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  • richardmitnick 10:46 pm on November 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Found! First Earth-Size Planet That Could Support Life” 

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    For the first time, scientists have discovered an Earth-size alien planet in the habitable zone of its host star, an “Earth cousin” that just might have liquid water and the right conditions for life.This artist illustration shows what it might be like to stand on the surface of the planet Kepler-186f, the first-ever Earth-size planet to be found in the habitable zone of its star.
    Credit: Danielle Futselaar

    The newfound planet, called Kepler-186f, was first spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and circles a dim red dwarf star about 490 light-years from Earth. While the host star is dimmer than Earth’s sun and the planet is slightly bigger than Earth, the positioning of the alien world coupled with its size suggests that Kepler-186f could have water on its surface, scientists say.

    Comparison of best-fit size of the exoplanet Kepler-186 f with the Solar System planet Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogueas of 2014-04-20.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    “One of the things we’ve been looking for is maybe an Earth twin, which is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a sunlike star,” Tom Barclay, Kepler scientist and co-author of the new exoplanet research, told Space.com. “This [Kepler-186f] is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a cooler star. So, while it’s not an Earth twin, it is perhaps an Earth cousin. It has similar characteristics, but a different parent.”

    This artist illustration shows the planet Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size alien planet discovered in the habitable zone of its star.
    Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

    Potentially habitable planet

    Scientists think that Kepler-186f — the outermost of five planets found to be orbiting the star Kepler-186 — orbits at a distance of 32.5 million miles (52.4 million kilometers), theoretically within the habitable zone for a red dwarf.

    Earth orbits the sun from an average distance of about 93 million miles (150 million km), but the sun is larger and brighter than the Kepler-186 star, meaning that the sun’s habitable zone begins farther out from the star by comparison to Kepler-186.

    “This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star,” Elisa Quintana, of the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center and the lead author of a new study detailing the findings, said in a statement.

    Other planets of various sizes have been found in the habitable zones of their stars. However, Kepler-186f is the first alien planet this close to Earth in size found orbiting in that potentially life-supporting area of an extrasolar system, according to exoplanet scientists.

    An historic discovery

    “This is an historic discovery of the first truly Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone around its star,” Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is unaffiliated with the research, told Space.com via email. “This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found. The results are absolutely rock-solid. The planet itself may not be, but I’d bet my house on it. In any case, it’s a gem.”

    The newly discovered planet measures about 1.1 Earth radii, making it slightly larger than Earth, but researchers still think the alien world may be rocky like Earth. Researchers still aren’t sure what Kepler-186f’s atmosphere is made of, a key element that could help scientists understand if the planet is hospitable to life.

    “What we’ve learned, just over the past few years, is that there is a definite transition which occurs around about 1.5 Earth radii,” Quintana said in a statement. “What happens there is that for radii between 1.5 and 2 Earth radii, the planet becomes massive enough that it starts to accumulate a very thick hydrogen and helium atmosphere, so it starts to resemble the gas giants of our solar system rather than anything else that we see as terrestrial.”

    This diagram shows the position of Kepler-186f in relation to Earth.
    Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

    The edge of habitability

    Kepler-186f actually lies at the edge of the Kepler-186 star’s habitable zone, meaning that liquid water on the planet’s surface could freeze, according to study co-author Stephen Kane of San Francisco State University.

    Because of its position in the outer part of the habitable zone, the planet’s larger size could actually help keep its water liquid, Kane said in a statement. Since it is slightly bigger than Earth, Kepler-186f could have a thicker atmosphere, which would insulate the planet and potentially keep its water in liquid form, Kane added.

    “It [Kepler-186f] goes around its star over 130 days, but because its star is a lower mass than our sun, the planet orbits slightly inner of where Mercury orbits in our own solar system,” Barclay said. “It’s on the cooler edge of the habitable zone. It’s still well within it, but it receives less energy than Earth receives. So, if you’re on this planet [Kepler-186f], the star would appear dimmer.”

    Exoplanet hunting in the future

    Kepler-186f could be too dim for follow-up studies that would probe the planet’s atmosphere. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Hubble’s successor, expected to launch to space in 2018 — is designed to image planets around relatively nearby stars; however, the Kepler-186 system might be too far off for the powerful telescope to investigate, Barclay said.

    NASA Webb Telescope

    NASA Hubble Telescope

    Scientists using the Kepler telescope discovered Kepler-186f using the transit method: When the planet moved across the face of its star from the telescope’s perspective, Kepler recorded a slight dip in the star’s brightness, allowing researchers to learn more about the planet itself. Kepler suffered a major malfunction last year and is no longer working in the same fashion, but scientists are still going through the spacecraft’s trove of data searching for new alien worlds.

    “I find it simply awesome that we live in a time when finding potentially habitable planets is common, and the method to find them is standardized,” MIT exoplanet hunter and astrophysicist Sara Seager, who is unaffiliated with the research, told Space.com via email.

    The new research was published online today (April 17) in the journal Science.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:18 pm on October 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: ” Strange-Shaped Orbits of Giant ‘Warm Jupiter’ Planets Explained” 

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    Some huge alien worlds were probably pulled into their puzzling orbits by nearby planetary neighbors circling on a different plane, a new study reports.

    Tau Bootis b, a “warm Jupiter”

    “Our results imply that there is a diversity of architectures for planetary systems, and that planetary systems aren’t always flat like the solar system,” said study lead author Rebekah Dawson of the University of California, Berkeley.

    Dawson and co-author Eugene Chiang, also of UC Berkeley, investigated “warm Jupiters,” enormous exoplanets that orbit much closer to their host stars than Saturn and Jupiter do in Earth’s solar system (but not as close as “hot Jupiters,” some of which can complete one lap around their parent stars in less than a day).

    Warm and hot Jupiters must have migrated inward significantly, astronomers say, because theory predicts that gas giants can only form relatively far from their stars — generally, beyond the “snow line,” where it’s cold enough for water and other volatile materials to condense into ice grains. But just what’s driving such dramatic planetary movement has been a matter of debate.

    Dawson and Chiang looked at six exoplanetary systems, each of which harbors a warm Jupiter with a large, more distantly orbiting planetary companion. For each system, they ran about 1,000 computer simulations that modeled the two planets’ orbital dynamics.

    The results suggest that when the two worlds’ orbits are inclined at a certain angle relative to each other — between 35 and 65 degrees — the companion can push the warm Jupiter closer and closer to its star.

    “In the type of evolution we studied, some warm Jupiters are in the midst of a slow evolution and may one day become hot Jupiters,” Dawson told Space.com via email. “There are other channels for forming hot Jupiters, and in the future, we plan to quantify what fraction of hot Jupiters may come through this channel.”

    The origin of such worlds’ mutually inclined orbits is another mystery, since planets are thought to form in the same plane from a flat disk of dust and gas surrounding a newborn star. Gravitational interactions among young planets may yank some of them askew, leading to tilted orbits, Dawson said.

    The new study, which was published online today (Oct. 9) in the journal Science, doesn’t necessarily suggest that Earth’s solar system is an oddball because it has planets that orbit in the same plane.

    “I wouldn’t say flat systems are rare; the compact systems of small planets discovered in abundance by the Kepler mission are statistically consistent with being mostly flat,” Dawson said.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/ Kepler

    NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009 to determine how commonly Earth-like planets occur in the Milky Way galaxy. The $600 million mission has spotted nearly 1,000 exoplanets, with more than 3,000 others awaiting confirmation by follow-up observations and analysis.

    Kepler’s original planet hunt came to an end in May 2013, when the second of the spacecraft’s four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed, robbing the telescope of its superprecise pointing ability. Kepler has now embarked on a new mission called K2, during which it will scan the skies for a number of cosmic objects and phenomena.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:35 pm on August 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA/Kepler: “Kepler Mission Manager Update: K2 collecting data” 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    August 8, 2014

    The K2 mission, the two-wheel operation mode of the Kepler spacecraft conducting observations in the ecliptic, officially began collecting data on May 30. The spacecraft performance has been terrific, and it has remained in fine point throughout the campaign, so far.

    This first science observation run, called Campaign 1, will collect data for approximately 75 days before concluding mid-August. K2 is observing more than 12,000 target stars for transiting planets in Campaign 1, and is also observing young and old star clusters, active galactic nuclei and supernovae.

    The Kepler team has set the K2 target fields, with community input, and the scientific community proposes observation targets through the mission’s Guest Observer program. The details of the Campaign 1 targets, as well as those for Campaigns 2 and 3, are available at the Kepler Science Center website. The next call for proposals for Campaigns 4 and 5 closes on Aug. 23, with an intent to propose due Aug. 8.

    As we continue to learn more about the spacecraft’s performance in this operating mode, we expect to see increased performance efficiencies – more targets, less fuel, fewer data interruptions. Meanwhile, we continue to see enthusiastic community response to the observing opportunities. The future observing fields are being locked in early to allow the community time to search the fields and identify the best targets, and in some cases, do pre-campaign, ground-based observing.

    To learn more about the K2 mission visit the Kepler Science Center website.

    The formal Kepler mission is still in the process of finishing its data analysis. With two more releases of the data processing pipeline scheduled, we hope to improve the sensitivity to small planets in long-period orbits as we search the mission’s four-year data set. We are currently performing a complete re-processing of all Kepler data, with the intent of refreshing the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes with a complete set of uniformly processed light curves. This represents a long-awaited milestone by the scientific community and we are eager to provide this improved data set.

    To-date, the Kepler exoplanet search has produced more than 4,200 exoplanet candidates and verified 978 as planets. Visit the NASA Exoplanet Archive for details about the exoplanets and the host stars they orbit.


    See the full article here.

    The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone→ and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets.
    The operations phase of the Kepler mission is managed for NASA by the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA, managed the mission through development, launch and the start of science operations. Dr. William Borucki of NASA Ames is the mission’s Science Principal Investigator. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, CO, developed the Kepler flight system.

    In October 2009, oversight of the Kepler project was transferred from the Discovery Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, to the Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL


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  • richardmitnick 8:55 am on July 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA/JPL at Caltech: “The Most Precise Measurement of an Alien World’s Size” 


    Thanks to NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system. The size of the exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-93b, is now known to an uncertainty of just 74 miles (119 kilometers) on either side of the planetary body.

    Using data from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the size of a world outside our solar system, as illustrated in this artist’s conception.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    NASA Spitzer Telescope

    The findings confirm Kepler-93b as a “super-Earth” that is about one-and-a-half times the size of our planet. Although super-Earths are common in the galaxy, none exist in our solar system. Exoplanets like Kepler-93b are therefore our only laboratories to study this major class of planet.

    With good limits on the sizes and masses of super-Earths, scientists can finally start to theorize about what makes up these weird worlds. Previous measurements, by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, had put Kepler-93b’s mass at about 3.8 times that of Earth. The density of Kepler-93b, derived from its mass and newly obtained radius, indicates the planet is in fact very likely made of iron and rock, like Earth.

    “With Kepler and Spitzer, we’ve captured the most precise measurement to date of an alien planet’s size, which is critical for understanding these far-off worlds,” said Sarah Ballard, a NASA Carl Sagan Fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of a paper on the findings published in the Astrophysical Journal.

    “The measurement is so precise that it’s literally like being able to measure the height of a six-foot tall person to within three quarters of an inch — if that person were standing on Jupiter,” said Ballard.

    Kepler-93b orbits a star located about 300 light-years away, with approximately 90 percent of the sun’s mass and radius. The exoplanet’s orbital distance — only about one-sixth that of Mercury’s from the sun — implies a scorching surface temperature around 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit (760 degrees Celsius). Despite its newfound similarities in composition to Earth, Kepler-93b is far too hot for life.

    To make the key measurement about this toasty exoplanet’s radius, the Kepler and Spitzer telescopes each watched Kepler-93b cross, or transit, the face of its star, eclipsing a tiny portion of starlight. Kepler’s unflinching gaze also simultaneously tracked the dimming of the star caused by seismic waves moving within its interior. These readings encode precise information about the star’s interior. The team leveraged them to narrowly gauge the star’s radius, which is crucial for measuring the planetary radius.

    Spitzer, meanwhile, confirmed that the exoplanet’s transit looked the same in infrared light as in Kepler’s visible-light observations. These corroborating data from Spitzer — some of which were gathered in a new, precision observing mode — ruled out the possibility that Kepler’s detection of the exoplanet was bogus, or a so-called false positive.

    Taken together, the data boast an error bar of just one percent of the radius of Kepler-93b. The measurements mean that the planet, estimated at about 11,700 miles (18,800 kilometers) in diameter, could be bigger or smaller by about 150 miles (240 kilometers), the approximate distance between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

    Spitzer racked up a total of seven transits of Kepler-93b between 2010 and 2011. Three of the transits were snapped using a “peak-up” observational technique. In 2011, Spitzer engineers repurposed the spacecraft’s peak-up camera, originally used to point the telescope precisely, to control where light lands on individual pixels within Spitzer’s infrared camera.

    The upshot of this rejiggering: Ballard and her colleagues were able to cut in half the range of uncertainty of the Spitzer measurements of the exoplanet radius, improving the agreement between the Spitzer and Kepler measurements.

    “Ballard and her team have made a major scientific advance while demonstrating the power of Spitzer’s new approach to exoplanet observations,” said Michael Werner, project scientist for the Spitzer Space Telescope at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

    JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

    NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is responsible for Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

    See the full article here.

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 6:36 pm on July 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Newfound Alien Planet Has Longest Year Known for Transiting World” 

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    July 22, 2014
    Mike Wall, Senior Writer

    A newfound alien planet is one for the record books.

    The alien planet Kepler-421b — which crosses the face of, or transits, its host star from Earth’s perspective — takes 704 Earth days to complete one orbit, and thus has the longest year known for any transiting alien world, researchers said. (For comparison, Earth orbits the sun once every 365 days, and Mars completes a lap every 780 days.)

    “Finding Kepler-421b was a stroke of luck,” study lead author David Kipping, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a statement. “The farther a planet is from its star, the less likely it is to transit the star from Earth’s point of view. It has to line up just right.”

    To be clear, Kepler-421b does not have the longest year of any known alien planet. Many nontransiting worlds have much more far-flung orbits, including the gas giant GU Piscium b, which takes about 160,000 years to complete a lap around its host star.

    The planet GU Psc b and its star GU Psc composed of visible and infrared images from the Gemini South telescope and an infrared image from the CFHT. Because infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, astronomers use a colour code in which infrared light is represented by the colour red. GU Psc b is brighter in infrared than in other filters, which is why it appears red in this image.

    Gemini South telescope
    Gemini South

    Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope
    Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

    Kepler-421b, which is about the size of Uranus, is located about 1,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Lyra. It was spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which launched in March 2009 to hunt for transiting exoplanets by noting the tiny brightness dips caused when they cross in front of their stars.


    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Kepler has found nearly 1,000 alien worlds to date and has flagged more than 3,000 other “candidates” that still need to be confirmed by follow-up observations or study. Mission team members expect that at least 90 percent of these candidates will eventually turn out to be bona fide planets.

    The spacecraft suffered a glitch in May 2013 that ended its original mission, but NASA recently signed off on a new mission, called K2, that will keep Kepler hunting for exoplanets, in addition to other cosmic bodies and phenomena.

    Most of Kepler’s finds thus far are worlds that orbit relatively close to their parent stars, since such planets transit relatively frequently. The instrument has generally required three transits to conclusively identify an exoplanet, but Kepler-421b was detected after it crossed its host star’s face just twice, researchers said.

    Kepler-421b circles its parent star, which is cooler and dimmer than Earth’s sun, at an average distance of 100 million miles (160 million kilometers), researchers said. This places the exoplanet beyond its solar system’s “snow line” — the boundary between rocky and gaseous planets. (Beyond the snow line, ice grains glom together to form gas giants, such as Jupiter and Saturn.)

    Gaseous planets often don’t remain beyond the snow line, however. Astronomers have discovered many “hot Jupiters” — giant worlds that have migrated inward significantly over time and now complete an orbit in just a few days (or, in some cases, a matter of hours).

    In fact, Kepler-421b’s lack of movement makes it remarkable, Kipping said.

    “This is the first example of a potentially nonmigrating gas giant in a transiting system that we’ve found,” he said.

    The new study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:20 pm on July 11, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From CfA: “Sun-like Stars Reveal Their Ages” 

    Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Center For Astrophysics

    July 10, 2014
    David A. Aguilar
    Director of Public Affairs
    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Christine Pulliam
    Public Affairs Specialist
    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Defining what makes a star “Sun-like” is as difficult as defining what makes a planet “Earth-like.” A solar twin should have a temperature, mass, and spectral type similar to our Sun. We also would expect it to be about 4.5 billion years old. However, it is notoriously difficult to measure a star’s age so astronomers usually ignore age when deciding if a star counts as “Sun-like.”


    A new technique for measuring the age of a star using its spin – gyrochronology – is coming into its own. Today astronomers are presenting the gyrochronological ages of 22 Sun-like stars. Before this, only two Sun-like stars had measured spins and ages.

    “We have found stars with properties that are close enough to those of the Sun that we can call them ‘solar twins,'” says lead author Jose Dias do Nascimento of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “With solar twins we can study the past, present, and future of stars like our Sun. Consequently, we can predict how planetary systems like our solar system will be affected by the evolution of their central stars.”

    To measure a star’s spin, astronomers look for changes in its brightness caused by dark spots known as starspots crossing the star’s surface. By watching how long it takes for a spot to rotate into view, across the star and out of view again, we learn how fast the star is spinning.

    The change in a star’s brightness due to starspots is very small, typically a few percent or less. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft excels at such exacting brightness measurements.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Using Kepler, do Nascimento and his colleagues found that the Sun-like stars in their study spin once every 21 days on average, compared to the 25-day rotation period of our Sun at its equator.

    Younger stars spin faster than older ones because stars slow down as they age, much like humans. As a result, a star’s rotation can be used like a clock to derive its age. Since most of the stars the team studied spin slightly faster than our sun, they tend to be younger too.

    This work expands on previous research done by CfA astronomer (and co-author on the new study) Soren Meibom. Meibom and his collaborators measured the rotation rates for stars in a 1-billion-year-old cluster called NGC 6811. Since the stars had a known age, astronomers could use them to calibrate the gyrochronology “clock.” The new research led by do Nascimento examines free-floating “field” stars that are not members of a cluster.

    Since stars and planets form together at the same time, by learning a star’s age we learn the age of its planets. And since it takes time for life to develop and evolve, knowing the ages of planet-hosting stars could help narrow down the best targets to search for signs of alien life. Although none of the 22 stars in the new study are known to have planets, this work represents an important step in the hunt for Sun-like stars that could host Earth-like planets.

    The paper was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online.

    Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

    See the full article here.

    The Center for Astrophysics combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of those basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1890. The Harvard College Observatory (HCO), founded in 1839, is a research institution of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and provides facilities and substantial other support for teaching activities of the Department of Astronomy.

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  • richardmitnick 6:32 am on July 4, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA: “Newfound Frozen World Orbits in Binary Star System” 



    July 3, 2014
    Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

    A newly discovered planet in a binary, or twin, star system located 3,000 light-years from Earth is expanding astronomers’ notions of where Earth-like — and even potentially habitable — planets can form, and how to find them.

    This artist’s rendering shows a newly discovered planet (far right) orbiting one star (right) of a binary star system. The discovery, made by a collaboration of international research teams and led by researchers at The Ohio State University, expands astronomers’ notions of where to look for planets in our galaxy. The research was funded in part by NASA. Credit: Cheongho Han, Chungbuk National University, Republic of Korea.

    At twice the mass of Earth, the planet orbits one of the stars in the binary system at almost exactly the same distance at which Earth orbits the sun. However, because the planet’s host star is much dimmer than the sun, the planet is much colder than Earth — a little colder, in fact, than Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

    Four international research teams, led by professor Andrew Gould of The Ohio State University in Columbus, published their discovery in the July 4 issue of the journal Science. The research is partly funded by NASA.

    The study provides the first evidence that terrestrial planets can form in orbits similar to Earth’s, even in a binary star system where the stars are not very far apart. Although this planet itself is too cold to be habitable, the same planet orbiting a sun-like star in such a binary system would be in the so-called “habitable zone” — the region where conditions might be right for life.

    “This greatly expands the potential locations to discover habitable planets in the future,” said Scott Gaudi, professor of astronomy at Ohio State. “Half the stars in the galaxy are in binary systems. We had no idea if Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbits could even form in these systems.”

    Earlier evidence that planets form in binary star systems came from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes (see http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/releases/2011/11-69AR.html and http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/news/spitzer-20070329.html), but the planets and dust structures in those studies were not similar to those of Earth.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    NASA Spitzer Telescope

    The technique astronomers use to find the planet, called OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, is called gravitational microlensing. In this method, the light of a distant star is magnified by a closer star that happens to pass in front — if a planet is also present around the foreground star, it will further alter and distort the light of the background star. The telescopes used in this study are part of several projects, including the OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment), MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics), MicroFUN (the Microlensing Follow Up Network), and the Wise Observatory.

    Searching for planets within binary systems is tricky for most techniques, because the light from the second star complicates the interpretation of the data. “But in gravitational microlensing,” Gould explained, “we don’t even look at the light from the star-planet system. We just observe how its gravity affects light from a more distant, unrelated star. This gives us a new tool to search for planets in binary star systems.”

    NASA’s proposed WFIRST-AFTA (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope – Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets) mission would use the microlensing technique to find and characterize hundreds of thousands of planets in binary systems.

    See the full article here.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble,
    Chandra, Spitzer ]and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

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  • richardmitnick 4:13 pm on May 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler   

    Frim NASA/Kepler: “Kepler Mission Manager Update: K2 Has Been Approved! “ 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope


    The team received good news from NASA HQ — the K2 mission, the two-wheel operation mode of the Kepler spacecraft observing in the ecliptic, has been approved based on a recommendation from the agency’s 2014 Senior Review of its operating missions.

    The approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae. The 2014 Senior Review report is available at http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/documents.

    After the second wheel of Kepler’s guidance control system failed last year during the spacecraft’s extended mission, engineers devised a clever solution to manage the sun’s radiation pressure and limit its effect on the spacecraft pointing. K2 will observe target fields along the ecliptic plane, the orbital path of planets in our solar system also know as the zodiac, for approximately 75-day campaigns.

    The team is currently finishing up an end-to-end shakedown of this approach with a full-length campaign (Campaign 0), and is preparing for Campaign 1, the first K2 science observation run, scheduled to begin May 30. To learn more about the K2 mission visit the Kepler Science Center website.


    See the full article here.

    The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone→ and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets.
    The operations phase of the Kepler mission is managed for NASA by the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA, managed the mission through development, launch and the start of science operations. Dr. William Borucki of NASA Ames is the mission’s Science Principal Investigator. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, CO, developed the Kepler flight system.

    In October 2009, oversight of the Kepler project was transferred from the Discovery Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, to the Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL


    NASA JPL Icon

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  • richardmitnick 2:45 pm on April 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Double Star, NASA Kepler   

    From physicsworld.com: “First discovery of double star that brightens during eclipse” 


    Apr 17, 2014
    Ken Croswell

    White dwarf acts like a magnifying glass

    For the first time, astronomers have seen a double star brighten rather than fade when one star passes in front of its companion. Predicted decades ago, the phenomenon arises from gravitational microlensing as the great surface gravity of a white-dwarf star magnifies its partner’s light. The discovery by US researchers raises the hope that we will someday catch a neutron star or black hole doing the same thing, which would lend new insight into these extreme objects.

    Image of Sirius A and Sirius B taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Sirius B, which is a white dwarf, can be seen as a faint pinprick of light to the lower left of the much brighter Sirius A.

    Many star systems are double, having two stars that orbit each other. In some cases, the orbit aligns edge-on to our line of sight, so that one star periodically eclipses the other and dims the light that we see. Astronomers have known of these eclipsing binaries for centuries. The best example is Algol – Arabic for “the ghoul” – which medieval astrologers considered to be the most dangerous star in the sky, probably because they knew that its light flickers. In 1782 British astronomer Edward Pigott correctly explained why Algol dims.

    It was not unitl 1973 that Swiss astronomer André Maeder predicted that some binaries should exhibit the opposite phenomenon. According to both Newton’s theory of gravity and Einstein’s general theory of relativity, mass bends light. Therefore, Maeder says, if a small but massive star eclipses its companion, then the small star’s gravity should amplify the other star’s light so much that it overwhelms the eclipse-induced darkening.

    Discovery at last

    Now, four decades later, a pair of astronomers has discovered the first example, 2600 light-years away. “We found it by accident,” says Ethan Kruse, a second-year graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. “My main research is looking for new planets that other people have missed.”

    In early December 2013 Kruse was examining KOI 3278, a star that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft had found to be fading every 88.18 days. This suggested that a planet circled the star with that periodicity and dimmed the light as it passed in front.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    But Kruse noticed a strange feature. “The first thing I thought was that something had gone horribly wrong,” he says. “Instead of finding a new planet, I found what looked to be the same signal as a planet transiting its star except upside down, where the star got brighter instead of dimmer.” Each brightening was subtle, just 0.1%, and lasted five hours. The brightenings repeated every 88.18 days, out of phase with the dimmings.

    In fact, KOI 3278 has no known planet. Instead, it consists of a star like the Sun coupled with a white dwarf, a small dense star. The system dims when the white dwarf passes behind the Sun-like star and brightens when the white dwarf passes in front, magnifying the light of its mate.
    More exotic objects

    “This is a very nice surprise,” says Maeder, who is now 72 years old. “I must say, I more or less forgot about this effect, and as a matter of fact, I did not expect it would be found in my lifetime.”

    Edge-on binaries containing more exotic objects – neutron stars and black holes – should also display periodic brightenings. “That’s what I think is most interesting,” Kruse says. “There are not a lot of people looking for such signals, and they might find them in the Kepler data.” Such systems would yield new information on the masses of neutron stars and black holes.

    “It’s supercool!” says B Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at Ohio State University in Columbus. “It just shows the power of Kepler. You open up parameter space and you’re guaranteed to find really interesting stuff.” Last year, other astronomers reported a Kepler system with a white dwarf, but the gravitational brightening was too small to erase the eclipse.

    Kruse and his university colleague Eric Agol have published their discovery online today in Science.

    See the full article here.

    PhysicsWorld is a publication of the Institute of Physics. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society. We are a charitable organisation with a worldwide membership of more than 50,000, working together to advance physics education, research and application.

    We engage with policymakers and the general public to develop awareness and understanding of the value of physics and, through IOP Publishing, we are world leaders in professional scientific communications.
    IOP Institute of Physics

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  • richardmitnick 4:51 pm on January 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler,   

    Kepler from NOVA 

    Great video. Don’t miss it.

    I know that Kepler’s most useful days are gone. but this is a great telling of the story.

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