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”

If a Planet Has a Lot of Methane in its Atmosphere, Life is the Most Likely Cause

The ultra-powerful James Webb Space Telescope will launch soon. Once it’s deployed, and in position at the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 2, it’ll begin work. One of its jobs is to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets and look for biosignatures. It should be simple, right? Just scan the atmosphere until you find oxygen, then close your laptop and head to the pub: Fanfare, confetti, Nobel prize.

Of course, Universe Today readers know it’s more complicated than that. Much more complicated.

In fact, the presence of oxygen is not necessarily reliable. It’s methane that can send a stronger signal indicating the presence of life.

Continue reading “If a Planet Has a Lot of Methane in its Atmosphere, Life is the Most Likely Cause”

The Color of Habitable Worlds

“This is where we live. On a Blue Dot.” said Carl Sagan when the now famous Pale Blue Dot photo was released. Captured February 14, 1990 by the Voyager 1 Space Probe, Pale Blue Dot remains the most distant photograph of the Earth ever taken at 6 billion kilometers. This past February marked the 30th anniversary of Pale Blue Dot which was reprocessed using modern digital photo techniques creating an even more remarkable image.

This updated version of the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft uses modern image-processing software and techniques to revisit the well-known Voyager view while attempting to respect the original data and intent of those who planned the images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Whether Pale Blue Dot, or Blue Marble, our planet is associated with the color blue. As Earth is the only inhabited world we know of, it might stand to reason that other habitable planets in space will also be blue. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Continue reading “The Color of Habitable Worlds”

James Webb is Working Perfectly! On the Ground. Next Trick: Doing it From Space

Image: James Webb Space Telescope

When it launches next year, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the largest, most complex, and most sophisticated observatory ever sent into space. Because of this, the mission has been delayed multiple times as ground crews were forced to put the telescope through a lengthy series of additional tests. All of these are to make sure that the JWST will survive and function in the vacuum and extreme temperature environment of space.

Recently, the testing teams conducted the critical “Ground Segment Test,” where the fully-assembled observatory was powered up and to see how it would respond to commands in space. These commands were issued from its Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. Having passed this latest milestone, the JWST is now on track for its scheduled launch next year in October.

Continue reading “James Webb is Working Perfectly! On the Ground. Next Trick: Doing it From Space”

James Webb Completes a Comprehensive Systems Test for the First Time

In 1996, NASA began working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a next-generation infrared observatory that would be a total game-changer. And next year, after multiple delays, cost overruns, and exhaustive testing, the observatory will finally take to space. Despite an additional delay forced by the outbreak of COVID-19, NASA recently announced that it is targeting Oct. 31st, 2021, as the launch date.

In other good news, teams at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center took advantage of the fact that the JWST is now fully-assembled to conduct the highly-critical software and electrical analysis known as the Comprehensive Systems Test (CST). This was the first time that a full systems-evaluation was conducted on the fully-assembled vehicle, and will help ensure that the JWST will function in space when the time comes!

Continue reading “James Webb Completes a Comprehensive Systems Test for the First Time”

Well. It Looks Like James Webb is Getting Delayed Again, but it Should Still Launch in 2021

This is probably one of the least surprising announcements to come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

During a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, made an announcement. He said there’s no way the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will meet its target launch date of March 2021.

Already on a tight timeline, work on the telescope has slowed during the pandemic.

Continue reading “Well. It Looks Like James Webb is Getting Delayed Again, but it Should Still Launch in 2021”