Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!”

NASA Exoplanet “Travel Posters” Aim To Help With Space Trip Planning

A NASA "travel poster" touting the benefits of exoplanet Kepler-16b, which has two Suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What beauty, and what awesome travel slogans! NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a set of “Exoplanet Travel Posters” to bring you — at least in your imagination — to actual exoplanets.

Whether you have a fancy for skydiving, or doing astronomy with two Suns, it appears there is a spot to whet your imagination. We have another example of the fantastic artwork below.

You can download all three posters so far in glorious high-definition here. These are NASA’s descriptions for each of the worlds described so far:

Kepler-186f is the first Earth-size planet discovered in the potentially ‘habitable zone’ around another star, where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. Its star is much cooler and redder than our Sun. If plant life does exist on a planet like Kepler-186f, its photosynthesis could have been influenced by the star’s red-wavelength photons, making for a color palette that’s very different than the greens on Earth.

Twice as big in volume as the Earth, HD 40307g straddles the line between “Super-Earth” and “mini-Neptune” and scientists aren’t sure if it has a rocky surface or one that’s buried beneath thick layers of gas and ice. One thing is certain though: at eight time the Earth’s mass, its gravitational pull is much, much stronger.

A NASA "travel poster" showing off how fun skydiving would be on HD 40307g, a planet that is somewhere in size between a "super-Earth" or "mini-Neptune." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A NASA “travel poster” showing off how fun skydiving would be on HD 40307g, a planet that is somewhere in size between a “super-Earth” or “mini-Neptune.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Like Luke Skywalker’s planet “Tatooine” in Star Wars, Kepler-16b orbits a pair of stars. Depicted here as a terrestrial planet, Kepler-16b might also be a gas giant like Saturn. Prospects for life on this unusual world aren’t good, as it has a temperature similar to that of dry ice. But the discovery indicates that the movie’s iconic double-sunset is anything but science fiction.

The posters are not only clever, but appear to be homages to the Work Projects Administration’s “See America” posters of the 1930s and 1940s, which you can browse through on the Library of Congress’ website.

Kepler Has Found the First Earth-Sized Exoplanet in a Habitable Zone!

Artist's rendering of Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

It’s truly a “eureka” moment for Kepler scientists: the first rocky Earth-sized world has been found in a star’s habitable “Goldilocks” zone, the narrow belt where liquid water could readily exist on a planet’s surface without freezing solid or boiling away. And while it’s much too soon to tell if this really is a “twin Earth,” we can now be fairly confident that they do in fact exist.

The newly-confirmed extrasolar planet has been dubbed Kepler-186f. It is the fifth and outermost planet discovered orbiting the red dwarf star Kepler-186, located 490 light-years away. Kepler-186f completes one orbit around its star every 130 days, just within the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone.

The findings were made public today, April 17, during a teleconference hosted by NASA.

“This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star,” says lead author Elisa Quintana of the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center. “Finding such planets is a primary goal of the Kepler space telescope. The star is a main-sequence M-dwarf, a very common type.  More than 70 percent of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy are M-dwarfs.”

A visualization of the “unseen” red dwarfs in the night sky. Credit: D. Aguilar & C. Pulliam (CfA)
A visualization of the many “unseen” red dwarfs in the night sky. (CLICK FOR ANIMATION) Credit: D. Aguilar & C. Pulliam (CfA)

Unlike our Sun, which is a G-type yellow dwarf, M-dwarf stars (aka red dwarfs) are much smaller and dimmer. As a result their habitable zones are much more confined. But, being cooler stars, M-dwarfs have long lifespans, offering planets in their habitable zones — like Kepler-186f — potentially plenty of time to develop favorable conditions for life.

In addition, M-dwarfs are the most abundant stars in our galaxy; 7 out of 10 stars in the Milky Way are M-dwarfs, although most can’t be seen by the naked eye. Finding an Earth-sized planet orbiting one relatively nearby has enormous implications in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

“M dwarfs are the most numerous stars,” said Quintana. “The first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf.”

Read more: Earthlike Exoplanets Are All Around Us

Still, there are many more conditions on a planet that must be met for it to be actually habitable. But size, composition, and orbital radius are very important first steps.

“Some people call these habitable planets, which of course we have no idea if they are,” said Stephen Kane, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State University in California. “We simply know that they are in the habitable zone, and that is the best place to start looking for habitable planets.”

Scale comparison of the Kepler-186 system to our inner Solar System (
Scale comparison of the Kepler-186 system and the inner Solar System (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

As far as the planetary system’s age is concerned — which relates to how long life could have potentially had to evolve on Kepler-186f’s surface — that’s hard to determine… especially with M-dwarf stars. Because they are so stable and long-lived, once they’re formed M-dwarfs essentially stay the same throughout their lifetimes.

“We know it’s probably older than a few billion years, but after that it’s very difficult to tell,” BAERI/Ames scientist Tom Barclay told Universe Today. “That’s the problem with M-dwarfs.”

A comparison of the Kepler 186 and Solar systems (NASA/Ames)
A comparison of the Kepler 186 and Solar systems (Presentation slide, NASA/Ames)

The exoplanet was discovered via the transit method used by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, whereby stars’ brightnesses are continually monitored within a certain field of view. Any dips in luminance reveal the likely presence of a passing planet.

Because of its small size — just slightly over 1 Earth radius — and close proximity to its star, Kepler-186f can’t be observed directly with current telescope technology.

The Gemini North telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea (Gemini Observatory/AURA)
The Gemini North telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea (Gemini Observatory/AURA)

“However, what we can do is eliminate essentially all other possibilities so that the validity of these planets is really the only viable option,” said Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist and a co-author on the paper.

Using the latest advanced imaging capabilities of the Gemini North and Keck II observatories located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, astronomers were able to determine that the signals detected by Kepler were from a small orbiting planet and not something else, such as a background or companion star.

“The Keck and Gemini data are two key pieces of this puzzle,” Quintana said. “Without these complementary observations we wouldn’t have been able to confirm this Earth-sized planet.”

Kepler-186f joins the other 20 extrasolar worlds currently listed in the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, maintained by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. To date 961 exoplanets have been confirmed through Kepler observations, with 1,696 total confirmed altogether. (Source)

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read more: Mega Discovery! 715 Alien Planets Confirmed Using a New Trick on Old Kepler Data

Whether Kepler-186f actually resembles Earth or not, this discovery provides more information on the incredible variety of planetary systems to be found even in our little corner of the galaxy.

“The diversity of these exoplanets is one of the most exciting things about the field,” Kane said. “We’re trying to understand how common our solar system is, and the more diversity we see, the more it helps us to understand what the answer to that question really is.”

The SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array has surveyed the Kepler-186 system for any potential signals but so far none has been detected. Further observations are planned.

“Kepler-186f is special because we already know that a planet of its size and distance is capable of supporting life.”
– Elisa Quintana, research scientist, SETI Institute

The team’s paper, “An Earth-sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star” by Elisa V. Quintana et al., will be published in the April 18 issue of Science.

Learn more about the Kepler mission here, and read more about this discovery in NASA’s news release here and on the W.M. Keck website here.

Watch some video excerpts of team interviews and data renderings below:

Also, you can download the slides used in the NASA teleconference here.

Sources: San Francisco State University, Gemini Observatory, W.M. Keck Observatory, and SETI news releases