Sadly, we start our update this quarter with the news that David Koch, Deputy PI for Kepler, passed away on 12 September, from complications of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, at his home in Milwaukee. Many of the qualities that make the Kepler mission such a success are due to Dave’s foresight and diligence. We send our sincere condolences to his family and friends – he will be missed.
Turning to future mission planning, the excitement over the 2.4-m telescopes recently donated to NASA was made evident at a 3-day meeting at Princeton University, hosted by David Spergel. Although the discussions centered around WFIRST science, a coronagraph option was also discussed (as requested by NASA HQ). See the program with links to talks on the meeting website. The general feeling at this meeting was that the 2.4-m WFIRST configuration could be an extremely positive step for astrophysics. The mood was quite upbeat.
A Science Definition Team (SDT) will be formed to assess the possible scientific use of a 2.4-m telescope for advancing the science priorities of the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey. See http://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/ for details. The deadline for application to join that team has passed (19 Sept.), but input from the community is important, so we should all talk with those on the SDT about our wishes for this potential mission. Since the SDT is being asked to assess a coronagraph option for 2.4-m WFIRST, it is especially important for the exoplanet community to be heard. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we should all unite behind the coronagraph option for a 2.4-m WFIRST.
The IAU General Assembly was held in Beijing in August, with the second week featuring IAU Symposium 293, “Formation, Detection, and Characterization of Extrasolar Habitable Planets”, organized by Nader Haghighipour. The program is at http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/iau293/index.html , and a conference proceedings book is expected to be available in a few months.
There has been a rush of new exoplanet results in the news and the journals recently. An unexpected double-double, Kepler-47, was announced by Jerome Orosz et al. at IAU Symposium 293. The system is a 7.5-day binary star with 2 planets in 50- and 303-day orbits around the pair. Kepler continues to amaze us. (press release)
The idea that a highly-eccentric planet might be able to have a temperature range that allows life to flourish was studied by Stephen Kane and Dawn Gelino (news, paper).
Another surprise was the discovery by Samuel Quinn et al. of two planetary systems in an open cluster, where planets have been searched for but none yet found. (press release, paper)
Unusual planet-star pairings seem to be the rule these days, but this one deserves notice. Julian van Eyken et al. found a hot Jupiter (~5 M_J) in a very short period orbit (0.4 day) around a young (~3 Myr), small (~0.4 M_Sun) star, remarkable in that the planet is massive but the star is not, that the planet must have formed and migrated very quickly, and that the planet may be currently evaporating. (paper)
A “disintegrating planet” has been spotted by Kepler. M. Brogi et al. discuss the time-varying transit signal, presumably generated by a fluctuating dust cloud eroded from the surface of the planet. Not a good place to call home. (news, paper)
Science magazine reports on a new type of conference, held in Boulder, CO in June, that brought together Earth and planetary scientists to search for a common ground of understanding. The attendees believe that more can be learned about Earth by studying exoplanets, and vice versa. (article)
In a finding that suggests that small planets may be widespread in the Galaxy, Kepler data shows that small planets tend to form around stars with a wide variety of metallicities (but on the average solar-like), whereas giant planets tend to form around stars with higher metallicities. Click through for the paper by Lars Buchhave et al. and a commentary by Debra Fischer.
Moving off the topic of exoplanets, and into education: if you have ever wondered if algebra is really necessary for educated man or woman, look at this article in the Sunday New York Times.
Finally, the science fiction pieces on the last page of each week’s Nature are worth spending a minute reading. Here is one, “If Only” to send to any anti-science folks you might know, and for any fan of love stories look at “Love Among the Stars”.