Welcome back to the latest installment in our series on Exoplanet-hunting methods. Today we begin with the very difficult, but very promising method known as Direct Imaging.
In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown by leaps and bounds. As of October 4th, 2018, a total of 3,869 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,887 planetary systems, with 638 systems hosting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to the limitations astronomers have been forced to contend with, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect methods.
So far, only a handful of planets have been discovered by being imaged as they orbited their stars (aka. Direct Imaging). While challenging compared to indirect methods, this method is the most promising when it comes to characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets. So far, 100 planets have been confirmed in 82 planetary systems using this method, and many more are expected to be found in the near future.
NASA has turned a lot of heads in recent years thanks to its New Worlds Mission concept – aka. Starshade. Consisting of a giant flower-shaped occulter, this proposed spacecraft is intended to be deployed alongside a space telescope (most likely the James Webb Space Telescope). It will then block the glare of distant stars, creating an artificial eclipse to make it easier to detect and study planets orbiting them.
The only problem is, this concept is expected to cost a pretty penny – an estimated $750 million to $3 billion at this point! Hence why Stanford Professor Simone D’Amico (with the help of exoplanet expert Bruce Macintosh) is proposing a scaled down version of the concept to demonstrate its effectiveness. Known as mDot, this occulter will do the same job, but at a fraction of the cost.
The purpose behind an occulter is simple. When hunting for exoplanets, astronomers are forced to rely predominantly on indirected methods – the most common being the Transit Method. This involves monitoring stars for dips in luminosity, which are attributed to planets passing between them and the observer. By measuring the rate and the frequency of these dips, astronomers are able to determine the sizes of exoplanets and their orbital periods.
As Simone D’Amico, whose lab is working on this eclipsing system, explained in a Stanford University press statement:
“With indirect measurements, you can detect objects near a star and figure out their orbit period and distance from the star. This is all important information, but with direct observation you could characterize the chemical composition of the planet and potentially observe signs of biological activity – life.”
However, this method also suffers from a substantial rate of false positives and generally requires that part of the planet’s orbit intersect a line-of-sight between the host star and Earth. Studying the exoplanets themselves is also quite difficult, since the light coming from the star is likely to be several billion times brighter than the light being reflected off the planet.
The ability to study this reflected light is of particular interest, since it would yield valuable data about the exoplanets’ atmospheres. As such, several key technologies are being developed to block out the interfering light of stars. A spacecraft equipped with an occulter is one such technology. Paired with a space telescope, this spacecraft would create an artificial eclipse in front of the star so objects around it (i.e. exoplanets) can be clearly seen.
But in addition to the significant cost of building one, there is also the issue of size and deployment. For such a mission to work, the occulter itself would need to be about the size of a baseball diamond – 27.5 meters (90 feet) in diameter. It would also need to be separated from the telescope by a distance equal to multiple Earth diameters and would have to be deployed beyond Earth’s orbit. All of this adds up to a rather pricey mission!
As such, D’Amico – an assistant professor and the head of the Space Rendezvous Laboratory (SRL) at Stanford – and and Bruce Macintosh (a Stanford professor of physics) teamed up to create a smaller version called the Miniaturized Distributed Occulter/Telescope (mDOT). The primary purpose of mDOT is to provide a low-cost flight demonstration of the technology, in the hopes of increasing confidence in a full-scale mission.
As Adam Koenig, a graduate student with the SRL, explained:
“So far, there has been no mission flown with the degree of sophistication that would be required for one of these exoplanet imaging observatories. When you’re asking headquarters for a few billion dollars to do something like this, it would be ideal to be able to say that we’ve already flown all of this before. This one is just bigger.”
Consisting of two parts, the mDOT system takes advantage of recent developments in miniaturization and small satellite (smallsat) technology. The first is a 100-kg microsatellite that is equipped with a 3-meter diameter starshade. The second is a 10-kg nanosatellite that carries a telescope measuring 10 cm (3.937 in) in diameter. Both components will be deployed in high Earth orbit with a nominal separation of less than 1,000 kilometers (621 mi).
With the help of colleagues from the SRL, the shape of mDOT’s starshade was reformulated to fit the constraints of a much smaller spacecraft. As Koenig explained, this scaled down and specially-designed starshade will be able to do the same job as the large-scale, flower-shaped version – and on a budget!
“With this special geometric shape, you can get the light diffracting around the starshade to cancel itself out,” he said. “Then, you get a very, very deep shadow right in the center. The shadow is deep enough that the light from the star won’t interfere with observations of a nearby planet.”
However, since the shadow created by mDOT’s starshade is only tens of centimeters in diameter, the nanosatellite will have do some careful maneuvering to stay within it. For this purpose, D’Amico and the SRL also designed an autonomous system for the nanosatellite, which would allow it to conduct formation maneuvers with the starshade, break formation when needed, and rendezvous with it again later.
An unfortunate limitation to the technology is the fact that it won’t be able to resolve Earth-like planets. Especially where M-type (red dwarf) stars are concerned, these planets are likely to orbit too close to their parent stars to be observed clearly. However, it will be able to resolve Jupiter-sized gas giants and help characterize exozodiacal dust concentrations around nearby stars – both of which are priorities for NASA.
In the meantime, D’Amico and his colleagues will be using the Testbed for Rendezvous and Optical Navigation (TRON) to test their mDOT concept. This facility was specially-built by D’Amico to replicate the types of complex and unique illumination conditions that are encountered by sensors in space. In the coming years, he and his team will be working to ensure that the system works before creating an eventual prototype.
As D’Amico said of the work he and his colleagues at the SNL perform:
“I’m enthusiastic about my research program at Stanford because we’re tackling important challenges. I want to help answer fundamental questions and if you look in all current direction of space science and exploration – whether we’re trying to observe exoplanets, learn about the evolution of the universe, assemble structures in space or understand our planet – satellite formation-flying is the key enabler.”
Other projects that D’Amico and the SNL are currently engaged in include developing larger formations of tiny spacecraft (aka. “swarm satellites”). In the past, D’Amico has also collaborated with NASA on such projects as GRACE – a mission that mapped variations in Earth’s gravity field as part of the NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) program – and TanDEM-X, an SEA-sponsored mission which yielded 3D maps of Earth.
These and other projects which seek to leverage miniaturization for the sake of space exploration promise a new era of lower costs and greater accessibility. With applications ranging from swarms of tiny research and communications satellites to nanocraft capable of making the journey to Alpha Centauri at relativistic speeds (Breakthrough Starshot), the future of space looks pretty promising!
Be sure to check out this video of the TRON facility too, courtesy of Standford University:
We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.
In this series we’ll look at the world’s upcoming Super Telescopes:
It’s easy to forget the impact that the Hubble Space Telescope has had on our state of knowledge about the Universe. In fact, that might be the best measurement of its success: We take the Hubble, and all we’ve learned from it, for granted now. But other space telescopes are being developed, including the WFIRST, which will be much more powerful than the Hubble. How far will these telescopes extend our understanding of the Universe?
“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has.” – John Grunsfeld, NASA Science Mission Directorate
The WFIRST might be the true successor to the Hubble, even though the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is often touted as such. But it may be incorrect to even call WFIRST a telescope; it’s more accurate to call it an astrophysics observatory. That’s because one of its primary science objectives is to study Dark Energy, that rather mysterious force that drives the expansion of the Universe, and Dark Matter, the difficult-to-detect matter that slows that expansion.
WFIRST will have a 2.4 meter mirror, the same size as the Hubble. But, it will have a camera that will expand the power of that mirror. The Wide Field Instrument is a 288-megapixel multi-band near-infrared camera. Once it’s in operation, it will capture images that are every bit as sharp as those from Hubble. But there is one huge difference: The Wide Field Instrument will capture images that cover over 100 times the sky that Hubble does.
Alongside the Wide Field Instrument, WFIRST will have the Coronagraphic Instrument. The Coronagraphic Instrument will advance the study of exoplanets. It’ll use a system of filters and masks to block out the light from other stars, and hone in on planets orbiting those stars. This will allow very detailed study of the atmospheres of exoplanets, one of the main ways of determining habitability.
WFIRST is slated to be launched in 2025, although it’s too soon to have an exact date. But when it launches, the plan is for WFIRST to travel to the Sun-Earth LaGrange Point 2 (L2.) L2 is a gravitationally balanced point in space where WFIRST can do its work without interruption. The mission is set to last about 6 years.
Probing Dark Energy
“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.”
In a nutshell, there are two proposals for what Dark Energy can be. The first is the cosmological constant, where Dark Energy is uniform throughout the cosmos. The second is what’s known as scalar fields, where the density of Dark Energy can vary in time and space.
Since the 1990s, observations have shown us that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. That acceleration started about 5 billion years ago. We think that Dark Energy is responsible for that accelerated expansion. By providing such large, detailed images of the cosmos, WFIRST will let astronomers map expansion over time and over large areas. WFIRST will also precisely measure the shapes, positions and distances of millions of galaxies to track the distribution and growth of cosmic structures, including galaxy clusters and the Dark Matter accompanying them. The hope is that this will give us a next level of understanding when it comes to Dark Energy.
If that all sounds too complicated, look at it this way: We know the Universe is expanding, and we know that the expansion is accelerating. We want to know why it’s expanding, and how. We’ve given the name ‘Dark Energy’ to the force that’s driving that expansion, and now we want to know more about it.
Dark Energy and the expansion of the Universe is a huge mystery, and a question that drives cosmologists. (They really want to know how the Universe will end!) But for many of the rest of us, another question is even more compelling: Are we alone in the Universe?
There’ll be no quick answer to that one, but any answer we find begins with studying exoplanets, and that’s something that WFIRST will also excel at.
“WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “The Wide-Field Instrument will give the telescope the ability to capture a single image with the depth and quality of Hubble, but covering 100 times the area. The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.”
“The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.” – Paul Hertz, NASA Astrophysics Division
The difficulty in studying exoplanets is that they are all orbiting stars. Stars are so bright they make it impossible to see their planets in any detail. It’s like staring into a lighthouse miles away and trying to study an insect near the lighthouse.
The Coronagraphic Instrument on board WFIRST will excel at blocking out the light of distant stars. It does that with a system of mirrors and masks. This is what makes studying exoplanets possible. Only when the light from the star is dealt with, can the properties of exoplanets be examined.
This will allow detailed measurements of the chemical composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. By doing this over thousands of planets, we can begin to understand the formation of planets around different types of stars. There are some limitations to the Coronagraphic Instrument, though.
The Coronagraphic Instrument was kind of a late addition to WFIRST. Some of the other instrumentation on WFIRST isn’t optimized to work with it, so there are some restrictions to its operation. It will only be able to study gas giants, and so-called Super-Earths. These larger planets don’t require as much finesse to study, simply because of their size. Earth-like worlds will likely be beyond the power of the Coronagraphic Instrument.
These limitations are no big deal in the long run. The Coronagraph is actually more of a technology demonstration, and it doesn’t represent the end-game for exoplanet study. Whatever is learned from this instrument will help us in the future. There will be an eventual successor to WFIRST some day, perhaps decades from now, and by that time Coronagraph technology will have advanced a great deal. At that future time, direct snapshots of Earth-like exoplanets may well be possible.
But maybe we won’t have to wait that long.
Starshade To The Rescue?
There is a plan to boost the effectiveness of the Coronagraph on WFIRST that would allow it to image Earth-like planets. It’s called the EXO-S Starshade.
The EXO-S Starshade is a 34m diameter deployable shading system that will block starlight from impairing the function of WFIRST. It would actually be a separate craft, launched separately and sent on its way to rendezvous with WFIRST at L2. It would not be tethered, but would orient itself with WFIRST through a system of cameras and guide lights. In fact, part of the power of the Starshade is that it would be about 40,000 to 50,000 km away from WFIRST.
Dark Energy and Exoplanets are priorities for WFIRST, but there are always other discoveries awaiting better telescopes. It’s not possible to predict everything that we’ll learn from WFIRST. With images as detailed as Hubble’s, but 100 times larger, we’re in for some surprises.
“This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.” – Neil Gehrels, WFIRST Project Scientist
“In addition to its exciting capabilities for dark energy and exoplanets, WFIRST will provide a treasure trove of exquisite data for all astronomers,” said Neil Gehrels, WFIRST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.”
With all of the Super Telescopes coming on line in the next few years, we can expect some amazing discoveries. In 10 to 20 years time, our knowledge will have advanced considerably. What will we learn about Dark Matter and Dark Energy? What will we know about exoplanet populations?
Right now it seems like we’re just groping towards a better understanding of these things, but with WFIRST and the other Super Telescopes, we’re poised for more purposeful study.
For countless generations, people have looked up at the stars and wondered if life exists somewhere out there, perhaps on planets much like ours. But it has only been in recent decades that we have been able to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in other star systems. In fact, between 1988 and April 20th of 2016, astronomers have been able to account for the existence of 2108 planets in 1350 different star systems, including 511 multiple planetary systems.
Most of these discoveries have taken place within just the past three years, thanks to improvements in our detection methods, and the deployment of the Kepler space observatory in 2009. Looking ahead, astronomers hope to improve on these methods even further with the introduction of the Starshade, a giant space structure designed to block the glare of stars, thus making it easier to find planets – and perhaps another Earth!