Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

The search for exoplanets is heating up, thanks to the deployment of space telescopes like Kepler and the development of new observation methods. In fact, over 1800 exoplanets have been discovered since the 1980s, with 850 discovered just last year. That’s quite the rate of progress, and Earth’s scientists have no intention of slowing down!

Hot on the heels of the Kepler mission and the ESA’s deployment of the Gaia space observatory last year, NASA is getting ready to launch TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). And to provide the launch services, NASA has turned to one of its favorite commercial space service providers – SpaceX.

The launch will take place in August 2017 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it will be placed aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 – a heavier version of the v 1.0 developed in 2013. Although NASA has contracted SpaceX to perform multiple cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, this will be only the second time that SpaceX has assisted the agency with the launch of a science satellite.

This past September, NASA also signed a lucrative contract with SpaceX worth $2.6 billion to fly astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. As part of the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft were selected by NASA to help restore indigenous launch capability to the US.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope, the space observatory scheduled for launch in 2018. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The total cost for TESS is estimated at approximately $87 million, which will include launch services, payload integration, and tracking and maintenance of the spacecraft throughout the course of its three year mission.

As for the mission itself, that has been the focus of attention for many years. Since it was deployed in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has yielded more and more data on distant planets, many of which are Earth-like and potentially habitable. But in 2013, two of four reaction wheels on Kepler failed and the telescope has lost its ability to precisely point toward stars. Even though it is now doing a modified mission to hunt for exoplanets, NASA and exoplanet enthusiasts have been excited by the prospect of sending up another exoplanet hunter, one which is even more ideally suited to the task.

Once deployed, TESS will spend the next three years scanning the nearest and brightest stars in our galaxy, looking for possible signs of transiting exoplanets. This will involve scanning nearby stars for what is known as a “light curve”, a phenomenon where the visual brightness of a star drops slightly due to the passage of a planet between the star and its observer.

By measuring the rate at which the star dims, scientists are able to estimate the size of the planet passing in front of it. Combined with measurements the star’s radial velocity, they are also able to determine the density and physical structure of the planet. Though it has some drawbacks, such as the fact that stars rarely pass directly in front of their host stars, it remains the most effective means of observing exoplanets to date.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection:   radial velocity   transit   timing   direct imaging   microlensing. Image Credit: Public domain
Number of extrasolar planet discoveries on up to Sept. 2014, with colors indicating method of detection. Blue: radial velocity; Green: transit; Yellow: timing, Red: direct imaging; Orange: microlensing. Image Credit: Alderon/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, as of 2014, this method became the most widely used for determining the presence of exoplanets beyond our Solar System. Compared to other methods – such as measuring a star’s radial velocity, direct imaging, the timing method, and microlensing – more planets have been detected using the transit method than all the other methods combined.

In addition to being able to spot planets by the comparatively simple method of measuring their light curve, the transit method also makes it possible to study the atmosphere of a transiting planet. Combined with the technique of measuring the parent star’s radial velocity, scientists are also able to measure a planet’s mass, density, and physical characteristics.

With TESS, it will be possible to study the mass, size, density and orbit of exoplanets. In the course of its three-year mission, TESS will be looking specifically for Earth-like and super-Earth candidates that exist within their parent star’s habitable zone.

This information will then be passed on to Earth-based telescopes and the James Webb Space Telescope – which will be launched in 2018 by NASA with assistance from the European and Canadian Space Agencies – for detailed characterization.

The TESS Mission is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – who developed it with seed funding from Google – and is overseen by the Explorers Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Further Reading: NASA, SpaceX

 

NASA’s Next Exoplanet Hunter Moves Into Development

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

NASA’s ongoing hunt for exoplanets has entered a new phase as NASA officially confirmed that the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is moving into the development phase. This marks a significant step for the TESS mission, which will search the entire sky for planets outside our solar system (a.k.a. exoplanets). Designed as the first all-sky survey, TESS will spend two years of an overall three-year mission searching both hemispheres of the sky for nearby exoplanets.

Previous sky surveys with ground-based telescopes have mainly picked out giant exoplanets. In contrast, TESS will examine a large number of small planets around the very brightest stars in the sky. TESS will then record the nearest and brightest main sequence stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will forever be the most favorable targets for detailed investigations. During the third year of the TESS mission, ground-based astronomical observatories will continue monitoring exoplanets identified by the TESS spacecraft.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for the search of planets outside our solar system,” said Mark Sistilli, the TESS program executive from NASA Headquarters, Washington. “We got the green light to start building what is going to be a spacecraft that could change what we think we know about exoplanets.”

“During its first two years in orbit, the TESS spacecraft will concentrate its gaze on several hundred thousand specially chosen stars, looking for small dips in their light caused by orbiting planets passing between their host star and us,” said TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology..

Artistic representations of the only known planets around other stars (exoplanets) with any possibility to support life as we know it. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.
Artistic representations of known exoplanets with any possibility to support life. Image Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.

All in all, TESS is expected to find more than 5,000 exoplanet candidates, including 50 Earth-sized planets. It will also find a wide array of exoplanet types, ranging from small, rocky planets to gas giants. Some of these planets could be the right sizes, and orbit at the correct distances from their stars, to potentially support life.

“The most exciting part of the search for planets outside our solar system is the identification of ‘earthlike’ planets with rocky surfaces and liquid water as well as temperatures and atmospheric constituents that appear hospitable to life,” said TESS Project Manager Jeff Volosin at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Although these planets are small and harder to detect from so far away, this is exactly the type of world that the TESS mission will focus on identifying.”

Now that NASA has confirmed the development of TESS, the next step is the Critical Design Review, which is scheduled to take place in 2015. This would clear the mission to build the necessary flight hardware for its proposed launch in 2017.

“After spending the past year building the team and honing the design, it is incredibly exciting to be approved to move forward toward implementing NASA’s newest exoplanet hunting mission,” Volosin said.

TESS is designed to complement several other critical missions in the search for life on other planets. Once TESS finds nearby exoplanets to study and determines their sizes, ground-based observatories and other NASA missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope, would make follow-up observations on the most promising candidates to determine their density and other key properties.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
The James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

By figuring out a planet’s characteristics, like its atmospheric conditions, scientists could determine whether the targeted planet has a habitable environment.

“TESS should discover thousands of new exoplanets within two hundred light years of Earth,” Ricker said. “Most of these will be orbiting bright stars, making them ideal targets for characterization observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”

“The Webb telescope and other teams will focus on understanding the atmospheres and surfaces of these distant worlds, and someday, hopefully identify the first signs of life outside of our solar system,” Volosin said.

TESS will use four cameras to study sections of the sky’s north and south hemispheres, looking for exoplanets. The cameras would cover about 90 percent of the sky by the end of the mission.

This makes TESS an ideal follow-up to the Kepler mission, which searches for exoplanets in a fixed area of the sky. Because the TESS mission surveys the entire sky, TESS is expected to find exoplanets much closer to Earth, making them easier for further study.

In addition, Ricker said TESS would provide precision, full-frame images for more than 20 million bright stars and galaxies.

“This unique new data will comprise a treasure trove for astronomers throughout the world for many decades to come,” Ricker said.

Now that TESS is cleared to move into the next development stage, it can continue towards its goal of being a key part of NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

“I’m still hopeful that in my lifetime, we will discover the existence of life outside of our solar system and I’m excited to be part of a NASA mission that serves as a key stepping stone in that search,” Volosin said.

Further Reading: NASA

Moons of Confusion: Why Finding Extraterrestrial Life may be Harder than we Thought

Astronomers and planetary scientists thought they knew how to find evidence of life on planets beyond our Solar System. But, a new study indicates that the moons of extrasolar planets may produce “false positives” adding an inconvenient element of uncertainty to the search.

More than 1,800 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist so far, with the count rising rapidly. About 20 of these are deemed potentially habitable. This is because they are only somewhat more massive than Earth, and orbit their parent stars at distances that might allow liquid water to exist.

Astronomers soon hope to be able to determine the composition of the atmospheres of such promising alien worlds. They can do this by analyzing the spectrum of light absorbed by them. For Earth-like worlds circling small stars, this challenging feat can be accomplished using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018.

They thought they knew how to look for the signature of life. There are certain gases which shouldn’t exist together in an atmosphere that is in chemical equilibrium. Earth’s atmosphere contains lots of oxygen and trace amounts of methane. Oxygen shouldn’t exist in a stable atmosphere. As anyone with rust spots on their car knows, it has a strong tendency to combine chemically with many other substances. Methane shouldn’t exist in the presence of oxygen. When mixed, the two gases quickly react to form carbon dioxide and water. Without some process to replace it, methane would be gone from our air in a decade.

On Earth, both oxygen and methane remain present together because the supply is constantly replenished by living things. Bacteria and plants harvest the energy of sunlight in the process of photosynthesis. As part of this process water molecules are broken into hydrogen and oxygen, releasing free oxygen as a waste product. About half of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere comes from bacteria. The rest is from human activities, including the growing of rice, the burning of biomass, and the flatulence produced by the vast herds of cows and other ruminants maintained by our species.

By itself, finding methane in a planet’s atmosphere isn’t surprising. Many purely chemical processes can make it, and it is abundant in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and on Saturn’s large moon Titan. Although oxygen alone is sometimes touted as a possible biomarker; its presence, by itself, isn’t rock solid evidence of life either. There are purely chemical processes that might make it on an alien planet, and we don’t yet know how to rule them out. Finding these two gases together, though, seems as close as one could get to “smoking gun” evidence for the activities of life.

A monkey wrench was thrown into this whole argument by an international team of investigators led by Dr. Hanno Rein of the Department of Environmental and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada. Their results were published in the May, 2014 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Suppose, they posited, that oxygen is present in the atmosphere of a planet, and methane is present separately in the atmosphere of a moon orbiting the planet. The team used a mathematical model to predict the light spectrum that might be measured by a space telescope near Earth for plausible planet-moon pairs. They found that the resulting spectra closely mimicked that of a single object whose atmosphere contained both gasses.

Unless the planet orbits one of the very nearest stars, they showed it wasn’t possible to distinguish a planet-moon pair from a single object using technology that will be available anytime soon. The team termed their results “inconvenient, but unavoidable…It will be possible to obtain suggestive clues indicative of possible inhabitation, but ruling out alternative explanations of these clues will probably be impossible for the foreseeable future.”

References and further reading:

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Kaltenegger L., Selsis F., Fridlund M. et al. (2010) Deciphering spectral fingerprints of habitable exoplanets. Astrobiology, 10(1) p. 89-102.

Major J. (2013) Earthlike exoplanets are all around us. Universe Today

Rein H., Fujii Y., and Spiegel D. S. (2014) Some inconvenient truths about biosignatures involving two chemical species on Earth-like exoplanets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(19) p. 6871-6875.

Sagan C., Thompson W. R., Carlson R., Gurnett, D., Hord, C. (1993) A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft. Nature, 365 p. 715-721.

James Webb Space Telescope’s Pathfinder Mirror Backplane Arrives at NASA Goddard for Critical Assembly Testing

The central piece of the “pathfinder” backplane that will hold all the mirrors for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has arrived at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for critical assembly testing on vital parts of the mammoth telescope.

The pathfinder backplane arrived at Goddard in July and has now been hoisted in place onto a huge assembly stand inside Goddard’s giant cleanroom where many key elements of JWST are being assembled and tested ahead of the launch scheduled for October 2018.

The absolutely essential task of JWST’s backplane is to hold the telescopes 18 segment, 21-foot-diameter primary mirror nearly motionless while floating in the utterly frigid space environment, thereby enabling the telescope to peer out into deep space for precise science gathering measurements never before possible.

Over the next several months, engineers will practice installing two spare primary mirror segments and one spare secondary mirror onto the center part of the backplane.

JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals.  Telescope assembly bays at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
JWST pathfinder backplane has arrived here at NASA Goddard clean room.
JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals. Pathfinder backplane has been hoisted into telescope assembly bays at right. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose is to gain invaluable experience practicing the delicate procedures required to precisely install the hexagonal shaped mirrors onto the actual flight backplane unit after it arrives.

The telescopes primary and secondary flight mirrors have already arrived at Goddard.

The mirrors must remained precisely aligned in space in order for JWST to successfully carry out science investigations. While operating at extraordinarily cold temperatures between -406 and -343 degrees Fahrenheit the backplane must not move more than 38 nanometers, approximately 1/1,000 the diameter of a human hair.

The backplane and every other component must function and unfold perfectly and to precise tolerances in space because JWST 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 interview during a visit to JWST at Goddard.

Watch this video showing movement of the pathfinder backplane into the Goddard cleanroom.

Video Caption: This is a time-lapse video of the center section of the ‘pathfinder’ backplane for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being moved into the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The actual flight backplane is comprised of three segments – the main central segment and a pair of outer wing-like parts which will be folded over into launch configuration inside the payload fairing of the Ariane V ECA booster rocket. The telescope will launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

Both the backplane flight unit and the pathfinder unit, which consists only of the center part, are being assembled and tested by prime contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California.

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 test unit was then loaded into a C-5, flown to the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and unloaded for transport by trailer truck to NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming.

A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Read my story about the recent unfurling test of JWST’s sunshade – here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Webb telescope backplane "pathfinder" or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force's Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.   Image Credit:   NASA/Desiree Stover
The Webb telescope backplane “pathfinder” or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Image Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

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

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.

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

Watch the James Webb Telescope Being Built Via “Webb-cam”

Want to watch the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope come together? NASA has set up a webcam – in this case a “Webb-cam” — for anyone to track the progress JWST inside a clean room at Goddard Space Flight Center. Recently, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) was delivered and it will be integrated into the science instrument payload. Two cameras show the action, although the cameras will show just screen shots that are updated once every minute.

When is the best time to watch? The clean room is generally occupied Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. PDT (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EDT).

Click the image above for access to the Webb-cams, or visit the Webb-cam website.

Of the James Webb Space Telescope’s four science instruments, only MIRI can see light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This unique capability will allow the Webb telescope to study physical processes occurring in the cosmos that the other Webb instruments cannot see.

MIRI’s sensitive detectors will allow it to make unique observations of many things, including the light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars within our own Milky Way, and the formation of planets around stars other than our own, as well as planets, comets and the outermost debris disk in our own solar system.

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

Meet MIRI, Infrared Camera for Webb Telescope

Our friend Will Gater from the BBC’s Sky At Night Magazine had the chance to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility that is building the Mid-Infrared Instrument on the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope. You’ll meet MIRI inside clean room at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, before it’s packaged up and sent over to NASA Goddard in the US and hear from some of the scientists involved in the project. MIRI is expected to make important contributions to all four of the primary science themes for JWST: 1.) discovery of the “first light”; 2.) assembly of galaxies: history of star formation, growth of black holes, production of heavy elements; 3.) how stars and planetary systems form; and 4.) evolution of planetary systems and conditions for life.