A New Technique for “Seeing” Exoplanet Surfaces Based on the Content of their Atmospheres

In November of 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will make its long-awaited journey to space. This next-generation observatory will observe the cosmos using its advanced infrared suite and reveal many never-before-seen things. By 2024, it will be joined the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST), the successor to the Hubble mission that will have 100 times Hubble’s field of view and faster observing time.

These instruments will make huge contributions to many fields of research, not the least of which is the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets. But even with their advanced optics and capabilities, these missions will not be able to examine the surfaces of exoplanets in any detail. However, a team of the UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and the Space Science Institute (SSI) have developed the next best thing: a tool for detecting an exoplanet surface without directly seeing it.

Continue reading “A New Technique for “Seeing” Exoplanet Surfaces Based on the Content of their Atmospheres”

Another Delay for Webb, But This Time it’s Because of the Rocket, Not the Telescope

The Ariane5 lifting off from Kourou in French Guiana. Image: ESA/Arianespace.

Officials from NASA and ESA this acknowledged the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will very likely be delayed from the end of October to at least mid-November, 2021. As we reported last month, the usually reliable Ariane 5 has experienced problems on two previous launches where unexpected vehicle accelerations occurred when the fairing separated from the rocket. The fairing is the nose cone used to protect a spacecraft payload during launch and acceleration through Earth’s atmosphere.

“Indeed, there was an anomaly which has been mentioned recently in the media,” said Daniel de Chambure, acting head of Ariane 5 adaptations, during a media briefing on JWST. “The origin of the problem has been found; corrective actions have been taken.”

Continue reading “Another Delay for Webb, But This Time it’s Because of the Rocket, Not the Telescope”

Concerns About James Webb’s Ariane 5 Rocket Might Push the Launch Back

A new report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that the launch of the long-awaited, highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will very likely be delayed due to an anomaly identified in the Ariane 5 launch vehicle.  Launch for JWST is currently scheduled for October 31, 2021, but that date could slip by at least a couple of weeks.  

Continue reading “Concerns About James Webb’s Ariane 5 Rocket Might Push the Launch Back”

Webb Fully Unfurls for the Last Time on Earth. The Next Time Will Be in Space

The primary mirror of the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was opened for the last time on Earth before the launch of the observatory, currently scheduled for October 31, 2021.

During some of the final checkouts before the telescope heads to space, engineers commanded the 18 hexagonal mirrors to fully expand and lock into place, just like they will do once the Webb telescope reaches its destination in space.  

Continue reading “Webb Fully Unfurls for the Last Time on Earth. The Next Time Will Be in Space”

Dark Matter Could Change the Temperature of Exoplanets, Allowing us to Detect it

Ah, dark matter, you continue to allude us. The stuff is incredibly difficult to study. It doesn’t interact with light, so our evidence of it is based upon its gravitational effects on light and visible matter. And the biggest difficulty is that we still don’t know what it is. Efforts to detect dark matter directly have come up empty, as have indirect methods such as looking for evidence of dark matter through things such as excess gamma-rays in the Milky Way. But astronomers continue to think up new ways to detect the stuff, such as a recent study published in Physical Review Letters.

Continue reading “Dark Matter Could Change the Temperature of Exoplanets, Allowing us to Detect it”

If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There

It is no exaggeration to say that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded in recent decades. To date, 4,375 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,247 systems, with another 5,856 candidates awaiting confirmation. In recent years, exoplanet studies have started to transition from the process of discovery to one of characterization. This process is expected to accelerate once next-generation telescopes become operational.

As a result, astrobiologists are working to create comprehensive lists of potential “biosignatures,” which refers to chemical compounds and processes that are associated with life (oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, etc.) But according to new research by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), another potential biosignature we should be on the lookout for is a hydrocarbon called isoprene (C5H8).

Continue reading “If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There”

What Are Extrasolar Planets?

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the Universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.

And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the Universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (over 4000 and counting!)

Continue reading “What Are Extrasolar Planets?”

A Sunlike Star Found With Four (No, Five!) Exoplanets Orbiting It

In just nine months (October 31st, 2021), NASA’s long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally be launched to space. Once operational, this next-generation observatory will use its powerful infrared imaging capabilities to study all kinds of cosmological phenomena. It will also be essential to the characterization of extrasolar planets and their atmospheres to see if any are habitable.

In anticipation of this, astronomers have been designating exoplanets as viable candidates for follow-up studies. Using data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an international team led by MIT researchers discovered four new exoplanets orbiting a Sun-like star about 200 light-years from Earth. This system could be an ideal place for James Webb to spot a habitable planet.

Continue reading “A Sunlike Star Found With Four (No, Five!) Exoplanets Orbiting It”

Astronomers Find a Planet Like Jupiter, but It Doesn’t Have any Clouds

Can you picture Jupiter without any observable clouds or haze? It isn’t easy since Jupiter’s latitudinal cloud bands and its Great Red Spot are iconic visual features in our Solar System. Those features are caused by upswelling and descending gas, mostly ammonia. After Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s cloud forms are probably the most recognizable feature in the Solar System.

Now astronomers with the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) have found a planet similar in mass to Jupiter, but with a cloud-free atmosphere.

Continue reading “Astronomers Find a Planet Like Jupiter, but It Doesn’t Have any Clouds”

James Webb Unfolds Sunshield

It’s almost time.

Soon the James Webb Space Telescope will be on its way to the Sun/Earth L2 Lagrange point and will begin its at least 5-year science mission. Really, it’s going to happen.

Despite several delays since the program began in 1996 and a budget that has exceeded the original by several billion dollars, the launch of the JWST seems close at hand. That is if you consider almost a year away (the new planned launch date is October 31, 2021) to be close.

Continue reading “James Webb Unfolds Sunshield”