Category Archives: Exoplanets

TESS: First test image released from new exoplanet orbital observatory

The new exoplanet finder TESS tries out its camera and gets a shot of a whole lot of stars:

NASA’s New Planet Hunter Snaps Initial Test Image, Swings by Moon

This test image from one of the four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captures a swath of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. TESS is expected to cover more than 400 times the amount of sky shown in this image when using all four of its cameras during science operations. Credits: NASA/MIT/TESS

NASA’s next planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is one step closer to searching for new worlds after successfully completing a lunar flyby on May 17. The spacecraft passed about 5,000 miles from the Moon, which provided a gravity assist that helped TESS sail toward its final working orbit.

As part of camera commissioning, the science team snapped a two-second test exposure using one of the four TESS cameras. The image, centered on the southern constellation Centaurus, reveals more than 200,000 stars. The edge of the Coalsack Nebula is in the right upper corner and the bright star Beta Centauri is visible at the lower left edge. TESS is expected to cover more than 400 times as much sky as shown in this image with its four cameras during its initial two-year search for exoplanets. A science-quality image, also referred to as a “first light” image, is expected to be released in June.

TESS will undergo one final thruster burn on May 30 to enter its science orbit around Earth. This highly elliptical orbit will maximize the amount of sky the spacecraft can image, allowing it to continuously monitor large swaths of the sky. TESS is expected to begin science operations in mid-June after reaching this orbit and completing camera calibrations.

Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, TESS is the next step in NASA’s search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. The mission will observe nearly the entire sky to monitor nearby, bright stars in search of transits — periodic dips in a star’s brightness caused by a planet passing in front of the star. TESS is expected to find thousands of exoplanets. NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2020, will provide important follow-up observations of some of the most promising TESS-discovered exoplanets, allowing scientists to study their atmospheres.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Dr. George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The TESS science instruments were jointly developed by MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

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Hubble makes first observation of helium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet

Observations of planets around other stars continue to produce a steady stream of “firsts”:

Hubble Detects Helium in the Atmosphere of an Exoplanet for the First Time

Exoplanet WASP-107b is one of the lowest density planets known. While the planet is about the same size as Jupiter, it has only 12 percent of Jupiter’s mass. The exoplanet is about 200 light-years from Earth and takes less than six days to orbit its host star. Using infrared spectroscopy, scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope were able to find helium in the escaping atmosphere of the planet — the first detection of this element in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. [Artist’s rendering of WASP-107b transiting its star.]
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have detected helium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-107b. This is the first time this element has been detected in the atmosphere of a planet outside the solar system. The discovery demonstrates the ability to use infrared spectra to study exoplanet extended atmospheres.

The international team of astronomers, led by Jessica Spake, a PhD student at the University of Exeter in the UK, used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to discover helium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-107b. This is the first detection of its kind.

Spake explained the importance of the discovery:

“Helium is the second-most common element in the universe after hydrogen. It is also one of the main constituents of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system. However, up until now helium had not been detected on exoplanets — despite searches for it.”

The team made the detection by analyzing the infrared spectrum of the atmosphere of WASP-107b. Previous detections of extended exoplanet atmospheres have been made by studying the spectrum at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths; this detection therefore demonstrates that exoplanet atmospheres can also be studied at longer wavelengths.

The measurement of an exoplanet’s atmosphere is performed when the planet passes in front of its host star. A tiny portion of the star’s light passes through the exoplanet’s atmosphere, leaving detectable fingerprints in the spectrum of the star. The larger the amount of an element present in the atmosphere, the easier the detection becomes.

“The strong signal from helium we measured demonstrates a new technique to study upper layers of exoplanet atmospheres in a wider range of planets,” said Spake. “Current methods, which use ultraviolet light, are limited to the closest exoplanets. We know there is helium in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and this new technique may help us to detect atmospheres around Earth-sized exoplanets — which is very difficult with current technology.”

WASP-107b is one of the lowest density planets known: While the planet is about the same size as Jupiter, it has only 12 percent of Jupiter’s mass. The exoplanet is about 200 light-years from Earth and takes less than six days to orbit its host star.

The amount of helium detected in the atmosphere of WASP-107b is so large that its upper atmosphere must extend tens of thousands of miles out into space. This also makes it the first time that an extended atmosphere has been discovered at infrared wavelengths.

Since its atmosphere is so extended, the planet is losing a significant amount of its atmospheric gases into space — between about 0.1 percent to 4 percent of its atmosphere’s total mass every billion years.

Stellar radiation has a significant effect on the rate at which a planet’s atmosphere escapes. The star WASP-107 is highly active, supporting the atmospheric loss. As the atmosphere absorbs radiation it heats up, so the gas rapidly expands and escapes more quickly into space.

As far back as the year 2000, it was predicted that helium would be one of the most readily-detectable gases on giant exoplanets, but until now, searches were unsuccessful.

David Sing, co-author of the study also from the University of Exeter, concluded:

“Our new method, along with future telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to analyze atmospheres of exoplanets in far greater detail than ever before.”

The team’s study appears on May 2, 2018, in the online issue of science journal Nature.

Videos: Falcon 9 launches TESS exoplanet finding observatory

On Wednesday at Cape Canaveral, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully put TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) on the first (big) step to its final operational orbit, which will have an apogee nearly as far out as the Moon and an perigee far beyond that of geostationary satellites. (See the recent post here about TESS.)

Here is a NASA release about the launch of TESS:

NASA Planet Hunter on Its Way to Orbit

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched on the first-of-its-kind mission to find worlds beyond our solar system, including some that could support life.

TESS, which is expected to find thousands of new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, lifted off at 6:51 p.m. EDT Wednesday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. At 7:53 p.m., the twin solar arrays that will power the spacecraft successfully deployed.

“We are thrilled TESS is on its way to help us discover worlds we have yet to imagine, worlds that could possibly be habitable, or harbor life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe.”

Over the course of several weeks, TESS will use six thruster burns to travel in a series of progressively elongated orbits to reach the Moon, which will provide a gravitational assist so that TESS can transfer into its 13.7-day final science orbit around Earth. After approximately 60 days of check-out and instrument testing, the spacecraft will begin its work.

“One critical piece for the science return of TESS is the high data rate associated with its orbit,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge. “Each time the spacecraft passes close to Earth, it will transmit full-frame images taken with the cameras. That’s one of the unique things TESS brings that was not possible before.”

For this two-year survey mission, scientists divided the sky into 26 sectors. TESS will use four unique wide-field cameras to map 13 sectors encompassing the southern sky during its first year of observations and 13 sectors of the northern sky during the second year, altogether covering 85 percent of the sky.

TESS will be watching for phenomena called transits. A transit occurs when a planet passes in front of its star from the observer’s perspective, causing a periodic and regular dip in the star’s brightness. More than 78 percent of the approximately 3,700 confirmed exoplanets have been found using transits.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft found more than 2,600 exoplanets, most orbiting faint stars between 300 and 3,000 light-years from Earth, using this same method of watching for transits. TESS will focus on stars between 30 and 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s targets.

The brightness of these target stars will allow researchers to use spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light, to determine a planet’s mass, density and atmospheric composition. Water, and other key molecules, in its atmosphere can give us hints about a planets’ capacity to harbor life.

“The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Through the TESS Guest Investigator Program, the worldwide scientific community will be able to conduct research beyond TESS’s core mission in areas ranging from exoplanet characterization to stellar astrophysics, distant galaxies and solar system science.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT and managed by Goddard. George Ricker, of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, serves as principal investigator for the mission. TESS’s four wide-field cameras were developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

For more information on TESS, go to: https://www.nasa.gov/tess

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Here is a view of the return and landing of the Falcon 9 first stage onto the unmanned droneship “Of Course I Still Love You”. The view is primarily from a camera on the rocket with a brief view from the ship before the shaking caused by the engine plume knocks the transmitter antenna off target:

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ESO: The Very Large Telescope (VLT) observes a zoo of odd shaped discs around young stars

The latest report from ESO (European Southern Observatory):

SPHERE Reveals Fascinating Zoo of Discs Around Young Stars

New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. [Larger images]
New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming.

The SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile allows astronomers to suppress the brilliant light of nearby stars in order to obtain a better view of the regions surrounding them. This collection of new SPHERE images is just a sample of the wide variety of dusty discs being found around young stars.

These discs are wildly different in size and shape — some contain bright rings, some dark rings, and some even resemble hamburgers. They also differ dramatically in appearance depending on their orientation in the sky — from circular face-on discs to narrow discs seen almost edge-on.

SPHERE’s primary task is to discover and study giant exoplanets orbiting nearby stars using direct imaging. But the instrument is also one of the best tools in existence to obtain images of the discs around young stars — regions where planets may be forming. Studying such discs is critical to investigating the link between disc properties and the formation and presence of planets.

This spectacular image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope shows the dusty disc around the young star IM Lupi in finer detail than ever before. [Larger versions]
Many of the young stars shown here come from a new study of T Tauri stars, a class of stars that are very young (less than 10 million years old) and vary in brightness. The discs around these stars contain gas, dust, and planetesimals — the building blocks of planets and the progenitors of planetary systems.

These images also show what our own Solar System may have looked like in the early stages of its formation, more than four billion years ago.

Most of the images presented were obtained as part of the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. The distances of the targets ranged from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. For comparison, the Milky Way is roughly 100 000 light-years across, so these stars are, relatively speaking, very close to Earth. But even at this distance, it is very challenging to obtain good images of the faint reflected light from discs, since they are outshone by the dazzling light of their parent stars.

This SPHERE observation is the discovery of an edge-on disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, which is a member of a multiple star system included in the DARTTS-S sample. Oddly, this new disc appears to be more evolved than the gas-rich disc around the T Tauri star in the same system, although they are the same age. The disc extends from the lower-left to the upper-right and the central grey region shows where the star was masked out. [Larger images]
Another new SPHERE observation is the discovery of an edge-on disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, found by the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey. This red star is a member of a multiple star system also included in the DARTTS-S sample but, oddly, this new disc appears to be more evolved than the gas-rich disc around the T Tauri star in the same system, although they are the same age. This puzzling difference in the evolutionary timescales of discs around two stars of the same age is another reason why astronomers are keen to find out more about discs and their characteristics.

Astronomers have used SPHERE to obtain many other impressive images, as well as for other studies including the interaction of a planet with a disc, the orbital motions within a system, and the time evolution of a disc.

The new results from SPHERE, along with data from other telescopes such as ALMA, are revolutionising astronomers’ understanding of the environments around young stars and the complex mechanisms of planetary formation.

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Videos: TESS to search nearby stars for exoplanets + Using AI to find exoplanets

The space telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is set to be launched on April 16th on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. TESS will continue the hunt for planets orbiting other stars as the Kepler exoplanet hunter‘s mission comes to an end.

NASA Prepares to Launch Next Mission to Search Sky for New Worlds

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is undergoing final preparations in Florida for its April 16 launch to find undiscovered worlds around nearby stars, providing targets where future studies will assess their capacity to harbor life.

“One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an astronomer finds a planet in a star’s habitable zone, will it be interesting from a biologist’s point of view?” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge, which is leading the mission. “We expect TESS will discover a number of planets whose atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life, could be precisely measured by future observers.”

On March 15, the spacecraft passed a review that confirmed it was ready for launch. For final launch preparations, the spacecraft will be fueled and encapsulated within the payload fairing of its SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

TESS will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. With the help of a gravitational assist from the Moon, the spacecraft will settle into a 13.7-day orbit around Earth. Sixty days after launch, and following tests of its instruments, the satellite will begin its initial two-year mission.

At a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., astrophysics experts discussed the upcoming launch of NASA’s next planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

Four wide-field cameras will give TESS a field-of-view that covers 85 percent of our entire sky. Within this vast visual perspective, the sky has been divided into 26 sectors that TESS will observe one by one. The first year of observations will map the 13 sectors encompassing the southern sky, and the second year will map the 13 sectors of the northern sky.

The spacecraft will be looking for a phenomenon known as a transit, where a planet passes in front of its star, causing a periodic and regular dip in the star’s brightness. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft used the same method to spot more than 2,600 confirmed exoplanets, most of them orbiting faint stars 300 to 3,000 light-years away

“We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. “TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds whose properties can be probed by NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and other missions.”

TESS will concentrate on stars less than 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s targets. The brightness of these target stars will allow researchers to use spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light, to determine a planet’s mass, density and atmospheric composition. Water, and other key molecules, in its atmosphere can give us hints about a planets’ capacity to harbor life.

“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages the mission. “We’re going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Through the TESS Guest Investigator Program, the worldwide scientific community will be able to participate in investigations outside of TESS’s core mission, enhancing and maximizing the science return from the mission in areas ranging from exoplanet characterization to stellar astrophysics and solar system science.

“I don’t think we know everything TESS is going to accomplish,” Rinehart said. “To me, the most exciting part of any mission is the unexpected result, the one that nobody saw coming.”

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT and managed by Goddard. George Ricker, of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, serves as principal investigator for the mission. TESS’s four wide-field cameras were developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

For more information on TESS, go to: https://www.nasa.gov/tess

Chris Shallue of Google and Dr. Jeffrey Smith of the SETI Institute discuss using artificial intelligence (AI) techniques for locating and analyzing exoplanets:

From the caption:

To uncover the mysteries of the universe, astronomers are becoming greedy, making more observations than they can possibly analyze manually. Large photometric surveys from space telescopes like Kepler and the future TESS are no exception and today modern astronomers use artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to help them reveal the existence of exoplanets hidden in many years of observations of hundreds of thousands of stars.

For this SETI Talk, we invited two researchers involved in the Kepler mission and AI to discuss the potential of neural networks to transform astronomy.

Jeff Smith, Data scientist at the SETI Institute, has developed data processing and planet detection algorithms for Kepler since 2010 and is now involved in developing the pipeline for the future TESS mission.

Chris Shallue, a senior software engineer at Google AI has used a neural network to analyze archival data from the Kepler Space Telescope to reveal the existence of two unknown exoplanets, named Kepler-90i and Kepler-80g. After presenting their recent work, we will discuss the impact of this new mode of scientific discovery, where artificial intelligence can assist humans in mapping out parts of the galaxy that have not yet been fully revealed.

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