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  • richardmitnick 11:15 pm on January 14, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA Kepler,   

    From Ethan Siegel: “Kepler found its longest-period exoplanet ever” 

    Starts with a bang
    Starts with a Bang

    1.14.16
    Ethan Siegel

    Temp 1
    Image credit: NASA / Michele Johnson.

    And it didn’t even need a transit to do it!

    “Mars is much closer to the characteristics of Earth. It has a fall, winter, summer and spring. North Pole, South Pole, mountains and lots of ice. No one is going to live on Venus; no one is going to live on Jupiter.”
    -Buzz Aldrin

    The Kepler spacecraft was one of the most brilliant technical and scientific achievements of the 2010s.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    By launching a telescope into space and pointing it at the same field-of-view of stars for years and years, collecting the light from each one continuously, it became sensitive to tiny, minuscule variations in the intensity of their starlight.

    2
    Image credit: Painting by Jon Lomberg, Kepler mission diagram added by NASA.

    There are a number of reasons the amount of light a star emits could vary in intensity: it could be an intrinsically variable star (like a Cepheid, RR Lyrae or Delta Scuti variable, among others), it could be an eclipsing binary star system (an example of an extrinsic variable star), where one star periodically slips behind the other, or it could be due to the most exciting reason of all: something is transiting in front of that star to block a fraction of its light.

    3
    Image credit: NASA Ames.

    Sometimes, the transiting object could be close by, like an asteroid or a Kuiper belt object.

    4
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. (Scale in AU; epoch as of January 2015.)

    Other times, it could be more distant, like an interstellar object. But what Kepler’s built to look for, and what it’s particularly seeking, is planets around the stars it’s looking at. In order for this method to be successful, you need for a number of things to happen all at once:

    You need the planetary orbit to be so serendipitously aligned with the star and your spacecraft that the orbital path appears to transit across the disk of the star from your point of view.

    You need the ratio of the planet’s size to the star’s to be large enough that your spacecraft can measure the transit’s magnitude.
    And you need the planet to transit across the star’s surface more than once so that you can be sure it wasn’t a foreground object having nothing to do with the star system you’re observing.

    Even if every star out there had a Solar System like our own, all three of these things being true would be a relatively rare occurrence, so if you’re just searching blindly, you need lots of targets. Kepler began operation in late 2009, pointing at an area of the Milky Way containing about 150,000 stars it was sensitive to. It measured the light from those stars over a long period of time — years — and to date has found close to 10,000 planetary candidates using these criteria. Some of them turn out not to be planets after all, as lots of things can mimic a planetary signal.

    This is why, if you want to confirm an exoplanet candidate, you need a second, independent method to do so.

    5
    Image credit: ESO, under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

    Normally, we use the stellar wobble method. Every planet that orbits a star has a mass, and just as the star pulls the planet into an elliptical orbit around it, the planet adds a tiny elliptical motion to the star’s orbit as well. This doesn’t produce a perceptible change in the star’s position, but does produce a perceptible change in the wavelength of the light emitted from the star: a redshift or blueshift, as the star moves either away or towards you in its periodic dance.

    Over a thousand planetary systems discovered by Kepler have been confirmed by the stellar wobble method, including Kepler-56, which is a star that’s presently evolving into a red giant as its core runs out of hydrogen to burn. Two large, inner planets — one about the mass of Neptune and one about half the mass of Jupiter — were found around this system. The large masses and close-in orbits make these exactly the types of planets that Kepler can find most easily, and also the types of planets that can easily and quickly be confirmed via stellar wobble.

    6
    Image credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, of the Kepler planetary candidates as of July 2015.

    Kepler’s no good at finding planets that are much farther out than Earth is from our Sun, since in order to build up a robust, quality signal, you need multiple transits (more is better) of the planet across the star, which is very hard to do for a planet like say, Jupiter in our Solar System, which has an orbital period of 12 years, especially if your spacecraft has only been up there since 2009. To make things even worse, your chances of having a good alignment with a planet that’s more distant from its parent star drops very quickly as you move away. There’s a reason that hot, inner worlds are so abundant with Kepler: they’re the easiest ones to find.

    But sometimes, you do your follow-up for the transiting planets (the ones Kepler easily finds), and when you look for the stellar wobble, you not only find it…

    7
    Image credit: D. Huber et al., Science 18 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 331–334; DOI: 10.1126/science.1242066.

    but you find something else. In the case of Kepler-56, the innermost planet (blue line) gives off a clear signal that can be teased out; the second large planet (red line, higher mass) gives off an even more prominent signal. Yet perhaps the most notable signal is just labeled “trend,” which you need to add to the two planetary signals to get the observed data. When this was first reported in 2013, it was assumed this was probably a planet, but more data was needed to know its orbital properties: mass and period. As first released this week at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting, Kepler-56 appears to have a third planet orbiting it — about six times the mass of Jupiter with a period of around three Earth-years — thanks to the work of Justin Otor, Benjamin Montet and John A. Johnson.

    8
    Image credit: Danny Barringer, of Justin Otor’s poster at AAS 227.

    Finally, one almost complete “wobble cycle” of the outer planet has been observed with the follow-up data, and it’s actually a planet that doesn’t transit the star from our line-of-sight. It turns out that Kepler really can’t find these outer worlds on its own, but the clues that Kepler provides, of where to look for planetary systems where the stellar wobble can teach you so much more, can lead us to discover massive, outer planets that we never would’ve known to look for otherwise. Where there’s smoke, you look for the fire; where there are inner worlds, look for the outer ones. If you see the steep rise or fall associated with a massive wobble, you just might break the record.

    This article was partially based on information obtained during the 227th American Astronomical Society meeting, some of which may be unpublished.

    See the full article here .

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    “Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible,” says Ethan

     
  • richardmitnick 5:33 pm on January 12, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA Kepler, The search for habitable exoplanets   

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

    JPL-Caltech

    January 6, 2015
    Whitney Clavin
    NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
    818-648-9734
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

    Felicia Chou
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-0257
    felicia.chou@nasa.gov

    Michele Johnson
    NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
    650-604-6982
    michele.johnson@nasa.gov

    1
    Of the more than 1,000 verified planets found by NASA’s Kepler, eight are less than twice Earth-size and in their stars’ habitable zone. All eight orbit stars cooler and smaller than our sun. The search continues for Earth-size habitable zone worlds around sun-like stars. Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

    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.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA Kepler Telescope

    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.

    2
    Approximate size comparison of Kepler-438b (right) with Earth

    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.

    Ames is responsible for Kepler’s mission operations, ground system development and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, 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 in Washington.

    For more information about the Kepler mission, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

    See the full article here .

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    NASA JPL Campus

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

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  • richardmitnick 7:54 pm on November 24, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA Kepler,   

    From NASA: “Strange Star Likely Swarmed by Comets” 

    NASA

    NASA

    Nov. 24, 2015
    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
    818-354-4673
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

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

    1
    This illustration shows a star behind a shattered comet. Observations of the star KIC 8462852 by NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes suggest that its unusual light signals are likely from dusty comet fragments, which blocked the light of the star as they passed in front of it in 2011 and 2013. The comets are thought to be traveling around the star in a very long, eccentric orbit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    A star called KIC 8462852 has been in the news recently for unexplained and bizarre behavior. NASA’s Kepler mission had monitored the star for four years, observing two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when the star’s light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways. Something had passed in front of the star and blocked its light, but what?

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    Kepler

    Scientists first reported the findings in September, suggesting a family of comets as the most likely explanation. Other cited causes included fragments of planets and asteroids.

    A new study using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope addresses the mystery, finding more evidence for the scenario involving a swarm of comets.

    NASA Spitzer Telescope
    Spitzer

    The study, led by Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University, Ames, is accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    One way to learn more about the star is to study it in infrared light. Kepler had observed it in visible light. If a planetary impact, or a collision amongst asteroids, were behind the mystery of KIC 8462852, then there should be an excess of infrared light around the star. Dusty, ground-up bits of rock would be at the right temperature to glow at infrared wavelengths.

    At first, researchers tried to look for infrared light using NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, and found none.

    NASA Wise Telescope
    WISE

    But those observations were taken in 2010, before the strange events seen by Kepler — and before any collisions would have kicked up dust.

    To search for infrared light that might have been generated after the oddball events, researchers turned to Spitzer, which, like WISE, also detects infrared light. Spitzer just happened to observe KIC 8462852 more recently in 2015.

    “Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust,” said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the lead investigator of that particular Spitzer/Kepler observing program.

    But, like WISE, Spitzer did not find any significant excess of infrared light from warm dust. That makes theories of rocky smashups very unlikely, and favors the idea that cold comets are responsible. It’s possible that a family of comets is traveling on a very long, eccentric orbit around the star. At the head of the pack would be a very large comet, which would have blocked the star’s light in 2011, as noted by Kepler. Later, in 2013, the rest of the comet family, a band of varied fragments lagging behind, would have passed in front of the star and again blocked its light.

    By the time Spitzer observed the star in 2015, those comets would be farther away, having continued on their long journey around the star. They would not leave any infrared signatures that could be detected.

    According to Marengo, more observations are needed to help settle the case of KIC 8462852.

    “This is a very strange star,” he said. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men.’”

    In the end, the LGM-1 signals turned out to be a natural phenomenon.

    “We may not know yet what’s going on around this star,” Marengo observed. “But that’s what makes it so interesting.”

    Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

    For more information about Kepler and Spitzer, respectively, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

    http://kepler.nasa.gov

    http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer

    http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 6:43 am on July 24, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler   

    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

    Keck NASA

    Keck Caltech

     
  • richardmitnick 3:17 pm on July 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler   

    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
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler   

    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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