In the past few decades, the study of exoplanets has grown by leaps and bounds, with 4296 confirmed discoveries in 3,188 systems and an additional 5,634 candidates awaiting confirmation. Because of this, scientists have been able to get a better idea about the number of potentially-habitable planets that could be out there. A popular target is stars like our own, which are known as G-type yellow dwarfs.
Recently, an international team of scientists (led by researchers from the NASA Ames Research Center) combined data from by the now-defunct Kepler Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia Observatory. What this revealed is that half of the Sun-like stars in our Universe could have rocky, potentially-habitable planets, the closest of which could be in our cosmic backyard!
Advances in technology are having a profound impact on astronomy and astrophysics. At one end, we have advanced hardware like adaptive optics, coronographs, and spectrometers that allow for more light to be gathered from the cosmos. At the other end, we have improved software and machine learning algorithms that are allowing for the data to be analyzed and mined for valuable nuggets of information.
One area of research where this is proving to be invaluable is in the hunt for exoplanets and the search for life. At the University of Warwick, technicians recently developed an algorithm that was able to confirm the existence of 50 new exoplanets. When used to sort through archival data, this algorithm was able to sort through a sample of candidates and determine which were actual planets and which were false positives.
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.
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.
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 ofHubble, 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.
On October 30th, 2018, after nine years of faithful service, the Kepler Space Telescopewas 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.
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.
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.
A key part of this process is figuring out how much water exists on exoplanets, which is essential to life as we know it. During a recent scientific conference, a team of scientists presented new research that indicates that water is likely to be a major component of those exoplanets which are between two to four times the size of Earth. These findings will have serious implications when it comes to the search for life beyond our Solar System.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!