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  • richardmitnick 6:43 am on July 24, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Keck: “Found: Earth’s Closest Cousin Yet” 

    Keck Observatory

    Keck Observatory

    Keck Observatory

    July 23, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    1
    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

    2
    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 This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets were originally made by NASA’s Kepler space telescopes and mark another milestone in the journey to finding another “Earth.”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
    Kepler

    “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
    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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    Mission
    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

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  • richardmitnick 3:17 pm on July 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA JPL: “Finding Another Earth” 

    JPL

    July 23, 2015
    Written by Pat Brennan, PlanetQuest

    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-4673
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    A newly discovered exoplanet, Kepler-452b, comes the closest of any found so far to matching our Earth-sun system. This artist’s conception of a planetary lineup shows habitable-zone planets with similarities to Earth: from left, Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, the just announced Kepler-452b, Kepler-62f and Kepler-186f. Last in line is Earth itself Credits: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

    The discovery of a super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun-like star brings us closer than ever to finding a twin of our own watery world. But NASA’s Kepler space telescope has captured evidence of other potentially habitable planets amid the sea of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    Kepler

    To take a brief tour of the more prominent contenders, it helps to zero in on the “habitable zone” around their stars. This is the band of congenial temperatures for planetary orbits — not too close and not too far. Too close and the planet is fried (we’re looking at you, Venus). Too far and it’s in deep freeze. But settle comfortably into the habitable zone, and your planet could have liquid water on its surface — just right. Goldilocks has never been more relevant. Scientists have, in fact, taken to calling this water-friendly region the “Goldilocks zone.”

    The zone can be a wide band or a narrow one, and nearer the star or farther, depending on the star’s size and energy output. For small, red-dwarf stars, habitable zone planets might gather close, like marshmallow-roasting campers around the fire. For gigantic, hot stars, the band must retreat to a safer distance.

    About a dozen habitable zone planets in the Earth-size ballpark have been discovered so far — that is, 10 to 15 planets between one-half and twice the diameter of Earth, depending on how the habitable zone is defined and allowing for uncertainties about some of the planetary sizes.

    2
    Of the 1,030 confirmed planets from Kepler, a dozen are less than twice the size of Earth and reside in the habitable zone of their host stars. In this diagram, the sizes of the exoplanets are represented by the size of each sphere. These are arranged by size from left to right, and by the type of star they orbit, from the M stars that are significantly cooler and smaller than the sun, to the K stars that are somewhat cooler and smaller than the sun, to the G stars that include the sun. The sizes of the planets are enlarged by 25 times compared to the stars. The Earth is shown for reference. Credits: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

    The new discovery, Kepler-452b, fires the planet hunter’s imagination because it is the most similar to the Earth-sun system found yet: a planet at the right temperature within the habitable zone, and only about one-and-a-half times the diameter of Earth, circling a star very much like our own sun. The planet also has a good chance of being rocky, like Earth, its discoverers say.

    Kepler-452b is more similar to Earth than any system previously discovered. And the timing is especially fitting: 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the first exoplanet confirmed to be in orbit around a typical star.

    But several other exoplanet discoveries came nearly as close in their similarity to Earth.

    Before this, the planet Kepler-186f held the “most similar” distinction (they get the common moniker, “Kepler,” because they were discovered with the Kepler space telescope). About 500 light-years from Earth, Kepler-186f is no more than 10 percent larger than Earth, and sails through its star’s habitable zone, making its surface potentially watery.

    But its 130-day orbit carries it around a red-dwarf star that is much cooler than our sun and only half its size. Thus, the planet is really more like an “Earth cousin,” says Thomas Barclay of the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, a co-author of the paper announcing the discovery in April 2014.

    Kepler-186f gets about one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from our sun. And that puts it just at the outside edge of the habitable zone. Scientists say that if you were standing on the planet at noon, the light would look about as bright as it does on Earth an hour before sunset.

    That doesn’t mean the planet is bereft of life, although it doesn’t mean life exists there, either.

    Before Kepler-186f, Kepler-62f was the exoplanet known to be most similar to Earth. Like the new discovery, Kepler-62f is a “super Earth,” about 40 percent larger than our home planet. But, like Kepler-186f, its 267-day orbit also carries it around a star that is cooler and smaller than the sun, some 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. Still, Kepler-62f does reside in the habitable zone.

    Kepler-62f’s discovery was announced in April 2013, about the same time as Kepler-69c, another super Earth — though one that is 70 percent larger than our home planet. That’s the bad news; astronomers are uncertain about the planet’s composition, or just when a “super Earth” becomes so large that it diminishes the chance of finding life on its surface. That also moves it farther than its competitors from the realm of a potential Earth twin. The good news is that Kepler-69c lies in its sun’s habitable zone, with a 242-day orbit reminiscent of our charbroiled sister planet, Venus. Its star is also similar to ours in size with about 80 percent of the sun’s luminosity. Its planetary system is about 2,700 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

    Kepler-22b also was hailed in its day as the most like Earth. It was the first of the Kepler planets to be found within the habitable zone, and it orbits a star much like our sun. But Kepler-22b is a sumo wrestler among super Earths, about 2.4 times Earth’s size. And no one knows if it is rocky, gaseous or liquid. The planet was detected almost immediately after Kepler began making observations in 2009, and was confirmed in 2011. This planet, which could have a cloudy atmosphere, is 600 light-years away, with a 290-day orbit not unlike Earth’s.

    Not all the planets jostling to be most like Earth were discovered using Kepler. A super Earth known as Gliese 667Cc also came to light in 2011, discovered by astronomers combing through data from the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope in Chile.

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

    The planet, only 22 light-years away, has a mass at least 4.5 times that of Earth. It orbits a red dwarf in the habitable zone, though closely enough — with a mere 28-day orbit — to make the planet subject to intense flares that could erupt periodically from the star’s surface. Still, its sun is smaller and cooler than ours, and Gliese 667Cc’s orbital distance means it probably receives around 90 percent of the energy we get from the sun. That’s a point in favor of life, if the planet’s atmosphere is something like ours. The planet’s true size and density remain unknown, however, which means it could still turn out to be a gas planet, hostile to life as we know it. And powerful magnetic fluxes also could mean periodic drop-offs in the amount of energy reaching the planet, by as much as 40 percent. These drop-offs could last for months, according to scientists at the University of Oslo’s Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in Norway.

    Deduct two points.

    Too big, too uncertain, or circling the wrong kind of star: Shuffle through the catalog of habitable zone planets, and the closest we can come to Earth — at least so far — appears to be the new kid on the interstellar block, Kepler-452b.

    NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, 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 Corp. operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

    More information about NASA’s planet-hunting efforts is online at:

    http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov

    A related news release about Kepler’s latest planetary find is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-kepler-mission-discovers-bigger-older-cousin-to-earth

    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, 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 11:40 am on July 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA Kepler   

    From NASA Kepler: “NASA’s Kepler Mission Discovers Bigger, Older Cousin to Earth” 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    July 23, 2015

    1
    This artist’s concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

    2
    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. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt

    NASA’s Kepler mission 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 mark another milestone in the journey to finding another “Earth.”

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

    “On the 20th anniversary year of the discovery that proved other suns host planets, the Kepler exoplanet explorer has discovered a planet and star which most closely resemble the Earth and our Sun,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0.”

    Kepler-452b is 60 percent larger in diameter 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 20 percent brighter and has a diameter 10 percent larger.

    “We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger 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; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

    To help confirm the finding and better determine the properties of the Kepler-452 system, the team conducted ground-based observations at the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, and the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These measurements were key for the researchers to confirm the planetary nature of Kepler-452b, to refine the size and brightness of its host star and to better pin down the size of the planet and its orbit.

    U Texas McDonald Observatory Campus
    U Texas McDonald Observatory

    CfA Whipple Observatory
    CfA Whipple Observatory

    Keck Observatory
    Keck Observatory

    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.

    “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.

    Scientists now are producing the last catalog based on the original Kepler mission’s four-year data set. The final analysis will be conducted using sophisticated software that is increasingly sensitive to the tiny telltale signatures of Earth-size planets.

    Ames 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.

    For more information about the Kepler mission, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

    See the full article here.

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

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

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  • richardmitnick 8:56 am on July 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler   

    From MIT: “New technique allows analysis of clouds around exoplanets” 


    MIT News

    March 3, 2015
    Helen Knight

    Team describes use of method to determine properties of clouds surrounding the exoplanet Kepler-7b.

    1
    Analysis of data from the Kepler space telescope has shown that roughly half of the dayside of the exoplanet Kepler-7b is covered by a large cloud mass. Statistical comparison of more than 1,000 atmospheric models show that these clouds are most likely made of Enstatite, a common Earth mineral that is in vapor form at the extreme temperature on Kepler-7b. These models varied the altitude, condensation, particle size, and chemical composition of the clouds to find the right reflectivity and color properties to match the observed signal from the exoplanet. Courtesy of NASA (edited by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

    Meteorologists sometimes struggle to accurately predict the weather here on Earth, but now we can find out how cloudy it is on planets outside our solar system, thanks to researchers at MIT.

    In a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT describe a technique that analyzes data from NASA’s Kepler space observatory to determine the types of clouds on planets that orbit other stars, known as exoplanets.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    The team, led by Kerri Cahoy, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, has already used the method to determine the properties of clouds on the exoplanet Kepler-7b. The planet is known as a “hot Jupiter,” as temperatures in its atmosphere hover at around 1,700 kelvins.

    NASA’s Kepler spacecraft was designed to search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. It was pointed at a fixed patch of space, constantly monitoring the brightness of 145,000 stars. An orbiting exoplanet crossing in front of one of these stars causes a temporary dimming of this brightness, allowing researchers to detect its presence.

    Researchers have previously shown that by studying the variations in the amount of light coming from these star systems as a planet transits, or crosses in front or behind them, they can detect the presence of clouds in that planet’s atmosphere. That is because particles within the clouds will scatter different wavelengths of light.

    Modeling cloud formation

    To find out if this data could be used to determine the composition of these clouds, the MIT researchers studied the light signal from Kepler-7b. They used models of the temperature and pressure of the planet’s atmosphere to determine how different types of clouds would form within it, says lead author Matthew Webber, a graduate student in Cahoy’s group at MIT.

    “We then used those cloud models to determine how light would reflect off the atmosphere of the planet [for each type of cloud], and tried to match these possibilities to the actual observations from the Kepler mission itself,” Webber says. “So we ran a large set of models, to see which models fit best statistically to the observations.”

    By working backward in this way, they were able to match the Kepler spacecraft data to a type of cloud made out of vaporized silicates and magnesium. The extremely high temperatures in the Kepler-7b atmosphere mean that some minerals that commonly exist as rocks on Earth’s surface instead exist as vapors high up in the planet’s atmosphere. These mineral vapors form small cloud particles as they cool and condense.

    Kepler-7b is a tidally locked planet, meaning it always shows the same face to its star — just as the moon does to Earth. As a result, around half of the planet’s day side — that which constantly faces the star — is covered by these magnesium silicate clouds, the team found.

    “We are really doing nothing more complicated than putting a telescope into space and staring at a star with a camera,” Cahoy says. “Then we can use what we know about the universe, in terms of temperatures and pressures, how things mix, how they stratify in an atmosphere, to try to figure out what mix of things would be causing the observations that we’re seeing from these very basic instruments,” she says.

    A clue on exoplanet atmospheres

    Understanding the properties of the clouds on Kepler-7b, such as their mineral composition and average particle size, tells us a lot about the underlying physical nature of the planet’s atmosphere, says team member Nikole Lewis, a postdoc in EAPS. What’s more, the method could be used to study the properties of clouds on different types of planet, Lewis says: “It’s one of the few methods out there that can help you determine if a planet even has an atmosphere, for example.”

    A planet’s cloud coverage and composition also has a significant impact on how much of the energy from its star it will reflect, which in turn affects its climate and ultimately its habitability, Lewis says. “So right now we are looking at these big gas-giant planets because they give us a stronger signal,” she says. “But the same methodology could be applied to smaller planets, to help us determine if a planet is habitable or not.”

    The researchers hope to use the method to analyze data from NASA’s follow-up to the Kepler mission, known as K2, which began studying different patches of space last June. They also hope to use it on data from MIT’s planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, says Cahoy.

    NASA TESS
    NASA/TESS

    “TESS is the follow-up to Kepler, led by principal investigator George Ricker, a senior research scientist in the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. It will essentially be taking similar measurements to Kepler, but of different types of stars,” Cahoy says. “Kepler was tasked with staring at one group of stars, but there are a lot of stars, and TESS is going to be sampling the brightest stars across the whole sky,” she says.

    This paper is the first to take circulation models including clouds and compare them with the observed distribution of clouds on Kepler-7b, says Heather Knutson, an assistant professor of planetary science at Caltech who was not involved in the research.

    “Their models indicate that the clouds on this planet are most likely made from liquid rock,” Knutson says. “This may sound exotic, but this planet is a roasting hot gas-giant planet orbiting very close to its host star, and we should expect that it might look quite different than our own Jupiter.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:23 pm on July 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA Kepler,   

    From NatGeo: “The Kepler Mission – Finding the Next Earth…” Video 

    National Geographic

    National Geographics

    This is an excellent video about Kepler and includes a section on the James Webb Space Telescope which will search in the infrared.

    Join astronomers in a race to find a planet that can sustain life. Amid all the space in the universe, is there another world like ours? Astronomers studying.

    This is an excellent video about Kepler and includes a section on the James Webb Space Telescope which will search in the infrared.

    NASA Webb Telescope

    See the full article here.

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    The National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888. It is one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world. Its interests include geography, archaeology and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation.

     
  • richardmitnick 7:21 am on March 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From CfA: “HEK – Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler 

    Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
    Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

    13

    Undated, but 2013
    No Writer Credit

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    Kepler

    INTRODUCTION

    The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler, or HEK, is an astronomy project designed to search for observational evidence of exomoons (extrasolar moons). The “exo” part of the word simply means that the moon lies outside of our own solar system. Because the nearest star to us is several light years away, the stars which we look at in our hunt are in the range of 10’s to 1000’s of light years away. So far, no-one has ever found an exomoon but there has never been a systematic search for their existence before. HEK will therefore test the hypothesis that moons exist in other solar systems aside from our own. Our primary mission is to determine the occurrence rate of large moons around viable planets hosts, which we denote with the symbol η☾.

    1

    Why should we care about exomoons? Perhaps, the most fundamental reason is life. Science fiction writers and film makers have long toyed with the idea of moons teaming with life, such as the moon “Pandora” in the recent film Avatar (pictured). But this is not just science fiction- astrobiologists believe that Europa, Titan and Enceladus (the moons of Jupiter and Saturn) are potentially viable homes for some form of primitive biology. Sadly though, there are no moons in our own solar system which offer truly Earth-like conditions such as that depicted in Avatar.

    But could there be a vast population of habitable exomoons out there just waiting for us to find them? If such habitable moons are possible, then there could even be more habitable moons than habitable planets. Planet-based life could even be a rarity in the Galaxy! HEK cannot tell us whether life inhabits exomoons or not, but the first step is to establish whether moons big enough to support a biosphere exist or not. HEK will hopefully answer this question.

    2

    Another important implication of moons is that aside from being habitable themselves, they also may affect the habitability of any planets they orbit. For example, the Moon (pictured) is thought to stabilize the axial tilt of the Earth which is beneficial to the climate and habitability of our planet. If the Moon wasn’t there, would our planet still have complex life (like us) on it? With just one known example, the Earth-Moon system, it is difficult to make this determination. But HEK will seek evidence of exomoons around habitable-zone planets in order to say whether planets in the habitable-zone of their host star frequently have large moons or not.

    3

    Finally, the third important reason to try and find exomoons is that they can teach us a lot about how planets, moons and solar systems form and evolve. The solar system is billions of years old and so we have only been observing it for a very short fraction of that time – therefore a major challenge in planetary astronomy is work out how our own solar system formed and evolved over all that time we weren’t looking. A significant piece of this puzzle is how moons form and evolve. Taking the example of the Earth-Moon system once again, the Moon is thought to have formed through a giant collision between the primordial Earth and a Mars-sized planet which drifted too close (pictured). This enormous collision broke up the smaller planet into a disc of vaporized rock which slowly coalesced into what we now call the Moon. This extraordinary tale is our best guess for how the Moon formed but we have no idea as to whether this happens all the time in other solar systems or whether the Earth-Moon system is somehow a freak in the Universe. Only by detecting a population of planet-moon systems can be hope to answer whether the Earth-Moon system is unique and so whether solar systems like our own reside in the cosmos.

    THE TEAM

    Principal Investigator: David Kipping
    4
    David Kipping wrote his PhD thesis on the subject of exomoon detection theory at University College London and has single-authored numerous papers on the topic. David devised two new methods to detect exomoons in the form of TDV-V and TDV-TIP (velocity and transit-impact-parameter induced transit duration variations, respectively). These tools are critical in assessing a moon’s mass and sense of orbital motion (prograde or retrograde).

    David is now a Donald Menzel fellow at the Harvard College Observatory, where the HEK project servers perform round the clock automated searches for exomoons.

    Co-Investigator: Gáspár Bakos
    6
    Assoc. Prof. Bakos of Princeton University founded the HATNet project (Hungarian Automated Telescope NETwork), which is one the most successful transiting planet hunting surveys to date. Gáspár’s expertise range from instrumentation, to programming, from observations to theory and we are fortunate to have these talents for HEK.

    Co-Investigator: Lars Buchhave
    7
    Dr. Lars Buchhave, based at the Neils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, obtains stellar spectra for the HEK project as well as his own projects. These spectra are then used to refine the stellar parameters and look for the stellar wobble caused by the presence of a planet. By combining this data with the Kepler photometry, HEK can not only confirm candidates, but also dynamically measure the masses and radii of the entire system.

    Co-Investigator: Joel Hartman
    8
    Joel is an Associate Research Scholar at Princeton and has been instrumental in the success of the HAT project, founded by Prof. Bakos. Joel has recently begun investigating novel non-parametric methods to look for exomoons and provides invaluable support in the interpretation of light curve signals, as well characterizing the host stars.

    Co-Investigator: Chelsea (Xu) Huang
    9
    Chelsea is a graduate student at Princeton University interested in the analysis Kepler light curve data. Chelsea has developed an independent processing pipeline of the Kepler data which HEK uses in certain cases to vet moon candidate signals. This independent check, including pixel-level diagnostics, allows us to verify potential signals are astrophysical rather than instrumental in nature.

    Co-Investigator: David Nesvorný
    10
    Based at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, Dr. David Nesvorny is a dynamist who has written pivotal papers in fields ranging from Kuiper belt objects to moons, from exoplanets to asteroids. David’s expertise is crucial to the HEK project. Frequently, the dynamical perturbations which can signal the presence of a moon could also be confused with a perturbing planet. David will interrogate the hypothesis of a perturbing planet in such cases, to help us understand the true nature of the planetary system.

    Co-Investigator: Allan Schmitt
    11
    Allan Schmitt joined the HEK project via PlanetHunters.org. This dedicated group of non-professional astronomers inspect Kepler light curves for signs of other planets not found by the automated planet-hunting tools of Kepler. In a similar vein, Allan leads the visual inspection effort on these data for exomoon signals. Exomoon signals are much trickier to spot than new planets but a trained and patient human eye is a powerful tool.

    Co-Investigator: Guillermo Torres
    12
    Located at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Guillermo Torres is a world renown expert in the analysis and validation of planetary transits and the determination of accurate stellar parameters who joined the HEK project in fall 2014. These expertise aid the HEK project greatly, providing a second check as to the nature of candidate signals and also providing physical parameters for the star which affects the planet and moon terms too.

    See the full article here.

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    About CfA

    The Center for Astrophysics combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of those basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1890. The Harvard College Observatory (HCO), founded in 1839, is a research institution of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and provides facilities and substantial other support for teaching activities of the Department of Astronomy. The long relationship between the two organizations, which began when the SAO moved its headquarters to Cambridge in 1955, was formalized by the establishment of a joint center in 1973. The CfA’s history of accomplishments in astronomy and astrophysics is reflected in a wide range of awards and prizes received by individual CfA scientists.

    Today, some 300 Smithsonian and Harvard scientists cooperate in broad programs of astrophysical research supported by Federal appropriations and University funds as well as contracts and grants from government agencies. These scientific investigations, touching on almost all major topics in astronomy, are organized into the following divisions, scientific departments and service groups.

     
  • richardmitnick 6:39 am on February 14, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA Kepler,   

    From NBC News: “Weird Sub-Neptunes and Super-Earths Pop Up in Kepler’s Planet Search” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    February 13th 2015
    Alan Boyle

    One of the most common kinds of planets detected by NASA’s Kepler telescope appears to be a type that doesn’t exist in our own solar system, a leading astronomer on the Kepler team said Friday.

    Habitable planets Current Potential

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    Kepler

    This type of planet has a size in the range between two and four times Earth’s diameter, but it shouldn’t be called a “super-Earth” or a “mini-Neptune,” said Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, one of the world’s most experienced planet-hunters. For now, he’s calling them “sub-Neptunes.”

    Based on an analysis of the Kepler planets’ sizes and densities, sub-Neptunes should have a rocky core that’s swathed in a thick layer of hydrogen and helium gas. That combination distinguishes them from rocky planets like Earth, as well as gas giants like Jupiter and ice giants like Neptune.

    “They dominate the planet census, and yet none of them are found in the solar system,” Marcy said here during a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Such planets also have been called “warm Neptunians” or “gas dwarfs.”

    Marcy said the analysis suggests that rocky planets can’t get much larger than 1.5 to two times Earth’s width. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on finding alien analogs to Earth, he said. The Kepler mission’s scientists already have identified scores of planets that are less than twice Earth’s width, and they say our Milky Way galaxy must have lots more such worlds.

    “There are billions of Earth-size planets, and many of them exist in the habitable zone,” said NASA researcher Bill Borucki, the Kepler mission’s principal investigator. “The question is, why hasn’t SETI picked up the signal?”

    Another member of the Kepler science team, Natalia Batalha of San Jose State University and NASA’s Ames Research Center, showed off a list of 29 potential super-Earths that lie within their parent stars’ habitable zones, where liquid water and possibly life could conceivably exist.

    One of the aims of the Kepler mission is to identify potentially habitable Earth-class planets, a category known as eta-earth.

    “We now have a very highly reliable sample of small-planet candidates in the habitable zone of both M- and K-type stars [red and orange dwarfs] that will enable an eta-Earth determination for this class of stars,” Batalha said.

    She added that similar determinations may be made for some of the small planets that Kepler has detected around sunlike stars, known as G-type stars. However, it’s still debatable whether the candidates on Kepler’s current list should be classified as rocky planets in the traditional sense, or as sub-Neptunes.

    Batalha’s list doesn’t yet include any Earth-size planets in Earthlike orbits around sunlike stars, but after Friday’s symposium, she hinted that it may not be long before such long-sought worlds start popping up in the Kepler database.

    “There are going to be more,” she told NBC News.

    See the full article here.

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    NBC News building
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  • richardmitnick 2:12 pm on January 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler   

    From Kepler: “NASA’s Kepler Marks 1,000th Exoplanet Discovery, Uncovers More Small Worlds in Habitable Zones” 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    January 6, 2015
    Felicia Chou
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-0257
    felicia.chou@nasa.gov

    Michele Johnson
    Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
    650-604-6982
    michele.johnson@nasa.gov

    How many stars like our sun host planets like our Earth? NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope continuously monitored more than 150,000 stars beyond our solar system, and to date has offered scientists an assortment of more than 4,000 candidate planets for further study — the 1,000th of which was recently verified.

    Using Kepler data, scientists reached this millenary milestone after validating that eight more candidates spotted by the planet-hunting telescope are, in fact, planets. The Kepler team also has added another 554 candidates to the roll of potential planets, six of which are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of stars similar to our sun.

    Three of the newly-validated planets are located in their distant suns’ habitable zone, the range of distances from the host star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Of the three, two are likely made of rock, like Earth.

    “Each result from the planet-hunting Kepler mission’s treasure trove of data takes us another step closer to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “The Kepler team and its science community continue to produce impressive results with the data from this venerable explorer.”

    To determine whether a planet is made of rock, water or gas, scientists must know its size and mass. When its mass can’t be directly determined, scientists can infer what the planet is made of based on its size.

    Two of the newly validated planets, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, are less than 1.5 times the diameter of Earth. Kepler-438b, 475 light-years away, is 12 percent bigger than Earth and orbits its star once every 35.2 days. Kepler-442b, 1,100 light-years away, is 33 percent bigger than Earth and orbits its star once every 112 days.

    Both Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b orbit stars smaller and cooler than our sun, making the habitable zone closer to their parent star, in the direction of the constellation Lyra. The research paper reporting this finding has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

    “With each new discovery of these small, possibly rocky worlds, our confidence strengthens in the determination of the true frequency of planets like Earth,” said co-author Doug Caldwell, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “The day is on the horizon when we’ll know how common temperate, rocky planets like Earth are.”

    With the detection of 554 more planet candidates from Kepler observations conducted May 2009 to April 2013, the Kepler team has raised the candidate count to 4,175. Eight of these new candidates are between one to two times the size of Earth, and orbit in their sun’s habitable zone. Of these eight, six orbit stars that are similar to our sun in size and temperature. All candidates require follow-up observations and analysis to verify they are actual planets.

    “Kepler collected data for four years — long enough that we can now tease out the Earth-size candidates in one Earth-year orbits”, said Fergal Mullally, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at Ames who led the analysis of a new candidate catalog. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been to finding Earth twins around other sun-like stars. These are the planets we’re looking for”.

    These findings also have been submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement.

    Work is underway to translate these recent discoveries into estimates of how often rocky planets appear in the habitable zones of stars like our sun, a key step toward NASA’s goal of understanding our place in the universe.

    Scientists also are working on the next catalog release of Kepler’s four-year data set. The analysis will include the final month of data collected by the mission and also will be conducted using sophisticated software that is more sensitive to the tiny telltale signatures of small Earth-size planets than software used in the past.

    For more information about the Kepler mission, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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

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

    NASA

    NASA JPL Icon

     
  • richardmitnick 4:45 pm on December 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA Kepler,   

    From NASA/Kepler: “Mission Manager Update: K2 Campaign 3 underway “ 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    December 16, 2014

    Kepler and K2 have kept the team very busy over the past couple of months, and we are overdue on providing an update on the great work that’s been going on. The spacecraft continues to perform superbly in its two-wheel configuration and is actively collecting data for the K2 mission, while the team has continued to tune the operations to improve the science yield. Meanwhile, we continue analyzing the full four years of Kepler data and delivering the new K2 data to the public at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST).

    K2 is now in its seventh month of operation and began its third campaign on Nov. 12. The Campaign 3 field-of-view includes more than 16,000 target stars, which can be searched for exoplanets and examined for an array of astrophysical information. This campaign also includes observations of a number of objects within our own solar system, including the dwarf planet (225088) 2007 OR10, the largest known body without a name in the solar system, and the planet Neptune and its moon Nereid.

    a
    Artist’s impression of (225088) 2007 OR10

    Campaign 0 data have been delivered to MAST, and Campaign 1 data will follow later this month. Campaign 2 will be processed with a scheduled delivery in February 2015.

    Target proposals for Campaigns 6 and 7 are now being accepted. The deadline for K2 Cycle-2 Stage-1 Guest Observer proposals is 11:59 p.m. EST on Jan. 16, 2015. For the full schedule of operational milestones see the K2 Mission Timeline.

    On Oct. 20, the Kepler spacecraft joined the fleet of NASA science assets that observed distant Oort Cloud native Comet Siding Spring as it passed through K2’s Campaign 2 field-of-view on its long journey around the sun. The data collected by K2 will add to the study of the comet, giving scientists an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the materials, including water and carbon compounds, that existed during the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

    o
    Impression of the Oort Cloud

    c
    Comet Siding Spring

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

    While K2 operations proceed, the Kepler team continues work on finalizing the data processing and products for the prime mission. The team is also anticipating another mission milestone: the 1,000th exoplanet discovered by Kepler.

    To-date Kepler has identified more than 4,000 planet candidates, and 996 have been verified as bona fide planets. For the latest Kepler exoplanet and candidate statistics, visit the NASA Exoplanet Archive.

    In January 2015, members of the team will participate in the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. We look forward to the meeting and sharing the latest scientific results using Kepler and K2 data.

    The following are highlights of recent research using Kepler and K2 data that have been accepted by a peer-review journal:

    High-resolution Multi-band Imaging for Validation and Characterization of Small Kepler Planets (Everett et al., 2014) – The paper presents a new method for validating Kepler candidates using high-resolution imaging and validates five new small planets in two systems: Kepler-430 and Kepler-431.
    Planet Hunters VII. Discovery of a New Low-Mass, Low-Density Planet (PH3 c) Orbiting Kepler-289 (Schmitt et al., 2014) – The paper confirms the discovery of a third planet orbiting host star Kepler-239 by Planet Hunters, a volunteer citizen scientist effort. This marks the group’s third confirmed planet since its inception in December 2010.
    A Technique for Extracting Highly Precise Photometry for the Two-Wheeled Kepler Mission (Vanderburg et al., 2014) – The publication presents a technique for generating light curves from K2 pixel data. The research finds that the technique produces data with noise properties similar to Kepler targets at the same magnitude.

    Regards,
    Charles Sobeck

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

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

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

    NASA

    NASA JPL Icon

     
  • richardmitnick 10:47 pm on December 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Drake Equation, NASA Kepler   

    The Search for Another Earth 

    Get the latest from the planet-hunting frontier. Find out what we are learning about our place in the cosmos from the search for earth-like planets.

    This journey started tens of thousands of years ago, when humans began to fan out across the planet, following unknown pathways, crossing unmeasured distances. We traced coastlines, and sailed uncertain seas. We crossed ocean straits drained by an ice age.

    Into every corner of Earth we ventured, looking for places to put down our roots, to raise our families, or just to see what was there. Today, it’s the final frontier that fires our imaginations. With so many stars in our galaxy, we make a simple extrapolation, that the cosmos must be filled with worlds like ours, with life, even intelligent life.

    For four years, the historic planet hunting mission, Kepler, starred at a group of 150,000 stars located in a region extending three thousand light years away from earth.

    The data collected by this spacecraft has brought a turning point in the long search for other planets like earth. Is ours one of countless life-bearing worlds strewn about the galaxy; or is it a rare garden of eden in a barren universe?

    Watch, enjoy, learn.

    See the full article here.

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