An Earth-Sized World Orbiting in its Star’s Habitable Zone Was Found in Older Kepler Data

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,144 extrasolar planets in 3,074 systems, with a further 5,094 candidates awaiting confirmation. The majority of these planets were found by the Kepler Space Telescope, which spent nine years (between May of 2009 and February of 2018) monitoring distant stars for transit signals – where a planet passing in front of a star causes a dip in brightness.

And yet, even though it is now defunct, the data that Kepler accumulated over the years continues to lead to new discoveries. For instance, a transatlantic team of researchers recently found a signal in Kepler‘s archival data that eluded detection before. This signal indicates that there is a second planet orbiting Kepler-1649, an M-type red dwarf star located 302 light-years away.

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A New Way to Measure the Age of the Milky Way

Like many other spiral galaxies in the Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy consists of two disk-like structures – the thin disk and the thick disk. The thick disk, which envelopes the thin disk, contains about 20% of the Milky Way’s stars and is thought to be the older of the pair based on the composition of its stars (which have greater metallicity) and its puffier nature.

However, in a recent study, a team of 38 scientists led by researchers from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in Three Dimensions (ASTRO-3D) used data from the now-retired Kepler mission to measure starquakes in the Milky Way’s disk. From this, they have revised the official estimates on the age of the Milky Way’s thick disk, which they conclude is around 10 billion years old.

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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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This is Kepler’s Final Image

On October 30th, 2018, after nine years of faithful service, the Kepler Space Telescope was officially retired. With nearly 4000 candidates and 2,662 confirmed exoplanets to its credit, no other telescope has managed to teach us more about the worlds that exist beyond our Solar System. In the coming years, multiple next-generation telescopes will be deployed that will attempt to build on the foundation Kepler built.

And yet, even in retirement, Kepler is still providing us with impressive discoveries. For starters, NASA started the new year by announcing the discovery of several new exoplanets, including a Super-Earth and a Saturn-sized gas giant, as well as an unusually-sized planet that straddles these two categories. On top of that, NASA recently released the “last lighty” image and recordings obtained by Kepler before it ran out of fuel and ended its mission.

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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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There are so Many Water-Worlds Out There

Ever since the first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992, astronomers have found thousands of worlds beyond our Solar System. With more and more discoveries happening all the time, the focus of exoplanet research has begun to slowly shift from exoplanet discovery to exoplanet characterization. Essentially, scientists are now looking to determine the composition of exoplanets to determine whether or not they could support life.

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Kepler Mission Placed in Hibernation to Download Data Before its Last Campaign

Artist's concept of the Kepler mission with Earth in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Kepler space telescope has had a relatively brief but distinguished career of service with NASA. Having launched in 2009, the space telescope has spent the past nine years observing distant stars for signs of planetary transits (i.e. the Transit Method). In that time, it has been responsible for the detection of 2,650 confirmed exoplanets, which constitutes the majority of the more than 38oo planets discovered so far.

Earlier this week, the Kepler team was notified that the space telescope’s fuel tank is running very low. NASA responded by placing the spacecraft in hibernation in preparation for a download of its scientific data, which it collected during its latest observation campaign. Once the data is downloaded, the team expects to start its last observation campaign using whatever fuel it has left.

Since 2013, Kepler has been conducting its “Second Light” (aka. K2) campaign, where the telescope has continued conducting observations despite the loss of two of its reaction wheels. Since May 12th, 2018, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, which has consisted of it studying a patch of sky in the vicinity of the Cancer constellation – which it previously studied in 2015.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has been on an extended mission called K2 after two of its four reaction wheels failed in 2013. Credit: NASA

In order to send the data back home, the spacecraft will point is large antenna back towards Earth and transmit it via the Deep Space Network. However, the DSN is responsible for transmitting data from multiple missions and time needs to be allotted in advance. Kepler is scheduled to send data from its 18th campaign back in August, and will remain in a stable orbit and safe mode in order to conserve fuel until then.

On August 2nd, the Kepler team will command the spacecraft to awaken and will maneuver the craft to the correct orientation to transmit the data. If all goes well, they will begin Kepler’s 19th observation campaign on August 6th with what fuel the spacecraft still has. At present, NASA expects that the spacecraft will run out of fuel in the next few months.

However, even after the Kepler mission ends, scientists and engineers will continue to mine the data that has already been sent back for discoveries. According to a recent study by an international team of scientists, 24 new exoplanets were discovered using data from the 10th observation campaign, which has brought the total number of Kepler discoveries to 2,650 confirmed exoplanets.

An artist’s conception of how common exoplanets are throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In the coming years, many more exoplanet discoveries are anticipated as the next-generation of space telescopes begin collecting their first light or are deployed to space. These include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched this past April, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – which is currently scheduled to launch sometime in 2021.

However, it will be many years before any mission can rival the accomplishments and contributions made by Kepler! Long after she is retired, her legacy will live on in the form of her discoveries.

Further Reading: NASA

Good News, James Webb is Still a Go. Bad News, Launching in 2021

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

When it is deployed to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most powerful and advanced telescope ever deployed. As the spiritual and scientific successor to the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler Space Telescopes, this space observatory will use its advanced suite of infrared instruments to look back at the early Universe, study the Solar System, and help characterize extra-solar planets.

Unfortunately, after many delays, there’s some good news and bad news about this mission. The good news is that recently, the Independent Review Board (IRB) established by NASA to assess the progress on the JWST unanimously decided that work on the space telescope should continue. The bad news is that NASA has decided to push the launch date back again – this time to March 30th, 2021.

As part of their assessment, the IRB was established in April of 2018 to address a range of factors influencing Webb’s schedule and performance. These included the technical challenges and tasks that need to be tackled by its primary contractor (Northrop Grumman) before the mission can launch. A summary of the report’s recommendations, and NASA’s response, can be read here.

The Hubble Space Telescope on the left has a 2.4 meter mirror and the James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5 meter mirror. LUVOIR, not shown, will dwarf them both with a massive 15 meter mirror. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope on the left has a 2.4 meter mirror and the James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5 meter mirror. LUVOIR, not shown, will dwarf them both with a massive 15 meter mirror. Credit: NASA

In the report, the IRB identified technical issues, which including human errors, that they claim have greatly impacted the development schedule. As they stated in their Overview:

“The observation that there are no small JWST integration and test problems was not initially recognized by the Webb IRB, and this also may be true of others involved with JWST. It is a most important observation that will be apparent in subsequent Findings and Recommendations. It is caused by the complexity and highly integrated nature of the observatory. Specifically, it implies, as an example, that a very small human error or test anomaly can impact the schedule by months and the cost by tens of millions of dollars.”

The anomaly mentioned in the report refers to the “anomalous readings” that were detected from the telescope during vibration testing back in December 2016. NASA responded to this by giving the project up to 4 months of schedule reserve by extending the launch window. However, in 2017, NASA delayed the launch window again by 5 months, from October 2018 to a between March and June 2019.

This delay was requested by the project team, who indicated that they needed to address lessons learned from the initial folding and deployment of the observatory’s sun shield. In February of 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that expressed concerns over further delays and cost overruns. Shortly thereafter, the JWST’s Standing Review Board (SRB) made an independent assessment of the remaining tasks.

The James Webb Space Telescope being placed in the Johnson Space Center’s historic Chamber A on June 20th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JSC

In May of 2018, NASA issued a statement indicating that they now estimated that the launch window would be some time in May 2020. However, they chose to await the findings of the IRB and consider the data from the JWST’s Standing Review Board before making the final determination. The new launch date was set to accommodate environmental testing and work performances challenges on the sunshield and propulsion system.

According to the IRB report, this latest delay will also result in a budget overrun. “As a result of the delay, Webb’s total lifecycle cost to support the March 2021 launch date is estimated at $9.66 billion,” they concluded. “The development cost estimate to support the new launch date is $8.8B (up from the $8B development cost estimate established in 2011).”

As Jim Bridenstine, the NASA Administrator, indicated in a message to the NASA workforce on Wednesday about the report:

“Webb is vital to the next generation of research beyond NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It’s going to do amazing things – things we’ve never been able to do before – as we peer into other galaxies and see light from the very dawn of time. Despite major challenges, the board and NASA unanimously agree that Webb will achieve mission success with the implementation of the board’s recommendations, many of which already are underway.”

In the end, the IRB, SRB and NASA are all in total agreement that the James Webb Space Telescope is a crucial mission that must be seen through. In addition to shedding light on a number of mysteries of the Universe – ranging from the earliest stars and galaxies in the Universe to exoplanet habitability – the JWST will also complement and enhance the discoveries made by other missions.

The combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being removed from the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters on March 8th, 2018. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

These include not only Hubble and Spitzer, but also missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched this past April. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, also issued a statement on the recent report:

“The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed. Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait. The valuable recommendations of the IRB support our efforts towards mission success; we expect spectacular scientific advances from NASA’s highest science priority.”

The JWST will also be the first telescope of its kind, being larger and more complex than any previous space telescope – so challenges were anticipated from its very inception. In addition, the final phase consists of some of the most challenging work, where the 6.5-meter telescope and science payload element are being joined with the spacecraft element to complete the observatory.

The science team also needs to ensure that the observatory can be folded up to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it into space. They also need to ensure that it will unfold again once it reaches space, deploy its sunshield, mirrors and primary mirror. Beyond that, there are also the technical challenges of building a complex observatory that was created here on Earth, but designed to operate in space.

As a collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the JWST is also representative of the new era of international cooperation. As such, no one wishes to see the mission abandoned so close to completion. In the meantime, any delays that allow for extra testing will only ensure success in the long run.

Good luck JWST, we look forward to hearing about your first discoveries!

Further Reading: NASA

How Many Planets is TESS Going to Find?

Artist Illustration of TESS and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), NASA’s latest exoplanet-hunting space telescope, was launched into space on Wednesday, April 18th, 2018. As the name suggests, this telescope will use the Transit Method to detect terrestrial-mass planets (i.e. rocky) orbiting distant stars. Alongside other next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), TESS will effectively pick up where telescopes like Hubble and Kepler left off.

But just how many planets is TESS expected to find? That was the subject of a new study by a team researchers who attempted to estimate just how many planets TESS is likely to discover, as well as the physical properties of these planets and the stars that they orbit. Altogether, they estimate TESS will find thousands of planets orbiting a variety of stars during its two-year primary mission.

The study, titled “A Revised Exoplanet Yield from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)“, recently appeared online. The study was led by Thomas Barclay, an associate research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland, and included Joshua Pepper (an astrophysicist at Lehigh University) and Elisa Quintana (a research scientist with the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center).

As Thomas Barclay told Universe Today via email:

“TESS builds off the legacy of Kepler. Kepler was primarily a statistical mission and taught us that planets are everywhere. However, it wasn’t optimized for finding excellent individual planets for further study. Now that we know planets are common, we can launch something like TESS to search for the planets that we will undertake intensive studies of using ground and space-based telescopes. Planets that TESS will find will on average be 10x closer and 100x brighter.”

For the sake of their study, the team created a three-step model that took into account the stars TESS will observe, the number of planets each one is likely to have, and the likelihood of TESS spotting them. These included the kinds of planets that would be orbiting around dwarf stars ranging from A-type to K-type (like our Sun), and lower-mass M-type (red dwarf) stars.

“To estimate how many planets TESS will find we took stars that will be observed by TESS and simulated a population of planets orbiting them,” said Barclay. “The exoplanet population stats all come from studies that used Kepler data. Then, using models of TESS performance, we estimated how many of those planets would be detected by TESS. This is where we get our yield numbers from.”

The first step was straightforward, thanks to the availability of the Candidate Target List (CTL) – a prioritized list of target stars that the TESS Target Selection Working Group determined were the most suitable stars for detecting small planets. They then ranked the 3.8 million stars that are included in the latest version based on their brightness and radius and determined which of these TESS is likely to observe.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA’s TESS spacecraft. Image credit: NASA TV

The second step consisted of assigning planets to each star based on a Poisson distribution, a statistical technique where a given number is assigned to each star (in this case, 0 or more). Each planet was then assigned six physical properties drawn at random, including an orbital period, a radius, an eccentricity, a periastron angle, an inclination to our line of sight, and a mid-time of first transit.

Last, they attempted to estimate how many of these planets would generate a detectable transit signal. As noted, TESS will rely on the Transit Method, where periodic dips in a star’s brightness are used to determine the presence of one or more orbiting planets, as well as place constraints on their sizes and orbital periods. For this, they considered the flux contamination of nearby stars, the number of transits, and the transit duration.

Ultimately, they determined with 90% confidence that TESS is likely to detect 4430–4660 new exoplanets during its two years mission:

“The results is that we predict that TESS will find more than 4000 planets, with hundreds smaller than twice the size of Earth. The primary goal of TESS is to find planets that are bright enough for ground-based telescope to measure their mass. We estimate that TESS could lead to triple the number of planets smaller than 4 Earth-radii with mass measurements.”

As of April 1st, 2018, a total 3,758 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,808 systems, with 627 systems having more than one planet. In other words, Barclay and his team estimate that the TESS mission will effectively double the number of confirmed exoplanets and triple the number of Earth-sized and Super-Earth’s during its primary mission.

This will begin after a series of orbital maneuvers and engineering tests, which are expected to last for about two months. With the exoplanet catalog thus expanded, we can expect that there will be many more “Earth-like” candidates available for study. And while we still will not be able to determine if any of them have life, we may perhaps find some that show signs of a viable atmosphere and water on the surfaces.

The hunt for life beyond Earth will continue for many years to come! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video about the TESS mission, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: Astrobites, arXiv

A New Extrasolar Planet Has The Composition of Mercury, but 2.5 Times the Mass of Earth

In the course of searching for planets beyond our Solar System – aka. extra-solar planets – some truly interesting cases have been discovered. In addition to planets that are several times the size of the Solar System’s largest planet (Super-Jupiters), astronomers have also found a plethora of terrestrial (i.e rocky) planets that are several times the size of Earth (Super-Earths).

This is certainly true of K2-229b, a rocky planet that was recently discovered by an international team of astronomers. Located 339 light years away, this hot, metallic planet is an exercise in extremes. Not only is it 20% larger than Earth, it is 2.6 times Earth mass and has a composition similar to Mercury. On top of that, its orbits its star so closely that it is several times hotter than Mercury.

The study which details their discovery recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “An Earth-sized exoplanet with a Mercury-like composition“. The study was led by Alexandre Santerne, a researcher from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM) at the Aix-Marseille Université, and included members from the the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the University of Warwick, the Universidade do Porto, and multiple universities and research institutions.

The newly-discovered exoplanet K2-229b is 20% larger than Earth, but has a composition like Mercury. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/USGS/Arizona State University

Using data from the Kepler space telescopes K2 mission, the team was able to identify K2-229b, a Super-Earth that orbits a medium-sized K dwarf (orange dwarf) star in the Virgo Constellation. Using the Radial Velocity Method – aka. Doppler Spectroscopy –  the team was able to determine the planet’s size and mass, which indicated that it is similar in composition to Mercury – i.e. metallic and rocky.

They were also able to determine that it orbits its star at a distance of 0.012 AU with an orbital period of just 14 days. At this distance, K2-229b is roughly one one-hundredth as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun and experiences surface temperature that are several times higher than those on Mercury – reaching a day side temperature 2000 °C (3632 °F), or hot enough to melt iron and silicon.

As Dr. David Armstrong, a researcher from the University of Warwick and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Mercury stands out from the other Solar System terrestrial planets, showing a very high fraction of iron and implying it formed in a different way. We were surprised to see an exoplanet with the same high density, showing that Mercury-like planets are perhaps not as rare as we thought. Interestingly K2-229b is also the innermost planet in a system of at least 3 planets, though all three orbit much closer to their star than Mercury. More discoveries like this will help us shed light on the formation of these unusual planets, as well as Mercury itself.”

Artist’s concept of a collision between two large astronomical objects, which may have been how K2-229b formed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Given its dense, metallic nature, it is something of a mystery of how this planet formed. One theory is that the planet’s atmosphere could have been eroded by intense stellar wind and flares, given that the planet is so close to its star. Another possibility is that it was formed from a huge impact between two giant bodies billions of years ago – similar to the theory of how the Moon formed after Earth collided with a Mars-sized body (named Theia).

As with many recent discoveries, this latest exoplanet is giving astronomers the opportunity to see just what is possible. By studying how them, we are able to learn more about how the Solar System formed and evolved. Given the similarities between K2-229b and Mercury, the study of this exoplanet could teach us much about how Mercury became a dense, metallic planet that orbits closely to our Sun.

Further Reading: Warwick