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  • richardmitnick 6:27 am on November 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Coronagraphs, , Earth-sized alien worlds are out there. Now astronomers are figuring out how to detect life on them, Exobiology, , , NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory, NASA HabEx, , , ,   

    From Science: “Earth-sized alien worlds are out there. Now, astronomers are figuring out how to detect life on them” 

    Science Magazine

    Nov. 1, 2017
    Daniel Clery

    Stephen Kane spends a lot of time staring at bad pictures of a planet. The images are just a few pixels across and nearly featureless. Yet Kane, an astronomer at the University of California, Riverside, has tracked subtle changes in the pixels over time. They are enough for him and his colleagues to conclude that the planet has oceans, continents, and clouds. That it has seasons. And that it rotates once every 24 hours.

    He knows his findings are correct because the planet in question is Earth.

    An image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite (left), degraded to a handful of pixels (right), is a stand-in for how an Earth-like planet around another star might look through a future space telescope.

    Kane took images from the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, which has a camera pointing constantly at Earth from a vantage partway to the sun, and intentionally degraded them from 4 million pixels to just a handful.

    NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory

    The images are a glimpse into a future when telescopes will be able to just make out rocky, Earth-sized planets around other stars. Kane says he and his colleagues are trying to figure out “what we can expect to see when we can finally directly image an exoplanet.” Their exercise shows that even a precious few pixels can help scientists make the ultimate diagnosis: Does a planet harbor life?

    Finding conclusive evidence of life, or biosignatures, on a planet light-years away might seem impossible, given that space agencies have spent billions of dollars sending robot probes to much closer bodies that might be habitable, such as Mars and the moons of Saturn, without detecting even a whiff of life. But astronomers hope that a true Earth twin, bursting with flora and fauna, would reveal its secrets to even a distant observer.

    Detecting them won’t be easy, considering the meager harvest of photons astronomers are likely to get from such a tiny, distant world, its signal almost swamped by its much brighter nearby star. The new generation of space telescopes heading toward the launch pad, including NASA’s mammoth James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), have only an outside chance of probing an Earth twin in sufficient detail.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    But they will be able to sample light from a range of other planets, and astronomers are already dreaming of a space telescope that might produce an image of an Earth-like planet as good as Kane’s pixelated views of Earth. To prepare for the coming flood of exoplanet data, and help telescope designers know what to look for, researchers are now compiling lists of possible biosignatures, from spectral hints of gases that might emanate from living things to pigments that could reside in alien plants or microbes.

    There is unlikely to be a single smoking gun. Instead, context and multiple lines of evidence will be key to a detection of alien life. Finding a specific gas—oxygen, say—in an alien atmosphere isn’t enough without figuring out how the gas could have gotten there. Knowing that the planet’s average temperature supports liquid water is a start, but the length of the planet’s day and seasons and its temperature extremes count, too. Even an understanding of the planet’s star is imperative, to know whether it provides steady, nourishing light or unpredictable blasts of harmful radiation.

    “Each [observation] will provide crucial evidence to piece together to say if there is life,” says Mary Voytek, head of NASA’s astrobiology program in Washington, D.C.

    In the heady early days following the discovery of the first exoplanet around a normal star in 1995, space agencies drew up plans for extremely ambitious—and expensive—missions to study Earth twins that could harbor life. Some concepts for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder and the European Space Agency’s Darwin mission envisaged multiple giant telescopes flying in precise formation and combining their light to increase resolution. But neither mission got off the drawing board. “It was too soon,” Voytek says. “We didn’t have the data to plan it or build it.”

    Instead, efforts focused on exploring the diversity of exoplanets, using both ground-based telescopes and missions such as NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    Altogether they have identified more than 3500 confirmed exoplanets, including about 30 roughly Earth-sized worlds capable of retaining liquid water. But such surveys give researchers only the most basic physical information about the planets: their orbits, size, and mass. In order to find out what the planets are like, researchers need spectra: light that has passed through the planet’s atmosphere or been reflected from its surface, broken into its component wavelengths.

    Most telescopes don’t have the resolution to separate a tiny, dim planet from its star, which is at least a billion times brighter. But even if astronomers can’t see a planet directly, they can still get a spectrum if the planet transits, or passes in front of the star, in the course of its orbit. As the planet transits, starlight shines through its atmosphere; gases there absorb particular wavelengths and leave characteristic dips in the star’s spectrum.

    Astronomers can also study a transiting planet by observing the star’s light as the planet’s orbit carries it behind the star.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    Before the planet is eclipsed, the spectrum will include both starlight and light reflected from the planet; afterward, the planet’s contribution will disappear. Subtracting the two spectra should reveal traces of the planet.

    Teasing a recognizable signal from the data is far from easy. Because only a tiny fraction of the star’s light probes the atmosphere, the spectral signal is minuscule, and hard to distinguish from irregularities in the starlight itself and from absorption by Earth’s own atmosphere. Most scientists would be “surprised at how horrible the data is,” says exoplanet researcher Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    In spite of those hurdles, the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, plus a few others, have used these methods to detect atmospheric gases, including sodium, water, carbon monoxide and dioxide, and methane, from a handful of the easiest targets.

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    NASA/Spitzer Infrared Telescope

    Most are “hot Jupiters”—big planets in close-in orbits, their atmospheres puffed up by the heat of their star.

    In an artist’s concept, a petaled starshade flying at a distance of tens of thousands of kilometers from a space telescope blocks a star’s light, opening a clear view of its planets. NASA/JPL.

    The approach will pay much greater dividends after the launch of the JWST in 2019. Its 6.5-meter mirror will collect far more light from candidate stars than existing telescopes can, allowing it to tease out fainter exoplanet signatures, and its spectrographs will produce much better data.


    And it will be sensitive to the infrared wavelengths where the absorption lines of molecules such as water, methane, and carbon monoxide and dioxide are most prominent.

    Once astronomers have such spectra, one of the main gases that they hope to find is oxygen. Not only does it have strong and distinctive absorption lines, but many believe its presence is the strongest sign that life exists on a planet.

    Oxygen-producing photosynthesis made Earth what it is today. First cyanobacteria in the oceans and then other microbes and plants have pumped out oxygen for billions of years, so that it now makes up 21% of the atmosphere—an abundance that would be easily detectable from afar. Photosynthesis is evolution’s “killer app,” says Victoria Meadows, head of the NASA-sponsored Virtual Planet Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington in Seattle. It uses a prolific source of energy, sunlight, to transform two molecules thought to be common on most terrestrial planets—water and carbon dioxide—into sugary fuel for multicellular life. Meadows reckons it is a safe bet that something similar has evolved elsewhere. “Oxygen is still the first thing to go after,” she says.

    Fifteen years ago, when exoplanets were new and researchers started thinking about how to scan them for life, “Champagne would have flowed” if oxygen had been detected, Meadows recalls. But since then, researchers have realized that things are not that simple: Lifeless planets can have atmospheres full of oxygen, and life can proliferate without ever producing the gas. That was the case on Earth, where, for 2 billion years, microbes practiced a form of photosynthesis that did not produce oxygen or many other gases. “We’ve had to make ourselves more aware of how we could be fooled,” Meadows says.

    To learn what a genuine biosignature might look like, and what might be a false alarm, Meadows and her colleagues at the VPL explore computer models of exoplanet atmospheres, based on data from exoplanets as well as observations of more familiar planets, including Earth. They also do physical experiments in vacuum chambers. They recreate the gaseous cocktails that may surround exoplanets, illuminate them with simulated starlight of various kinds, and see what can be measured.

    Over the past few years, VPL researchers have used such models to identify nonbiological processes that could make oxygen and produce a “false positive” signal. For example, a planet with abundant surface water might form around a star that, in its early years, surges in brightness, perhaps heating the young planet enough to boil off its oceans. Intense ultraviolet light from the star would bombard the resulting water vapor, perhaps splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen. The lighter hydrogen could escape into space, leaving an atmosphere rich in oxygen around a planet devoid of life. “Know thy star, know thy planet,” recites Siddharth Hegde of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute.

    Discovering methane in the same place as oxygen, however, would strengthen the case for life. Although geological processes can produce methane, without any need for life, most methane on Earth comes from microbes that live in landfill sites and in the guts of ruminants. Methane and oxygen together make a redox pair: two molecules that will readily react by exchanging electrons. If they both existed in the same atmosphere, they would quickly combine to produce carbon dioxide and water. But if they persist at levels high enough to be detectable, something must be replenishing them. “It’s largely accepted that if you have redox molecules in large abundance they must be produced by life,” Hegde says.

    Some argue that by focusing on oxygen and methane—typical of life on Earth—researchers are ignoring other possibilities. If there is one thing astronomers have learned about exoplanets so far, it is that familiar planets are a poor guide to exoplanets’ huge diversity of size and nature. And studies of extremophiles, microbes that thrive in inhospitable environments on Earth, suggest life can spring up in unlikely places. Exobiology may be entirely unlike its counterpart on Earth, and so its gaseous byproducts might be radically different, too.

    But what gases to look for? Seager and her colleagues compiled a list of 14,000 compounds that might exist as a gas at “habitable” temperatures, between the freezing and boiling points of water; to keep the list manageable they restricted it to small molecules, with no more than six nonhydrogen atoms. About 2500 are made of the biogenic atoms carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, and hydrogen, and about 600 are actually produced by life on Earth. Detecting high levels of any of these gases, if they can’t be explained by nonbiological processes, could be a sign of alien biology, Seager and her colleagues argue.


    Light shining through the atmospheres of transiting exoplanets is likely to be the mainstay of biosignature searches for years to come. But the technique tends to sample the thin upper reaches of a planet’s atmosphere; far less starlight may penetrate the thick gases that hug the surface, where most biological activity is likely to occur. The transit technique also works best for hot Jupiters, which by nature are less likely to host life than small rocky planets with thinner atmospheres. The JWST may be able to tease out atmospheric spectra from small planets if they orbit small, dim stars like red dwarfs, which won’t swamp the planet’s spectrum. But these red dwarfs have a habit of spewing out flares that would make it hard for life to establish itself on a nearby planet.

    To look for signs of life on a terrestrial planet around a sunlike star, astronomers will probably have to capture its light directly, to form a spectrum or even an actual image. That requires blocking the overwhelming glare of the star. Ground-based telescopes equipped with “coronagraphs,” which precisely mask a star so nearby objects can be seen, can now capture only the biggest exoplanets in the widest orbits. To see terrestrial planets will require a similarly equipped telescope in space, above the distorting effect of the atmosphere. NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), expected to launch in the mid-2020s, is meant to fill that need.


    Even better, WFIRST could be used in concert with a “starshade”—a separate spacecraft stationed 50,000 kilometers from the telescope that unfurls a circular mask tens of meters across to block out starlight. A starshade is more effective than a coronagraph at limiting the amount of light going into the telescope. It not only blocks the star directly, but also suppresses diffraction with an elaborate petaled edge. That reduces the stray scattered light that can make it hard to spot faint planets. A starshade is a much more expensive prospect than a coronagraph, however, and aligning telescope and starshade over huge distances will be a challenge.

    Direct imaging will provide much better spectra than transit observations because light will pass through the full depth of the planet’s atmosphere twice, rather than skimming through its outer edges. But it also opens up the possibility of detecting life directly, instead of through its waste gases in the atmosphere. If organisms, whether they are plants, algae, or other microbes, cover a large proportion of a planet’s surface, their pigments may leave a spectral imprint in the reflected light. Earthlight contains an obvious imprint of this sort. Known as the “red edge,” it is the dramatic change in the reflectance of green plants at a wavelength of about 720 nanometers. Below that wavelength, plants absorb as much light as possible for photosynthesis, reflecting only a few percent. At longer wavelengths, the reflectance jumps to almost 50%, and the brightness of the spectrum rises abruptly, like a cliff. “An alien observer could easily tell if there is life on Earth,” Hegde says.

    There’s no reason to assume that alien life will take the form of green plants. So Hegde and his colleagues are compiling a database of reflectance spectra for different types of microbes. Among the hundreds the team has logged are many extremophiles, which fill marginal niches on Earth but may be a dominant life form on an exoplanet. Many of the microbes on the list have not had their reflectance spectra measured, so the Cornell team is filling in those gaps. Detecting pigments on an exoplanet surface would be extremely challenging. But a tell-tale color in the faint light of a distant world could join other clues—spectral absorption lines from atmospheric gases, for example—to form “a jigsaw puzzle which overall gives us a picture of the planet,” Hegde says.

    None of the telescopes available now or in the next decade is designed specifically to directly image exoplanets, so biosignature searches must compete with other branches of astronomy for scarce observing time. What researchers really hanker after is a large space telescope purpose-built to image Earth-like alien worlds—a new incarnation of the idea behind NASA’s ill-fated Terrestrial Planet Finder.

    The Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission, or HabEx, a mission concept now being studied by NASA, could be the answer. Its telescope would have a mirror up to 6.5 meters across—as big as the JWST’s—but would be armed with instruments sensitive to a broader wavelength range, from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared, to capture the widest range of spectral biosignatures. The telescope would be designed to reduce scattered light and have a coronagraph and starshade to allow direct imaging of Earth-sized exoplanets.

    Such a mission would reveal Earth-like planets at a level of detail researchers can now only dream about—probing atmospheres, revealing any surface pigments, and even delivering the sort of blocky surface images that Kane has been simulating. But will that be enough to conclude we are not alone in the universe? “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what would be required to put the last nail in the coffin,” Kane says. “But if HabEx is built according to its current design, it should provide a pretty convincing case.”

    NASA HabEx: The Planet Hunter

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 6:03 am on April 29, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Coronagraphs,   

    From JPL-Caltech- “Hiding in the Sunshine: The Search for Other Earths” 

    NASA JPL Banner


    April 28, 2016
    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

    The vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, used for testing WFIRST and other coronagraphs. A star is simulated inside the chamber using light brought in by an optical fiber, and the light of this “star” is suppressed in the testbed by coronagraph masks and deformable mirrors. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    We humans might not be the only ones to ponder our place in the universe. If intelligent aliens do roam the cosmos, they too might ask a question that has gripped humans for centuries: Are we alone? These aliens might even have giant space telescopes dedicated to studying distant planets and searching for life. Should one of those telescopes capture an image of our blue marble of a planet, evidence of forests and plentiful creatures would jump out as simple chemicals: oxygen, ozone, water and methane.

    Many earthlings at NASA are hoping to capture similar chemical clues for Earth-like planets beyond our solar system, also known as exo-Earths, where “exo” is Greek for “external.” Researchers are developing new technologies with the goal of building space missions that can capture not only images of these exo-Earths, but also detailed chemical portraits called spectra. Spectra separate light into its component colors in order to reveal secrets of planets’ atmospheres, climates and potential habitability.

    “Evidence for life is not going to look like little green people — it’s going to reveal itself in a spectrum,” said Nick Siegler, the chief technologist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Office at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The program is helping to develop NASA’s plans for future exo-Earth imaging missions.

    Be gone starlight

    Two different types of masks to be used in NASA’s upcoming Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, coronagraph instrument, are pictured. At left, the “hybrid Lyot” mask has carefully designed metal and “dielectric” layers, but without a microscope it looks like a barely visible pinprick of a dot on glass. At right is the “shaped pupil” mask, which is a few centimeters across and consists of highly reflective mirror regions interspersed with regions of black silicon. This silicon surface treatment absorbs nearly all incoming light. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    On the road to this goal, NASA is actively developing coronagraph technology in various laboratories, including JPL.

    Technicians in the Optics Mitigation Facility

    Coronagraph:An earlier image before the enclosure was installed showing what’s inside the enclosure

    Coronagraphs are instruments introduced in the early 20th century to study our sun. They use special masks to block out light from the circular disk of the sun, so that scientists can study its outer atmosphere, or corona.

    Now NASA is developing more sophisticated coronagraphs to block the glaring light of other stars and reveal faint planets that might be orbiting them. Stars far outshine their planets; for example, our sun is 10 billion times brighter than Earth. That’s similar to the flood of football stadium lights next to a tiny candle.

    “The search for Earth-like planets begins with the suppression of starlight,” said Rhonda Morgan of JPL, a coronagraph technologist for the Exoplanet Exploration Program Office. “It’s like blocking the sun with a sun visor while driving in order to see the road.”

    Telescopes on the ground have already used coronagraphs to take pictures of planets, but those planets are easier to photograph because they are large, bright, and orbit far from their host stars. To take a picture of Earth-size planets lying in the habitable zone of sun-like stars — the region where temperatures are just right for possible liquid oceans and lakes — will require a telescope in space. Out in space, the blurring effects of our blustery atmosphere can be avoided.

    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on The VLT
    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT
    ESO/SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT.

    To take a picture of Earth-size planets lying in the habitable zone of sun-like stars — the region where temperatures are just right for possible liquid oceans and lakes — will require a telescope in space. Out in space, the blurring effects of our blustery atmosphere can be avoided.

    Several types of coronagraphs are under development for proposed space missions. One mission, led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, is known as WFIRST.


    WFIRST stands for Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The WFIRST mission would be able to identify chemicals in the atmospheres of exoplanets as small as super-Earths, which are like Earth’s bigger cousins, such as Kepler-452b, a recent discovery by NASA’s Kepler mission.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    This would pave the way for future studies of the smaller exo-Earths. The WFIRST mission would also investigate other cosmic mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy.

    Tinkering with tiny masks

    Engineers and scientists at JPL are busily tinkering with different coronagraph technologies for WFIRST. Ilya Poberezhskiy, who manages the testbeds at JPL, explained two primary coronagraph designs while holding in his hand the tiny, starlight-blocking masks. One of them, the “shaped pupil” mask, is a few centimeters across, while the “hybrid Lyot” mask is a pinprick of a dot, barely visible at only one-tenth of a millimeter in size. Both technologies will fly together on the WFIRST mission as a part of one instrument — the occulting mask coronagraph.

    “A wheel-like mechanism will rotate to switch different masks inside the instrument and convert the coronagraph from one mode to another,” said Poberezhskiy.

    The main challenge for coronagraphs is controlling starlight, which has a tendency to stray. Just putting a circular mask in front of the star doesn’t obstruct the light completely; starlight bends around the mask like ocean waves curving around islands in a process called diffraction. Each coronagraph type deals with this challenge differently by using multiple masks as well as mirrors that can deform to sequentially suppress starlight in various stages.

    An animation explaining how the hybrid Lyot coronagraph works can be seen online at:


    “The starlight likes to walk all over the place, and into the area where you want to image the planet,” said Wes Traub, the JPL project scientist for WFIRST. “The goal now is to get more practical with the kind of telescope we will use for WFIRST.”

    How to handle jitter

    Another challenge in designing coronagraphs is adjusting for a space telescope’s tiny vibrations, or jitter. The team at JPL is assessing how their coronagraphs handle jitter by simulating the effects in a vacuum chamber. They built a table-top-size telescope simulator for the tests.

    “In space, telescopes experience warping and vibrations that need to be measured and reduced inside the coronagraph,” said Poberezhskiy. “Our mock telescope will let us test the WFIRST coronagraph under realistic, space-like conditions.”

    As WFIRST development moves forward, mission planners are already thinking about a possible next step: a space telescope designed to image true Earth analogs. Such a mission may be more than a decade away, but development of the nuts and bolts of the technology is underway at a feverish pace.

    “It’s an exciting time for exoplanet research,” said Gary Blackwood, manager of the Exoplanet Exploration Program. “This is history in the making.”

    The hybrid Lyot coronagraph design team is led by John Trauger of JPL. The shaped pupil coronagraph is pioneered by Jeremy Kasdin of Princeton University, New Jersey. A third technology, called a phase-induced amplitude apodization complex mask coronagraph, is being developed by Olivier Guyon of the University of Arizona, Tucson; Brian Kern of JPL’ and Ruslan Belikov and Eduardo Bendek of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

    WFIRST is managed at NASA’s Goddard, with participation by JPL, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, also in Pasadena, and a science team comprised of members from U.S. research institutions across the country.

    For more information about NASA’s WFIRST mission, visit:


    See the full article here .

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    NASA JPL Campus

    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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    NASA image

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