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  • richardmitnick 8:49 am on November 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Exoplanets,   

    From Hawaii Blog via UH: “Astronomers to Explore ‘Extreme Solar Systems’” 

    U Hawaii

    University of Hawaii

    Institute for Astronomy

    U Hawaii Institute for Astonomy Mauna Kea
    IFA at Manua Kea

    Hawaii Blog bloc
    Hawaii Blog


    As solar systems go, the one we live in is pretty boring. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide by the great Douglas Adams, our neighborhood was described as being “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy.” (Our planet was deemed “mostly harmless.”)

    But planets and stars can be found in some pretty remarkable configurations. And beginning this weekend, an international conference dedicated to “Extreme Solar Systems” will be held on Hawaii Island, with a complementary public talk scheduled for next Wednesday in Honolulu.

    What constitutes an “extreme” solar system? One with two stars, perhaps?

    “For those who are interested in science fiction, they might remember Luke Skywalker coming out of his den and walking toward the horizon and seeing two suns,” said Nader Haghighipour, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Institute for Astronomy, on tonight’s Bytemarks Cafe. “Well, that was science fiction many years ago, but a small group of us have been promoting the idea that science fiction is not entirely fiction and that there’s actually science behind it.”

    Haghighipour had been adamant for more than 20 years that circumbinary solar systems existed, but it wasn’t until observing instruments and scientific advances made it possible to find one. And the launch of the Kepler space observatory in 2009 was a major turning point.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Kepler scientists started discovering new exoplanets right out of the gate, and to date the space telescope has helped find over 1,000 exoplanets in about 440 star systems (with another 3,100 candidates waiting to be confirmed).

    Haghighipour was poring over the Kepler data as well.

    “We saw something very interesting about one specific binary star system: we saw that when the two stars go around each other, the light of each one of them dims for a very short amount of time and a very short amount of intensity,” he recalled. “Being promoters of planets with more than one sun, that was the first thing that occurred to us, that it may be a planet that was blocking the light coming from each one of the stars.”

    Still, astronomy is a field that demands lots of study and independent confirmation before declaring any discovery.

    “Three years, four years of data coming from Kepler helped us to get that model more and more solid, and eventually we could make predictions of when would be the next time the planet will go around those stars,” Haghighipour said. “When we discovered that, that was the proof.”

    The news made global headlines. Since then, he’s helped discover ten more planets that orbit two stars.


    Haghighipour explained how a circumbinary system would look.

    “In the context of our solar system, think of Mercury being another sun, and Jupiter and Earth going around both of them at the same time,” he said. “You wake up in the morning, you have two suns out there, you have two shadows when you walk, and just imagine one of the suns sets, the other stays up, or they both go down.”

    Of course, to see a two-sun sunset, the solar system needs to have planets that can support life. And with so many exoplanets now catalogued by astronomers, it was inevitable that some would be found in the Goldilocks Zone around their stars — an orbit not too cold and not too hot for life to exist.

    “So far we have discovered ten of them, and we are going to announce two new ones next week,” Haghighipour teased. “And among these ten, three of them are right in the habitable zone: they’re large, they’re as big as Jupiter, so they themselves cannot be habitable, but similar to our Jupiter, they may have moons that are big enough to be habitable.”


    The “Extreme Solar Systems” conference is only the third such international gathering, following meetings in Greece in 2007 and Wyoming in 2011. But the Hawaii meeting marks the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first extra-solar planets. More than 300 “hardcore astronomers” will spend a week at the Waikoloa Marriott exploring hundreds of poster presentations, dozens of scientific sessions, and many talks.

    Fortunately, Honolulu residents will also have a chance to soak up stories about unusual star systems. On Wednesday, Dec. 2, the UH Institute for Astronomy is hosting a “Frontiers of Astronomy” public talk at the UH Manoa Art Auditorium. Titled simply “Exoplanets,” the event will feature four planet hunters who are also presenting at the Big Island conference: Haghighipour, Andrew Howard, Paul Kalas from Berkeley and Josh Winn from MIT.

    Each researcher represents a different area of solar system research, and each will give a 10 minute talk. Then the floor will be opened to audience questions. The event is free and open to the public and starts at 7:30 p.m.

    For more information on the “Extreme Solar Systems” conference, visit the official website. For more information on the public talk on Wednesday, visit ifa.hawaii.edu. You can also follow @UHIfA on Twitter or connect with the institute on Facebook.

    See the full article here .

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    The 10 UH campuses and educational centers on six Hawaiian Islands provide unique opportunities for both learning and recreation.

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  • richardmitnick 9:43 am on November 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Exoplanets, LCOGT   

    From LCOGT: “A blue, neptune-size exoplanet around a red dwarf star” 

    LCOGT bloc

    Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network

    Edward Gomez

    A team of astronomers have used the LCOGT network to detect light scattered by tiny particles (called Rayleigh scattering), through the atmosphere of a Neptune-size transiting exoplanet. This suggests a blue sky on this world which is only 100 light years away from us. The result was published in the Astrophysical Journal on November 20 (and is available on ArXiV).

    Transits occur when an exoplanet passes in front of its parent star, reducing the amount of light we receive from the star by a small fraction. When the orbit of an exoplanet is aligned just right for transits to occur, astronomers can measure the planet’s size at different wavelengths in order to generate a spectrum of its atmosphere. The spectrum then reveals the substances present in the planet’s atmosphere, and therefore its composition. This measurement is most often performed using infrared light, where the planet is brightest and most easily observed. During the last few years, researchers have been probing the atmospheres of several small exoplanets with large ground and space-based telescopes, but have found it challenging to determine their composition using this method. This is either because the planets have clouds (which obscure the atmosphere) or because the measurements were not sufficiently precise.

    Image credit: NAOJ, artists impression of GJ 3470b and its host star.

    At four times the size of the Earth, GJ 3470b is a transiting exoplanet closer in size to our own planet than to the hot Jupiters (about 10 times the size of the Earth) which so far make up the majority of exoplanets with well-characterized atmospheres. Astronomers led by Diana Dragomir of the University of Chicago have followed up on a discovery by a different group, whose results tentatively hinted at the presence of Rayleigh scattering in the atmosphere of GJ 3470b. Dr. Dragomir’s team acquired and combined transit observations from all of LCOGT’s observatory sites (Hawaii, Texas, Chile, Australia and South Africa) to conclusively confirm the detection of Rayleigh scattering for GJ 3470b.

    The result is significant for several reasons. GJ 3470b is the smallest exoplanet for which a detection of Rayleigh scattering exists. While this planet is also believed to be cloudy or hazy, the measurement tells astronomers that the planet has a thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere below a layer of haze which scatters blue light. Indeed, the sky is blue on GJ 3470b. Moreover, the planet orbits a small (red dwarf) star, which means it blocks a large amount of light during every transit, making the transit easier to detect and the planet more easily characterisable. Finally, this measurement is the first clear detection of a spectroscopic feature in the atmosphere of an exoplanet that was made only with small (1.0m and 2.0m) telescopes. The team has also supplemented the LCOGT data with observations obtained from the 1.5m Kuiper Telescope in Arizona.

    LCOGT Steward Observatory 61 inch Kuiper Telescope
    LCOGT Steward Observatory 61 inch Kuiper Telescope interior
    LCOGT Steward 1.5 meter telescope in Arizona

    Dr. Dragomir, who carried out the project while she was a researcher at LCOGT, says that “this detection brings us closer to understanding the nature of increasingly smaller exoplanets through the use of a novel approach which allows us to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets even if they are cloudy.” At the same time, the result highlights the role that meter-size telescopes can play toward characterising the atmospheres of these worlds.

    See the full article here.

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    LCOGT Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network
    Sutherland is home to several telescopes including the 11-meter SALT.

    Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network is an integrated set of robotic telescopes, distributed around the world. The network currently includes two 2-meter telescopes, sited in Hawaii and eastern Australia, nine 1-meter telescopes, sited in Chile, South Africa, eastern Australia, and Texas, and three 0.4-meter telescopes, sited in Chile and the Canary Islands.

    LCOGT map

  • richardmitnick 7:49 pm on November 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Exoplanet’s Global Winds Let Rip at 5,400 MPH” 

    space-dot-com logo


    November 16, 2015
    Irene Klotz

    A windy day on HD 189733b is nothing to take lightly. Credit: Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick

    The planet, located about 63 light years away in the constellation Vulpecula, has winds reaching 5,400 mph, roughly 20 times faster than anything ever experienced on Earth.

    Granted, everything about HD 189733b is extreme. It’s about 10 percent bigger than Jupiter, but its located 180 times closer to its parent star than Jupiter is to the sun, far closer than even Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system.

    Scientists estimate its temperature reaches almost 3,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

    HD 189733b orbits its host start every 2.2 days, at a breakneck speed of 341,000 mph.

    Scientists at the University of Warwick were able to measure velocities on the day and night sides of the planet. They discovered the 5,400 mph wind blowing from the day to the night side.

    “As parts of HD 189733b’s atmosphere move towards or away from the Earth the Doppler effect changes the wavelength of this feature, which allows the velocity to be measured,” lead researcher Tom Louden said in a statement. “This is the first ever weather map from outside of our solar system.”

    Astronomers used HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, in La Silla, Chile, to watch the planet as it passed in front of its host star, relative to the telescope’s line of sight.

    ANALYSIS: Exoplanet Weather Forecast: Hot and Nasty

    “The surface of the star is brighter at the center than it is at the edge, so as the planet moves in front of the star the relative amount of light blocked by different parts of the atmosphere changes. For the first time we’ve used this information to measure the velocities on opposite sides of the planet independently, which gives us our velocity map,” Louden said.

    The research is being published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:46 pm on October 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From U Washington: “Where to look for life? UW astronomers devise ‘habitability index’ to guide future search” 

    U Washington

    University of Washington

    October 5, 2015
    Peter Kelley

    The James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror, is scheduled to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in October of 2018 and will be the premier NASA observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers around the world. UW astronomers have created a “habitability index for transiting planets” to help guide the ongoing search for life beyond Earth. NASA

    Powerful telescopes are coming soon. Where exactly shall we point them?

    Astronomers with the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have created a way to compare and rank exoplanets to help prioritize which of the thousands discovered warrant close inspection in the search for life beyond Earth.

    The new metric, called the Habitability index for transiting planets, is introduced in a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal by UW astronomy professors Rory Barnes and Victoria Meadows, with research assistant and co-author Nicole Evans.

    “Basically, we’ve devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme,” said Barnes, “so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, ‘OK, that’s the one we want to start with.’”

    The Kepler Space Telescope has enabled astronomers to detect thousands of exoplanets, those beyond our solar system — far more than can be investigated one by one.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    The James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2018, will be the first able to actually measure the atmospheric composition of a rocky, possibly Earthlike planet far off in space, and so vastly enhance the search for life.

    Astronomers detect some planets when the worlds transit or pass in front of their host star, thus blocking some of the light. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is scheduled to launch in 2017 and will find many more worlds in this way.


    But it’s the Webb telescope and its “transit transmission spectroscopy” that will really be able to study planets closely to hunt for life.

    But access to such telescopes is expensive and the work is methodical and time-consuming. The Virtual Planetary Laboratory’s index is a tool to help fellow astronomers decide which worlds might have the better chance of hosting life, and so are worthy of focusing limited resources on.

    Traditionally, astronomers have focused the search by looking for planets in their star’s habitable zone”— more informally called the “Goldilocks zone” — which is the swath of space that’s “just right” to allow an orbiting Earth-like planet to have liquid water on its surface, perhaps giving life a chance. But so far that has been just a sort of binary designation, indicating only whether a planet is, or is not, within that area considered right for life.

    “That was a great first step, but it doesn’t make any distinctions within the habitable zone,” Barnes said. “Now it’s as if Goldilocks has hundreds of bowls of porridge to choose from.”

    The new index is more nuanced, producing a continuum of values that astronomers can punch into a Virtual Planetary Laboratory Web form to arrive at the single-number habitability index, representing the probability that a planet can maintain liquid water at its surface.

    In creating the index, the researchers factored in estimates of a planet’s rockiness, rocky planets being the more Earth-like. They also accounted for a phenomenon called eccentricity-albedo degeneracy, which comments on a sort of balancing act between the a planet’s albedo — the energy reflected back to space from its surface — and the circularity of its orbit, which affects how much energy it receives from its host star.

    The two counteract each other. The higher a planet’s albedo, the more light and energy are reflected off to space, leaving less at the surface to warm the world and aid possible life. But the more noncircular or eccentric a planet’s orbit, the more intense is the energy it gets when passing close to its star in its elliptic journey.

    A life-friendly energy equilibrium for a planet near the inner edge of the habitable zone — in danger of being too hot for life — Barnes said, would be a higher albedo, to cool the world by reflecting some of that heat into space. Conversely, a planet near the cool outer edge of the habitable zone would perhaps need a higher level of orbital eccentricity to provide the energy needed for life.

    Barnes, Meadows and Evans ranked in this way planets so far found by the Kepler Space Telescope, in its original mission as well as its K2 follow-up mission. They found that the best candidates for habitability and life are those planets that get about 60 percent to 90 percent of the solar radiation that the Earth receives from the sun, which is in keeping with current thinking about a star’s habitable zone.

    The research is part of the ongoing work of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory to study faraway planets in the ongoing search for life, and was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

    “This innovative step allows us to move beyond the two-dimensional habitable zone concept to generate a flexible framework for prioritization that can include multiple observable characteristics and factors that affect planetary habitability,” said Meadows.

    “The power of the habitability index will grow as we learn more about exoplanets from both observations and theory.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:43 pm on September 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , CNET, , Exoplanets   

    From CNET via Dunlap: “Watch an exoplanet orbit a distant star” 



    U Toronto Dunlap bloc

    18 September 2015
    Michelle Starr

    Exoplanets, or planets outside the solar system, are notoriously difficult to see. We know they exist, but these planets are not usually seen directly.

    Planets only reflect the light of the stars, and stars are so bright that the any light reflected off the planet is very faint in comparison. Typically, stars are a million times brighter than their orbiting planets.

    The presence of exoplanets is extrapolated by observing the star it orbits. When the star’s light dims, astronomers are able to determine that a planet is passing in front of it and blocking some of the light from reaching Earth. At time of writing, NASA’s exoplanet archive lists 1,890 confirmed exoplanets located by the Kepler mission.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Using the Chile-based Gemini South telescope’s Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) instrument, a team of researchers led by PhD candidate Maxwell Millar-Blanchaer was able to take a series of images of a planet in orbit around a star named Beta Pictorus, which lies approximately 63 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation of Pictor.

    Gemini South telescope
    Gemini South Interior
    NOAO/Gemini South

    Gemini Planet Imager
    GPI on Gemini South

    The planet’s name is Beta Pictoris b, discovered in 2008, and it’s a gas giant. The system of Beta Pictorus is a complex one. It contains a massive debris disk, an orbiting gas clouds and comets.

    Beta Pictorus

    This composite image represents the close environment of Beta Pictoris as seen in near infrared light. This very faint environment is revealed after a very careful subtraction of the much brighter stellar halo. The outer part of the image shows the reflected light on the dust disc, as observed in 1996 with the ADONIS instrument on ESO’s 3.6 m telescope; the inner part is the innermost part of the system, as seen at 3.6 microns with NACO on the Very Large Telescope. The newly detected source is more than 1000 times fainter than Beta Pictoris, aligned with the disc, at a projected distance of 8 times the Earth-Sun distance. Both parts of the image were obtained on ESO telescopes equipped with adaptive optics.


    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla
    ESO 3.6 meter telescope interior
    ESO 3.6m telescope at LaSilla


    ESO VLT Interferometer

    Beta Pictorus b, with a radius 65 percent larger than Jupiter’s, is a relatively young planet, orbiting a very young star only somewhere between 8 million and 20 million years old. Beta Pictorus b interacts gravitationally with the debris disk, within which, scientists theorise, planetary formation may still be ongoing. This makes the Beta Pictorus system and planet Beta Pictorus b excellent for studying planetary formation theories.

    The planet was imaged from November 2013 to April 2015, capturing 1.5 years of its 22-year orbital period. The Gemini Planet Imager occludes the light from Beta Pictorus, allowing the camera to capture direct images of the planet, resulting in some of the best photos of Beta Pictorus b yet.

    “The images in the series represent the most accurate measurements of the planet’s position ever made,” Millar-Blanchaer said. “In addition, with GPI, we’re able to see both the disk and the planet at the exact same time. With our combined knowledge of the disk and the planet, we’re really able to get a sense of the planetary system’s architecture and how everything interacts.”

    The team’s paper, published this week in The Astrophysical Journal, also refines orbital measurements of the star and the debris disk, clarifying their relationship. It also refines the mass of the star Beta Pictorus, which comes in at around 1.6 solar masses, and demonstrates that Beta Pictorus b is unlikely ever to pass directly between Beta Pictorus and Earth.

    “It’s remarkable that Gemini is not only able to directly image exoplanets but is also capable of effectively making movies of them orbiting their parent star,” said Chris Davis, astronomy division program director at the National Science Foundation, which helps fund the Gemini telescopes.

    “The disk of gas and dust from which planets are currently forming was one of the first to be observed and is a fabulous laboratory for the study of young solar systems.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 4:55 pm on September 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Gemini : “Joint University of Toronto and Gemini Observatory Press Release” 


    Gemini Observatory
    Gemini Observatory

    Media Contact:

    Peter Michaud
    Public Information and Outreach Manager
    Gemini Observatory, Hilo, HI
    Email: pmichaud”at”gemini.edu
    Cell: (808) 936-6643
    Desk: (808) 974-2510

    Chris Sasaki
    Communications Coordinator
    Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
    University of Toronto
    Email: media”at”dunlap.utoronto.ca
    Phone: 416-978-6613

    Science Contacts:

    Max Millar-Blanchaer
    Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics
    University of Toronto
    Email: maxmb”at”astro.utoronto.ca
    Phone: (416) 978-3146

    Fredrik Rantakyro
    Gemini Observatory, La Serena, Chile
    Email: frantaky”at”gemini.edu
    Cell: 9 – 995097802
    Desk: 56-51- 2205665

    A team of astronomers has given us our best view yet of an exoplanet moving in its orbit around a distant star. A series of images captured between November 2013 to April 2015 shows the exoplanet β Pic b as it moves through 1 ½ years of its 22-year orbital period.


    First discovered in 2008, β Pic b is a gas giant planet ten to twelve times the mass of Jupiter, with an orbit roughly the diameter of Saturn’s. It is part of a dynamic and complex system that includes comets, orbiting gas clouds, and an enormous debris disk that in our Solar System would extend from Neptune’s orbit to nearly two thousand times the Sun/Earth distance. Because the planet and debris disk interact gravitationally, the system provides astronomers with an ideal laboratory to test theories on the formation of planetary systems beyond ours.

    Maxwell Millar-Blanchaer, a PhD-candidate in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, is lead author of a paper to be published September 16th in the Astrophysical Journal. The paper describes observations of the β Pictoris system made with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) instrument on the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

    Gemini Planet Imager

    “The images in the series represent the most accurate measurements of the planet’s position ever made,” says Millar-Blanchaer. “In addition, with GPI, we’re able to see both the disk and the planet at the exact same time. With our combined knowledge of the disk and the planet we’re really able to get a sense of the planetary system’s architecture and how everything interacts.”

    The paper includes refinements to measurements of the exoplanet’s orbit and the ring of material circling the star which shed light on the dynamic relationship between the two. It also includes the most accurate measurement of the mass of β Pictoris to date and shows it is very unlikely that β Pic b will pass directly between us and its parent star.

    “It’s remarkable that Gemini is not only able to directly image exoplanets but is also capable of effectively making movies of them orbiting their parent star,” said Chris Davis, astronomy division program director at the National Science Foundation, which is one of five international partners that funds the Gemini twin telescopes’ operation and maintenance. “Beta Pic is a special target. The disk of gas and dust from which planets are currently forming was one of the first to be observed and is a fabulous laboratory for the study of young solar systems.”

    Astronomers have discovered nearly two thousand exoplanets in the past two decades but most have been detected with instruments – like the Kepler space telescope – that use the transit method of detection: astronomers detect a faint drop in a star’s brightness as an exoplanet transits or passes between us and the star, but do not see the exoplanet itself.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    With GPI, astronomers image the actual planet – a remarkable feat given that an orbiting world typically appears a million times fainter than its parent star. This is possible because GPI’s adaptive optics sharpen the image of the target star by cancelling out the distortion caused by the Earth’s atmosphere; it then blocks the bright image of the star with a device called a coronagraph, revealing the exoplanet.

    Laurent Pueyo is with the Space Telescope Science Institute and a co-author on the paper. “It’s fortunate that we caught β Pic b just as it was heading back – as seen from our vantage point – toward β Pictoris,” says Pueyo. “This means we can make more observations before it gets too close to its parent star and that will allow us to measure its orbit even more precisely.”

    GPI is a groundbreaking instrument that was developed by an international team led by Stanford University’s Prof. Bruce Macintosh (a U of T alumnus) and the University of California Berkeley’s Prof. James Graham (former director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto). In August 2015, the team announced its first exoplanet discovery: a young Jupiter-like exoplanet designated 51 Eri b. It is the first exoplanet to be discovered as part of the GPI Exoplanet Survey (GPIES) which will target 600 stars over the next three years.

    See the full article here .

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    Gemini North
    Gemini North, Hawai’i

    Gemini South
    Gemini South, Chile
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    The Gemini Observatory consists of twin 8.1-meter diameter optical/infrared telescopes located on two of the best observing sites on the planet. From their locations on mountains in Hawai‘i and Chile, Gemini Observatory’s telescopes can collectively access the entire sky.
    Gemini was built and is operated by a partnership of six countries including the United States, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina. Any astronomer in these countries can apply for time on Gemini, which is allocated in proportion to each partner’s financial stake.

  • richardmitnick 8:40 pm on September 15, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Exoplanets, ,   

    From Rice: “Rice lands grant to explore exoplanet magnetic fields” 

    Rice U bloc

    Rice University

    September 14, 2015
    Mike Williams

    Scientists at Rice University will lead a study of distant solar systems to see if their planets have magnetic fields similar to the one illustrated here, which protects Earth from energetic charged particles emitted by the sun. Courtesy of NASA

    Members of the Rice Space Institute’s Laboratory for Space and Astrophysical Plasmas have won a $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) award to investigate the magnetic interactions between stars and their planets.

    The goal of Rice University space scientists and astronomers will be to use well-understood processes in our own solar system to help narrow the search for potentially habitable planets among the 200 billion estimated to exist in the Milky Way galaxy.

    The researchers will rely on sophisticated computational models, many developed at Rice, to apply what they’ve learned about sun-Earth interactions to potentially habitable planets elsewhere. They also will calculate the strength of expected radio signals from such magnetically endowed exoplanets — planets that orbit a star other than the sun.

    “We’re trying to explore how the knowledge we have gained over 50 years of space research focused on our own solar system can lend itself to this new regime,” said David Alexander, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy, director of the Rice Space Institute and principal investigator for the project.

    “This is exploratory,” he said. “We don’t know what the answers are going to be. But one thing we are targeting is whether we can determine and ultimately observe signatures of the exoplanets’ magnetic fields.”

    Earth’s magnetic field shields it from the sun’s constant stream of energetic charged particles, known as the solar wind. “Earth would not be so hospitable a planet if it weren’t for its magnetic field,” Alexander said. “The field protects us from the sun’s particle radiation, which is composed primarily of fast-moving protons and electrons.”

    Interaction between the magnetic fields of stars and planets generates a wide variety of radio emissions from the planets’ magnetospheres. The Rice team plans to calculate the expected emissions from these interactions for a wide range of star-planet systems. “This is nontrivial, as no star is really exactly identical to the sun, nor planet exactly identical to Earth, but we hope that by allowing for the differences in existing simulations, new knowledge can be gained,” he said. “We want to help identify systems where we think the activity level of the star and the expected magnetic field strength of the planet is a combination that would provide a safe harbor for life.”

    He said the planetary radio emissions will most likely be too weak to detect with current systems, but the techniques they develop will prepare scientists to monitor emissions from exoplanets with the more sophisticated radio telescopes to come. “I think we’ll learn some new science about our own solar system in the process,” Alexander said.

    He noted the project is a natural fit for the nation’s first space science program, founded at Rice in 1963. “We have a huge heritage in understanding how the sun interacts with planets in the solar system. It was part of the very first space physics department to understand how Earth responds to energy from the sun.”

    The multiyear grant is part of the NSF’s Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education — or INSPIRE — program, which funds proposals for transformative research whose potential advances lie outside the scope of a single program or discipline. The grant includes funds for a summer institute at the Planetary Habitability Lab at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. The lab works closely with the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope.

    Arecibo Observatory

    Former Rice Provost William Gordon founded and supervised the observatory’s construction.

    Joining Alexander are co-investigators Christopher Johns-Krull, Anthony Chan and Frank Toffoletto, all professors of physics and astronomy; Stephen Bradshaw, an assistant professor and the William V. Vietti Junior Chair of Space Physics; Stanislav Sazykin, a senior faculty fellow, all at Rice; and Abel Méndez, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

    Other collaborators are Robert Kerr, director of the Arecibo Observatory; and Tom Hill and Richard Wolf, research professors and professors emeritus of physics and astronomy; Andrea Isella, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and Patricia Reiff, a professor of physics and astronomy and associate director of the Rice Space Institute, all at Rice.

    “One reason there are so many people involved is because we need everyone’s expertise in a truly multidisciplinary project like this,” Alexander said. “We all have our own scientific interests and projects, but to be able to do work together is icing on the cake.”

    See the full article here .

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    Rice U campus

    In his 1912 inaugural address, Rice University president Edgar Odell Lovett set forth an ambitious vision for a great research university in Houston, Texas; one dedicated to excellence across the range of human endeavor. With this bold beginning in mind, and with Rice’s centennial approaching, it is time to ask again what we aspire to in a dynamic and shrinking world in which education and the production of knowledge will play an even greater role. What shall our vision be for Rice as we prepare for its second century, and how ought we to advance over the next decade?

    This was the fundamental question posed in the Call to Conversation, a document released to the Rice community in summer 2005. The Call to Conversation asked us to reexamine many aspects of our enterprise, from our fundamental mission and aspirations to the manner in which we define and achieve excellence. It identified the pressures of a constantly changing and increasingly competitive landscape; it asked us to assess honestly Rice’s comparative strengths and weaknesses; and it called on us to define strategic priorities for the future, an effort that will be a focus of the next phase of this process.

  • richardmitnick 1:40 pm on September 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Exoplanets,   

    From Carnegie: “A distant planet’s interior chemistry may differ from our own” 

    Carnegie Institution for Science
    Carnegie Institution for Science

    The crystal structure of magnesium peroxide, MgO2, courtesy of Sergey Lobanov, created using K. Momma’s program for drawing crystal structures.

    As astronomers continue finding new rocky planets around distant stars, high-pressure physicists are considering what the interiors of those planets might be like and how their chemistry could differ from that found on Earth. New work from a team including three Carnegie scientists demonstrates that different magnesium compounds could be abundant inside other planets as compared to Earth. Their work is published by Scientific Reports.

    Oxygen and magnesium are the two most-abundant elements in Earth’s mantle. However, when scientists are predicting the chemical compositions of rocky, terrestrial planets outside of our own Solar System, they shouldn’t assume that other rocky planets would have Earth-like mantle mineralogy, according to a research team including Carnegie’s Sergey Lobanov, Nicholas Holtgrewe, and Alexander Goncharov.

    Stars that have rocky planets are known to vary in chemical composition. This means that the mineralogies of these rocky planets are probably different from each other and from our own Earth, as well. For example, elevated oxygen contents have been observed in stars that host rocky planets. As such, oxygen may be more abundant in the interiors of other rocky planets, because the chemical makeup of a star would affect the chemical makeups of the planets that formed around it. If a planet is more oxidized than Earth, then this could affect the composition of the compounds found in its interior, too, including the magnesium compounds that are the subject of this study.

    Magnesium oxide, MgO, is known to be remarkably stable, even under very high pressures. And it isn’t reactive under the conditions found in Earth’s lower mantle. Whereas magnesium peroxide, MgO2, can be formed in the laboratory under high-oxygen concentrations, but it is highly unstable when heated, as would be the case in a planetary interior.

    Previous theoretical calculations had indicated that magnesium peroxide would become stable under high-pressure conditions. Taking that idea one step further, the team set out to test whether stable magnesium peroxide could be synthesized under extreme conditions mimicking planetary interiors.

    Using a laser-heated, diamond-anvil cell, they brought very small samples of magnesium oxide and oxygen to different pressures meant to mimic planetary interiors, from ambient pressure to 1.6 million times normal atmospheric pressure (0-160 gigapascals), and heated them to temperatures above 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 Kelvin). They found that under about 950,000 times normal atmospheric pressure (96 gigapascals) and at temperatures of 3,410 degrees Fahrenheit (2,150 Kelvin), magnesium oxide reacted with oxygen to form magnesium peroxide.

    “Our findings suggest that magnesium peroxide may be abundant in extremely oxidized mantles and cores of rocky planets outside our Solar System,” said Lobanov, the paper’s lead author “When we develop theories about distant planets, it’s important that we don’t assume their chemistry and mineralogy is Earth-like.”

    “These findings provide yet another example of the ways that high-pressure laboratory experiments can teach us about not only our own planet, but potentially about distant ones as well,” added Goncharov.

    Because of its chemical inertness, MgO has also long been used as a conductor that transmits heat and pressure to an experimental sample. “But this new information about its chemical reactivity under high pressure means that such experimental uses of MgO need to be revised, because this very stable at ambient conditions material could be creating unwanted reactions at high pressures,” Goncharov added.

    The other co-authors are Qiang Zhu and Artem Oganov of Stony Brook University and Clemens Prescher and Vitali Prakapenka of University of Chicago.

    This study was funded by the Deep Carbon Observatory, the National Science Foundation, DARPA, the Government of the Russian Federation, and the Foreign Talents Introduction and Academic Exchange Program. Calculations were performed on XSEDE facilities and on the cluster of the Center for Functional Nonomaterials Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is supported by the DOE-BES.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Carnegie Institution of Washington Bldg

    Andrew Carnegie established a unique organization dedicated to scientific discovery “to encourage, in the broadest and most liberal manner, investigation, research, and discovery and the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind…” The philosophy was and is to devote the institution’s resources to “exceptional” individuals so that they can explore the most intriguing scientific questions in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Carnegie and his trustees realized that flexibility and freedom were essential to the institution’s success and that tradition is the foundation of the institution today as it supports research in the Earth, space, and life sciences.

  • richardmitnick 11:28 am on July 31, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Exoplanets,   

    From JPL- “Exoplanets 20/20: Looking Back to the Future: 


    July 31, 2015
    Pat Brennan, NASA-JPL

    Artist’s rendering of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet and its host, a star slightly more massive than our sun. Image credit: ESO

    Geoff Marcy remembers the hair standing up on the back of his neck. Paul Butler remembers being dead tired. The two men had just made history: the first confirmation of a planet orbiting another star.

    The groundbreaking discovery had been announced less than week earlier by the European team of Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. But the news was met with some initial skepticism in the astronomical community. By a stroke of good luck, Marcy and Butler happened to have previously scheduled observation time on a 120-inch telescope at the Lick Observatory, atop California’s Mount Hamilton.

    UCO Lick Shane Telescope
    UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
    UCO Lick Shane 120″ telescope

    The scientists, who would become two of the world’s most famous planet hunters, remember driving down the mountainside together in October 1995. They’d spent four straight nights making their observations. And while further processing would be needed to make the scientific case, their data seemed clear and unmistakable — and almost impossible. A huge planet, at least half the size of Jupiter, was not only orbiting its host star more tightly than Mercury hugs the sun. It was racing around that star, making a complete orbit in just four days.

    The planet, called 51 Pegasi b, would open a new era in humanity’s exploration of our galactic neighborhood. It would be the first in a series of “hot Jupiters” — giant planets in fast, tight orbits — discovered in rapid succession. The rush of new worlds would propel Marcy, Butler and their research team into the media spotlight, and forever change our view of the cosmos.

    ‘A spine-tingling experience’

    But for the moment, on that solemn drive down the mountainside, Marcy and Butler were alone with their world-altering news. “We knew we were the only people on the planet to be sure that 51 Peg, the planet, really did exist,” Marcy said recently. “It was exhilarating. We were absolutely thrilled to know an historic moment in science history was happening before our eyes. It was a truly spine-tingling experience.”

    Still, the astronomical pioneers had a few struggles ahead to gain the acceptance of the scientific community. The hunt for extrasolar planets — exoplanets, for short — had a poor track record, with decades’ worth of false detections. Among them was the thrilling discovery of a planet orbiting Barnard’s star in the 1960s; it turned out to be an unnoticed shift of a telescope lens. Once the shift was accounted for, the “planet” disappeared.

    The early ’90s had seen the actual detection of “pulsar planets,” but these seemed too strange to count, orbiting a rapidly spinning, radiation-spewing stellar remnant called a pulsar. Most scientists would reserve the “first” designation for a planet orbiting a normal star.

    “The whole field had a snake-oil sort of feel to it,” Butler said in a recent interview. “For the previous fifty years or so, there were many announcements, all proved to be wrong. If we went to a meeting and said we were looking for extrasolar planets, we might as well have said we were looking for little green men.”

    Even Marcy greeted the announcement of 51 Peg, made at a scientific conference in Florence, Italy, by Mayor and Queloz, with a bit of a yawn — at first.

    “This claim on October 6, 1995, of the first planet ever discovered was sort of business as usual,” he said. “Here’s another false claim. This one is more obviously a false claim. The orbital period is claimed to be 4.3 days. Nobody in their right mind thought planets could orbit so close to a star.”

    But the four nights of observations at the Lick Observatory — perfectly coinciding with 51 Peg’s four-day orbit — changed all that. Both the Mayor and Marcy teams had been trying to develop a planet-hunting technique based on wobbling stars. The wobbles, known as the star’s “radial velocity,” were induced by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets. The starlight wavelength was compressed, then stretched, as the star moved toward and away from astronomers’ telescopes.

    Now, Mayor and Queloz had proven that the technique worked. And a few days later, Marcy and Butler validated both the method used by Mayor’s team and their own very similar detection method.

    But Marcy and his team realized something more. The only thing that had kept them from beating Mayor’s group to that first detection was a perfectly reasonable assumption: that big planets moved in stately orbits, like the 12 years it took Jupiter to take one lap around the sun.

    Either they would have to watch stars for a very long time, or they would have to refine their wobble detector until it could pick up the very tiny shifts in a star’s position caused by small planets in tighter, faster orbits.

    They were working on just this type of refinement when Mayor announced his discovery. More importantly, they had been recording observations with their wobble-detecting device, known as a spectrograph. Sure enough, when they took another look, big, star-hugging planets began popping out of their data.

    Planets proper

    At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 1996, Marcy announced two more planet discoveries: 70 Virginis and 47 Ursae Majoris. The first had a 116-day orbit — far more reasonable than 51 Peg’s scorching four days — and its orbit was elliptical, making it unlikely to be anything but a planet. The orbit of 47 Ursae Majoris was more reasonable still: 2.5 years. Together, they provided a “bridge” to our own solar system, Marcy said, with planets behaving themselves as proper planets should.

    The discoveries vaulted Marcy and his team into scientific celebrity status, with appearances on nationwide nightly news shows; their new planets even made the cover of Time magazine.

    And the Marcy-Butler team was just warming up. The floodgates were opened. They discovered at least 70 of the first 100 exoplanets that were found in the years that followed. Their pioneering, planet-hunting safari went on for a decade. Soon, however, the landscape would change yet again.

    The gold rush of planet finding kicked into high gear with the launch of the Kepler Space Telescope in 2009.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    This spacecraft nestled into an Earth-trailing orbit, then fixed its eye on a small patch of sky — and kept it there for four years.

    Within that patch were more than 150,000 stars, a kind of cross-section of an arm of our own Milky Way galaxy, as if Kepler were shining a searchlight into deep space. Kepler was looking for planetary transits — the infinitesimally tiny dip in starlight that occurs when a planet crosses the face of the star it is orbiting.

    The method only works for distant solar systems whose planets’ orbits, from our perspective, are seen edge-on. This way, an exoplanet is silhouetted as it passes between Kepler and its host star, reducing the starlight measured by Kepler.

    The fifth time’s the charm

    Kepler was the brainchild of William Borucki of the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, California. Borucki, who retired in early July 2015, doggedly pressed his case for Kepler. During the ’90s, his proposed designs were rejected no less than four times. He finally won approval from NASA in 2001.

    But no one knew what Kepler might find, or even if it would find anything at all.

    “We launched Kepler, to some extent, like Magellan or Columbus went to sea, not knowing quite what we were going to encounter,” said James Fanson, deputy manager in the Instruments Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Fanson was Kepler’s project manager when the spacecraft was launched.

    “We knew we were going to make history,” he said. “We just didn’t know what history we were going to make.”

    Kepler’s transit watch paid off, however, identifying more than 4,600 candidate planets hundreds to thousands of light-years distant. So far, 1,028 of those have been confirmed — some of them Earth-sized planets that orbit within their star’s so-called habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on a planet. Scientists are still mining Kepler data, regularly turning up new planetary candidates and confirming earlier finds.

    Kepler itself ended its initial mission in 2013, when two of four reaction wheels used to keep the spacecraft in a stable position failed. But the Kepler science team developed clever ways to continue squeezing useful data out of the space telescope, relying on the subtle pressure of sunlight to stabilize it on one axis. Kepler is now in its second phase of life, and it’s still discovering planets.

    Preceding Kepler was the groundbreaking COROT satellite, a European venture launched in 2006 that discovered numerous planets before it ceased functioning in 2012 — including the first rocky planet found to orbit a sun-like star. COROT used the transit method to detect exoplanets, and was the first space mission dedicated to that purpose.

    ESA CoRoT

    The prolific discoveries still flowing from the Hubble Space Telescope include not only exoplanets, but characterizations of exoplanet atmospheres, identifying a variety of gases. And the Spitzer Space Telescope has found water vapor in exoplanetary atmospheres as well as weather patterns.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    Both the wobble and transit methods, relied upon by the exoplanet pioneers, are still in use today, along with several other techniques. And 20 years after the first discovery, the exoplanet total is up to more than 5,000 candidates, with more than 1,800 of those confirmed.

    A new reality

    The galaxy, it seems, is crowded with planets. Yet we are not yet able to answer the big question: Are we alone?

    A new generation of telescopes in the years and decades ahead, on the ground and in space, will continue to search for an answer. One critical tool will be the same one pioneered by Marcy and the other early planet hunters: spectroscopy. They used this method to dissect the light coming from distant stars, revealing their back-and-forth, planet-induced wobbling as the starlight was stretched and compressed; the newest generation of instruments will do the same thing to the light from the atmospheres of exoplanets. Splitting this planetary light into its constituent parts, a little like the rainbow colors of sunlight shining through a prism, should reveal which gases and chemicals are present in those alien skies.

    And one day, some of those atmospheric constituents might suggest the presence of life far beyond planet Earth.

    For more information about exoplanets and NASA’s planet-finding program, 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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  • richardmitnick 6:43 am on July 24, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Exoplanets, ,   

    From Keck: “Found: Earth’s Closest Cousin Yet” 

    Keck Observatory

    Keck Observatory

    Keck Observatory

    July 23, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    This artist’s concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter.
    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

    This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and the solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt

    The W. M. Keck Observatory has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star. This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets were originally made by NASA’s Kepler space telescopes and mark another milestone in the journey to finding another “Earth.”

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    “We can think of Kepler-452b as bigger, older cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment,” said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who led the team that discovered Kepler-452b. “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; about 1.5 billion years longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

    The data from Kepler suggested to the team there was a planet causing the light from it’s host star to dim as is orbited around it. The team then turned to ground-based observatories including the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, and the world’s largest telescopes at Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii for confirmation.

    U Texas McDonald Observatory Campus
    University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory

    CfA Whipple Observatory
    CfA Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory

    Specifically, the ten-meter Keck I telescope, fitted with the HIRES instrument was used to confirm the Kepler data as well as to more precisely determine the properties of the star, specifically its temperature, surface gravity and metallicity.

    Keck HIRES

    “These fundamental properties are used to determine the stellar mass and radius allowing for precise determination of the planet size,” said Howard Isaacson, researcher in the astronomy department at UC Berkeley and mamba of the discovery team. “With the precise stellar parameters from the HIRES spectrum, we can show that planet radius is closer to the size of the Earth, than say Neptune (~4x Earth’s radius). With a radius of 1.6 times the radius of the Earth, the chances of the planet having some sort of rocky surface is predicted to be ~50%. The Keck Observatory spectrum is also used to rule out false positive scenarios. Background stars can confuses the interpretation of the planet hypothesis, and the Keck Observatory spectrum shows that no such background stars are present.”

    The newly discovered Kepler-452b is the smallest planet to date discovered orbiting a sun-like star (G2-type star) in the habitable zone — the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The confirmation of Kepler-452b brings the total number of confirmed planets to 1,030.

    Kepler-452b is 60 percent larger than Earth and is considered a super-Earth-size planet. While its mass and composition are not yet determined, previous research suggests that planets the size of Kepler-452b have a good chance of being rocky.

    While Kepler-452b is larger than Earth, its 385-day orbit is only 5 percent longer. The planet is 5 percent farther from its parent star Kepler-452 than Earth is from the Sun. Kepler-452 is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 10 percent larger and 20 percent brighter.

    The Kepler-452 system is located 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. The research paper reporting this finding has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.

    In addition to confirming Kepler-452b, the Kepler team has increased the number of new exoplanet candidates by 521 from their analysis of observations conducted from May 2009 to May 2013, raising the number of planet candidates detected by the Kepler mission to 4,696. Candidates require follow-up observations and analysis to verify they are actual planets.

    Twelve of the new planet candidates have diameters between one to two times that of Earth, and orbit in their star’s habitable zone. Of these, nine orbit stars that are similar to our sun in size and temperature. These candidates are likely targets for future observing runs at Keck Observatory for confirmation.

    “We’ve been able to fully automate our process of identifying planet candidates, which means we can finally assess every transit signal in the entire Kepler dataset quickly and uniformly,” said Jeff Coughlin, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the analysis of a new candidate catalog. “This gives astronomers a statistically sound population of planet candidates to accurately determine the number of small, possibly rocky planets like Earth in our Milky Way galaxy.”

    These findings, presented in the seventh Kepler Candidate Catalog, will be submitted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. These findings are derived from data publically available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive.

    HIRES (the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer) 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. 

    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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    Keck NASA

    Keck Caltech

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