also a prime target in the search for nearby extra-solar planets.  “Because brown dwarfs have very low masses, they exhibit larger reflex motions due to orbiting planets than more massive stars, and those larger reflex motions will be easier to detect.” Luhman told Universe Today. Said radial surveys for exoplanets would also be carried out in the IR band, and brown dwarfs also have the added bonus of not swamping out unseen planetary companions in the visible spectrum.

Congrats to Mr. Luhman and the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds on the discovery. You just never know what’s lying around in your own stellar backyard!

Read this original discovery paper here.

Why Dying Stars Might be a Good Place to Look for Life

We’ve currently found 867 different exoplanets, but have yet to definitely determine if one of those harbors life. How will astronomers make that determination? They’ll look at things such as its composition, orbital properties, atmosphere, and potential chemical interactions. While oxygen is relatively abundant in the Universe, finding it in the atmosphere of a distant planet could point to its habitability because its presence – in large quantities — would signal the likely presence of life.

But where to look first? A new study finds that we could detect oxygen in the atmosphere of a habitable planet orbiting a white dwarf – a star that is in the process of dying — much more easily than for an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star.

“In the quest for extraterrestrial biological signatures, the first stars we study should be white dwarfs,” said Avi Loeb, theorist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation.

Loeb and his colleague Dan Maoz from Tel Aviv University estimate that a survey of the 500 closest white dwarfs could spot one or more habitable Earths.

Potential habitable exoplanets, as of Feb. 18, 2013. Credit: The Planetary Habitability Labratory at UPR/Arecibo.
Potential habitable exoplanets, as of Feb. 18, 2013. Credit: The Planetary Habitability Labratory at UPR/Arecibo.

A white dwarf is what stars like the Sun become after they have exhausted their nuclear fuel. It puffs off its outer layers, leaving behind a hot core which can be about the size of Earth. It slowly cools and fades over time, but it can retain heat long enough to warm a nearby world for billions of years.

Currently, most planets that we’ve found orbit close to their parent star, since astronomers find planets using astrometry by the gravitational influence the planet has on the star, causing it to wobble ever so slightly. Massive planets close to the star have the biggest effect and so are the easiest to detect.

Using the photometry, astronomers see a dip in the amount of light a star gives off when a planet passes in front of the star. Since a white dwarf is about the same size as Earth, an Earth-sized planet would block a large fraction of its light and create an obvious signal. Photometry, or the transit method, has proven the best way to find exoplanets.

A white dwarf is much smaller and fainter than the Sun, and a planet would have to be much closer in to be habitable with liquid water on its surface, so that should make planets around a white dwarf star easier to detect. A habitable planet would circle the white dwarf once every 10 hours at a distance of about a million miles.

More importantly, we can only study the atmospheres of transiting planets. When the white dwarf’s light shines through the ring of air that surrounds the planet’s silhouetted disk, the atmosphere absorbs some starlight. This leaves chemical fingerprints showing whether that air contains water vapor, or even signatures of life, such as oxygen.

But there’s a caveat: Before a star becomes a white dwarf it swells into a red giant, engulfing and destroying any nearby planets. Therefore, a planet would have to arrive in the habitable zone after the star evolved into a white dwarf. Either it would migrate towards the star from a more distant orbit or be a new planet formed from leftover dust and gas.

However, we have yet to find a exoplanet around a white dwarf, even though Loeb and Moaz say the abundance of heavy elements on the surface of white dwarfs suggests that a significant fraction of them have rocky planets.

We need a better eye in the sky to find planets around white dwarfs, say Loeb and Maoz, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch by the end of this decade, promises to sniff out the gases of these alien worlds.

Loeb and Maoz created a synthetic spectrum, replicating what JWST would see if it examined a habitable planet orbiting a white dwarf. They found that both oxygen and water vapor would be detectable with only a few hours of total observation time.

“JWST offers the best hope of finding an inhabited planet in the near future,” said Maoz.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
The James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Recent research by CfA astronomers Courtney Dressing and David Charbonneau showed that the closest habitable planet is likely to orbit a red dwarf star (a cool, low-mass star undergoing nuclear fusion). Since a red dwarf, although smaller and fainter than the Sun, is much larger and brighter than a white dwarf, its glare would overwhelm the faint signal from an orbiting planet’s atmosphere. JWST would have to observe hundreds of hours of transits to have any hope of analyzing the atmosphere’s composition.

“Although the closest habitable planet might orbit a red dwarf star, the closest one we can easily prove to be life-bearing might orbit a white dwarf,” said Loeb.

Read their paper here.

Source: CfA

Canada Unveils its Contributions to the JWST

Today Canada’s Minister of Industry Christian Paradis unveiled the technologies that comprise Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, a next-generation infrared observatory that’s seen as the successor to Hubble.


CSA will provide JWST with a two-in-one instrument: a Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Both were designed, built and tested by COM DEV International in Ottawa and Cambridge, Ontario, with technical contributions from the Université de Montréal and the National Research Council Canada.

Read: Watch the James Webb Being Built via “Webb-Cam”

“Canada has a proud legacy in space and we are once again pushing the frontier of what is possible. These two outstanding technologies are perfect examples of how Canada has secured its world-class reputation. Our Government is committed to ensuring the long-term competitiveness and prosperity of such a vital economic sector.”
– The Honourable Christian Paradis

The FGS consists of two identical cameras that are critical to Webb’s ability to “see.” Their images will allow the telescope to determine its position, locate its celestial targets, and remain pointed to collect high-quality data. The FGS will guide the telescope with incredible precision, with an accuracy of one millionth of a degree.

The NIRISS will have unique capabilities for finding the earliest and most distant objects in the Universe’s history. It will also peer through the glare of nearby young stars to unveil new Jupiter-like exoplanets. It will have the capability of detecting the thin atmosphere of small, habitable, earth-like planets and determine its chemical composition to seek water vapour, carbon dioxide and other potential biomarkers such as methane and oxygen.

The FGS/NIRISS instruments can be seen in this development video from CSA:

“Imagine the challenge at hand here: to design and deliver technology capable of unprecedented levels of precision to conduct breakthrough science on board the largest, most complex and most powerful telescope ever built,” said Steve MacLean, President of the CSA. “The Webb telescope will be located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth— too far to be serviced by astronauts like Hubble was. At that distance, the technology simply has to work. This is the outstanding level of excellence Canadians are capable of achieving. It’s something for all of us to be proud of.”

The instruments will be delivered to NASA on July 30.

Read more on the CSA press release here, and learn more about the James Webb here.

Images/video: CSA and NASA

Build a NASA Satellite, Study the Universe Online

Thanks to a new online game from NASA, everyone can be an engineer or astronomer and build a satellite to uncover planets orbiting distant stars, unravel the secrets of a black hole, or tease out the faint glow of the early Universe.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, launched the new game, called “Build it Yourself: Satellite!” The Flash-based game, a learning tool for students and adults, is just a click away at http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/build.html.

“It’s fun to play and users will learn something about satellite instrumentation and optics, and how they are used to make scientific discoveries, as well about a large range of different existing astronomical missions,” said Maggie Masetti, NASA webmaster who authored and created the game. Artwork for the game is by Susan Lin and programmed by Kent deVillafranca.

Players begin by choosing what science their satellite will study; whether it’s black holes, star formation, early Universe, galaxies, or explanets. Then online engineers will decide the wavelengths – optical, infrared, ultraviolet – that their spacecraft will study. Finally, a choice must be made on the instruments and optics the mission will carry. Along the way, information bubbles explain each of the pieces you choose. After “launch,” the player sees what the satellite might look like and learn what real mission has data similar to what they created. Along the way, players learn about the different instruments added to various space missions and see the cosmic discoveries they might make.

Players can create a wide-range of satellites from small X-ray telescopes like NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, launched in 1995, to large orbiting telescopes like the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Play it right, putting the right pieces together, and you can assemble a satellite superior to NASA’s huge, multi-mirrored James Webb Space Telescope, the original inspiration for the game. The Webb telescope currently is being built and will launch in 2018. With the Webb, scientists will be able to study the Universe nearly to the time of the Big Bang with infrared instruments.

Play the game at: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/build.html

Find out more information about the James Webb Space Telescope here

Image caption: Front page of the Webb telescope on-line game, “Build It Yourself: Satellite!” Credit: NASA, M.Masetti

Good and Bad News Comes With NASA’s 2012 Budget

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On November 14, President Obama signed an Appropriations bill that solidified NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2012. The space agency will get $17.8 billion. That’s $648 million less than last year’s funding and $924 million below what the President had asked for. But it’s still better than the $16.8 billion proposed earlier this year by the House of Representatives.

To most people, $17.8 billion is a huge amount of money. And it absolutely is, but not when you’re  NASA and have multiple programs and missions to fund. So where does it all go?

The bill highlights three major items when it comes to NASA’s budget. Of its total funding, $3.8 billion is set aside for Space Exploration. This includes research and development of the the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System, hopefully keeping both programs on schedule.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Credit: NASA.

$4.2 billion has been allocated for Space Operations. This includes funds to tie up the loose ends of the Space Shuttle program, the end of which is expected to save more than $1 billion. The Space Operations budget, however, is $1.3 billion below last year’s level.

Coming to a very popular topic, the bill dedicates $5.1 billion to NASA Science Programs, a division that includes the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST has garnered much attention this year, usually for being badly behind schedule and cripplingly over budget. Of the funding dedicated to Science Programs, $530 million is directed to the JWST project.

There’s a little problem hidden in this item in the bill. The $5.1 billion is just over the $150 million funding the Science Programs got last year. With $380 million on top of that increased promised to the JWST, where’s the money coming from? Other programs. As the bill says, “the agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by making commensurate reductions in other programs.” NASA will get the money for the telescope the only place it can – by cutting other programs.

This means potential major cuts to planetary programs since NASA’s manned program traditionally gets the most money. And understandably so. Aside from the real space enthusiasts who track robotic missions with gusto, an astronaut provides a great human link to space for the everyman. So even without an active manned program, it’s highly unlikely NASA will find the funds for the JWST program in its manned budget.

Planetary missions will likely take the hit. And a funding cut now could seriously affect NASA’s long range plans, such as its planned missions to Mars through 2020. Prospective missions to Europa will face difficulties too, a real shame since liquid water was recently discovered under the icy surface of that Jovian moon.

Unfortunately, NASA’s budget just can’t match its goals. For the near future, NASA will have to do what it can with what it’s got. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in reference to the budget the House of Representatives originally proposed in February, it “requires us to live within our means so we can invest in our future.” Let’s all hope for some wise investing on NASA’s part.

Sources: “Summary: Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations “Mini-Bus”, “2012 Budget is Set” from the Planetary Society.