How Will Clouds Obscure the View of Exoplanet Surfaces?

In 2021, NASA’s next-generation observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will take to space. Once operational, this flagship mission will pick up where other space telescopes – like Hubble, Kepler, and Spitzer – left off. This means that in addition to investigating some of the greatest cosmic mysteries, it will also search for potentially habitable exoplanets and attempt to characterize their atmospheres.

This is part of what sets the JWST apart from its predecessors. Between its high sensitivity and infrared imaging capabilities, it will be able to gather data on exoplanet atmospheres like never before. However, as a NASA-supported study recently showed, planets that have dense atmospheres might also have extensive cloud cover, which could complicate attempts to gather some of the most important data of all.

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It Looks Like James Webb’s Launch Date is Going to Slip to July 2021

Put “James Webb Telescope launch” into your search engine and you’ll be flooded with links, some reaching back to the ‘scope’s first proposed launch date in 2010. The delayed launch of the space telescope is a running theme in the space community, even though we all know it’s going to be worth the wait. So nobody will be surprised by this latest development in the story of the world’s most anticipated telescope.

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This Simulation Shows what We’ll be Able to See with WFIRST

When it takes to space in 2025, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will be the most powerful observatory ever deployed, succeeding the venerable Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Relying on a unique combination of high resolution with a wide field of view, WFIRST will be able to capture the equivalent of 100 Hubble-quality images with a single shot and survey the night sky with 1,000 times the speed.

In preparation for this momentous event, astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have been running simulations to demonstrate what the WFIRST will be able to see so they can plan their observations. To give viewers a preview of what this would look like, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has shared a video that simulates the WFIRST conducting a survey of the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy (M31).

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Building Space Telescopes… In Space

Concept of an in-space assembled telescope. Credit: NASA

When it comes to telescopes, bigger is better. That’s true down here on Earth, and it’s especially true out in space. As astronomers and engineers design the next generation of giant space telescopes, they’re running up against the limits of current launch providers. There are only so many ways you can fold a huge telescope to get it to fit inside a 5-meter launch fairing.

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Spacecraft Gyroscopes And Reaction Wheels. You Can Never Have Enough

On January 8, 2019, the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope suspended operations due to a hardware problem. Image Credit: NASA/STScI.

It’s amazing to think there are telescopes up in space, right now, directing their gaze at distant objects for hours, days and even weeks. Providing a point of view so stable and accurate that we can learn details about galaxies, exoplanets and more.

And then, when the time is up, the spacecraft can shift its gaze in another direction. All without the use of fuel.

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In Order to Reveal Planets Around Another star, a Starshade Needs to Fly 40,000 km Away from a Telescope, Aligned Within Only 1 Meter

Artist's concept of the prototype starshade, a giant structure designed to block the glare of stars so that future space telescopes can take pictures of planets. Credit: NASA/JPL

To assist with future efforts to locate and study exoplanets, engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – in conjunction with the Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) – are working to create Starshade. Once deployed, this revolutionary spacecraft will help next-generation telescopes by blocking out the obscuring light coming from distant stars so exoplanets can be imaged directly.

While this may sound pretty straightforward, the Starshade will also need to engage in some serious formation flying in order to do its job effectively. That was the conclusion of the reached by the Starshade Technology Development team (aka. S5) Milestone 4 report – which is available through the ExEP website. As the report stated, Starshade will need to be perfectly aligned with space telescopes, even at extreme distances.

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Phew! James Webb passes its final thermal vacuum test. Still on track for 2021

Illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA

Once it is deployed to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most sophisticated and advanced space telescope in operation. Carrying on in the tradition of Hubble, Kepler, and Spitzer, the JWST will use its advanced suite of infrared imaging capabilities to study distant exoplanets, learn more about the Solar System, and study the earliest galaxies in the Universe.

After numerous delays, NASA announced last summer that the much-anticipated JWST would be ready to launch by 2021. And in what is admittedly a very nice change of pace, NASA recently indicated that this is still a go! According to their latest update, the JWST has just completed its final vacuum test and is on track for launch in March of 2021.

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What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See? A Whole Bunch of Dust, That’s What

When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.

That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.

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It’s Over For Kepler. The Most Successful Planet Hunter Ever Built is Finally out of Fuel and Has Just Been Shut Down.

NASA's Kepler space telescope, shown in this artist's concept, revealed that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA

It’s been quite a tumultuous time for space telescopes lately! Less than a month ago, the Hubble Space Telescope went into safe mode after experiencing a mechanical failure with one of its gyroscopes (which has since been remedied). Shortly thereafter, the Chandra X-ray telescope went into safe mode as well, and for similar reasons. After three days, it’s operations team managed to get it back in working order as well.

And now, after nine years of service, NASA has officially announced that the Kepler Space Telescope will be retiring. With no fuel remaining to conduct its science observations, NASA has decided to leave the telescope in its current safe orbit (well away from Earth). Far from being a sad occasion, Kepler’s retirement is an opportunity to reflect upon the immense accomplishments of this telescope and how it revolutionized the study of exoplanets.

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