Astronomy Cast Ep. 454: Things We’re Looking Forward To

As we wrap up season 10 of Astronomy Cast, we look forward to all the instruments, missions and science results on the distant horizon. Think astronomy is exciting already? Just you wait.

We’re taking our summer hiatus during July and August, but we’ll be back in September with all-new episodes!

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We usually record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Friday at 1:30 pm Pacific / 4:30 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today or from the Astronomy Cast Google+ page.

Rise of the Super Telescopes: Why We Build Them

This illustration shows what the Giant Magellan Telescope will look like when it comes online. The fifth of its seven mirror segments is being cast now. Each of the segments is a 20 ton piece of glass. Image: Giant Magellan

One night 400 years ago, Galileo pointed his 2 inch telescope at Jupiter and spotted 3 of its moons. On subsequent nights, he spotted another, and saw one of the moons disappear behind Jupiter. With those simple observations, he propelled human understanding onto a path it still travels.

Galileo’s observations set off a revolution in astronomy. Prior to his observations of Jupiter’s moons, the prevailing belief was that the entire Universe rotated around the Earth, which lay at the center of everything. That’s a delightfully childish viewpoint, in retrospect, but it was dogma at the time.

Until Galileo’s telescope, this Earth-centric viewpoint, called Aristotelian cosmology, made sense. To all appearances, we were at the center of the action. Which just goes to show you how wrong we can be.

But once it became clear that Jupiter had other bodies orbiting it, our cherished position at the center of the Universe was doomed.

Galileo Galilei set off a revolution in astronomy when he used his telescope to observe moons orbiting Jupiter. By Justus Sustermans - http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/pages/mnuExplore/PaintingDetail.cfm?ID=BHC2700, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230543
Galileo Galilei set off a revolution in astronomy when he used his telescope to observe moons orbiting Jupiter. By Justus Sustermans – http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/pages/mnuExplore/PaintingDetail.cfm?ID=BHC2700, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230543

Galileo’s observations were an enormous challenge to our understanding of ourselves at the time, and to the authorities at the time. He was forced to recant what he had seen, and he was put under house arrest. But he never really backed down from the observations he made with his 2 inch telescope. How could he?

Now, of course, there isn’t so much hostility towards people with telescopes. As time went on, larger and more powerful telescopes were built, and we’ve gotten used to our understanding going through tumultuous changes. We expect it, even anticipate it.

In our current times, Super Telescopes rule the day, and their sizes are measured in meters, not inches. And when new observations challenge our understanding of things, we cluster around out of curiosity, and try to work our way through it. We don’t condemn the results and order scientists to keep quiet.

The first of the Super Telescopes, as far as most of us are concerned, is the Hubble Space Telescope. From its perch in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Hubble has changed our understanding of the Universe on numerous fronts. With its cameras, and the steady stream of mesmerizing images those cameras deliver, a whole generation of people have been exposed to the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX - http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254
The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX – http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254

Hubble has gazed at everything, from our close companion the Moon, all the way to galaxies billions of light years away. It’s spotted a comet breaking apart and crashing into Jupiter, dust storms on Mars, and regions of energetic star-birth in other galaxies. But Hubble’s time may be coming to an end soon, and other Super Telescopes are on the way.

Nowadays, Super Telescopes are expensive megaprojects, often involving several nations. They’re built to pursue specific lines of inquiry, such as:

  • What is the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy? How are they distributed in the Universe and what role do they play?
  • Are there other planets like Earth, and solar systems like ours? Are there other habitable worlds?
  • Are we alone or is there other life somewhere?
  • How do planets, solar systems, and galaxies form and evolve?

Some of the Super Telescopes will be on Earth, some will be in space. Some have enormous mirrors made up of individual, computer-controlled segments. The Thirty Meter Telescope has almost 500 of these segments, while the European Extremely Large Telescope has almost 800 of them. Following a different design, the Giant Magellan Telescope has only seven segments, but each one is over 8 meters in diameter, and each one weighs in at a whopping 20 tons of glass each.

This artistic bird's-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in all its glory, on top of the Chilean Cerro Armazones. The telescope is currently under construction and its first light is targeted for 2024.
This artistic bird’s-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in all its glory, on top of the Chilean Cerro Armazones. The telescope is currently under construction and its first light is targeted for 2024.

Some of the Super Telescopes see in UV or Infrared, while others can see in visible light. Some see in several spectrums. The most futuristic of them all, the Large Ultra-Violet, Optical, and Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR), will be a massive space telescope situated a million-and-a-half kilometers away, with a 16 meter segmented mirror that dwarfs that of the Hubble, at a mere 2.4 meters.

Some of the Super Telescopes will discern the finest distant details, while another, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, will complete a ten-year survey of the entire available sky, repeatedly imaging the same area of sky over and over. The result will be a living, dynamic map of the sky showing change over time. That living map will be available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

A group photo of the team behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The group gathered to celebrate the casting of the 'scope's 27.5 ft diameter mirror. The LSST will create a living, detailed, dynamic map of the sky and make it available to anyone. Image: LSST Corporation
A group photo of the team behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The group gathered to celebrate the casting of the ‘scope’s 27.5 ft diameter mirror. The LSST will create a living, detailed, dynamic map of the sky and make it available to anyone. Image: LSST Corporation

We’re in for exciting times when it comes to our understanding of the cosmos. We’ll be able to watch planets forming around young stars, glimpse the earliest ages of the Universe, and peer into the atmospheres of distant exoplanets looking for signs of life. We may even finally crack the code of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and understand their role in the Universe.

Along the way there will be surprises, of course. There always are, and it’s the unanticipated discoveries and observations that fuel our sense of intellectual adventure.

The Super Telescopes are technological masterpieces. They couldn’t be built without the level of technology we have now, and in fact, the development of Super Telescopes help drives our technology forward.

But they all have their roots in Galileo and his simple act of observing with a 2-inch telescope. That, and the curiosity about nature that inspired him.

The Rise of the Super Telescopes Series:

Rise Of The Super Telescopes: The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will capture Hubble-quality images covering swaths of sky 100 times larger than Hubble does, enabling cosmic evolution studies. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres. Credits: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

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:

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

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.

We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had started accelerating about 5 billion years ago. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild
We used to think that the Universe expanded at a steady rate. Then in the 1990s we discovered that the expansion had accelerated. Dark Energy is the name given to the force driving that expansion. Image: NASA/STSci/Ann Feild

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.

Probing Exoplanets

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.

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We’re going to keep finding more and more solar systems like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“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.

Weekly Space Hangout – Feb. 26, 2016: Fast Radio Bursts & Missing Baryons

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:

Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)

Their stories this week:
Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Solve Missing Baryon Problem

Search Narrows for Planet Nine

WFIRST Unveiled

Double Shadow Transit Season Begins

Pulsar “Web” search for gravitational waves

Milky Way Survey of Gas and Dust Completed

Mars in 3 days? Hm.

Scott Kelly to return to Earth on March 1 – why was he in space for a year?

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 29, 2016: Largest Solar System, Future Missions, and Remembering Our Lost Astronauts

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Paul Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 29, 2016: Largest Solar System, Future Missions, and Remembering Our Lost Astronauts”

BUDGET 2015: Flying SOFIA Telescope To Be Shelved For ‘Higher-Priority’ Programs Like Cassini

NASA is prepared to axe an airborne telescope to keep “higher-priority” programs such as the Saturn Cassini mission going, according to budget documents the agency released today (March 4). We have more information about the budget below the jump, including the rationale for why NASA is looking to shelve its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

NASA’s  has been flying the telescope for just over three years and recently took some nice snapsnots of the M82 supernova that astronomers have been eager to image. The agency’s administrator, however, said SOFIA has had its shot and it’s time to reallocate the money for other programs.

“SOFIA has earned its way, and it has done very well, but we had to make a choice,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden in a conference call with reporters regarding the fiscal 2015 $17.46 billion budget request. He added that NASA is in discussions with partner DLR (the German space agency) to look at alternatives, but pending an agreement, the agency will shelve the telescope in 2015.

In a short news conference focusing on the telescope only, NASA said the observatory had been slated to run for another 20 years, at a cost of about $85 million on NASA’s end per year. (That adds up to $1.7 billion in that timeframe by straight math, but bear in mind the detailed budget estimates are not up yet, making that figure a guess on Universe Today’s part.) DLR funds about 25% of the telescope’s operating budget, and NASA the rest.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during a flight in 2010. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during a flight in 2010. Credit: NASA

“SOFIA does have a rather large operating cost compared to other missions, second only to Hubble [Space Telescope],” said NASA chief financial officer Beth Robinson in the second conference call. “There is a distinct trade in the operating mission universe about how many keep going and how much you free up (for new missions).”

The telescope isn’t the only such “trade” NASA made, Robinson added. Although not an exhaustive list, she said funding for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) is not in the base budget request, nor funding to accelerate development of the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.

SOFIA examines a “unique” part of the infrared spectrum, added NASA’s Paul Hertz, who heads the astrophysics division, but he noted infrared science is also performed by the Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Coming up soon is the James Webb Space Telescope. Also, the budget allocates development money for a new infrared observatory called Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Below are other notable parts of the 2015 budget. These are high-level statements missing some detail, as the rest of NASA’s documentation won’t be released publicly until late this week or early next.

The full mosaic from the Cassini imaging team of Saturn on July 19, 2013… the “Day the Earth Smiled”
The full mosaic from the Cassini imaging team of Saturn on July 19, 2013… the “Day the Earth Smiled”

– NASA’s budget falls overall to $17.46 billion, down one percent from $17.64 billion. Planetary science and human exploration each had nearly equal reductions of around three percent, with education taking the deepest cut (24%) in high-level categories as NASA moves to consolidate that directorate with other agencies.

– Funding continues for 14 operating planetary missions, which are presumably the same 14 missions that are contained here. (That list includes Cassini, Dawn, Epoxi, GRAIL, Juno, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rover/Opportunity, Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity, MESSENGER, New Horizons and Rosetta.) Separately, James Webb Space Telescope funding stays about the same as fiscal 2014, keeping it on track for a 2018 launch.

– NASA plans a mission to Europa. This was identified as the “second highest priority Flagship mission for the decade” in the National Research Council planetary science decadal survey, which called for a mission for “characterization of Europa’s ocean and interior, ice shell, chemistry and composition, and the geology of prospective landing sites.” NASA has allocated $15 million in fiscal 2015 for this mission, but it’s unclear if it’s going to be a big mission or a small one as the agency is still talking with the science community (and presumably checking its budget, although officials didn’t say that). If this goes through, it would fly in the 2020s.

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

– NASA’s humans-to-asteroid mission gets some more money. The agency requests $133 million for goals including “advancing solar electric propulsion and capture systems, and conduct of the Mission Concept Review in which the mission architecture will be established.” During the conference call with reporters, Bolden said the asteroid capture mission is a key step for NASA’s aim to have a manned Mars mission in the 2030s.

– Funding continues for NASA’s commercial crew program and Orion/Space Launch System program. It remains to be seen if the amounts allocated will be enough for what industry insiders hope for, but on a numbers basis, the Orion/SLS infrastructure funding falls to $2.78 billion (down 12% from $3.115 billion in FY 2014) and commercial crew funding increases to $848.3 million (up 20% from $696 million in FY 2014). Note the 2014 numbers are not finalized yet. NASA says the commercial funding will allow the program to maintain “competition”, although details are under wraps as the agency is evaluating proposals.

The International Space Station is extended to 2024. That news was made public in early January, but technically speaking that is a part of the fiscal 2015 budget.

There’s far more to the budget that could be covered in a single news article, and it should be noted there was an entire aviation component as well. We encourage you to check out the budget documents below for the full story so far.

2015 budget presentation

– 2015 budget overview

2015 budget overall fact sheet

2015 budget category fact sheets (science, aeronautics research, space technology, etc.)

On the Road to One Thousand Exoplanets

A quiet milestone in modern astronomy may soon come to pass.  As of today, The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia lists a current tally of 998 extrasolar planets across 759 planetary systems. And although various tabulations differ slightly, very soon we should be living in an era where over one thousand exoplanets are known.

The history of exoplanet discovery has paralleled the course of the modern age of astronomy. It’s strange to think that a generation has already grown up over the past two decades in a world where knowledge of extrasolar planets is a given. I remember hearing of the promise of such detections growing up in the 1970’s, as astronomers put the odds at detection of planets beyond our solar system in our lifetime at around 50%.

A "Periodic Table of Exoplanets" Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.
A “Periodic Table of Exoplanets” Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.

Sure, there were plenty of false positives long before the first true discovery was made. 70 Ophiuchi was the site of many claims, starting with that of W.S. Jacob of the Madras Observatory way back in 1855. The high proper motion exhibited by Barnard’s Star at six light years distant was also highly scrutinized throughout the 20th century for claims of an unseen companion causing it to wobble. Ironically, Barnard’s Star still hasn’t made it into the pantheon of stars boasting planetary worlds.

A portrait of the HR8799 planetary system as imaged by the Hale Telescope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory).
A portrait of the HR8799 planetary system as imaged by the Hale Telescope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory).

But the first verified claim of an exoplanetary system came from a bizarre and unexpected source: a pulsar known as PSR B1257+12, which was discovered to host two worlds in 1992. This was followed by the first discovery of a world orbiting a main sequence star, 51 Pegasi in 1994. I still remember getting my hands on the latest issue of Astronomy magazine— we got our news, often months later, from actual paper magazines in those days —announcing “Planet Discovered!” on the cover.

Most methods and techniques used to discover exoplanets rely on either radial velocity or dips in the light output of a star from a transiting world. Both have their utility and drawbacks. Radial velocity looks for shifts in the star’s spectra as an unseen companion tugs it around a common center of mass. Though effective, it can only place a lower limit on the planet’s mass… and it’s biased towards worlds in short orbits. This is one reason that “hot Jupiters” have dominated the early exoplanet catalog: we hadn’t been looking for all that long.

Another method famously employed by surveys such as the Kepler space telescope is the transit detection method. This allows a much more refined estimate of a planet’s mass and orbit, assuming it transits the disk of its host star as seen from our Earthly vantage point in the first place, which most don’t.

A size comparision of exoplanets versus composition. (Credit: Marc Kuchner/NASA/GSFC).
A size comparision of exoplanets versus composition. (Credit: Marc Kuchner/NASA/GSFC).

Direct detection via occulting the host star is also coming of age. One of the first exoplanets directly imaged was Fomalhaut b, which can be seen changing positions in its orbit from 2004 to 2006.

Gravitational microlensing has also bared planetary fruit, with surveys such as MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics) and OGLE (the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment) catching brief lensing events as an unseen body passes in front of a background star. Distant free-ranging rogue planets can only be detected via this method.

More exotic techniques also exist, such as relativistic beaming (sounding like something out of Star Trek). Other methods include searches for tiny light variations as an illuminated planet orbits its host star, deformities caused by ellipsoidal variations as massive planets orbit a star, and infrared detections of circumstellar disks. We’re always amazed at the wealth of data that can be teased out of a few dim photons of light.

A scatter plot of exoplanet discoveries as of 2010 mass versus semi-major axis. Select exoplanets are labeled. A majority were detected via radial velocity (blue) and the transiting method (green). The remainder were detected by other methods (click here for a full discription). Graph in the Public Domain.
A scatter plot of exoplanet discoveries as of 2010 displaying mass versus semi-major axis. Select exoplanets are labeled. A majority were detected via radial velocity (blue) and the transiting method (green). The remainder were detected by other methods (click here for a full description). Graph in the Public Domain.

Universe Today has grown up with exoplanet science, from reporting on the hottest, fastest, and other notable “firsts”. A bizarre menagerie of worlds are now known, many of which defy the imagination of science fiction writers of yore. Want a world made of diamond, or one where it rains glass? There’s now an “exoplanet for that”.

Exoplanet news has almost gone from the incredible to the routine, as Tatooine-like worlds orbiting binary stars and systems with worlds in bizarre resonances are announced with increasing frequency.

Exoplanet surveys also have a capacity to peg down that key fp factor in the famous Drake equation, which asks us “what fraction of stars have planets”. It’s been long suspected that stars with planets are the rule rather than the exception, and we’re just now getting hard data to back that assertion up.

Missions, such as NASA’s Kepler space telescope and CNES/ESA CoRoT space telescope have swollen the ranks of extrasolar worlds. Kepler recently ended its career staring off in the direction of the constellations Cygnus, Hercules and Lyra and still has over 3,200 detections awaiting confirmation.

Exoplanet discoveries by year as of October 2013, color coded by method. Blue=radial velocity, Green=transiting, Yellow=timing, Red=direct imaging, Orange=microlensing
Exoplanet discoveries by year as of October 2013, color coded by method. Blue=radial velocity, Green=transiting, Yellow=timing, Red=direct imaging, Orange=microlensing

But is a given world Earthlike, or just Earth-sized? That’s the Holy Grail of modern exoplanet detection: an Earth-sized world orbiting in a star’s habitable zone. We’re cautious every time the latest “Earth-twin” makes its way into the headlines. From the perspective of an intergalactic astronomer, Venus in our own solar system might appear to fit the bill, though I wouldn’t bank the construction of an interstellar ark on it and head there just yet.

Exoplanet science has definitely come of age, allowing us to finally begin characterization of solar systems and give us some insight into solar system formation.

But perhaps what will be the most enduring legacy is what the discovery of extrasolar planets tells us about ourselves. How common (or rare) is the Earth? How typical is the story of our solar system? If the “first 1,000” are any indication, we strongly suspect that terrestrial planets come in enough distinct varieties or ”flavors” to make Baskin Robbins envious.

And the future of exoplanet science looks bright indeed. One proposed mission, known as the Fast INfrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer, or FINESSE, would target exoplanet atmospheres, if given the go ahead for a 2017 launch. Another proposal, known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, would search for microlensing events starting in 2023. A mission that scientists would love to fly that always seems to be shelved is known as the Terrestrial Planet Finder.

But the exoplanet hunting mission that’s closest to launch is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Unlike Kepler, which stares at a single patch of sky, TESS will be an all-sky survey looking at a half million stars.

We’re also just approaching an era where spectroscopy may allow us to detect exomoons and the chemistry taking place on these far off exoworlds. An example of an exciting discovery would be the detection of a chemical such as chlorophyll, a chemical that we know on Earth only exists as the result of life. But what a tantalizing discovery a blip on a graph would be, when what we humans really want to see is the vista of those far-flung alien forests!

Such is the exciting era we live in. Congratulations, humanity, on detecting 1,000 exoplanets… here’s to a thousand more!

Surprise! NASA Gets Two ‘Free’ Hubble-like Space Telescopes

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NASA will be getting two unused space surveillance satellites from the US’s National Reconnaissance Office, which could possibly be used to search for dark energy. In articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times, NASA and NRO officials revealed the two unused and not-fully-built satellites are available for NASA to use as they see fit. While the satellites don’t have astronomical instruments and are still in a warehouse, they do have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like Hubble, with a wider field of view and a maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain better-focused images.

“This is a total game changer,” said David N. Spergel of Princeton, quoted in the New York Times, who is co-chairman of a committee on astronomy and astrophysics for the National Academy of Sciences.

Reportedly, the NRO contacted NASA in 2011 about the two spy satellites. Since taking over as head of the NASA Science Directorate early this year, former Hubble repairman John Grunsfeld has been working with scientists and other NASA officials to quietly study the possibility of using the two satellites as “repurposed telescopes.”

Originally designed to look at Earth for surveillance, the two telescopes could be turned to look at the heavens instead, as the National Reconnaissance Office said they no longer needed them for spy missions. Why two such spy telescopes were under construction and then scrapped is not clear.

Described as not fully built and some parts being in “bits and pieces,” NASA will have to decide on how they should be used, build additional instruments, launch them, and support the operations.

Reportedly, Grunsfeld and his secret team have come up with a plan to turn one of the telescopes to investigate the mysterious dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

NASA officials stressed that they do not have a program or a budget to launch even one telescope at the moment, and that at the very earliest, under favorable budgets, it would be 2020 before even one of the two gifted telescopes could be ready for a mission.

The Washington Post asked Grunsfeld whether anyone at NASA was popping champagne, and he answered, “We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight.”

In the latest decadal survey the astronomical community had suggested a dark energy telescope as its top priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the lack of funding – along with huge cost overruns by the James Webb Space Telescope — made it seem like such a telescope would be an impossibility.

The two telescopes could possibly be used for the proposed WFIRST project, which seemingly was not going anywhere with the latest budget proposal or as a ‘scout’ for the JWST.

“It would be a great discovery telescope for where Webb should look in addition to doing the work on dark energy,” Spergel said in the Washington Post.

Astronomers will be discussing the possibilities at a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences held on today in Washington, D.C. and how they could turn the two gifted telescopes into official missions.

Read more in the Washington Post and the New York Times.