You Can't Know the True Size of an Exoplanet Without Knowing its Star's Magnetic Field

Artist's impression of a "hot Jupiter" orbiting close to a Sun-like star. Credit: NASA

In 2011, astronomers with the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) consortium detected a gas giant orbiting very close to a Sun-like (G-type) star about 700 light-years away. This planet is known as WASP-39b (aka. “Bocaprins”), one of many “hot Jupiters” discovered in recent decades that orbits its star at a distance of less than 5% the distance between the Earth and the Sun (0.05 AU). In 2022, shortly after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) it became the first exoplanet to have carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide detected in its atmosphere.

Alas, researchers have not constrained all of WASP-39b’s crucial details (particularly its size) based on the planet’s light curves, as observed by Webb. which is holding up more precise data analyses. In a new study led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), an international team has shown a way to overcome this obstacle. They argue that considering a parent star’s magnetic field, the true size of an exoplanet in orbit can be determined. These findings are likely to significantly impact the rapidly expanding field of exoplanet study and characterization.

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NASA’s Next Solar Sail is About to Go to Space

NASA is about to launch and test a new solar sail. Called the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, it could advance future space travel and expand our understanding of our Sun and Solar System. Credits: NASA’s Ames Research Center

Everyone knows that solar energy is free and almost limitless here on Earth. The same is true for spacecraft operating in the inner Solar System. But in space, the Sun can do more than provide electrical energy; it also emits an unending stream of solar wind.

Solar sails can harness that wind and provide propulsion for spacecraft. NASA is about to test a new solar sail design that can make solar sails even more effective.

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Here's the Total Solar Eclipse, Seen From Space

Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

On Monday, April 8th, people across North America witnessed a rare celestial event known as a total solar eclipse. This phenomenon occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth and blocks the face of the Sun for a short period. The eclipse plunged the sky into darkness for people living in the Canadian Maritimes, the American Eastern Seaboard, parts of the Midwest, and northern Mexico. Fortunately for all, geostationary satellites orbiting Earth captured images of the Moon’s shadow as it moved across North America.

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WISPR Team Images Turbulence within Solar Transients for the First Time

Visible light observations of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) acquired by the Wide Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) telescopes

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has been in studying the Sun for the last six years. In 2021 it was hit directly by a coronal mass ejection when it was a mere 10 million kilometres from the solar surface. Luckily it was gathering data and images enabling scientists to piece together an amazing video. The interactions between the solar wind and the coronal mass ejection were measured giving an unprecedented view of the solar corona. 

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Webb Sees a Galaxy Awash in Star Formation

Starburst galaxy M82 was observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006, which showed the galaxy’s edge-on spiral disk, shredded clouds, and hot hydrogen gas. The James Webb Space Telescope has observed M82’s core, capturing in unprecedented detail the structure of the galactic wind and characterizing individual stars and star clusters. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Alberto Bolatto (UMD)

Since it began operations in July 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has fulfilled many scientific objectives. In addition to probing the depths of the Universe in search of galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang, it has also provided the clearest and most detailed images of nearby galaxies. In the process, Webb has provided new insight into the processes through which galaxies form and evolve over billions of years. This includes galaxies like Messier 82 (M82), a “starburst galaxy” located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major.

Also known as the “Cigar Galaxy” because of its distinctive shape, M82 is a rather compact galaxy with a very high star formation rate. Roughly five times that of the Milky Way, this is why the core region of M82 is over 100 times as bright as the Milky Way’s. Combined with the gas and dust that naturally obscures visible light, this makes examining M82’s core region difficult. Using the extreme sensitivity of Webb‘s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), a team led by the University of Maryland observed the central region of this starburst galaxy to examine the physical conditions that give rise to new stars.

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Start Your Engines: NASA Picks 3 Teams to Work on Lunar Terrain Vehicle

Illustration: NASA's Lunar Terrain Vehicle concept
An artist's conception shows NASA's generic concept for the Lunar Terrain Vehicle. (NASA Illustration)

Some of the biggest names in aerospace — and the automotive industry — will play roles in putting NASA astronauts in the driver’s seat for roving around on the moon.

The space agency today selected three teams to develop the capabilities for a lunar terrain vehicle, or LTV, which astronauts could use during Artemis missions to the moon starting with Artemis 5. That mission is currently scheduled for 2029, three years after the projected date for Artemis’ first crewed lunar landing.

The teams’ leading companies may not yet be household names outside the space community: Intuitive Machines, Lunar Outpost and Venturi Astrolab. But each of those ventures has more established companies as their teammates.

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Lunar Night Permanently Ends the Odysseus Mission

Image of Odysseus moon landing
This image shows one of the Odysseus lander's legs breaking due to the shock of first contact on the moon. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

On February 15th, Intuitive Machines (IM) launched its first Nova-C class spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. On February 22nd, the spacecraft – codenamed Odysseus (or “Odie”) – became the first American-built vehicle to soft-land on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. While the landing was a bit bumpy (Odysseus fell on its side), the IM-1 mission successfully demonstrated technologies and systems that will assist NASA in establishing a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.”

After seven days of operation on the lunar surface, Intuitive Machines announced on February 29th that the mission had ended with the onset of lunar night. While the lander was not intended to remain operational during the lunar night, flight controllers at Houston set Odysseus into a configuration that would “call home” if it made it through the two weeks of darkness. As of March 23rd, the company announced that their flight controllers’ predictions were correct and that Odie would not be making any more calls home.

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DART Changed the Shape of Asteroid Dimorphos, not Just its Orbit

The asteroid Dimorphos was captured by NASA’s DART mission just two seconds before the spacecraft struck its surface on Sept. 26, 2022. Observations of the asteroid before and after impact suggest it is a loosely packed “rubble pile” object. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

On September 26th, 2022, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) collided with the asteroid Dimorphos, a moonlet that orbits the larger asteroid Didymos. The purpose of this test was to evaluate a potential strategy for planetary defense. The demonstration showed that a kinetic impactor could alter the orbit of an asteroid that could potentially impact Earth someday – aka. Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA). According to a new NASA-led study, the DART mission’s impact not only altered the orbit of the asteroid but also its shape!

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NASA’s VERITAS Mission Breathes New Life

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s VERITAS spacecraft in orbit around Venus. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In a win for planetary scientists, and planetary geologists in particular, it was announced at the recent 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas earlier this month that NASA’s VERITAS mission to the planet Venus has been reinstated into NASA’s Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) budget with a scheduled launch date of 2031, with the unofficial announcement coming on the first day of the conference, March 11, 2024, and being officially announced just a few days later. This comes after VERITAS experienced a “soft cancellation” in March of last year when NASA revealed its FY24 budget, providing VERITAS only $1.5 million, which was preceded by the launch of VERITAS being delayed a minimum of three years due to findings from an independent review board in November 2022.

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