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  • 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


    Undated, but 2013
    No Writer Credit

    NASA Kepler Telescope


    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☾.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    Principal Investigator: David Kipping
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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.

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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
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    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

    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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  • richardmitnick 2:12 pm on January 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Kepler: “NASA’s Kepler Marks 1,000th Exoplanet Discovery, Uncovers More Small Worlds in Habitable Zones” 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    January 6, 2015
    Felicia Chou
    Headquarters, Washington

    Michele Johnson
    Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

    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:


    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 4:45 pm on December 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA/Kepler: “Mission Manager Update: K2 Campaign 3 underway “ 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    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.

    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.

    Impression of the Oort Cloud

    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.

    Charles Sobeck

    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 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.

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

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

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

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

    NASA Kepler Telescope

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

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

    Potentially habitable planet

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

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

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

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

    An historic discovery

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

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

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

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

    The edge of habitability

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

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

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

    Exoplanet hunting in the future

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

    NASA Webb Telescope

    NASA Hubble Telescope

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

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

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

    See the full article here.

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

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

    Tau Bootis b, a “warm Jupiter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/ Kepler

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

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

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

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    August 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    See the full article here.

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

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


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  • richardmitnick 8:55 am on July 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA Kepler,   

    From NASA/JPL at Caltech: “The Most Precise Measurement of an Alien World’s Size” 


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

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

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    NASA Spitzer Telescope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    See the full article here.

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

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  • richardmitnick 6:36 pm on July 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA Kepler,   

    From SPACE.com: “Newfound Alien Planet Has Longest Year Known for Transiting World” 

    space-dot-com logo


    July 22, 2014
    Mike Wall, Senior Writer

    A newfound alien planet is one for the record books.

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

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

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

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

    Gemini South telescope
    Gemini South

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

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


    NASA Kepler Telescope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    See the full article here.

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