A recent study presented this week at the 2023 meeting of the American Geophysical Union discusses observations of “hot Jupiters” from the NASA-funded CubeSat mission known as the Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE). Unlike most exoplanet-hunting telescopes, whose sizes are comparable to a small school bus, CUTE measures 36 centimeters (14 inches) in length, equivalent to the size of a cereal box. These findings come after members of the team, which consists of undergraduate and graduate students, published an overview paper about CUTE in The Astronomical Journal in January 2023 and results from CUTE observing WASP-189b in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in August 2023.Continue reading “A Tiny Telescope is Revealing “Hot Jupiter” Secrets”
We’re about to learn a lot more about exoplanets. The ESA has just approved the construction of its Ariel mission, which will give us our first large survey of exoplanet atmospheres. The space telescope will help us answer fundamental questions about how planets form and evolve.Continue reading “ESA’s Ariel Mission is Approved to Begin Construction”
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has only been operational for just over a year, but this isn’t stopping the world’s biggest space agency from discussing the next big space telescope that could serve as JWST’s successor sometime in the future. Enter the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), which was first proposed as NASA’s next flagship Astrophysics mission during the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020). While its potential technological capabilities include studying exoplanets, stars, galaxies, and a myriad of other celestial objects for life beyond Earth, there’s a long way to go before HWO will be wowing both scientists and the public with breathtaking images and new datasets.Continue reading “Planning is Underway for NASA’s Next Big Flagship Space Telescope”
Alpha Centauri is our closest stellar neighbor, a binary star system located just 4.376 light-years away. Despite its proximity, repeated astronomical surveys have failed to find hard evidence of extrasolar planets in this system. Part of the problem is that the system consists of two stars orbiting each other, which makes detecting exoplanets through the two most popular methods very challenging. In 2019, Breakthrough Initiatives announced they were backing a new project to find exoplanets next door – the Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighbourhood (TOLIMAN, after the star’s ancient name in Arabic).
This low-cost mission concept was designed by a team from the University of Sydney, Australia, and aims to look for potentially-habitable exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system using the Astrometry Method. This consists of monitoring a star’s apparent position in the sky for signs of wobble, indicating that gravitational forces (like planets) are acting on it. Recently, the University of Sydney signed a contract with EnduroSat, a leading microsatellites and space services provider, to provide the delivery system and custom-built minisatellite that will support the mission when it launches.Continue reading “A New Mission Will Search for Habitable Planets at Alpha Centauri”
We’ve found thousands of exoplanets in the last couple of decades. We’ve discovered exoplanets unlike anything in our own Solar System. But even with all we’ve found, it seems like there’s more and more to discover. Space scientists of all types are always working on the next generation of missions, which is certainly true for exoplanets.
Chinese researchers are developing an idea for an exoplanet-detecting array of space telescopes that acts as an interferometer. But it won’t only detect them. The array will use direct imaging to characterize distant exoplanets in more detail.Continue reading “A Fleet of Space Telescopes Flying in Formation Could Reveal Details on Exoplanets”
Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our Sun, is like a treasure trove with many scientific discoveries just waiting to be found. Part of what makes it so compelling is that our efforts to detect extrasolar planets there have failed to yield any concrete results to date. While the study of exoplanets has progressed exponentially in recent years, with 4,575 confirmed planets in 3,392 systems in the Milky Way (and even neighboring galaxies), astronomers are still having difficulty determining if anyone is next door.
In the coming decades, Breakthrough Initiatives plans to send a mission there known as Starshot, a lightsail craft that could make the journey in 20 years. On Nov. 16th, Breakthrough Initiatives announced another project for detecting exoplanets next door. It’s called the Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighbourhood (TOLIMAN), a space telescope dedicated to finding rocky planets orbiting in Alpha Centauri’s circumsolar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).Continue reading “A Space Telescope With one job: Find Habitable Planets at Alpha Centauri”
Soon, astronomers and astrophysicists will have more observing power than they know what to do with. Not only will the James Webb Space Telescope one day, sometime in the next couple years, we hope, if all goes well, and if the coronavirus doesn’t delay it again, launch and begin operations. But another powerful NASA space telescope called WFIRST has passed an important stage, and is one step closer to reality.Continue reading “WFIRST Passes an Important Milestone, it’s Time to Begin Development and Testing”
One of the defining characteristics of the modern era of space exploration is the way the public and private aerospace companies (colloquially referred to as the NewSpace industry) and are taking part like never before. Thanks to cheaper launch services and the development of small satellites that can be built using off-the-shelf electronics (aka. CubeSats and microsats), universities and research institutions are also able to conduct research in space.
Looking to the future, there are those who want to take public involvement in space exploration to a whole new level. This includes the California-based aerospace company Space Fab that wants to make space accessible to everyone through the development the Waypoint Space Telescope – the first space telescope that people will be able to access through their smartphones to take pictures of Earth and space.
The company was founded in 2016 by Randy Chung and Sean League with the vision of creating a future where anything could be manufactured in space. Chung began his career developing communications satellites and has a background in integrated circuit design, digital signal processing, CMOS imager design, and software development. He holds sixteen patents in the fields of computer peripherals, imagers, and digital communications.
League, meanwhile, is an astrophysicist who has spent the past few decades developing optics, building and designing remote telescopes, solid state lasers, and has lots of experience with startups, fundraising, computer-aided design (CAD) and machining. Between the two of them, they are ideally suited to creating a new generation of publicly-accessible telescopes. As League told Universe Today via email:
“We have studied over 200 papers on the design of small satellite structures, electronics, navigation, and attitude control. We are rethinking satellite design, not tied down by legacy approaches. That fresh approach leads us to use a Corrected Dall Kirkham telescope design, rather than the standard Richey-Chretien design, an extending secondary mirror, rather than a fixed telescope structure, and a multi-purpose and multi-directional telescope, not a single purpose telescope just for Earth observation or just for astronomy.”
Together, League and Chung launched Space Fab in the hopes of spurring the development of the space industry, where asteroid mining and space manufacturing will provide cheap and abundant resources for all and allow for further exploration of our Solar System. The first step in this long-term plan is to build a profitable space telescope business by creating the first commercial, multipurpose space telescope industry.
“SpaceFab’s primary long term objective is to accelerate man’s access to space and to make the human race a multi-planet species,” said League. “This not only safeguards the human race, but all life that is brought along. We intend to make space resources readily available and dramatically less expensive than today, without environmental impact on Earth.”
What makes the Waypoint Space Telescope especially unique is the way it combines off-the-shelf components with revolutionary instruments. The design is based on a standard 12U CubeSat satellite, which contains the Waypoint telescope. This telescope has extendable optics that consist of a 21 cm silicon carbide primary mirror, a deployable secondary mirror, a 48 Megapixel imager for visible and near-infrared wavelengths, an 8 Megapixel image intensified camera for ultraviolet and visible wavelengths and a 150 band hyper-spectral imager.
“Waypoint’s astronomical capabilities are impressive,” says League. “Without the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, our 48 megapixel imager can take perfect high resolution images every time. We can reach the maximum theoretical resolution for our main mirror at .6 arc seconds per pixel on a single image, and higher resolution is possible through multiple exposures. Contrast will be fantastic, with the blackness of background space not being washed out by Earth’s atmosphere, clouds, moisture, city lights, or the day/night cycle. The Waypoint satellite also includes a complete set of astronomical and earth observations filters.”
The Waypoint Space Telescope will be ready to launch as a secondary payload by the end of 2019 on a rocket like the SpaceX Falcon 9. The company has also completed its first seed round of investment and is currently crowdfunding through a Kickstarter campaign.
Those who pledge their money will have the honor of getting a “space selfie”, where a favorite photo will be paired with a backdrop of Earth, pictured from orbit. In addition, Space Fab is building its own custom laser communications systems for the telescope optimized for low power, small size, and high speed.
Once deployed, this communication system will allow the telescope to download data back to Earth twice a day using optical ground stations. These images will then be available for upload via smartphone, tablet, computer or other devices. Chung and League’s efforts to create the first accessible telescope is already drawing its share of acolytes. One such person is Dustin Gibson, one of the owners of OPT Telescopes. As he told Universe Today via email:
“So far, the company is on the fast track to success with its first round of investing completed and over target, and the second round just getting started. It looks like this thing is going to fly in 2019! For an astrophotography lover like myself, I can’t think of anything more ground breaking than a consumer controlled space telescope.
“What Space Fab is doing is rewriting not just how we think about ways in which to do land surveys or deep space imaging, but actually redefining the way we are able interact with satellites by giving the common user a level of control over the movements and functionality of the unit itself with something as simple as a cell phone.”
Looking ahead, Space Fab is also busy developing the technology that will allow them to mine asteroids and tap the abundant resources of the Solar System. The company recently filed a patent for their ion accelerator, which is designed to augment the thrust from existing cubesat-sized ion engines.
The company is also focused on creating advanced robotic arms that will be able to wrestle with space debris and repair themselves in the event of mechanical failure or damage. In the meantime, the Waypoint is the first of several space telescopes that Space Fab hopes to deploy in order to generate revenue for these ventures.
“Our space telescopes will be open to everyone, so that is the beginning,” said League. “The revenue these satellites will generate provides us with the funds and knowledge base to conduct metal asteroid mining and manufacturing on a large scale. This will allow the manufacture of large structures, spacecraft, tools or anything thing else that is needed in space. With these available resources, our hope is to accelerate the space economy and colonization.”
In this respect, Space Fab is in good company when it comes to the age of NewSpace. Alongside big-names like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, and Deep Space Industries, they are part of a constellation of companies that are looking to make space accessible and usher in an age of post-scarcity. And with the help of the general public, they just might succeed!
Further Reading: SpaceFab,
In the past few decades, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in neighboring star systems. In fact, as of October 1st, 2017, some 3,671 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,751 systems, with 616 systems having more than one planet. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect means, ranging from Gravitational Microlensing to Transit Photometry and the Radial Velocity Method.
What’s more, we have been unable to study these planets up close because the necessary instruments do not yet exist. Project Blue, a consortium of scientists, universities and institutions, is looking to change that. Recently, they launched a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo to finance the development of a space telescope that will start looking for exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system by 2021.
In addition to its commercial and academic partners, Project Blue is a collaborative effort between the BoldlyGo Institute, Mission Centaur, the SETI Institute, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It is steered by a Science & Technology Advisory Committee (STAC) composed of science and technology experts who are dedicated to space exploration and the search for life in our Universe.
To accomplish their goal of directly studying exoplanets, Project Blue is seeking to leverage recent changes in space exploration, which include improved instruments and methodology, the rate at which exoplanet have been discovered in recent years, and increased collaboration between the private and public sector. As SETI Institute President and CEO Bill Diamond explained in a recent SETI press statement:
“Project Blue builds on recent research in seeking to show that Earth is not alone in the cosmos as a planet capable of supporting life, and wouldn’t it be amazing to see such a planet in our nearest neighboring star system? This is the fundamental reason we search.”
As noted, virtually all exoplanet discoveries that have been made in the past few decades were done using indirect methods – the most popular of which is Transit Photometery. This method is what the Kepler and K2 missions relied on to detect a total of 5,017 exoplanet candidates and confirm the existence of 2,470 exoplanets (30 of which were found to orbit within their star’s habitable zone).
This method consists of astronomers monitoring distant stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are caused by a planet transiting in front of the star. By measuring these dips, scientists are able to determine the size of planets in that system. Another popular technique is the Radial Velocity (or Doppler) Method, which measures changes in a star’s position relative to the observer to determine how massive its system of planets are.
These and other methods (alone or in combination) have allowed for the many discoveries that have been made to take place. But so far, no exoplanets have been directly imaged, which is due to the cancelling effect stars have on optical instruments. Basically, astronomers have been unable to spot the light being reflected off of an exoplanet’s atmosphere because the light coming from the star is up to ten billion times brighter.
The challenge has thus become how to go about blocking this light so that the planets themselves can become visible. One proposed solution to this problem is NASA’s Starshade concept, a giant space structure that would be deployed into orbit alongside a space telescope (most likely, the James Webb Space Telescope). Once in orbit, this structure would deploy its flower-shaped foils to block the glare of distant stars, thus allowing the JWST and other instruments to image exoplanets directly.
But since Alpha Centauri is a binary system (or trinary, if you count Proxima Centauri), being able to directly image any planets around them is even more complicated. To address this, Project Blue has developed plans for a telescope that will be able to suppress light from both Alpha Centauri A and B, while simultaneously taking images of any planets that orbit them. It’s specialized starlight suppression system consists of three components.
First, there is the coronagraph, an instrument which will rely on multiple techniques to block starlight. Second, there’s the deformable mirror, low-order wavefront sensors, and software control algorithms that will manipulate incoming light. Last, there is the post-processing method known as Orbital Differntial Imaging (ODI), which will allow the Project Blue scientist to enhance the contrast of the images taken.
Given its proximity to Earth, the Alpha Centauri system is the natural choice for conducting such a project. Back in 2012, an exoplanet candidate – Alpha Centauri Bb – was announced. However, in 2015, further analysis indicated that the signal detected was an artefact in the data. In March of 2015, a second possible exoplanet (Alpha Centauri Bc) was announced, but its existence has also come to be questioned.
With an instrument capable of directly imaging this system, the existence of any exoplanets could finally be confirmed (or ruled out). As Franck Marchis – the Senior Planetary Astronomer at the SETI Institute and Project Blue Science Operation Lead – said of the Project:
“Project Blue is an ambitious space mission, designed to answer to a fundamental question, but surprisingly the technology to collect an image of a “Pale Blue Dot” around Alpha Centauri stars is there. The technology that we will use to reach to detect a planet 1 to 10 billion times fainter than its star has been tested extensively in lab, and we are now ready to design a space-telescope with this instrument.”
If Project Blue meets its crowdfunding goals, the organization intends to deploy the telescope into Near-Earth Orbit (NEO) by 2021. The telescope will then spend the next two years observing the Alpha Centauri system with its corongraphic camera. All told, between the development of the instrument and the end of its observation campaign, the mission will last six years, a relatively short run for an astronomical mission.
However, the potential payoff for this mission would be incredibly profound. By directly imaging another planet in the closest star system to our own, Project Blue could gather vital data that would indicate if any planets there are habitable. For years, astronomers have attempted to learn more about the potential habitability of exoplanets by examining the spectral data produced by light passing through their atmospheres.
However, this process has been limited to massive gas giants that orbit close to their parent stars (i.e. “Super-Jupiters”). While various models have been proposed to place constraints on the atmospheres of rocky planets that orbit within a star’s habitable zone, none have been studied directly. Therefore, if it should prove to be successful, Project Blue would allow for some of the greatest scientific finds in history.
What’s more, it would provide information that could a long way towards informing a future mission to Alpha Centauri, such as Breakthrough Starshot. This proposed mission calls for the use of a large laser array to propel a lightsail-driven nanocraft up to relativistic speeds (20% the speed of light). At this rate, the craft would reach Alpha Centauri within 20 years time and be able to transmit data back using a series of tiny cameras, sensors and antennae.
As the name would suggest, Project Blue hopes to capture the first images of a “Pale Blue Dot” that orbits another star. This is a reference to the photograph of Earth that was taken by the Voyager 1 probe on February 19th, 1990, after the probe concluded its primary mission and was getting ready to leave the Solar System. The photos were taken at the request of famed astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan.
When looking at the photographs, Sagan famously said: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Thereafter, the name “Pale Blue Dot” came to be synonymous with Earth and capture the sense of awe and wonder that the Voyage 1 photographs evoked.
More recently, other “Pale Blue Dot” photographs have been snapped by missions like the Cassini orbiter. While photographing Saturn and its system of rings in the summer of 2013, Cassini managed to capture images that showed Earth in the background. Given the distance, Earth once again appeared as a small point of light against the darkness of space.
Beyond relying on crowdfunding and the participation of multiple non-profit organizations, this low-cost mission also seeks to capitalize on a growing trend in space exploration, – which is open participation and collaborations between scientific institutions and citizen scientists. This is one of the primary purposes behind Project Blue, which is to engage the public and educate them about the importance of space exploration.
As Jon Morse, the CEO of the BoldlyGo Institute, explained:
“The future of space exploration holds boundless potential for answering profound questions about our existence and destiny. Space-based science is a cornerstone for investigating such questions. Project Blue seeks to engage a global community in a mission to search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth.”
As of the penning of this article, Project Blue has managed to raise $125,561 USD of their goal of $175,000. For those interesting in backing this project, Project Blue’s Indiegogo campaign will remain open for another 11 days. And be sure to check out their promotional video as well:
Ever since they were first produced, carbon nanotubes have managed to set off a flurry excitement in the scientific community. With applications ranging from water treatment and electronics, to biomedicine and construction, this should come as no surprise. But a team of NASA engineers from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has pioneered the use of carbon nanotubes for yet another purpose – space-based telescopes.
Using carbon nanotubes, the Goddard team – which is led by Dr. Theodor Kostiuk of NASA’s Planetary Systems Laboratory and Solar System Exploration Division – have created a revolutionary new type of telescope mirror. These mirrors will be deployed as part of a CubeSat, one which may represent a new breed of low-cost, highly effective space-based telescopes.
This latest innovation also takes advantage of another field that has seen a lot of development of late. CubeSats, like other small satellites, have been playing an increasingly important role in recent years. Unlike the larger, bulkier satellites of yesteryear, miniature satellites are a low-cost platform for conducting space missions and scientific research.
Beyond federal space agencies like NASA, they also offer private business and research institutions the opportunity to conduct communications, research and observation from space. On top of that, they are also a low-cost way to engage students in all phases of satellite construction, deployment, and space-based research.
Granted, missions that rely on miniature satellites are not likely to generate the same amount of interest or scientific research as large-scale operations like the Juno mission or the New Horizons space probe. But they can provide vital information as part of larger missions, or work in groups to gather greater amounts of data.
With the help of funding from Goddard’s Internal Research and Development program, the team created a laboratory optical bench made of regular off-the-shelf components to test the telescope’s overall design. This bench consists of a series of miniature spectrometers tuned to the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths, which are connected to the focused beam of the nanotube mirrors via an optic cable.
Using this bench, the team is testing the optical mirrors, seeing how they stand up to different wavelengths of light. Peter Chen – the president of Lightweight Telescopes a Maryland-based company – is one of the contractors working with the Goddard team to create the CubeSat telescope. As he was quoted as saying by a recent NASA press release:
“No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon-nanotube resin. This is a unique technology currently available only at Goddard. The technology is too new to fly in space, and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement. But this is what my Goddard colleagues (Kostiuk, Tilak Hewagama, and John Kolasinski) are trying to accomplish through the CubeSat program.
Unlike other mirrors, the one created by Dr. Kostiuk’s team was fabricated out of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin. Naturally, carbon nanotubes offer a wide range of advantages, not the least of which are structural strength, unique electrical properties, and efficient conduction of heat. But the Goddard team also chose this material for their lenses because it offers a lightweight, highly stable and easily reproducible option for creating telescope mirrors.
What’s more, mirrors made of carbon-nanotubes do not require polishing, which is a time-consuming and expensive process when it comes to space-based telescopes. The team hopes that this new method will prove useful in creating a new class of low-cost, CubeSat space telescopes, as well as helping to reduce costs when it comes to larger ground-based and space-based telescopes.
Such mirrors would be especially useful in telescopes that use multiple mirror segments (like the Keck Observatory at Mauna Kea and the James Webb Space Telescope). Such mirrors would be a real cost-cutter since they can be easily produced and would eliminate the need for expensive polishing and grinding.
Other potential applications include deep-space communications, improved electronics, and structural materials for spacecraft. Currently, the production of carbon nanotubes is quite limited. But as it becomes more widespread, we can expect this miracle material to be making its way into all aspects of space exploration and research.
Further Reading: NASA