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  • richardmitnick 1:03 pm on August 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Exoplanet research, ,   

    From NOVA: “NASA’s TESS Spacecraft Will Scan the Sky For Exoplanets” 


    From NOVA

    13 Apr 2018 [Just now in social media.]
    Allison Eck

    NASA/TESS will identify exoplanets orbiting the brightest stars just outside our solar system.

    The era of big data is here—not just for life on Earth, but in our quest to find Earth-like worlds, too.

    Next Monday, April 16, NASA’s $200-million Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will surge skyward on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If all goes well, over the next two years, it will search space for signs of exoplanets, or planets beyond our own solar system. So far, scientists have found around 4,000 such celestial bodies freckled across the face of the universe, including seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the dwarf star Trappist-1 about 235 trillion miles away. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, launched in 2009, has led this revolutionary effort—but now it’s running out of fuel.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    TESS, its replacement, will document close-by exoplanets circling bright stars (as opposed to the more distant ones Kepler surveyed). These data points will give scientists more information about the planets ripest for scientific exploration—and which may harbor life.

    “TESS’s job is to find an old-fashioned address book of all the planets spread out around all the stars in the sky,” said Sara Seager, astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT and deputy science director for the TESS mission.

    George Ricker, principal investigator for TESS, estimates that the spacecraft will be able to find some 500 super-Earths, or planets that are one-and-a-half to two times the size of Earth, and several dozen Earth-sized planets. Many of these likely orbit red dwarf stars, which are smaller and cooler than our Sun. TESS will watch for transits—the slight dimming of stars as planets pass in front of them from our vantage point on Earth.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    Since red dwarfs are cooler than the Sun, habitable zone planets that revolve around them will orbit closer to their host star, making transits more frequent—and thus more scientifically useful.

    “The transits are a repeating phenomenon. Once you’ve established that a given host star has planets, you can predict where they will be in the future,” Ricker said. “That’s really going to be one of the lasting legacies from TESS.”

    Stephen Rinehart, project scientist for TESS, says that with Kepler, the goal was to get a narrow, deep look at one slice of the cosmos. By contrast, TESS will take an expansive look at the most promising candidates for future research—and compare and contrast them.

    “It’s changing the nature of the dialogue,” Rinehart said. “So far, the nature of our conversations about exoplanets have really been statistical. With TESS, we’ll find planets around bright stars that are well-suited to follow-up observations, where we can talk not just about what the population is like, but we can start talking about what individual planets are like.”

    TESS will gaze upon 20 million stars in the solar neighborhood. Kepler was only able to look at about 200,000. “We’ve got a factor of a hundred more stars that we’re going to be able to look at,” Ricker said. “These are the objects that people are going to want to come back to centuries from now.”

    The spacecraft will act as a bridge to future projects, too, like the James Webb Telescope, which is set to launch in May of 2020. That telescope will study every phase in the history of our universe—and it’ll act as the “premier observatory of the next decade.”

    Our history with exoplanets is surprisingly brief. While we had dreamt of them for centuries, it was only 25 years ago that we confirmed their existence. Now, we know that nearly every red dwarf in the Milky Way has a family of planets, and that maybe 20% of those planets lie with the habitable zone. With so much variety and many to choose from, scientists hope that by studying their atmospheres, they’ll be able to detect signs of life.

    “[Habitability] is one of the philosophical questions of our time,” Rinehart said. “Can we find evidence that there’s even a possibility of other life nearby us in the universe? TESS isn’t going to quite get us there. TESS is an important step forward.”

    Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics for NASA, echoes Rinehart’s optimism.

    “After TESS is done, you’ll be able to go outside at night, take your grandchild by the hand, and point to a star and say, ‘I know there’s a planet around that star. Let’s talk about what that planet might be like,’” Hertz said. “Nobody’s ever been able to do that in the history of mankind.”

    See the full article here .


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    NOVA is the highest rated science series on television and the most watched documentary series on public television. It is also one of television’s most acclaimed series, having won every major television award, most of them many times over.

  • richardmitnick 1:50 pm on May 13, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ASU-Arizona Sttate University, , , , Exoplanet research, , ,   

    From ASU via Science News: “The recipes for solar system formation are getting a rewrite” 

    ASU Bloc

    From Arizona State University

    Science News

    May 11, 2018
    Lisa Grossman

    Exoplanets: Left to right Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f, with Earth-except for Earth these are artists’ concepts. Image credit: NASA Ames/ JPL-Caltech

    With a mortar and pestle, Christy Till blends together the makings of a distant planet. In her geology lab at Arizona State University in Tempe, Till carefully measures out powdered minerals, tips them into a metal capsule and bakes them in a high-pressure furnace that can reach close to 35,000 times Earth’s atmospheric pressure and 2,000° Celsius.

    In this interplanetary test kitchen, Till and colleagues are figuring out what might go into a planet outside of our solar system.

    “We’re mixing together high-purity powders of silica and iron and magnesium in the right proportions to make the composition we want to study,” Till says. She’s starting with the makings of what might resemble a rocky planet that’s much different from Earth. “We literally make a recipe.”

    Scientists have a few good ideas for how to concoct our own solar system. One method: Mix up a cloud of hydrogen and helium, season generously with oxygen and carbon, and sprinkle lightly with magnesium, iron and silicon. Condense and spin until the cloud forms a star surrounded by a disk. Let rest about 10 million years, until a few large lumps appear. After about 600 million years, shake gently.

    GET COOKING Geologist Christy Till mixes up a mock exoplanet from powdered minerals in her Arizona lab. Abigail Weibel Photography

    But that’s only one recipe in the solar systems cookbook. Many of the planets orbiting other stars are wildly different from anything seen close to home. As the number of known exoplanets has climbed — 3,717 confirmed as of April 12 — scientists are creating new recipes.

    Seven of those exoplanets are in the TRAPPIST-1 system, one of the most exciting families of planets astronomers have discovered to date.

    A size comparison of the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, lined up in order of increasing distance from their host star. The planetary surfaces are portrayed with an artist’s impression of their potential surface features, including water, ice, and atmospheres. NASA

    The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultracool dwarf, is orbited by seven Earth-size planets (NASA).

    At least three TRAPPIST-1 planets might host liquid water on their surface, making them top spots to look for signs of life (SN: 12/23/17, p. 25).

    Yet those planets shouldn’t exist. Astronomers calculated that the small star’s preplanet disk shouldn’t have contained enough rocky material to make even one Earth-sized orb, says astrophysicist Elisa Quintana of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Yet the disk whipped up seven.

    TRAPPIST-1 is just one of the latest in a long line of rule breakers.
    Other systems host odd characters not seen in our solar system: super-Earths, mini-Neptunes, hot Jupiters and more. Many exoplanets must have had chaotic beginnings to exist where we find them.

    These oddballs raise exciting questions about how solar systems form. Scientists want to know how much of a planet’s ultimate fate depends on its parent star, which ingredients are essential for planet building and which are just frosting on the planetary cake.

    NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which launched April 18, should bring in some answers.


    TESS is expected to find thousands more exoplanets in the next two years. That crowd will help illuminate which planetary processes are the most common — and will help scientists zero in on the best planets to check for signs of life.

    CAKE POP PLANETS Yes, baking actually makes a nice analogy for planet formation. Take a look.

    Beyond the bare necessities

    All solar system recipes share some basic elements. The star and its planets form from the same cloud of gas and dust. The densest region of the cloud collapses to form the star, and the remaining material spreads itself into a rotating disk, parts of which will eventually coalesce into planets. That similarity between the star and its progeny tells Till and other scientists what to toss into the planetary stand mixer.

    “If you know the composition of the star, you can know the composition of the planets,” says astronomer Johanna Teske of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif. A star’s composition is revealed in the wavelengths of light the star emits and absorbs.

    When a planet is born can affect its final makeup, too. A gas giant like Jupiter first needs a rocky core about 10 times Earth’s mass before it can begin gobbling up gas. That much growth probably happens well before the disk’s gas disappears, around 10 million years after the star forms. Small, rocky planets like Earth probably form later.

    Finally, location matters. Close to the hot star, most elements are gas, which is no help for building planets from scratch. Where the disk cools toward its outer edge, more elements freeze to solid crystals or condense onto dust grains. The boundary where water freezes is called the snow line. Scientists thought that water-rich planets must either form beyond their star’s snow line, where water is abundant, or must have water delivered to them later (SN: 5/16/15, p. 8). Giant planets are also thought to form beyond the snow line, where there’s more material available.

    But the material in the disk might not stay where it began, Teske says. “There’s a lot of transport of material, both toward and away from the star,” she says. “Where that material ends up is going to impact whether it goes into planets and what types of planets form.” The amount of mixing and turbulence in the disk could contribute to which page of the cookbook astronomers turn to: Is this system making a rocky terrestrial planet, a relatively small but gaseous Neptune or a massive Jupiter?


    In the disk around a star, giant planets form beyond the “snow line,” where water freezes and more solids are available. Turbulence closer in knocks things around.

    Source: T. Henning and D. Semenov/Chemical Reviews 2013

    Some like it hot

    Like that roiling disk material, a full-grown planet can also travel far from where it formed.

    Consider “Hoptunes” (or hot Neptunes), a new class of planets first named in December in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hoptunes are between two and six times Earth’s size (as measured by the planet’s radius) and sidled up close to their stars, orbiting in less than 10 days. That close in, there shouldn’t have been enough rocky material in the disk to form such big planets. The star’s heat should mean no solids, just gases.

    Hoptunes share certain characteristics — and unanswered questions — with hot Jupiters, the first type of exoplanet discovered, in the mid-1990s.

    “Because we’ve known about hot Jupiters for so long, some people kind of think they’re old hat,” says astronomer Rebekah Dawson of Penn State, who coauthored a review about hot Jupiters posted in January at arXiv.org. “But we still by no means have a consensus about how they got so close to their star.”

    Since the first known hot Jupiter, 51 Pegasi b, was confirmed in 1995, two explanations for that proximity have emerged. A Jupiter that formed past the star’s snow line could migrate in smoothly through the disk by trading orbital positions with the disk material itself in a sort of gravitational do-si-do. Or interactions with other planets or a nearby star could knock the planet onto an extremely elliptical or even backward orbit (SN Online: 11/1/13). Over time, the star’s gravity would steal energy from the orbit, shrinking it into a tight, close circle. Dawson thinks both processes probably happen.

    Hot Jupiters are more common around stars that contain a lot of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, which astronomers call metals, astronomer Erik Petigura of Caltech and colleagues reported in February in The Astronomical Journal. High-metal stars probably form more planets because their disks have more solids to work with. Once a Jupiter-sized planet forms, a game of gravitational billiards could send it onto an eccentric orbit — and send smaller worlds out into space. That fits the data, too; hot Jupiters tend to lack companion worlds.

    Hoptunes follow the same pattern: They prefer metal-rich stars and have few sibling planets. But Hoptunes probably arrived at their hot orbits later in the star’s life. Getting close to a young star, a Hoptune would risk having its atmosphere stripped away. “They’re sort of in the danger zone,” Dawson says. Since Hoptunes do, in fact, have atmospheres, they were probably knocked onto an elliptical, and eventually close-in, orbit later.

    One striking exception to the hot loner rule is WASP-47b, [ApJL] a hot Jupiter with two nearby siblings between the sizes of Earth and Neptune. That planet is one reason Dawson thinks there’s more than one way to cook up a hot Jupiter.

    Rock or gas

    Hot Jupiters are so large that astronomers assume these exoplanets have thick atmospheres. But it’s harder to tell if a smaller planet is gassy like Neptune or rocky like Earth.

    To make a first guess at a planet’s composition, astronomers need to know the planet’s size and mass. Together, those numbers yield the planet’s density, which gives a sense of how much of the planet is solid like rock or diffuse like an atmosphere.

    HOME SWEET HOMES New images from the Very Large Telescope in Chile reveal that dust disks around young stars can take on many different forms. The shape of a disk can affect – and be affected by – the presence of baby planets.

    ESO VLT Platform at Cerro Paranal elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft)

    ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

    The most popular planet detection strategies each measure one of those factors. The transit method, used by the Kepler space telescope, watches a star wink as the planet passes in front.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    Comparing the star’s light before and during the transit reveals the planet’s size. The radial velocity method, used with telescopes on the ground, watches the star wobble in response to a planet’s gravity, which reveals the planet’s mass.

    Radial velocity Image via SuperWasp http http://www.superwasp.org-exoplanets.htm

    Radial Velocity Method-Las Cumbres Observatory

    [Left out of the discussion, Direct Imaging.

    Direct imaging-This false-color composite image traces the motion of the planet Fomalhaut b, a world captured by direct imaging.

    To me, this is a lapse in journalistic coverage as Direct Imaging is becomeing ao more powerful tool with new telescope capabilities.]

    Most of the stars observed by Kepler are too far away and too dim for direct, accurate measures of planet masses. But astronomers have inferred a size cutoff for rocky planets. Last June, researchers analyzing the full Kepler dataset noticed a surprising lack of planets between 1.5 and two times Earth’s size and suggested those 1.5 times Earth’s radius or smaller are probably rocky; two to 3.5 times Earth’s radius are probably gassy (SN Online: 6/19/17).

    Dozens more planets have had their masses inferred indirectly, mostly those in multiplanet systems where astronomers can observe how planets tug on one another. From what astronomers can tell, super-Earths — planets between one and about 10 times Earth’s mass — come in a wide range of compositions.

    The Kepler mission is about to end, as the spacecraft’s fuel is running out. TESS will pick up where Kepler leaves off. The new planet-hunting space telescope will revolutionize the study of super-Earth densities. It will scan 85 percent of the sky for bright, nearby stars to pick out the best planets for follow-up study. As part of its primary mission, TESS will find at least 50 planets smaller than Neptune that can have their masses measured precisely, too. “Having masses … will help us understand the compositions,” says Quintana, a TESS team member. “We can see: Is there a true transition line where planets go rocky to gaseous? Or is it totally random? Or does it depend on the star?”

    Star power

    All kinds of planets’ fates do, in fact, depend on the stars, Petigura’s recent work suggests. In a February report in The Astronomical Journal, he and colleagues measured the metal contents of 1,305 planet-hosting stars in Kepler’s field of view.

    The researchers learned that large planets and close-in planets — with orbital periods of 10 days or less — are more common around metal-rich stars. But the team was surprised to find that small planets and planets that orbit far from their stars show up around stars of all sorts of compositions. “They form efficiently everywhere,” Petigura says.

    That could mean that metal-rich stars had disks that extended closer to the stars. With enough material close to the star, hot super-Earths could have formed where they currently spin. The existence of hot super-Earths might even suggest that hot Jupiters can form close to the star after all. A super-Earth or mini-Neptune could represent the core of what was once a hot Jupiter that didn’t quite gather enough gas before the disk dissipated, or whose atmosphere was blown off by the star (SN Online: 10/31/17).

    Weird water

    Some scientists are looking to stars to reveal what’s inside a planet. The help is welcome because density is a crude measure for understanding what a planet is made of. Planets with the same mass and radius can have very different compositions and natures — look at hellish Venus and livable Earth.

    Take the case of TRAPPIST-1, which has seven Earth-sized worlds and is 39 light-years away. Astronomers are anxious to check at least three of the planets for signs of life
    (SN: 12/23/17, p. 25). But those planets might be so waterlogged that any signs of life would be hard to detect, says exogeologist Cayman Unterborn of Arizona State. So much water would change a planet’s chemistry in a way that makes it hard to tell life from nonlife. Based on the planets’ radii (measured by their transits) and their masses (measured by their gravitational influence on one another), Unterborn and colleagues used density to calculate a bizarre set of interiors for the worlds, which the team reported March 19 in Nature Astronomy.

    The TRAPPIST-1 planets have low densities for their size, Unterborn says, suggesting that their masses are mostly light material like water ice. TRAPPIST-1b, the innermost planet, seems to be 15 percent water by mass (Earth is less than 0.1 percent water). The fifth planet out, TRAPPIST-1f, may be at least half water by mass. If the planet formed with all that water already in it, it would have had 1,000 Earth oceans’ worth of water. That amount of water would compress into exotic phases of ice not found at normal pressures on Earth. “That is so much water that the chemistry of how that planet crystallized is not something we have ever imagined,” Unterborn says.

    Size it up

    Measuring a planet’s mass and radius gives astronomers a sense of planetary makeup. This plot compares the TRAPPIST-1 planets (purple) with Earth, Venus, an exoplanet named K2-229b and a couple of other worlds.


    Source: A. Santerne et al/Nature Astronomy 2018


    But there’s a glitch. Unterborn’s analysis was based on the most accurate published masses for the TRAPPIST-1 worlds at the time. But on February 5, the same day his paper was accepted in Nature Astronomy, a group led by astronomer Simon Grimm of the University of Bern in Switzerland posted more precise mass measurements at Astronomy and Astrophysics. Those masses make the soggiest planets look merely damp.

    Clearly, Unterborn says, density is not destiny. Studying a planet based on its mass and radius has its limits.

    Looking deeper

    As a next step, Unterborn and colleagues have published a series of papers suggesting how stellar compositions can tell the likelihood that a group of planets have plate tectonics, or how much oxygen the planet atmospheres may have. Better geologic models may ultimately help reveal if a single planet is habitable.

    But Unterborn is wary of translating composition from a star to any individual planet — existing geochemical models aren’t good enough. The recent case of K2-229b makes that clear. Astronomer Alexandre Santerne of the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Marseille in France and colleagues recently tried to see if a star’s composition could describe the interior of its newly discovered exoplanet, K2-229b. The team reported online March 26 in Nature Astronomy that the planet has a size similar to Earth’s but a makeup more like Mercury’s: 70 percent metallic core, 30 percent silicate mantle by mass. (The researchers nicknamed the planet Freddy, for Queen front man Freddie Mercury, Santerne wrote on Twitter.) That composition is not what they’d expect from the star alone.

    Hints from the star

    Based on its mass and radius, an exoplanet named K2-229b is about Earth’s size but more similar to Mercury in composition, astronomers suggest.


    Source: A. Santerne et al/Nature Astronomy 2018


    Geologic models need to catch up quickly. After TESS finds the best worlds for follow-up observations, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2020, will search some of those planets’ atmospheres for signs of life (SN: 4/30/16, p. 32). For that strategy to work, Unterborn says, scientists need a better read on the exoplanet cookbook.

    Christy Till’s pressure-packed test kitchen may help. Till is primarily a volcanologist who studies how magma erupting onto Earth’s surface can reveal conditions in Earth’s interior. “The goal is to start doing that for exoplanets,” she says.

    Till and colleagues are redoing some foundational experiments conducted for Earth 50 years ago but not yet done for exoplanets. The experiments predict which elements can go into planets’ mantles and cores, and which will form solid crusts. (Early results that Till presented in December in New Orleans at the American Geophysical Union meeting suggest that multiplying the sun’s magnesium-to-silicon ratio by 1.33 still bakes a rocky planet, but with a different flavored crust than Earth’s.)

    Till uses three piston cylinders to squash and singe synthetic exoplanets for 24 hours to see what minerals form and melt at different pressures and temperatures. The results may help answer questions like what kind of lava would erupt on a planet’s surface, what would the crust be made of and what gases might end up in the planet’s atmosphere.

    It’s early days, but Till’s recipe testing may mean scientists won’t have to wait decades for telescopes to get a close enough look at an exoplanet to judge how much like home it really is. With new cookbook chapters, Unterborn says, “we can figure out which stars are the best places to build an Earth.”

    Related journal articles
    See the full article for further references with links.

    See the full article here .

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    ASU is the largest public university by enrollment in the United States.[11] Founded in 1885 as the Territorial Normal School at Tempe, the school underwent a series of changes in name and curriculum. In 1945 it was placed under control of the Arizona Board of Regents and was renamed Arizona State College.[12][13][14] A 1958 statewide ballot measure gave the university its present name.
    ASU is classified as a research university with very high research activity (RU/VH) by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, one of 78 U.S. public universities with that designation. Since 2005 ASU has been ranked among the Top 50 research universities, public and private, in the U.S. based on research output, innovation, development, research expenditures, number of awarded patents and awarded research grant proposals. The Center for Measuring University Performance currently ranks ASU 31st among top U.S. public research universities.[15]

    ASU awards bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in 16 colleges and schools on five locations: the original Tempe campus, the West campus in northwest Phoenix, the Polytechnic campus in eastern Mesa, the Downtown Phoenix campus and the Colleges at Lake Havasu City. ASU’s “Online campus” offers 41 undergraduate degrees, 37 graduate degrees and 14 graduate or undergraduate certificates, earning ASU a Top 10 rating for Best Online Programs.[16] ASU also offers international academic program partnerships in Mexico, Europe and China. ASU is accredited as a single institution by The Higher Learning Commission.

    ASU Tempe Campus
    ASU Tempe Campus

  • richardmitnick 7:42 am on March 21, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Exoplanet research   

    From ESA: “ESA’s Next Science Mission To Focus on Nature of Exoplanet” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    European Space Agency

    20 March 2018

    Markus Bauer

    ESA Science Communication Officer

    Tel: +31 71 565 6799

    Mob: +31 61 594 3 954

    Email: markus.bauer@esa.int

    Hot exoplanet.

    The nature of planets orbiting stars in other systems will be the focus for ESA’s fourth medium-class science mission, to be launched in mid 2028.

    Ariel, the Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey mission, was selected by ESA today as part of its Cosmic Vision plan.

    ESA Ariel spacecraft.

    The mission addresses one of the key themes of Cosmic Vision: What are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life?

    Thousands of exoplanets have already been discovered with a huge range of masses, sizes and orbits, but there is no apparent pattern linking these characteristics to the nature of the parent star. In particular, there is a gap in our knowledge of how the planet’s chemistry is linked to the environment where it formed, or whether the type of host star drives the physics and chemistry of the planet’s evolution.

    Ariel will address fundamental questions on what exoplanets are made of and how planetary systems form and evolve by investigating the atmospheres of hundreds of planets orbiting different types of stars, enabling the diversity of properties of both individual planets as well as within populations to be assessed.

    Observations of these worlds will give insights into the early stages of planetary and atmospheric formation, and their subsequent evolution, in turn contributing to put our own Solar System in context.

    “Ariel is a logical next step in exoplanet science, allowing us to progress on key science questions regarding their formation and evolution, while also helping us to understand Earth’s place in the Universe,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

    “Ariel will allow European scientists to maintain competitiveness in this dynamic field. It will build on the experiences and knowledge gained from previous exoplanet missions.”

    The mission will focus on warm and hot planets, ranging from super-Earths to gas giants orbiting close to their parent stars, taking advantage of their well-mixed atmospheres to decipher their bulk composition.

    Ariel will measure the chemical fingerprints of the atmospheres as the planet crosses in front of its host star, observing the amount of dimming at a precision level of 10–100 parts per million relative to the star.

    As well as detecting signs of well-known ingredients such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane, it will also be able to measure more exotic metallic compounds, putting the planet in context of the chemical environment of the host star.

    For a select number of planets, Ariel will also perform a deep survey of their cloud systems and study seasonal and daily atmospheric variations.

    Ariel’s metre-class telescope will operate at visible and infrared wavelengths. It will be launched on ESA’s new Ariane 6 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou in mid 2028. It will operate from an orbit around the second Lagrange point, L2, 1.5 million kilometres directly ‘behind’ Earth as viewed from the Sun, on an initial four-year mission.

    Following its selection by ESA’s Science Programme Committee, the mission will continue into another round of detailed mission study to define the satellite’s design. This would lead to the ‘adoption’ of the mission – presently planned for 2020 – following which an industrial contractor will be selected to build it.

    Ariel was chosen from three candidates, competing against the space plasma physics mission Thor (Turbulence Heating ObserveR) and the high-energy astrophysics mission Xipe (X-ray Imaging Polarimetry Explorer).

    Solar Orbiter, Euclid and Plato have already been selected as medium-class missions.

    NASA/ESA Solar Orbiter

    ESA/Euclid spacecraft


    See the full article here .

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    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 1:13 pm on December 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Exoplanet research, Habitable planets could exist around pulsars, , , The first exoplanets ever discovered were around the pulsar PSR B1257+12,   

    From U Cambridge: “Habitable planets could exist around pulsars” 

    U Cambridge bloc

    University of Cambridge

    19 Dec 2017
    Sarah Collins

    It is theoretically possible that habitable planets exist around pulsars – spinning neutron stars that emit short, quick pulses of radiation. According to new research, such planets must have an enormous atmosphere that converts the deadly x-rays and high energy particles of the pulsar into heat. The results, from astronomers at the University of Cambridge and Leiden University, are reported in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    Pulsars are known for their extreme conditions. Each is a fast-spinning neutron star – the collapsed core of a massive star that has gone supernova at the end of its life. Only 10 to 30 kilometres across, a pulsar possesses enormous magnetic fields, accretes matter, and regularly gives out large bursts of X-rays and highly energetic particles.

    Surprisingly, despite this hostile environment, neutron stars are known to host exoplanets. The first exoplanets ever discovered were around the pulsar PSR B1257+12 – but whether these planets were originally in orbit around the precursor massive star and survived the supernova explosion, or formed in the system later remains an open question. Such planets would receive little visible light but would be continually blasted by the energetic radiation and stellar wind from the host. Could such planets ever host life?

    For the first time, astronomers have tried to calculate the ‘habitable’ zones near neutron stars – the range of orbits around a star where a planetary surface could possibly support water in a liquid form. Their calculations show that the habitable zone around a neutron star can be as large as the distance from our Earth to our Sun. An important premise is that the planet must be a super-Earth, with a mass between one and ten times our Earth. A smaller planet will lose its atmosphere within a few thousand years under the onslaught of the pulsar winds. To survive this barrage, a planet’s atmosphere must be a million times thicker than ours – the conditions on a pulsar planet surface might resemble those of the deep ocean floor on Earth.

    The astronomers studied the pulsar PSR B1257+12 about 2300 light-years away as a test case, using the X-ray Chandra space telescope.

    NASA/Chandra Telescope

    Of the three planets in orbit around the pulsar, two are super-Earths with a mass of four to five times our Earth, and orbit close enough to the pulsar to warm up. According to co-author Alessandro Patruno from Leiden University, “The temperature of the planets might be suitable for the presence of liquid water on their surface. Though, we don’t know yet if the two super-Earths have the right, extremely dense atmosphere.”

    In the future, Patruno and his co-author Mihkel Kama from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy would like to observe the pulsar in more detail and compare it with other pulsars. The European Southern Observatory’s ALMA Telescope would be able to show dust discs around neutron stars, which are good predictors of planets. The Milky Way contains about one billion neutron stars, of which about 200,000 are pulsars. So far, 3000 pulsars have been studied and only five pulsar planets have been found.

    See the full article here .

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    U Cambridge Campus

    The University of Cambridge (abbreviated as Cantab in post-nominal letters) is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, England. Founded in 1209, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university. It grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with townsfolk. The two ancient universities share many common features and are often jointly referred to as “Oxbridge”.

    Cambridge is formed from a variety of institutions which include 31 constituent colleges and over 100 academic departments organised into six schools. The university occupies buildings throughout the town, many of which are of historical importance. The colleges are self-governing institutions founded as integral parts of the university. In the year ended 31 July 2014, the university had a total income of £1.51 billion, of which £371 million was from research grants and contracts. The central university and colleges have a combined endowment of around £4.9 billion, the largest of any university outside the United States. Cambridge is a member of many associations and forms part of the “golden triangle” of leading English universities and Cambridge University Health Partners, an academic health science centre. The university is closely linked with the development of the high-tech business cluster known as “Silicon Fen”.

  • richardmitnick 1:24 pm on December 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Exoplanet research, Kepler-90 system, Kepler-90i – a sizzling hot rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days   

    From NASA Kepler: “Artificial Intelligence, NASA Data Used to Discover Eighth Planet Circling Distant Star” 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope


    Felicia Chou
    Headquarters, Washington

    Alison Hawkes
    Ames Research Center, California’s Silicon Valley

    With the discovery of an eighth planet, the Kepler-90 system is the first to tie with our solar system in number of planets.
    Credits: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

    Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

    The newly-discovered Kepler-90i – a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days – was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers “learn.” In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded signals from planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.

    NASA will host a Reddit Ask Me Anything at 3 p.m. EST today on this discovery.

    Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.
    Credits: NASA

    “Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”

    The discovery came about after researchers Christopher Shallue and Andrew Vanderburg trained a computer to learn how to identify exoplanets in the light readings recorded by Kepler – the miniscule change in brightness captured when a planet passed in front of, or transited, a star. Inspired by the way neurons connect in the human brain, this artificial “neural network” sifted through Kepler data and found weak transit signals from a previously-missed eighth planet orbiting Kepler-90, in the constellation Draco.

    While machine learning has previously been used in searches of the Kepler database, this research demonstrates that neural networks are a promising tool in finding some of the weakest signals of distant worlds.

    Other planetary systems probably hold more promise for life than Kepler-90. About 30 percent larger than Earth, Kepler-90i is so close to its star that its average surface temperature is believed to exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit, on par with Mercury. Its outermost planet, Kepler-90h, orbits at a similar distance to its star as Earth does to the Sun.

    “The Kepler-90 star system is like a mini version of our solar system. You have small planets inside and big planets outside, but everything is scrunched in much closer,” said Vanderburg, a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow and astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Shallue, a senior software engineer with Google’s research team Google AI, came up with the idea to apply a neural network to Kepler data. He became interested in exoplanet discovery after learning that astronomy, like other branches of science, is rapidly being inundated with data as the technology for data collection from space advances.

    “In my spare time, I started googling for ‘finding exoplanets with large data sets’ and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge data set available,” said Shallue. “Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can’t search it for themselves.”

    Kepler’s four-year dataset consists of 35,000 possible planetary signals. Automated tests, and sometimes human eyes, are used to verify the most promising signals in the data. However, the weakest signals often are missed using these methods. Shallue and Vanderburg thought there could be more interesting exoplanet discoveries faintly lurking in the data.

    First, they trained the neural network to identify transiting exoplanets using a set of 15,000 previously-vetted signals from the Kepler exoplanet catalogue. In the test set, the neural network correctly identified true planets and false positives 96 percent of the time. Then, with the neural network having “learned” to detect the pattern of a transiting exoplanet, the researchers directed their model to search for weaker signals in 670 star systems that already had multiple known planets. Their assumption was that multiple-planet systems would be the best places to look for more exoplanets.

    “We got lots of false positives of planets, but also potentially more real planets,” said Vanderburg. “It’s like sifting through rocks to find jewels. If you have a finer sieve then you will catch more rocks but you might catch more jewels, as well.”

    Kepler-90i wasn’t the only jewel this neural network sifted out. In the Kepler-80 system, they found a sixth planet. This one, the Earth-sized Kepler-80g, and four of its neighboring planets form what is called a resonant chain – where planets are locked by their mutual gravity in a rhythmic orbital dance. The result is an extremely stable system, similar to the seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

    Their research paper reporting these findings has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal. Shallue and Vanderburg plan to apply their neural network to Kepler’s full set of more than 150,000 stars.

    Kepler has produced an unprecedented data set for exoplanet hunting. After gazing at one patch of space for four years, the spacecraft now is operating on an extended mission and switches its field of view every 80 days.

    “These results demonstrate the enduring value of Kepler’s mission,” said Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “New ways of looking at the data – such as this early-stage research to apply machine learning algorithms – promises to continue to yield significant advances in our understanding of planetary systems around other stars. I’m sure there are more firsts in the data waiting for people to find them.”

    See the full article here .

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    NASA’s Ames Research Center manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

    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

    The loss of a second of the four reaction wheels on board the Kepler spacecraft in May 2013 brought an end to Kepler’s four plus year science mission to continuously monitor more than 150,000 stars to search for transiting exoplanets. Developed over the months following this failure, the K2 mission represents a new concept for spacecraft operations that enables continued scientific observations with the Kepler space telescope. K2 became fully operational in June 2014 and is expected to continue operating until 2017 or 2018.

    NASA image

    NASA JPL Icon

  • richardmitnick 10:08 am on December 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Exoplanet research, Red-dwarf star k2-18 with exoplanets K2-18b and its neighbour newly discovered K2-18c,   

    From Universe Today: “Two new Super-Earths Discovered Around a Red Dwarf Star” 


    Universe Today

    5 Dec , 2017
    Matt Williams

    K2-18b and its neighbour, newly discovered K2-18c, orbit the red-dwarf star k2-18 locataed 111 light years away in the constellation Leo. Credit: Alex Boersma

    The search for extra-solar planets has turned up some very interesting discoveries. Aside planets that are more-massive versions of their Solar counterparts (aka. Super-Jupiters and Super-Earths), there have been plenty of planets that straddle the line between classifications. And then there were times when follow-up observations have led to the discovery of multiple planetary systems.

    This was certainly the case when it came to K2-18, a red dwarf star system located about 111 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. Using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), an international team of astronomers was recently examining a previously-discovered exoplanet in this system (K2-18b) when they noted the existence of a second exoplanet.

    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at Cerro LaSilla, Chile, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

    ESO/HARPS at La Silla

    The study which details their findings – Characterization of the K2-18 multi-planetary system with HARPS – is scheduled to be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets – a consortium of scientists and students from the University of Montreal and McGill University.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 4:06 pm on December 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A New Spin to Solving Mystery of Stellar Companions, Are these planetary-mass companions actually planets or are they instead small "failed" stars called brown dwarfs?, , , , , , Exoplanet research, , These new spin measurements suggest that if these bodies are massive planets located far away from their stars they have properties that are very similar to those of the smallest brown dwarfs   

    From Keck: “A New Spin to Solving Mystery of Stellar Companions” 

    Keck Observatory

    Keck Observatory.
    Keck, with Subaru and IRTF (NASA Infrared Telescope Facility). Vadim Kurland

    Keck Observatory

    December 4, 2017
    Mari-Ela Chock, Keck Observatory
    (808) 554-0567

    Whitney Clavin, Caltech
    (626) 395-1856

    Credit: Gauza, B. et al 2015, MNRAS, 452, 1677-1683
    Image of the planetary-mass companion VHS 1256-1257 b (bottom right) and its host star (center).

    Credit: Ireland, M. J. et al 2011, ApJ, 726, 113
    Image of the planetary-mass companion GSC 6214-210 b (bottom) and its host star (top).

    Credit: Kraus, A. L. et al. 2014, ApJ, 781, 20
    Image of the planetary-mass companion ROXs 42B b (right, labeled ‘b’) and its host star (left, labeled ‘A’).

    Researchers Measure the Spin Rates of Bodies Thought to be Either Planets or Tiny “Failed” Stars.

    Taking a picture of an exoplanet—a planet in a solar system beyond our sun—is no easy task. The light of a planet’s parent star far outshines the light from the planet itself, making the planet difficult to see. While taking a picture of a small rocky planet like Earth is still not feasible, researchers have made strides by snapping images of about 20 giant planet-like bodies. These objects, known as planetary-mass companions, are more massive than Jupiter, orbit far from the glare of their stars, and are young enough to still glow with heat from their formation—all traits that make them easier to photograph.

    But one big question remains: Are these planetary-mass companions actually planets, or are they instead small “failed” stars called brown dwarfs? Brown dwarfs form like stars do—out of collapsing clouds of gas—but they lack the mass to ignite and shine with starlight. They can be found floating on the their own in space, or they can be found orbiting with other brown dwarfs or stars. The smallest brown dwarfs are similar in size to Jupiter and would look just like a planet when orbiting a star.

    Using the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii, researchers at Caltech have taken a new approach to the mystery: they have measured the spin rates of three of the photographed planetary-mass companions and compared them to spin rates for small brown dwarfs. The results offer a new set of clues that hint at how the companions may have formed.

    “These companions with their high masses and wide separations could have formed either as planets or brown dwarfs,” says graduate student Marta Bryan (MS ’14), lead author of a new study describing the findings in the journal Nature Astronomy . “In this study, we wanted to shed light on their origins.”

    “These new spin measurements suggest that if these bodies are massive planets located far away from their stars, they have properties that are very similar to those of the smallest brown dwarfs,” says Heather Knutson, professor of planetary science at Caltech and a co-author of the paper.

    The astronomers measured the spin rate, or the length of a day, of three planetary-mass companions known as ROXs 42B b, GSC 6214-210 b, and VHS 1256-1257 b. They used an instrument at Keck Observatory called the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) to dissect the light coming from the companions.

    Keck NIRSpec schematic

    As the objects spin on their axes, light from the side that is turning toward us shifts to shorter, bluer wavelengths, while light from the receding side shifts to longer, redder wavelengths. The degree of this shifting indicates the speed of a rotating body. The results showed that the three companions’ spin rates ranged between six to 14 kilometers per second, similar to rotation rates of our solar system’s gas giant planets Saturn and Jupiter.

    For the study, the researchers also included the two planetary-mass companions for which spin rates had already been measured. One, β Pictoris b, has a rotation rate of 25 kilometers per second—the fastest rotation rate of any planetary-mass body measured so far.

    The researchers compared the spin rates for the five companions to those measured previously for small free-floating brown dwarfs. The ranges of rotation rates for the two populations were indistinguishable. In other words, the companions are whirling about their own axes at about the same speeds as their free-floating brown-dwarf counterparts.

    The results suggest two possibilities. One is that the planetary-mass companions are actually brown dwarfs. The second possibility is that the companions looked at in this study are planets that formed, just as planets do, out of disks of material swirling around their stars, but for reasons not yet understood, the objects ended up with spin rates similar to those of brown dwarfs. Some researchers think that both newly forming planets and brown dwarfs are encircled by miniature gas disks that might be helping to slow their spin rates. In other words, similar physical processes may leave planets and brown dwarfs with similar spin rates.

    “It’s a question of nature versus nurture,” says Knutson. “Were the planetary companions born like brown dwarfs, or did they just end up behaving like them with similar spins?”

    The team also says that the companions are spinning more slowly than expected. Growing planets tend to be spun up by the material they pull in from a surrounding gas disk, in the same way that spinning ice skaters increase their speed, or angular momentum, when they pull their arms in. The relatively slow rotation rates observed for these objects indicate that they were able to effectively put the brakes on this spin-up process, perhaps by transferring some of this angular momentum back to encircling gas disks. The researchers are planning future studies of spin rates to further investigate the matter.

    “Spin rates of planetary-mass bodies outside our solar system have not been fully explored,” says Bryan. “We are just now beginning to use this as a tool for understanding formation histories of planetary-mass objects.”

    See the full article here .

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    To advance the frontiers of astronomy and share our discoveries with the world.

    The W. M. Keck Observatory operates the largest, most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometer and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. Keck Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.

    Today Keck Observatory is supported by both public funding sources and private philanthropy. As a 501(c)3, the organization is managed by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), whose Board of Directors includes representatives from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, with liaisons to the board from NASA and the Keck Foundation.

    Keck UCal

  • richardmitnick 3:01 pm on December 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi argue the solar flares were an essential part of the process that led to us, As a way to potentially improve the chances of finding habitable conditions on those exoplanets that are observed a new approach has been proposed by a group of NASA scientists, , , , , , Exoplanet research, , , The novel technique takes advantage of the frequent stellar storms emanating from cool young dwarf stars, This new research suggests that some stellar storms could have just the opposite effect — making the planet more habitable., When high-energy particles from a stellar storm reach an exoplanet they break the nitrogen oxygen and water molecules that may be in the atmosphere into their individual components   

    From Many Worlds: “A New Way to Find Signals of Habitable Exoplanets?” 

    NASA NExSS bloc


    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    Marc Kaufman

    Scientists propose a new and more indirect way of determining whether an exoplanet has a good, bad or unknowable chance of being habitable. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk)

    The search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is extremely difficult and time-consuming work. The telescopes that can potentially take the measurements required are few and more will come only slowly. And for the current and next generation of observatories, staring at a single exoplanet long enough to get a measurement of the compounds in its atmosphere will be a time-consuming and expensive process — and thus a relatively infrequent one.

    As a way to potentially improve the chances of finding habitable conditions on those exoplanets that are observed, a new approach has been proposed by a group of NASA scientists.

    The novel technique takes advantage of the frequent stellar storms emanating from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms throw huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space – traveling near the speed of light — and the high energy particles then interact with exoplanet atmospheres and produce chemical biosignatures that can be detected.

    The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports.

    “We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere,” said Airapetian, who is a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at American University in Washington, D.C. “These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”

    The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

    So this technique, called a search for “Beacons of Life,” would not detect signs of life per se, but would detect secondary or tertiary signals that would, in effect, tell observers to “look here.”

    The scientific logic is as follows:

    When high-energy particles from a stellar storm reach an exoplanet, they break the nitrogen, oxygen and water molecules that may be in the atmosphere into their individual components.

    Water molecules become hydroxyl — one atom each of oxygen and hydrogen, bound together. This sparks a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately produce what the scientists call the atmospheric beacons of hydroxyl, more molecular oxygen, and nitric oxide.

    For researchers, these chemical reactions are very useful guides. When starlight strikes the atmosphere, spring-like bonds within the beacon molecules absorb the energy and vibrate, sending that energy back into space as heat, or infrared radiation. Scientists know which gases emit radiation at particular wavelengths of light. So by looking at all the radiation coming from the that planet’s atmosphere, it’s possible to get a sense of what chemicals are present and roughly in what amounts..

    Forming a detectable amount of these beacons requires a large quantity of molecular oxygen and nitrogen. As a result, if detected these compounds would suggest the planet has an atmosphere filled with biologically friendly chemistry as well as Earth-like atmospheric pressure. The odds of the planet being a habitable world remain small, but those odds do grow.

    “These conditions are not life, but are fundamental prerequisites for life and are comparable to our Earth’s atmosphere,” Airapetian wrote in an email.

    Stellar storms and related coronal mass ejections are thought to burst into space when magnetic reconnections in various regions of the star. For stars like our sun, the storms become less frequent within a relatively short period, astronomically speaking. Smaller and less luminous red dwarf stars, which are the most common in the universe, continue to send out intense stellar flares for a much longer time.

    Vladimir Airapetian is a senior researcher at NASA Goddard and a member of NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative.

    The effect of stellar weather on planets orbiting young stars, including our own four billion years ago, has been a focus of Airapetian’s work for some time.

    For instance, Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi published a paper in the journal Nature last year proposing that solar flares warmed the early Earth to make it habitable. They concluded that the high-energy particles also provided the vast amounts of energy needed to combine evenly scattered simple molecules into the kind of complex molecules that could keep the planet warm and form some of the chemical building blocks of life.

    In other words, they argue, the solar flares were an essential part of the process that led to us.

    What Airapetian is proposing now is to look at the chemical results of stellar flares hitting exoplanet atmospheres to see if they might be an essential part of a life-producing process as well, or of a process that creates a potentially habitable planet.

    Airapetian said that he is again working with Danchi, a Goddard astrophysicist, and the team from heliophysics to propose a NASA mission that would use some of their solar and stellar flare findings. The mission being conceived, the Exo Life Beacon Space Telescope (ELBST), would measure infrared emissions of an exoplanet atmosphere using direct imaging observations, along with technology to block the infrared emissions of the host star.

    For this latest paper, Airapetian and colleagues used a computer simulation to study the interaction between the atmosphere and high-energy space weather around a cool, active star. They found that ozone drops to a minimum and that the decline reflects the production of atmospheric beacons.

    They then used a model to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form and how much ozone would be destroyed in an Earth-like atmosphere around an active star. Earth scientists have used this model for decades to study how ozone — which forms naturally when sunlight strikes oxygenin the upper atmosphere — responds to solar storms. But the ozone reactions found a new application in this study; Earth is, after all, the best case study in the search for habitable planets and life.

    Will this new approach to searching for habitable planets out?

    “This is an exciting new proposed way to look for life,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard astrobiologist not connected with the study. “But as with all signs of life, the exoplanet community needs to think hard about context. What are the ways non-biological processes could mimic this signature?”

    A 2012 coronal mass ejection from the sun. Earth is placed into the image to give a sense of the size of the solar flare, but our planet is of course nowhere near the sun. (NASA, Goddard Media Studios)

    Today, Earth enjoys a layer of protection from the high-energy particles of solar storms due to its strong magnetic field. However, some particularly strong solar events can still interact with the magnetosphere and potentially wreak havoc on certain technology on Earth.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classifies solar storms on a scale of one to five (one being the weakest; five being the most severe). For instance, a storm forecast to be a G3 event means it could have the strength to cause fluctuations in some power grids, intermittent radio blackouts in higher latitudes and possible GPS issues.

    This is what can happen to a planet with a strong magnetic field and a sun that is no longer prone to sending out frequent solar flares. Imagine what stellar storms can do when the star is younger and more prone to powerful flaring, and the planet less protected.

    Exoplanet scientists often talk of the possibility that a particular planet was “sterilized” by the high-energy storms, and so could never be habitable. But this new research suggests that some stellar storms could have just the opposite effect — making the planet more habitable.

    See the full article here.

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    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    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 [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

  • richardmitnick 12:02 pm on September 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Exoplanet research, To find aliens, we must think of life as we don’t know it   

    From aeon: “To find aliens, we must think of life as we don’t know it” 



    Ramin Skibba

    Jupiter’s moon, Europa, is believed to conceal a buried ocean. Photo NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

    From blob-like jellyfish to rock-like lichens, our planet teems with such diversity of life that it is difficult to recognise some organisms as even being alive. That complexity hints at the challenge of searching for life as we don’t know it – the alien biology that might have taken hold on other planets, where conditions could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. ‘The Universe is a really big place. Chances are, if we can imagine it, it’s probably out there on a planet somewhere,’ said Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ‘The question is, will we be able to find it?’

    For decades, astronomers have come at that question by confining their search to organisms broadly similar to the ones here. In 1976, NASA’s Viking landers examined soil samples on Mars, and tried to animate them using the kind of organic nutrients that Earth microbes like, with inconclusive results.

    NASA/Viking 1 Lander

    Later this year, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will begin scoping out methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be produced by Earth-like bacterial life.

    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter


    NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will likewise scan for carbon-based compounds from possible past or present Mars organisms.

    NASA Mars 2020 orbiter schematic

    NASA Mars 2020 rover depiction

    But the environment on Mars isn’t much like that on Earth, and the exoplanets that astronomers are finding around other stars are stranger still – many of them quite unlike anything in our solar system. For that reason, it’s important to broaden the search for life. We need to open our minds to genuinely alien kinds of biological, chemical, geological and physical processes. ‘Everybody looks for “biosignatures”, but they’re meaningless because we don’t have any other examples of biology,’ said the chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow.

    To open our minds, we need to go back to basics and consider the fundamental conditions that are necessary for life. First, it needs some form of energy, such as from volcanic hot springs or hydrothermal vents. That would seem to rule out any planets or moons lacking a strong source of internal heat. Life also needs protection from space radiation, such as an atmospheric ozone layer. Many newly discovered Earth-size worlds, including ones around TRAPPIST-1 and Proxima Centauri, orbit red dwarf stars whose powerful flares could strip away a planet’s atmosphere.

    The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultracool dwarf, is orbited by seven Earth-size planets (NASA).

    ESO Belgian robotic Trappist National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile interior

    ESO Belgian robotic Trappist-South National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    Studies by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to launch next year, will reveal whether we should rule out these worlds, too.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    Finally, everything we know about life indicates that it requires some kind of liquid solvent in which chemical interactions can lead to self-replicating molecules. Water is exceptionally effective in that regard. It facilitates making and breaking chemical bonds, assembling proteins or other structural molecules, and – for an actual organism – feeding and getting rid of waste. That’s why planetary scientists currently focus on the ‘habitable zone’ around stars, the locations where a world could have the right temperature for liquid water on its surface.

    These constraints still leave a bewildering range of possibilities. Perhaps other liquids could take the place of water. Or a less exotic possibility: maybe biology could arise in the buried ocean on an ice-covered alien world. Such a setting could offer energy, protection and liquid water, yet provide almost no outward sign of life, making it tough to detect. For planets around other stars, we simply do not know enough yet to say what is (or is not) happening there. ‘It’s difficult to imagine that we could definitively find life on an exoplanet,’ conceded Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University. ‘But the outer solar system is accessible to us.’

    The search for exotic life therefore must begin close to home. The moons of Saturn and Jupiter offer a test case of whether biology could exist without an atmosphere. Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus both have inner oceans and internal heat sources. Enceladus spews huge geysers of water vapour from its south pole; Europa appears to puff off occasional plumes as well. Future space missions could fly through the plumes and study them for possible biochemicals. NASA’s proposed Europa lander, which could launch in about a decade, could seek out possible microbe-laced ocean water that seeped up or snowed back down onto the surface.

    An artist’s concept of a Europa lander, which would look for evidence of past or present life on the icy moon of Jupiter during a 20-day mission on the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Meanwhile, another Saturn moon, Titan, could tell us whether life can arise without liquid water. Titan is dotted with lakes of methane and ethane, filled by a seasonal hydrocarbon rain. Lunine and his colleagues have speculated that life could arise in this frigid setting. Several well-formulated (but as-yet unfunded) concepts exist for a lander that could investigate Titan’s methane lakes, looking for microbial life.

    For the motley bunch of exoplanets that have no analog in our solar system, however, scientists have to rely on laboratory experiments and sheer imagination. ‘We’re still looking for the basic physical and chemical requirements that we think life needs, but we’re trying to keep the net as broad as possible,’ Cable said. Exoplanet researchers such as Sara Seager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Victoria Meadows at the University of Washington are modelling disparate types of possible planetary atmospheres and the kinds of chemical signatures that life might imprint onto them.

    Now the onus is on NASA and other space agencies to design instruments capable of detecting as many signs of life as possible. Most current telescopes access only a limited range of wavelengths. ‘If you think of the spectrum like a set of venetian blinds, there are only a few slats removed. That’s not a very good way to get at the composition,’ Lunine said. In response, astronomers led by Seager and Scott Gaudi of the Ohio State University have proposed the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) for NASA in the 2030s or 2040s. It would scan exoplanets over a wide range of optical and near-infrared wavelengths for signs of oxygen and water vapour.

    Casting a wide search for ET won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it will surely be transformative. Even if astrobiologists find nothing, that knowledge will tell us how special life is here on Earth. And any kind of success will be Earth-shattering. Finding terrestrial-style bacteria on Mars would tell us we’re not alone. Finding methane-swimming organisms on Titan would tell us, even more profoundly, that ours is not the only way to make life. Either way, we Earthlings will never look at the cosmos the same way again.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 4:20 am on August 10, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ESO/HARPS, Exoplanet research, , , Tau Ceti, U Hertfordshire   

    From Keck Observatory: “Four Earth-Sized Planets Found Orbiting the Nearest Sun-Like Star” 

    Keck Observatory

    Keck Observatory.
    Keck, with Subaru and IRTF (NASA Infrared Telescope Facility). Vadim Kurland

    Keck Observatory

    August 9, 2017
    Mari-Ela Chock, Communications Officer
    W. M. Keck Observatory
    (808) 554-0567

    This illustration compares the four planets detected around the nearby star Tau Ceti (top) and the inner planets of our solar system (bottom). Credit: CREDIT: F. FENG, UNIVERSITY OF HERTFORDSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM

    A new study by an international team of astronomers reveals that Tau Ceti, the nearest Sun-like star about 12 light years away from the Sun, has four Earth-sized planets orbiting it.

    These planets have masses as low as 1.7 Earth mass, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around the nearest Sun-like stars. Two of them are Super-Earths located in the habitable zone of the star and thus could support liquid surface water.

    The data were obtained by using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, combined with the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii.

    ESO/HARPS at La Silla

    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

    Keck HIRES

    “HIRES is one of only a few spectrometers in the world that have routinely delivered the level of radial velocity precision needed for this kind of work,” said co-author Dr. Steve Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California, Santa Cruz. “And it is one of only two instruments in the world, the other being HARPS, that has been able to deliver this precision level for over a decade. It is a very unique facility in the exoplanet discovery field.”

    The four planets were detected by observing the wobbles in the movement of Tau Ceti. This wobble, known as the Doppler effect, happens when a planet’s gravity slightly tugs at its host star as it orbits.

    Measuring Tau Ceti’s wobbles required techniques sensitive enough to detect variations in its movement as small as 30 centimeters per second. The smaller the planet, the weaker its gravitational pull on its host star, and the harder it is to detect the star’s wobble.

    “We are getting tantalizingly close to the 10 centimeters per second limit required for detecting Earth analogs,” said Dr. Fabo Feng from the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom and lead author of the study. “Our detection of such weak wobbles is a milestone in the search for Earth analogs and the understanding of the Earth’s habitability through comparison with these analogs.”

    The outer two planets around Tau Ceti are likely to be candidate habitable worlds, although a massive debris disc around the star probably reduces their habitability due to intensive bombardment by asteroids and comets.

    The same team also investigated Tau Ceti four years ago in 2013, when Dr. Mikko Tuomi led an effort in developing data analysis techniques and used the star as a benchmark case.

    “We came up with an ingenious way of telling the difference between signals caused by planets and those caused by a star’s activity. We realized that we could see how a star’s activity differed at different wavelengths, then used that information to separate this activity from signals of planets,” said Dr. Tuomi.

    “We have painstakingly improved the sensitivity of our techniques and could rule out two of the signals our team identified in 2013 as planets. But no matter how we look at the star, there seems to be at least four rocky planets orbiting it,” Dr. Tuomi added. “We are slowly learning to tell the difference between wobbles caused by planets and those caused by stellar active surface. This enabled us to essentially verify the existence of the two outer, potentially habitable, planets in the system.”

    Sun-like stars are thought to be the best targets for searching for habitable Earth-sized planets due to their similarity to the Sun. Unlike more common smaller stars such as the red dwarf stars Proxima Centauri and Trappist-1, they are not so faint that planets would be tidally locked, showing the same side to the star at all times.

    Tau Ceti is very similar to the Sun in its size and brightness, and they both host multi-planet systems. If the outer two planets are found to be habitable, Tau Ceti could be an optimal target for interstellar colonization, as seen in science fiction.

    “Such weak signals of planets almost the size of the Earth cannot be seen without using advanced statistical and modeling approaches. We have introduced new methods to remove the noise in the data in order to reveal the weak planetary signals,” said Dr. Feng.

    About HIRES

    The High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) produces spectra of single objects at very high spectral resolution, yet covering a wide wavelength range. It does this by separating the light into many “stripes” of spectra stacked across a mosaic of three large CCD detectors. HIRES is famous for finding planets orbiting other stars. Astronomers also use HIRES to study distant galaxies and quasars, finding clues to the Big Bang.

    Science paper:
    Color difference makes a difference: four planet candidates around tau Ceti, The Astrophysical Journal.


    Fabo Feng, Mikko Tuomi, Hugh Jones – University of Hertfordshire, UK
    John Barnes – The Open University, UK
    Guillem Anglada-Escude – Queen Mary University ofLondon, UK
    Steve Vogt – University of California at Santa Cruz, USA
    Paul Butler – Carnegie Institute of Washington, USA

    See the full article here .

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    To advance the frontiers of astronomy and share our discoveries with the world.

    The W. M. Keck Observatory operates the largest, most scientifically productive telescopes on Earth. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometer and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. Keck Observatory is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA.

    Today Keck Observatory is supported by both public funding sources and private philanthropy. As a 501(c)3, the organization is managed by the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), whose Board of Directors includes representatives from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, with liaisons to the board from NASA and the Keck Foundation.
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