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  • richardmitnick 1:59 pm on December 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: NASA Kepler   

    From Kepler: “Kepler’s Gaze Shifts Toward New Targets — Supernovae, the ‘Beehive Cluster’ and Earth” 

    NASA Kepler Logo

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    Dec. 7, 2017
    Alison Hawkes
    NASA’s Ames Research Center

    1
    No image caption or credit

    The sixteenth observing campaign of the Kepler spacecraft’s K2 extended mission is now underway. The campaign has prospects for discoveries among 30,000 objects in the direction of the constellation Cancer. The cartoon illustrates some of the objects of interest that Kepler is observing for 80 days, from Dec. 7 to Feb. 25, 2018.

    This time around NASA has positioned the spacecraft so that it’s facing in the direction of Earth, a vantage point that brings Kepler’s field of view in line with ground-based telescopes. It will be an opportunity to simultaneously observe celestial objects from the ground and space.

    Among the notable efforts of Campaign 16, Kepler will begin a first-of-its-kind study of more than 9,000 galaxies in search of exploding stars, or supernovae. Kepler’s on- board camera will take a series of high-precision measurements of brightness that allow scientists to see these explosions from their very beginnings. Meanwhile, ground-based telescopes will point to this same area of sky and take the spectra, or colors coming from these explosions to explain the chemistry behind how they began. The result is a better understanding of the death of stars.

    Kepler will also study a couple of notable star clusters. Praesepe, nicknamed the Beehive Cluster, is a collection of young stars that have been a rich source of exoplanet discovery and may yet yield more. This cluster may also help answer basic scientific questions about how stars spin. The nearby M67 star cluster is intriguing because the age and chemical composition of this cluster is similar to our sun and may help explain the history and evolution of our solar system. Astronomers are having a look at the pulsations of these stars, known colloquially as ‘solar quakes,’ to understand their interior structures.

    In addition, during the first three days of the campaign, Earth and the Moon will cross Kepler’s focal plane. In what has become a tradition at NASA of taking photos of Earth from far-flung spacecraft; Kepler will spend 30 minutes on Dec. 10 from 1:38-2:08 p.m. PST snapping a full frame image of our home planet. No other habitable planet is known. The picture will not show a high level of detail of Earth’s surface, rather it will appear as a large, blurry ball moving across the field of view, similar to the image of Mars that Kepler collected earlier this year.

    This event is expected to help scientists better understand and adjust for the ways Earth’s luminous presence in the skyscape affects the data retrieved by the telescope, besides being another moment to reflect on our planet’s place in the cosmos.

    Kepler’s community of researchers and fans are recognizing the event in social media as #WaveAtKepler. Yet, the image will not be available until the entire set from Field 16 is downloaded at the end of the campaign, which is expected to be available in the late spring.

    See the full article here .

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

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

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

    NASA image

    NASA JPL Icon

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  • richardmitnick 6:27 am on November 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Earth-sized alien worlds are out there. Now astronomers are figuring out how to detect life on them, Exobiology, , , NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory, NASA HabEx, NASA Kepler, , ,   

    From Science: “Earth-sized alien worlds are out there. Now, astronomers are figuring out how to detect life on them” 

    ScienceMag
    Science Magazine

    Nov. 1, 2017
    Daniel Clery

    Stephen Kane spends a lot of time staring at bad pictures of a planet. The images are just a few pixels across and nearly featureless. Yet Kane, an astronomer at the University of California, Riverside, has tracked subtle changes in the pixels over time. They are enough for him and his colleagues to conclude that the planet has oceans, continents, and clouds. That it has seasons. And that it rotates once every 24 hours.

    He knows his findings are correct because the planet in question is Earth.

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    An image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite (left), degraded to a handful of pixels (right), is a stand-in for how an Earth-like planet around another star might look through a future space telescope.
    (LEFT TO RIGHT) NASA EPIC TEAM; STEPHEN KANE

    Kane took images from the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, which has a camera pointing constantly at Earth from a vantage partway to the sun, and intentionally degraded them from 4 million pixels to just a handful.

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    NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory

    The images are a glimpse into a future when telescopes will be able to just make out rocky, Earth-sized planets around other stars. Kane says he and his colleagues are trying to figure out “what we can expect to see when we can finally directly image an exoplanet.” Their exercise shows that even a precious few pixels can help scientists make the ultimate diagnosis: Does a planet harbor life?

    Finding conclusive evidence of life, or biosignatures, on a planet light-years away might seem impossible, given that space agencies have spent billions of dollars sending robot probes to much closer bodies that might be habitable, such as Mars and the moons of Saturn, without detecting even a whiff of life. But astronomers hope that a true Earth twin, bursting with flora and fauna, would reveal its secrets to even a distant observer.

    Detecting them won’t be easy, considering the meager harvest of photons astronomers are likely to get from such a tiny, distant world, its signal almost swamped by its much brighter nearby star. The new generation of space telescopes heading toward the launch pad, including NASA’s mammoth James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), have only an outside chance of probing an Earth twin in sufficient detail.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    But they will be able to sample light from a range of other planets, and astronomers are already dreaming of a space telescope that might produce an image of an Earth-like planet as good as Kane’s pixelated views of Earth. To prepare for the coming flood of exoplanet data, and help telescope designers know what to look for, researchers are now compiling lists of possible biosignatures, from spectral hints of gases that might emanate from living things to pigments that could reside in alien plants or microbes.

    There is unlikely to be a single smoking gun. Instead, context and multiple lines of evidence will be key to a detection of alien life. Finding a specific gas—oxygen, say—in an alien atmosphere isn’t enough without figuring out how the gas could have gotten there. Knowing that the planet’s average temperature supports liquid water is a start, but the length of the planet’s day and seasons and its temperature extremes count, too. Even an understanding of the planet’s star is imperative, to know whether it provides steady, nourishing light or unpredictable blasts of harmful radiation.

    “Each [observation] will provide crucial evidence to piece together to say if there is life,” says Mary Voytek, head of NASA’s astrobiology program in Washington, D.C.

    In the heady early days following the discovery of the first exoplanet around a normal star in 1995, space agencies drew up plans for extremely ambitious—and expensive—missions to study Earth twins that could harbor life. Some concepts for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder and the European Space Agency’s Darwin mission envisaged multiple giant telescopes flying in precise formation and combining their light to increase resolution. But neither mission got off the drawing board. “It was too soon,” Voytek says. “We didn’t have the data to plan it or build it.”

    Instead, efforts focused on exploring the diversity of exoplanets, using both ground-based telescopes and missions such as NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    Altogether they have identified more than 3500 confirmed exoplanets, including about 30 roughly Earth-sized worlds capable of retaining liquid water. But such surveys give researchers only the most basic physical information about the planets: their orbits, size, and mass. In order to find out what the planets are like, researchers need spectra: light that has passed through the planet’s atmosphere or been reflected from its surface, broken into its component wavelengths.

    Most telescopes don’t have the resolution to separate a tiny, dim planet from its star, which is at least a billion times brighter. But even if astronomers can’t see a planet directly, they can still get a spectrum if the planet transits, or passes in front of the star, in the course of its orbit. As the planet transits, starlight shines through its atmosphere; gases there absorb particular wavelengths and leave characteristic dips in the star’s spectrum.

    Astronomers can also study a transiting planet by observing the star’s light as the planet’s orbit carries it behind the star.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    Before the planet is eclipsed, the spectrum will include both starlight and light reflected from the planet; afterward, the planet’s contribution will disappear. Subtracting the two spectra should reveal traces of the planet.

    Teasing a recognizable signal from the data is far from easy. Because only a tiny fraction of the star’s light probes the atmosphere, the spectral signal is minuscule, and hard to distinguish from irregularities in the starlight itself and from absorption by Earth’s own atmosphere. Most scientists would be “surprised at how horrible the data is,” says exoplanet researcher Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    In spite of those hurdles, the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, plus a few others, have used these methods to detect atmospheric gases, including sodium, water, carbon monoxide and dioxide, and methane, from a handful of the easiest targets.

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    NASA/Spitzer Infrared Telescope

    Most are “hot Jupiters”—big planets in close-in orbits, their atmospheres puffed up by the heat of their star.

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    In an artist’s concept, a petaled starshade flying at a distance of tens of thousands of kilometers from a space telescope blocks a star’s light, opening a clear view of its planets. NASA/JPL.

    The approach will pay much greater dividends after the launch of the JWST in 2019. Its 6.5-meter mirror will collect far more light from candidate stars than existing telescopes can, allowing it to tease out fainter exoplanet signatures, and its spectrographs will produce much better data.

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    https://jwst.nasa.gov/mirrors.html

    And it will be sensitive to the infrared wavelengths where the absorption lines of molecules such as water, methane, and carbon monoxide and dioxide are most prominent.

    Once astronomers have such spectra, one of the main gases that they hope to find is oxygen. Not only does it have strong and distinctive absorption lines, but many believe its presence is the strongest sign that life exists on a planet.

    Oxygen-producing photosynthesis made Earth what it is today. First cyanobacteria in the oceans and then other microbes and plants have pumped out oxygen for billions of years, so that it now makes up 21% of the atmosphere—an abundance that would be easily detectable from afar. Photosynthesis is evolution’s “killer app,” says Victoria Meadows, head of the NASA-sponsored Virtual Planet Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington in Seattle. It uses a prolific source of energy, sunlight, to transform two molecules thought to be common on most terrestrial planets—water and carbon dioxide—into sugary fuel for multicellular life. Meadows reckons it is a safe bet that something similar has evolved elsewhere. “Oxygen is still the first thing to go after,” she says.

    Fifteen years ago, when exoplanets were new and researchers started thinking about how to scan them for life, “Champagne would have flowed” if oxygen had been detected, Meadows recalls. But since then, researchers have realized that things are not that simple: Lifeless planets can have atmospheres full of oxygen, and life can proliferate without ever producing the gas. That was the case on Earth, where, for 2 billion years, microbes practiced a form of photosynthesis that did not produce oxygen or many other gases. “We’ve had to make ourselves more aware of how we could be fooled,” Meadows says.

    To learn what a genuine biosignature might look like, and what might be a false alarm, Meadows and her colleagues at the VPL explore computer models of exoplanet atmospheres, based on data from exoplanets as well as observations of more familiar planets, including Earth. They also do physical experiments in vacuum chambers. They recreate the gaseous cocktails that may surround exoplanets, illuminate them with simulated starlight of various kinds, and see what can be measured.

    Over the past few years, VPL researchers have used such models to identify nonbiological processes that could make oxygen and produce a “false positive” signal. For example, a planet with abundant surface water might form around a star that, in its early years, surges in brightness, perhaps heating the young planet enough to boil off its oceans. Intense ultraviolet light from the star would bombard the resulting water vapor, perhaps splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen. The lighter hydrogen could escape into space, leaving an atmosphere rich in oxygen around a planet devoid of life. “Know thy star, know thy planet,” recites Siddharth Hegde of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute.

    Discovering methane in the same place as oxygen, however, would strengthen the case for life. Although geological processes can produce methane, without any need for life, most methane on Earth comes from microbes that live in landfill sites and in the guts of ruminants. Methane and oxygen together make a redox pair: two molecules that will readily react by exchanging electrons. If they both existed in the same atmosphere, they would quickly combine to produce carbon dioxide and water. But if they persist at levels high enough to be detectable, something must be replenishing them. “It’s largely accepted that if you have redox molecules in large abundance they must be produced by life,” Hegde says.

    Some argue that by focusing on oxygen and methane—typical of life on Earth—researchers are ignoring other possibilities. If there is one thing astronomers have learned about exoplanets so far, it is that familiar planets are a poor guide to exoplanets’ huge diversity of size and nature. And studies of extremophiles, microbes that thrive in inhospitable environments on Earth, suggest life can spring up in unlikely places. Exobiology may be entirely unlike its counterpart on Earth, and so its gaseous byproducts might be radically different, too.

    But what gases to look for? Seager and her colleagues compiled a list of 14,000 compounds that might exist as a gas at “habitable” temperatures, between the freezing and boiling points of water; to keep the list manageable they restricted it to small molecules, with no more than six nonhydrogen atoms. About 2500 are made of the biogenic atoms carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, and hydrogen, and about 600 are actually produced by life on Earth. Detecting high levels of any of these gases, if they can’t be explained by nonbiological processes, could be a sign of alien biology, Seager and her colleagues argue.


    A. CUADRA/SCIENCE

    Light shining through the atmospheres of transiting exoplanets is likely to be the mainstay of biosignature searches for years to come. But the technique tends to sample the thin upper reaches of a planet’s atmosphere; far less starlight may penetrate the thick gases that hug the surface, where most biological activity is likely to occur. The transit technique also works best for hot Jupiters, which by nature are less likely to host life than small rocky planets with thinner atmospheres. The JWST may be able to tease out atmospheric spectra from small planets if they orbit small, dim stars like red dwarfs, which won’t swamp the planet’s spectrum. But these red dwarfs have a habit of spewing out flares that would make it hard for life to establish itself on a nearby planet.

    To look for signs of life on a terrestrial planet around a sunlike star, astronomers will probably have to capture its light directly, to form a spectrum or even an actual image. That requires blocking the overwhelming glare of the star. Ground-based telescopes equipped with “coronagraphs,” which precisely mask a star so nearby objects can be seen, can now capture only the biggest exoplanets in the widest orbits. To see terrestrial planets will require a similarly equipped telescope in space, above the distorting effect of the atmosphere. NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), expected to launch in the mid-2020s, is meant to fill that need.

    NASA/WFIRST

    Even better, WFIRST could be used in concert with a “starshade”—a separate spacecraft stationed 50,000 kilometers from the telescope that unfurls a circular mask tens of meters across to block out starlight. A starshade is more effective than a coronagraph at limiting the amount of light going into the telescope. It not only blocks the star directly, but also suppresses diffraction with an elaborate petaled edge. That reduces the stray scattered light that can make it hard to spot faint planets. A starshade is a much more expensive prospect than a coronagraph, however, and aligning telescope and starshade over huge distances will be a challenge.

    Direct imaging will provide much better spectra than transit observations because light will pass through the full depth of the planet’s atmosphere twice, rather than skimming through its outer edges. But it also opens up the possibility of detecting life directly, instead of through its waste gases in the atmosphere. If organisms, whether they are plants, algae, or other microbes, cover a large proportion of a planet’s surface, their pigments may leave a spectral imprint in the reflected light. Earthlight contains an obvious imprint of this sort. Known as the “red edge,” it is the dramatic change in the reflectance of green plants at a wavelength of about 720 nanometers. Below that wavelength, plants absorb as much light as possible for photosynthesis, reflecting only a few percent. At longer wavelengths, the reflectance jumps to almost 50%, and the brightness of the spectrum rises abruptly, like a cliff. “An alien observer could easily tell if there is life on Earth,” Hegde says.

    There’s no reason to assume that alien life will take the form of green plants. So Hegde and his colleagues are compiling a database of reflectance spectra for different types of microbes. Among the hundreds the team has logged are many extremophiles, which fill marginal niches on Earth but may be a dominant life form on an exoplanet. Many of the microbes on the list have not had their reflectance spectra measured, so the Cornell team is filling in those gaps. Detecting pigments on an exoplanet surface would be extremely challenging. But a tell-tale color in the faint light of a distant world could join other clues—spectral absorption lines from atmospheric gases, for example—to form “a jigsaw puzzle which overall gives us a picture of the planet,” Hegde says.

    None of the telescopes available now or in the next decade is designed specifically to directly image exoplanets, so biosignature searches must compete with other branches of astronomy for scarce observing time. What researchers really hanker after is a large space telescope purpose-built to image Earth-like alien worlds—a new incarnation of the idea behind NASA’s ill-fated Terrestrial Planet Finder.

    The Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission, or HabEx, a mission concept now being studied by NASA, could be the answer. Its telescope would have a mirror up to 6.5 meters across—as big as the JWST’s—but would be armed with instruments sensitive to a broader wavelength range, from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared, to capture the widest range of spectral biosignatures. The telescope would be designed to reduce scattered light and have a coronagraph and starshade to allow direct imaging of Earth-sized exoplanets.

    Such a mission would reveal Earth-like planets at a level of detail researchers can now only dream about—probing atmospheres, revealing any surface pigments, and even delivering the sort of blocky surface images that Kane has been simulating. But will that be enough to conclude we are not alone in the universe? “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what would be required to put the last nail in the coffin,” Kane says. “But if HabEx is built according to its current design, it should provide a pretty convincing case.”

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    NASA HabEx: The Planet Hunter

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 4:36 pm on June 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Moon orbiting the dwarf planet 2007 OR10, , NASA Kepler,   

    From Universe Today: “An Astronomical Detective Tale and the Moon of 2007 OR10” 

    universe-today

    Universe Today

    21 June , 2017
    David Dickinson

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    These two images reveal a moon orbiting the dwarf planet 2007 OR10. NASA/Hubble/ESA/STScI

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    It isn’t every day we get a new moon added to the list of solar system satellites. The combined observational power of three observatories — Kepler, Herschel and Hubble — led an astronomical detective tale to its climatic conclusion: distant Kuiper Belt Object 2007 OR10 has a tiny moon.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    ESA/Herschel spacecraft

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:23 pm on June 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Mini-Neptunes, NASA Has Discovered Hundreds of Potential New Planets - And 10 May Be Like Earth, NASA Kepler, , , The new Earths next door?, You'd need 400 Keplers to cover the whole sky   

    From Science Alert: “NASA Has Discovered Hundreds of Potential New Planets – And 10 May Be Like Earth” 

    ScienceAlert

    Science Alert

    20 JUN 2017
    DAVE MOSHER

    1
    An illustration of Earth-like planets Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

    Astronomers are ecstatic.

    NASA scientists on Monday announced the discovery of 219 new objects beyond our solar system that are almost certainly planets. What’s more, 10 of these worlds may be rocky, about the size of Earth, and habitable.

    The data comes from the space agency’s long-running Kepler exoplanet-hunting mission. From March 2009 through May 2013, Kepler stared down about 145,000 sun-like stars in a tiny section of the night sky near the constellation Cygnus.

    Most of the stars in Kepler’s view were hundreds or thousands of light-years away, so there’s little chance humans will ever visit them – or at least any time soon. However, the data could tell astronomers how common Earth-like planets are, and what the chances of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life might be.

    “We have taken our telescope and we have counted up how many planets are similar to the Earth in this part of the sky,” Susan Thompson, a Kepler research scientist at the SETI Institute, said during a press conference at NASA Ames Research Center on Monday.

    SETI Institute


    “We said, ‘how many planets there are similar to Earth?’ With the data I have, I can now make that count,” she said.

    “We’re going to determine how common other planets are. Are there other places we could live in the galaxy that we don’t yet call home?”

    Added to Kepler’s previous discoveries, the 10 new Earth-like planet candidates make 49 total, Thompson said. If any of them have stable atmospheres, there’s even a chance they could harbour alien life.

    The new Earths next door?

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    NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Scientists wouldn’t say too much about the 10 new planets, only that they appear to be roughly Earth-sized and orbit in their stars’ ‘habitable zone’ – where water is likely to be stable and liquid, not frozen or boiled away.

    That doesn’t guarantee these planets are actually habitable, though. Beyond harboring a stable atmosphere, things like plate tectonics and not being tidally locked may also be essential.

    However, Kepler researchers suspect that almost countless Earth-like planets are waiting to be found. This is because the telescope can only ‘see’ exoplanets that transit, or pass, in front of their stars.

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    The transit method of detecting planets that Kepler scientists use involves looking for dips in a star’s brightness, which are caused by a planet blocking out a fraction of the starlight (similar to how the Moon eclipses the Sun).

    Because most planets orbit in the same disk or plane, and that plane is rarely aligned with Earth, that means Kepler can only see a fraction of distant solar systems. (Exoplanets that are angled slightly up or down are invisible to the transit method.)

    Despite those challenges, Kepler has revealed the existence of 4,034 planet candidates, with 2,335 of those confirmed as exoplanets. And these are just the worlds in 0.25 percent of the night sky.

    “In fact, you’d need 400 Keplers to cover the whole sky,” Mario Perez, a Kepler program scientist at NASA, said during the briefing.

    The biggest number of planets appear to be a completely new class of planets, called “mini-Neptunes”, Benjamin Fulton, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and California Institute of Technology, said during the briefing.

    Such worlds are between the size of Earth and the gas giants of our solar system, and are likely the most numerous kind in the universe. ‘Super-Earths’, which are rocky planets that can be up to 10 times more massive than our own, are also very common.

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    A popular new image I have used before. NASA/Kepler/Caltech (T. Pyle)

    “This number could have been very, very small,” Courtney Dressing, an astronomer at Caltech, said during the briefing. “I, for one, am ecstatic.”

    Kepler’s big back-up plan

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    NASA Ames/W. Stenzel and JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

    Gravitational microlensing, S. Liebes, Physical Review B, 133 (1964): 835

    Kepler finished collecting its first mission’s data in May 2013. It has taken scientists years to analyse that information because it’s often difficult parse, interpret, and verify.

    Thompson said this new Kepler data analysis will be the last for this leg of the telescope’s first observations. Kepler suffered two hardware failures (and then some) that limited its ability to aim at one area of the night sky, ending its mission to look at stars that are similar to the Sun.

    But scientists’ back-up plan, called the K2 mission, kicked off in May 2014. It takes advantage of Kepler’s restricted aim and uses it to study a variety of objects in space, including supernovas, baby stars, comets, and even asteroids.

    Although K2 is just getting off the ground, other telescopes have had success in these types of endeavours. In February, for example, a different one revealed the existence of seven rocky, Earth-size planets circling a red dwarf star.

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


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

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

    Such dwarf stars are the most common in the universe and can have more angry outbursts of solar flares and coronal mass ejections than sun-like stars.

    But paradoxically, they seem to harbour the most small, rocky planets in a habitable zone in the universe – and thus may be excellent places to look for signs of alien life.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:23 am on June 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , NASA Kepler, Two Distinct "Species" of Exoplanets Illuminated, Unexpected Classification of Exoplanets Discovered   

    From Keck: “Unexpected Classification of Exoplanets Discovered -Two Distinct “Species” of Exoplanets Illuminated” 

    Keck Observatory

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

    Keck Observatory

    6.20.17
    Mari-Ela Chock, Communications Officer
    W. M. Keck Observatory
    (808) 554-0567
    mchock@keck.hawaii.edu

    Since the mid-1990s, when the first planet around another sun-like star was discovered, astronomers have amassed an ever-expanding collection of nearly 3,500 confirmed exoplanets.

    In a new Caltech-led study, researchers have classified these exoplanets in much the same way that biologists identify new animal species and found the majority of exoplanets fall into two distinct groups: rocky Earth-like planets and larger mini-Neptunes. The team used data from W. M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Kepler mission.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    “This is a major new division in the family tree of planets, analogous to discovering that mammals and lizards are distinct branches on the tree of life,” says Andrew Howard, professor of astronomy at Caltech and a principal investigator of the new research.

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    Assembly Line of Planets: This diagram illustrates how planets are assembled and sorted into two distinct size classes. First, the rocky cores of planets are formed from smaller pieces. Then, the gravity of the planets attracts hydrogen and helium gas. Finally, the planets are “baked” by the starlight and lose some gas. At a certain mass threshold, planets retain the gas and become gaseous mini-Neptunes; below this threshold, the planets lose all their gas, becoming rocky super-Earths. CREDIT: NASA/KEPLER/CALTECH (R. HURT)

    The lead author of the new study, to be published in The Astronomical Journal, is Benjamin J. (B. J.) Fulton, a graduate student in Howard’s group.

    In essence, their research shows that our galaxy has a strong preference for either rocky planets up to 1.75 times the size of Earth or gas-enshrouded mini-Neptune worlds, which are from 2 to 3.5 times the size of Earth (or somewhat smaller than Neptune). Our galaxy rarely makes planets with sizes in between these two groups.

    “Astronomers like to put things in buckets,” says Fulton. “In this case, we have found two very distinct buckets for the majority of the Kepler planets.”

    Since the Kepler mission launched in 2009, it has identified and confirmed more than 2,300 exoplanets. Kepler specializes in finding planets close to their stars, so the majority of these planets orbit more closely than Mercury, which circles the sun at roughly one-third of the Earth-sun distance.

    Most of these close-in planets were found to be roughly between the size of Earth and Neptune, which is about four times the size of Earth. But, until now it was not known they fall into two distinct size groups.

    “In the solar system, there are no planets with sizes between Earth and Neptune,” says Erik Petigura, co-author of the study and a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech. “One of the great surprises from Kepler is that nearly every star has at least one planet larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. We’d really like to know what these mysterious planets are like and why we don’t have them in our own solar system.”

    Kepler finds planets by looking for telltale dips in starlight as they pass in front of their stars. The size of the dip is correlated with the size of the planet. But in order to precisely know the planets’ sizes, the sizes of the stars must be measured.

    The Caltech team—together with colleagues from several institutions, including UC Berkeley, the University of Hawaii, Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Montreal—took a closer look at the Kepler planets’ sizes with the help of Keck Observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES).

    Keck HIRES

    They spent years gathering HIRES spectral data on the stars hosting 2,000 Kepler planets, allowing them to obtain precise measurements of the sizes of the stars; these measurements, in turn, helped determine more accurate sizes for the planets orbiting those stars.

    “Before, sorting the planets by size was like trying to sort grains of sand with your naked eye,” says Fulton. “Getting the spectra from Keck Observatory is like going out and grabbing a magnifying glass. We could see details that we couldn’t before.”

    With Keck Observatory’s HIRES data, the researchers were able to measure the sizes of the 2,000 planets with four times more precision than what had been achieved previously.

    When they examined the distribution of planet sizes, they found a surprise: a striking gap between the groups of rocky Earths and mini-Neptunes. Though a few planets fall into the gap, the majority do not.

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    Mind the Exoplanet Gap: Researchers using data from the W. M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Kepler mission have discovered a gap in the distribution of planet sizes, indicating that most planets discovered by Kepler so far fall into two distinct size classes: the rocky Earths and super-Earths (similar to Kepler-452b), and the mini-Neptunes (similar to Kepler-22b). This histogram shows the number of planets per 100 stars as a function of planet size relative to Earth. CREDIT: NASA/AMES/CALTECH/UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII (B. J. FULTON).

    The cause of the gap is not clear, but the scientists have come up with two possible explanations. The first is based on the idea that nature likes to make a lot of planets roughly the size of Earth. Some of those planets, for reasons that are not fully understood, end up acquiring enough gas to “jump the gap” and become gaseous mini-Neptunes.

    “A little bit of hydrogen and helium gas goes a very long way. So, if a planet acquires only one percent of hydrogen and helium in mass, that’s enough to jump the gap,” says Howard. “These planets are like rocks with big balloons of gas around them. The hydrogen and helium that’s in the balloon doesn’t really contribute to the mass of the system as a whole, but it contributes to the volume in a tremendous way, making the planets a lot bigger in size.”

    The second possible reason that planets don’t land in the gap has to do with planets losing gas. If a planet does happen to acquire just a little bit of gas—the right amount to place it in the gap—that gas can be burned off when exposed to radiation from the host star.

    “A planet would have to get lucky to land in the gap, and then if it did, it probably wouldn’t stay there,” says Howard. “It’s unlikely for a planet to have just the right amount of gas to land in the gap. And those planets that do have enough gas can have their thin atmospheres blown off. Both scenarios likely carve out the gap in planet sizes that we observe.”

    4
    New Branch in Exoplanet Family Tree: This sketch illustrates a family tree of exoplanets. Planets are born out of swirling disks of gas and dust called protoplanetary disks. The disks give rise to giant planets like Jupiter as well as smaller planets mostly between the size of Earth and Neptune. Researchers using data from the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Kepler mission discovered that these smaller planets can be cleanly divided into two size groups: the rocky Earth-like planets and super-Earths, and the gaseous mini-Neptunes. CREDIT: NASA/KEPLER/CALTECH (T. PYLE)

    In the future, the researchers plan to study the heavy-element content of these planets to learn more about their composition. “We’re living in a golden age of planetary astronomy because we are finding thousands of planets around other stars,” says Petigura. “We are currently working to understand what these mini-Neptunes are made of, which should help explain why these planets form so easily around other stars and why they didn’t form around the sun.”

    The study, titled The California-Kepler Survey. III. A Gap in the Radius of Distribution of Small Planets, was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

    About HIRES

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

    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

     
  • richardmitnick 11:20 am on June 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA Kepler, NASA Releases Kepler Survey Catalog with Hundreds of New Planet Candidates   

    From NASA: “NASA Releases Kepler Survey Catalog with Hundreds of New Planet Candidates” 

    NASA image
    NASA

    June 19, 2017
    Felicia Chou
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-0257
    felicia.chou@nasa.gov

    Michele Johnson
    Ames Research Center, California’s Silicon Valley
    650-604-6882
    michele.johnson@nasa.gov

    Elizabeth Landau
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6425
    elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    NASA’s Kepler space telescope team has identified 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and in the habitable zone of their star. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    NASA’s Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star’s habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    This is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, from Kepler’s first four years of data. It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.

    With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

    Additionally, results using Kepler data suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets. Both results have significant implications for the search for life. The final Kepler catalog will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy, while the discovery of the two distinct planetary populations shows that about half the planets we know of in the galaxy either have no surface, or lie beneath a deep, crushing atmosphere – an environment unlikely to host life.

    The findings were presented at a news conference Monday at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

    “The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs – planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth,” said Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth.”

    The Kepler space telescope hunts for planets by detecting the minuscule drop in a star’s brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it, called a transit.

    This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalog, gathered by reprocessing the entire set of data from Kepler’s observations during the first four years of its primary mission. This data will enable scientists to determine what planetary populations – from rocky bodies the size of Earth, to gas giants the size of Jupiter – make up the galaxy’s planetary demographics.

    To ensure a lot of planets weren’t missed, the team introduced their own simulated planet transit signals into the data set and determined how many were correctly identified as planets. Then, they added data that appear to come from a planet, but were actually false signals, and checked how often the analysis mistook these for planet candidates. This work told them which types of planets were overcounted and which were undercounted by the Kepler team’s data processing methods.

    “This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy’s most compelling questions – how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?” said Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and lead author of the catalog study.

    One research group took advantage of the Kepler data to make precise measurements of thousands of planets, revealing two distinct groups of small planets. The team found a clean division in the sizes of rocky, Earth-size planets and gaseous planets smaller than Neptune. Few planets were found between those groupings.

    Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the group measured the sizes of 1,300 stars in the Kepler field of view to determine the radii of 2,000 Kepler planets with exquisite precision.


    Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    “We like to think of this study as classifying planets in the same way that biologists identify new species of animals,” said Benjamin Fulton, doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and lead author of the second study. “Finding two distinct groups of exoplanets is like discovering mammals and lizards make up distinct branches of a family tree.”

    It seems that nature commonly makes rocky planets up to about 75 percent bigger than Earth. For reasons scientists don’t yet understand, about half of those planets take on a small amount of hydrogen and helium that dramatically swells their size, allowing them to “jump the gap” and join the population closer to Neptune’s size.

    The Kepler spacecraft continues to make observations in new patches of sky in its extended mission, searching for planets and studying a variety of interesting astronomical objects, from distant star clusters to objects such as the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-size planets, closer to home.

    Ames manages the Kepler 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:

    https://www.nasa.gov/kepler

    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 1:19 pm on June 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Caltech's IPAC center, , , , , NASA Kepler, , Robert Hurt, The Art of Exoplanets, Tim Pyle   

    From JPL: “The Art of Exoplanets” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    June 8, 2017
    Written by Pat Brennan

    Elizabeth Landau
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6425
    elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

    Felicia Chou
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    felicia.chou@nasa.gov

    1
    This artist’s concept by Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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


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

    2
    This artist’s concept by Tim Pyle allows us to imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f, located in the TRAPPIST-1 system in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    3
    This artist’s concept by Robert Hurt shows planet KELT-9b orbiting its host star, KELT-9. It is the hottest gas giant planet discovered so far. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Kelt North Telescope In Arizona at Winer Observatory by Ohio State University

    4
    This illustration shows one possible scenario for the hot, rocky exoplanet called 55 Cancri e, which is nearly two times as wide as Earth. Robert Hurt created this in 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    5
    NASA’s Kepler mission discovered a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one, called Kepler-16b. Robert Hurt did this illustration of this fascinating world. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    The moon hanging in the night sky sent Robert Hurt’s mind into deep space — to a region some 40 light years away, in fact, where seven Earth-sized planets crowded close to a dim, red sun.

    Hurt, a visualization scientist at Caltech’s IPAC center, was walking outside his home in Mar Vista, California, shortly after he learned of the discovery of these rocky worlds around a star called TRAPPIST-1 and got the assignment to visualize them. The planets had been revealed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based observatories.

    NASA/Spitzer Telescope

    “I just stopped dead in my tracks, and I just stared at it,” Hurt said in an interview. “I was imagining that could be, not our moon, but the next planet over – what it would be like to be in a system where you could look up and see continental features on the next planet.”

    So began a kind of inspirational avalanche. Hurt and his colleague, multimedia producer Tim Pyle, developed a series of arresting, photorealistic images of what the new system’s tightly packed planets might look like — so tightly packed that they would loom large in each other’s skies. Their visions of the TRAPPIST-1 system would appear in leading news outlets around the world.

    Artists like Hurt and Pyle, who render vibrant visualizations based on data from Spitzer and other missions, are hybrids of sorts, blending expertise in both science and art. From squiggles on charts and columns of numbers, they conjure red, blue and green worlds, with half-frozen oceans or bubbling lava. Or they transport us to the surface of a world with a red-orange sun fixed in place, and a sky full of planetary companions.

    “For the public, the value of this is not just giving them a picture of something somebody made up,” said Douglas Hudgins, a program scientist for the Exoplanet Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These are real, educated guesses of how something might look to human beings. An image is worth a thousand words.”

    Hurt says he and Pyle are building on the work of artistic pioneers.

    “There’s actually a long history and tradition for space art and science-based illustration,” he said. “If you trace its roots back to the artist Chesley Bonestell (famous in the 1950s and ’60s), he really was the artist who got this idea: Let’s go and imagine what the planets in our solar system might actually look like if you were, say, on Jupiter’s moon, Io. How big would Jupiter appear in the sky, and what angle would we be viewing it from?”

    To begin work on their visualizations, Hurt divided up the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets with Pyle, who shares an office with him at Caltech’s IPAC center in Pasadena, California.

    Hurt holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and has worked at the center since he was a post-doctoral researcher in 1996 – when astronomical art was just his hobby.

    “They created a job for me,” he said.

    Pyle, whose background is in Hollywood special effects, joined Hurt in 2004.

    Hurt turns to Pyle for artistic inspiration, while Pyle relies on Hurt to check his science.

    “Robert and I have our desks right next to each other, so we’re constantly giving each other feedback,” Pyle said. “We’re each upping each other’s game, I think.”

    The TRAPPIST-1 worlds offered both of them a unique challenge. The two already had a reputation for illustrating many exoplanets – planets around stars beyond our own — but never seven Earth-sized worlds in a single system. The planets cluster so close to their star that a “year” on each of them — the time they take to complete a single orbit — can be numbered in Earth days.

    And like the overwhelming majority of the thousands of exoplants found in our galaxy so far, they were detected using indirect means. No telescope exists today that is powerful enough to photograph them.

    Real science informed their artistic vision. Using data from the telescopes that reveal each planet’s diameter as well as its “weight,” or mass, and known stellar physics to determine the amount of light each planet would receive, the artists went to work.

    Both consulted closely with the planets’ discovery team as they planned for a NASA announcement to coincide with a report in the journal Nature.

    “When we’re doing these artist’s concepts, we’re never saying, ‘This is what these planets actually look like,'” Pyle said. “We’re doing plausible illustrations of what they could look like, based on what we know so far. Having this wide range of seven planets actually let us illustrate almost the whole breadth of what would be plausible. This was going to be this incredible interstellar laboratory for what could happen on an Earth-sized planet.”

    For TRAPPIST-1b, Pyle took Jupiter’s volcanic moon, Io, as an inspiration, based on suggestions from the science team. For the outermost world, TRAPPIST-1h, he chose two other Jovian moons, the ice-encased Ganymede and Europa.

    After talking to the scientists, Hurt portrayed TRAPPIST-1c as dry and rocky. But because all seven planets are probably tidally locked, forever presenting one face to their star and the other to the cosmos, he placed an ice cap on the dark side.

    TRAPPIST-1d was one of three that fall inside the “habitable zone” of the star, or the right distance away from it to allow possible liquid water on the surface.

    “The researchers told us they would like to see it portrayed as something they called an ‘eyeball world,'” Hurt said. “You have a dry, hot side that’s facing the star and an ice cap on the back side. But somewhere in between, you have (a zone) where the ice could melt and be sustained as liquid water.”

    At this point, Hurt said, art intervened. The scientists rejected his first version of the planet, which showed liquid water intruding far into the “dayside” of TRAPPIST-1d. They argued that the water would most likely be found well within the planet’s dark half.

    “Then I kind of pushed back, and said, ‘If it’s on the dark side, no one can look at it and understand we’re saying there’s water there,'” Hurt said. They struck a compromise: more water toward the dayside than the science team might expect, but a better visual representation of the science.

    The same push and pull between science and art extends to other forms of astronomical visualization, whether it’s a Valentine’s Day cartoon of a star pulsing like a heart in time with its planet, or materials for the blockbuster announcement of the first detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in February 2016. They’ve also illustrated asteroids, neutron stars, pulsars and brown dwarfs.

    Visualizations based on data can also inform science, leading to genuine scientific insights. The scientists’ conclusions about TRAPPIST-1 at first seemed to suggest the planets would be bathed in red light, potentially obscuring features like blue-hued bodies of water.

    “It makes it hard to really differentiate what is going on,” Hurt said.

    Hurt decided to investigate. A colleague provided him with a spectrum of a red dwarf star similar to TRAPPIST-1. He overlaid that with the “responsivity curves” of the human eye, and found that most of the scientists’ “red” came from infrared light, invisible to human eyes. Subtract that, and what is left is a more reddish-orange hue that we might see standing on the surface of a TRAPPIST-1 world — “kind of the same color you would expect to get from a low-wattage light bulb,” Hurt said. “And the scientists looked at that and said, ‘Oh, ok, great, it’s orange.’ When the math tells you the answer, there really isn’t a lot to argue about.”

    For Hurt, the real goal of scientific illustration is to excite the public, engage them in the science, and provide a snapshot of scientific knowledge.

    “If you look at the whole history of space art, reaching back many, many decades, you will find you have a visual record,” he said. “The art is a historical record of our changing understanding of the universe. It becomes a part of the story, and a part of the research, I think.”

    For more information on exoplanets, visit:

    https://exoplanets.nasa.gov

    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 7:08 am on June 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , NASA Kepler, Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak: Exoplanets Gave The Origin of Life Field a Huge Boost   

    From Many Worlds: “Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak: Exoplanets Gave The Origin of Life Field a Huge Boost” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-06-02
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Jack Szostak, Nobel laureate and pioneering researcher in the origin-of-life field, was the featured speaker at a workshop this week at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. One goal of his Harvard lab is to answer this once seemingly impossible question: was the origin of life on Earth essentially straight-forward and “easy,” or was it enormously “hard” and consequently rare in the universe. (Nerissa Escandar)

    Sometimes tectonic shifts in scientific disciplines occur because of discoveries and advances in the field. But sometimes they occur for reasons entirely outside the field itself. Such appears to be case with origins-of-life studies.

    Nobel laureate Jack Szostak was recently in Tokyo to participate in a workshop at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) on “Reconstructing the Phenomenon of Life To Retrace the Emergence of Life.”

    The talks were technical and often cutting-edge, but the backstory that Szostak tells of why he and so many other top scientists are now in the origins of life field was especially intriguing and illuminating in terms of how science progresses.

    Those ground-shifting discoveries did not involve traditional origin-of-life questions of chemical transformations and pathways. They involved exoplanets.

    “Because of the discovery of all those exoplanets, astronomy has been transformed along with many other fields,” Szostak said after the workshop.

    “We now know there’s a large range of planetary environments out there, and that has stimulated a huge amount of interest in where else in the universe might there be life. Is it just here? We know for sure that lots of environments could support life and we also would like to know: do they?

    “This has stimulated much more laboratory-based work to try to address the origins question. What’s really important is for us to know whether the transition from chemistry to biology is easy and can happen frequently and anywhere, or are there one or many difficult steps that make life potentially very rare?”

    In other words, the explosion in exoplanet science has led directly to an invigorated scientific effort to better understand that road from a pre-biotic Earth to a biological Earth — with chemistry that allows compounds to replicate, to change, to surround themselves in cell walls, and to grow ever more complex.

    With today’s increased pace of research, Szostak said, the chances of finding some solid answers have been growing. In fact, he’s quite optimistic that an answer will ultimately be forthcoming to the question of how life began on Earth.

    “The field is making real progress in understanding the pathway from pre-biotic chemistry to the earliest life,” Szostak told. “We think this is a difficult but solvable problem.”

    And any solution would inevitably shed light on both the potential make-up and prevalence of extraterrestrial life.

    2
    This artist’s concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. (NASA/W. Stenzel)

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    Whether it’s ultimately solvable or not, that pathway from non-life to life would appear to be nothing if not winding and complex. And since it involves trying to understand something that happened some 4 billion years ago, the field has had its share of fits and starts.

    It is no trivial fact that probably the biggest advance in modern origin-of-life science — the renown Miller-Urey experiment that produced important-for-life amino acids out of a sparked test tube filled with gases then believed to be prevalent on early Earth — took place more than 60 years ago.

    Much has changed since then, including an understanding that the gases used by Miller and Urey most likely did not reflect the early Earth atmosphere. But no breakthrough has been so dramatic and paradigm shifting since Miller-Urey. Scientists have toiled instead in the challenging terrain of how and why a vast array of chemicals associated with life just might be the ones crucial to the enterprise.

    But what’s new, Szostak said, is that the chemicals central to the pathway are much better understood today. So, too, are the mechanisms that help turn non-living compounds into self-replicating complex compounds, the process through which protective yet fragile cell walls can be formed, and the earliest dynamics involved in the essential task of collecting energy for a self-replicating chemical system to survive.

    2
    The simple protocells that may have enabled life to develop four billion years ago consist of only genetic material surrounded by a fatty acid membrane. This pared down version of a cell—which has not yet been completely recreated in a laboratory—is thought to have been able to grow, replicate, and evolve. (Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

    This search for a pathway is a major international undertaking; a collective effort involving many labs where obstacles to understanding the origin-of-life process are being overcome one by one.

    Here’s an example from Szostak: The early RNA replicators needed the element magnesium to do their copying. Yet magnesium destroyed the cell membranes needed to protect the RNA.

    A possible solution was to find potential acids to bond with magnesium and protect the membranes, while still allowing the element to be available for RNA chemistry. His team found that citric acid, or citrate, worked well when added to the cells. Problem solved, in the lab at least.

    The Szostak lab at Harvard University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has focused on creating “protocells” that are engineered by researchers yet can help explain how origin-of-life processes may have taken place on the early Earth.

    6

    Their focus, Szostak said, is on “what happens when we have the right molecules and how do they get together to form a cell that can grow and divide.”

    It remains a work in progress, but Szostak said much has been accomplished. Protocells have been engineered with the ability to replicate, to divide, to metabolize food for energy and to form and maintain a protective membrane.

    The perhaps ultimate goal is to develop a protocell with with the potential for Darwinian evolution. Were that to be achieved, then an essentially full system would have been created.

    3
    How did something alive emerge from a non-living world. It’s a question as old as humanity, but may in time prove to be solvable. Here blue-green algae in Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

    Just as the discovery of a menagerie of exoplanets jump-started the origin of life field, it also changed forever its way of doing business.

    No longer was the field the singular realm of chemists, but began to take in geochemists, planetary scientists, evolutionary biologists, atmospheric scientists and even astronomers (one of whom works in Szostak’s lab.)

    “A lot of labs are focused on different points in the process,” he said. “And because origins are now viewed as a process, that means you need to know how planets are formed and what happens on the planetary surface and in the atmospheres when they’re young.

    “Then there’s the question of essential volatiles (such as nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen, methane and sulfur dioxide); when do they come in and are they too much or not enough.”

    These were definitely not issues of importance to Stanley Miller and Harold Urey when they sought to make building blocks of life from some common gases and an electrical charge.

    But seeing the origin of life question as a long pathway as opposed to a singular event leaves some researchers cold. With so many steps needed, and with the precisely right catalysts and purified compounds often essential to allow the next step take place, they argue that these pathways produced in a chemistry lab are unlikely to have anything to do with what actually happened on Earth.

    Szostak disagrees, strongly. “That just not true. The laws of chemistry haven’t changed since early Earth, and what we’re trying to understand is the fundamental chemistry of these compounds associated with life so we can work out plausible pathways.”

    If and when a plausible chemical pathway is established, Szostak said, it would then be time to turn the scientific process around and see if there is a possible model for the presence of the needed pathway ingredients on early Earth.

    And that involves the knowledge of geochemists, researchers expert in photochemistry and planetary scientists who have insight into what conditions were like at a particular time.

    4
    Szostak and David Deamer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, at the ELSI origins workshop.

    Deamer supports the view that life on Earth may well have begun in and around hydrothermal springs on land. That’s where essential compounds could concentrate, where energy was present and organic compounds on interstellar dust could have landed, as they do today. (Nerissa Escandar)

    Given the work that Szostak, his group and others have done to understand possible pathways that lead from simple starting materials to life, the inevitable question is whether there was but one pathway or many.

    Szostak is of the school that there may well have been numerous pathways that resulted in life, although only one seems to have won out. He bases his view, in part at least, on a common experience in his lab. He and his colleagues can bang their collective heads together for what seems forever on a hard problem only to later find there was not one or two but potentially many answers to it.

    An intriguing implication of this “many pathways” hypothesis is that it would seemingly increase the possibility of life starting beyond Earth. The underlying logic of Szostak’s approach is to find how chemicals can interact to form life-like and then more complex living systems within particular environments. And those varied environments could be on early Earth or on a planet or moon far away.

    “All of this looked very, very hard at the start, trying to identify the pathways that could lead to life. And sure, there are gaps remaining in our understanding. But we’ve solved a lot of problems and the remaining big problems are a rather small number. So I’m optimistic we’ll find the way.”

    “And when we get discouraged about our progress I think, you know, life did get started here. And actually it must quite simple. We’re just not smart enough to see the answer right away.

    “But in the end it generally turns out to be simple and you wonder 20 years later, why didn’t we think of that before?”

    See the full article here .

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    About Many Worlds

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

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

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

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

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

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

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

     
  • richardmitnick 9:23 am on April 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Breaking Planet Chains and Cracking the Kepler Dichotomy, , Kepler Dichotomy, NASA Kepler, Planetary migration   

    From astrobites: “Breaking Planet Chains and Cracking the Kepler Dichotomy” 

    Astrobites bloc

    Astrobites

    Apr 24, 2017
    Michael Hammer

    Title: Breaking the Chains: Hot Super-Earth systems from migration and disruption of compact resonant chains
    Authors: Andre Izidoro, Masahiro Ogihara, Sean N. Raymond, Alessandro Morbidelli, Arnaud Pierens, Bertram Bitsch, Christophe Cossou, Franck Hersant
    First Author’s Institution: Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Bordeaux, University of Bordeaux
    1
    3

    Status: Submitted to MNRAS [open access]

    To migrate, or not to migrate? That is the question. Of course, since planets are not Shakespearean characters, they should not have a choice! When a planet forms in a disk, it creates two spiral waves: a weaker one ahead of the planet that drags it forward (sending the planet outwards), and a stronger one behind the planet that pulls it backwards (sending the planet inwards). Ultimately, every planet should migrate inwards and in most cases, end up much closer to its star than where it formed.

    When planets in the outer disk migrate inwards faster than planets closer in, they start to catch up to each other. As these planets get closer together, they eventually become gravitationally locked into resonance: pairs of orbits where the outer planet takes exactly twice as long (or another integer ratio such as 3-to-2, etc.) to complete an orbit around its star as the inner one. Once this happens, the planets migrate together, maintaining that 2-to-1 ratio. In systems with many rocky planets, the third one will follow suit and fall into a resonance with the second planet, as will the fourth with the third, and so on. Eventually, the system will have a long chain of up to 10 resonant rocky planets tightly packed in the inner part of the disk!

    Yet even though migration is supposed to be inevitable, only about 5% of the planetary systems discovered by the Kepler mission are actually in this setup (TRAPPIST-1 is the most famous).

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

    The other 95% are not, many of which because they only have one planet. Today’s paper, led by Andre Izidoro, attempts to explain these discrepancies by suggesting that all systems migrate into resonant chains, but not all of them stay in resonant chains!

    Two-Phase Setup

    Izidoro et al. study this problem by conducting two-phase N-body simulations of 120 hypothetical planetary systems with 20 to 30 rocky planets for 100 Myr. These planets start out with 0.1 to 4.5 Earth masses and are spread out evenly in the outer disk beyond 5 AU.

    In phase one (0 to 5 Myr), the planets may migrate due to the presence of a gaseous protoplanetary disk. Meanwhile, the disk also keeps the planets on flat, circular orbits by damping the planets’ eccentricities and inclinations.
    In phase two (5 to 100 Myr), the planets can no longer migrate since the disk has dissipated away. However, they are free to develop eccentric and inclined orbits since they are now controlled by interactions with each other instead of interactions with the disk.

    Compact, but not too compact

    Izidoro et al. find that all of their planetary systems migrate into compact resonant chains within 1.5 Myr, safely less than the disk’s lifetime of 5 Myr. Many of these systems (40%) then survive as resonant chains for the entire 100 Myr simulation.

    However, some systems (60%) become too compact (see Figure 1). In particular, the ones that are too compact with higher mass planets become unstable after the disk fades away! The resonant chains then collapse as some of the planets eject and the rest spread farther apart. As they spread out, the surviving planets’ orbits also become more eccentric and inclined.

    2
    Figure 1. Two example resonant chains after phase one. The first system (left) will survive phase two (without the disk). The second system (right) will become unstable because it has more planets too close together. Some of the surviving planets will develop inclined orbits, making them less likely to transit. Adapted from Figs. 2 and 3 of the paper.

    Single-Planet Imposters

    In order to compare their results with actual exoplanet systems discovered by the Kepler Mission, Izidoro et al. must determine what fraction of their planets can transit (and be “detected” by Kepler).

    Planet transit. NASA/Ames

    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    They find that in the stable resonant chains, Kepler can detect 3 or more planets in 66% of these systems. On the other side in the unstable systems, the inclined orbits from the instabilities make it so that Kepler can only detect 1 planet in 78% of these systems, even though over 90% of the unstable systems still have multiple planets.

    Explaining the Kepler Dichotomy

    One of the defining features of Kepler’s planets is the large number of systems with only one transiting planet. Naturally, we expected that Kepler would not be able to find all of the planets in each of its systems since planets at large separations from their star that do not line up with our line-of-sight will not transit. However even with this bias, the fact that there are so many more single-planet systems than two-planet systems (see Figure 2) suggests that Kepler systems belong to a dichotomy: roughly 50% of all systems have just one planet (including non-transiting ones) and 50% have many planets (5+ for small stars). Such a high fraction of single-planet systems is a huge surprise, given how many planets exist in our own solar system.

    However, the two populations of planetary systems in this study offer an explanation for the Kepler dichotomy that would imply these single planets are not so lonely. Izidoro et al. calculate that if no more than 25% of all planetary systems are compact resonant chains (with the rest being unstable systems), this distribution of systems can match the high fraction of systems with just one transiting planet in the Kepler dichotomy — even though nearly all of these systems would have multiple planets.

    2
    Figure 2. Comparison of Kepler’s planetary systems to this paper’s planetary systems. In the Kepler sample (green), the vast majority of systems have only one transiting planet. The unstable systems in this paper (blue) would have even more single-transit systems, while the stable resonant chains (red) have a lot fewer. A proper balance between these two (90% unstable, 10% stable — gray) matches the Kepler dichotomy pretty well. Fig. 15 of the paper.

    Why so unstable?

    Izidoro et al. expect that in reality, roughly 5% of all planetary systems are stable resonant chains (since this is the fraction found by Kepler), which is consistent with their upper limit of 25% they need to explain the dichotomy. Even though the authors find that 40% remain stable in their study, they suspect that simulations with a more realistic protoplanetary disk would lead to many more systems going unstable. Nonetheless, the authors caution that their model remains incomplete until they find a reason for ~95% of Kepler’s systems becoming unstable at some point in their history.

    It may also be the case that not all systems migrate into resonant chains to begin with, or even that planets do not migrate as easily as this study presumes. For now, we can still take solace in knowing that at least some of Kepler’s single-planet systems have non-transiting companions that they can orbit with for billions of years.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    What do we do?

    Astrobites is a daily astrophysical literature journal written by graduate students in astronomy. Our goal is to present one interesting paper per day in a brief format that is accessible to undergraduate students in the physical sciences who are interested in active research.
    Why read Astrobites?

    Reading a technical paper from an unfamiliar subfield is intimidating. It may not be obvious how the techniques used by the researchers really work or what role the new research plays in answering the bigger questions motivating that field, not to mention the obscure jargon! For most people, it takes years for scientific papers to become meaningful.
    Our goal is to solve this problem, one paper at a time. In 5 minutes a day reading Astrobites, you should not only learn about one interesting piece of current work, but also get a peek at the broader picture of research in a new area of astronomy.

     
  • richardmitnick 7:21 am on April 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA Kepler, Natalie Batalha,   

    From Many Worlds: Women in STEM – “The Influential Natalie Batalha” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-04-24
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Natalie Batalha, project scientist for the Kepler mission and a leader of NASA’s NExSS initiative on exoplanets, was just selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. (NASA, TIME Magazine.)

    I’d like to make a slight detour and talk not about the science of exoplanets and astrobiology, but rather a particular exoplanet scientist who I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

    The scientist is Natalie Batalha, who has been lead scientist for NASA’s landmark Kepler Space Telescope mission since soon after it launched in 2009, has serves on numerous top NASA panels and boards, and who is one of the scientists who guides the direction of this Many Worlds column.

    Last week, Batalha was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is a subjective (non-scientific) calculation for sure, but it nonetheless seems credible to me and to doubtless many others.

    Batalha and the Kepler team have identified more than 2500 exoplanets in one small section of the distant sky, with several thousand more candidates awaiting confirmation. Their work has once and for all nailed the fact that there are billions and billions of exoplanets out there.

    “NASA is incredibly proud of Natalie,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA headquarters, after the Time selection was announced.

    “Her leadership on the Kepler mission and the study of exoplanets is helping to shape the quest to discover habitable exoplanets and search for life beyond the solar system. It’s wonderful to see her recognized for the influence she has had on the world – and on the way we see ourselves in the universe.”

    And William Borucki, who had the initial idea for the Kepler mission and worked for decades to get it approved and then to manage it, had this to say about Batalha:

    “She has made major contributions to the Kepler Mission throughout its development and operation. Natalie’s collaborative leadership style, and expert knowledge of the population of exoplanets in the galaxy, will provide guidance for the development of successor missions that will tell us more about the habitability of the planets orbiting nearby stars.”

    1
    Batalha has led the science mission of the Kepler Space Telescope since it launched in 2009. (NASA)

    As a sign of the perceived importance of exoplanet research, two of the other TIME influential 100 are discoverers of specific new worlds. They are Guillem Anglada-Escudé (who led a team that detected a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri) and Michael Gillon (whose team identified the potentially habitable planets around the Trappist-1 system.)

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

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

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

    But Batalha, and no doubt the other two scientists, stress that they are part of a team and that the work they do is inherently collaborative. It absolutely requires that many others also do difficult jobs well.

    For Batalha, working in that kind of environment is a natural fit with her personality and skills. Having watched her at work many times, I can attest to her ability to be a strong leader with extremely high standards, while also being a kind of force for calm and inclusiveness.

    We worked together quite a bit on the establishing and running of this column, which is part of the NASA Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative to encourage interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration in exoplanet science.

    It was NASA’s astrobiology senior scientist Mary Voytek who set up the initiative and saw fit to start this column, and it was Batalha (along with several others) who helped guide and focus it in its early days.

    I think back to her patience. I was visiting her at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and talking shop — meaning stars and planets and atmospheres and the like. While I had done a lot of science reporting by that time, astronomy was not a strong point (yet.)

    So in conversation she made a reference to stars on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram and I must have had a somewhat blank look to me. She asked if I was familiar with Hertzsprung-Russell and I had to confess that I was not.

    Not missing a beat, she then went into an explanation of what is a basic feature of astronomy, and did it without a hint of impatience. She just wanted me to know what the diagram was and what it meant, and pushed ahead with good cheer to bring me up to speed — as I’m sure she has done many other times with many people of different levels of exposure to the logic and complexities of her very complex work.

    4
    Hertzsprung–Russell diagram with 22,000 stars plotted from the Hipparcos Catalogue and 1,000 from the Gliese Catalogue of nearby stars. Stars tend to fall only into certain regions of the diagram. The most prominent is the diagonal, going from the upper-left (hot and bright) to the lower-right (cooler and less bright), called the main sequence. In the lower-left is where white dwarfs are found, and above the main sequence are the subgiants, giants and supergiants. The Sun is found on the main sequence at luminosity 1 (absolute magnitude 4.8) and B−V color index 0.66 (temperature 5780 K, spectral type G2V). Wikipedia

    (Incidently, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram plots each star on a graph measuring the star’s brightness against its temperature or color.)

    I mention this because part of Batalha’s influence has to do with her ability to communicate with individuals and audiences from the lay to the most scientifically sophisticated. Not surprisingly, she is often invited to be a speaker and I recommend catching her at the podium if you can.

    3
    By chance — or was it chance? — the three exoplanet scientists selected for the Time 100 were at Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Discuss session Thursday when the news came out. On the left is Anglada-Escude, Batalha in the middle and Gillon on the right.

    Batalha was born in Northern California with absolutely no intention of being a scientist. Her idea of a scientist, in fact, was a guy in a white lab coat pouring chemicals into a beaker.

    As a young woman, she was an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley and planned on going into business. But she had always been very good and advanced in math, and so she toyed with other paths. Then, one day, astronaut Rhea Setton came to her sorority. Setton had been a member of the same sorority and came to deliver a sorority pin she had taken up with during on a flight on the Space Shuttle.

    “That visit changed my path,” Batalha told me. “When I had that opportunity to see a woman astronaut, to see that working for NASA was a possibility, I decided to switch my major — from business to physics.”

    After getting her BA in physics from UC Berkeley, she continued in the field and earned a PhD in astrophysics from UC Santa Cruz. Batalha started her career as a stellar spectroscopist studying young, sun-like stars. Her studies took her to Brazil, Chile and, in 1995, Italy, where she was present at the scientific conference when the world learned of the first planet orbiting another star like our sun — 51 Pegasi b.

    It had quite an impact. Four years later, after a discussion with Kepler principal investigator Borucki at Ames about challenges that star spots present in distinguishing signals from transiting planets, she was hired to join the Kepler team. She has been working on the Kepler mission ever since.

    Asked how she would like to use her now publicly acknowledged “influence,” she returned to her work on the search for habitable planets, and potentially life, beyond earth.

    “We’ve seen that there’s such a keen public interest and an enormous scientific interest in terms of habitable worlds, and we have to keep that going,” she said. “This is a very hard problem to solve, and we need all hands on deck.”

    She said the effort has to be interdisciplinary and international to succeed, and she pointed to the two other time 100 exoplanet hunters selected. One is from Belgium and the other is working in the United Kingdom, but comes from Spain.

    When the nominal Kepler mission formally winds down in September, she says she looks forward to more actively engaging with the exoplanet science Kepler has made possible.

    4
    The small planets identified by Kepler as of one year ago that are small and orbit in the region around their star where water can exist as a liquid. NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

    Batalha’s role in the NASA NExSS initiative offers a window into what makes her a leader — she excels at making things happen.

    Voytek and Shawn Domogal-Goldman of Goddard founded and oversee the group. They then chose Batalha two other leaders (Anthony Del Genio of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Dawn Gelino of NASA Exoplanet Science Institute ) to be the hands-on leaders of the 18 groups of scientists from a wide variety of American universities.

    (Asked why she selected Batalha, Voytek replied, “TIME is recognizing what motivated us to select her as one of the leaders for….NExSS. Her scientific and leadership excellence.”)

    This is the official NExSS task: “Teams will help classify the diversity of worlds being discovered, understand the potential habitability of these worlds, and develop tools and technologies needed in the search for life beyond Earth. Scientists are developing ways to identify habitable environments on these worlds and search for biosignatures, or signs of life. Central to the work of NExSS is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, surface, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star.”

    She has encouraged and helped create the kinds of collaborations that these tasks have made essential, but also helped identify upcoming problems and opportunities for exoplanet research and has started working on ways to address them. For instance, it became clear within the NExSS group and larger community that many, if not most exoplanet researchers would not be able to effectively apply for time to use the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for several years after it launched in late 2018.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    To be awarded time on the telescope, researchers have to write detailed descriptions of what they plan to do and how they will do it. But how the giant telescope will operate in space is not entirely know — especially as relates to exoplanets. So it will be impossible for most researchers to make proposals and win time until JWST is already in space for at least two of its five years of operation.

    Led by Batalha, exoplanet scientists are now hashing out a short list of JWST targets that the community as a whole can agree should be the top priorities scientifically and to allow researchers to learn better how JWST works. As a result, they would be able to propose their own targets for research much more quickly in those early years of JWST operations. It’s the kind of community consensus building that Batalha is known for.

    She also has an important roles in the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee and hopes to use the skills she developed working with Kepler on the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.

    NASA/TESS

    5
    Batalha preparing for the Science Walk in San Francisco on Earth Day.

    A mother of four (including daughter Natasha, who is on her way to also becoming an accomplished astrophysicist), Batalha is active on Facebook sharing her activities, her often poetic thoughts, and her strong views about scientific and other issues of the day.

    She was an active participant, for instance, in the National March for Science in San Francisco, posting photos and impressions along the way. I think it’s fair to say her presence was noticed with appreciation by others.

    And that returns us to what she considers to be some of her greatest potential “influence” — being an accomplished, high ranking and high profile NASA female scientist.

    “I don’t have to stand up and say to young women ‘You can do this.’ You can just exist doing your work and you become a role model. Like Rhea Setton did with me.”

    And it is probably no coincidence that four other senior (and demanding) positions on the Kepler mission are filled by women — two of whom were students in classes taught some years ago by Natalie Batalha.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    About Many Worlds

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

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

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

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

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

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

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

     
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