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Issue 5 - January 2012


  1. Warming up for Winter AAS
  2. Planetary Powow: KepCon a Big Success
  3. Can't Stop the Survey: Kepler Data Keeps Coming
  4. First Conference on Deck for WFIRST
  5. LBTI Has Its Eyes on the Sky
  6. Community Call-age: NExScI's KepCon Follow-up
  7. Searching for SuperFriends
  8. Grasping at Ghosts: Adventures in Exoplanet Imaging
  9. Don't Mess with ExEP (at the Austin AAS)
  10. A New View of PQ
  11. ExoToon: Social Media for Scientists

1. Warming up for Winter AAS

Photo of Michael Devirian
By Michael Devirian

Dear Exoplaneteers,

Here on the brink of the 2012 Winter AAS meeting, we are awash in new scientific results in exoplanets, especially from the December 2011 Kepler Science Conference (see writeup later in this newsletter). The AAS meeting features quite a number of exoplanet events and session, which we have summarized here: Exoplanet AAS Events. Also very good news, the two candidate Explorer missions recently selected for definition are both exoplanet missions. WFIRST continues to refine its Design Reference Mission, to be completed later in 2012. Now, our attention is fixed firmly on preparing for the future, and securing a spot in NASA's portfolio for the next generation of exoplanet missions. Read More...

2. Planetary Powow: KepCon a Big Success

Photo of Wes Traub
By Wes Traub

The Kepler Science Conference on 5-9 Dec. 2011 was the big event this quarter. The meeting inspired many news reports, including a full page article on planet hunting in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye on the eve of the meeting.The conference was attended by over 400 astronomers from around the world. Here is a personal bullet list of topics from the meeting:

The Kepler project announced the discovery of Kepler-22b, a 2.5 Earth-radii sized planet located within the habitable zone of its host star. The planet has an orbital period of 298 and orbits a Sun-like star.

The first two confirmed Earth-size planets from the Kepler mission were published, Kepler-20 e and f, in 6-day and 20-day orbits, respectively. Remarkably, each of these has a Neptune-size planet as a nearest neighbor, making the 5-planet system definitely different than the Solar System. Read More...

Members of the UV astrophysics community met in early Dec. at a workshop sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS, to develop ideas for UV technology, including a focus on wide band coatings for telescope mirrors for the 100-1100nm range that could be used on a joint Exoplanet-UV mission for direct imaging of exoplanets and UV astrophysics, and a focus on wide band detectors for the same type of mission.

3. Can't Stop the Survey: Kepler Data Keeps Coming

By Nick Gautier
Artist concept of spacecraft.

Kepler continues normal operations, gathering data in the 11th quarter of its exoplanet survey. Kepler has now found more than 2300 exoplanet candidates around more than 1800 stars. Eighty-five percent of these candidates are expected to be real planets. The Kepler team has now confirmed more than 30 of these candidates as true planets.

The exoplanet survey data for quarters 4, 5 and 6 will be publicly released in January with 3 more quarters following in July.

4. First Conference on Deck for WFIRST

By Neil Gehrels

The WFIRST mission team is made up of the Project Offices at Goddard and JPL and the community Science Definition Team ( With the interim mission design and report complete, the team is now assessing capabilities of the ESA Euclid mission for dark energy. Another activity is planning for the "Science with a Wide-field Infrared Telescope in Space" conference that will be held at IPAC on February 13-17, 2012. This will be an opportunity for community discussions about WFIRST science and should be a fun meeting!

5. LBTI Has Its Eyes on the Sky


The Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI, Principal Investigator Phil Hinz - University of Arizona) continues its commissioning activities. The most recent commissioning run was four nights, from November 11 through 15, 2011. Unfortunately, three of the nights were lost to bad weather. The mid-infrared N-band camera (NIC) is now installed at the telescope and ready for sky time. Shared risk observations were conducted with the L-band camera (LMIRCam, NSF-funded). The next commissioning run will take place November 30 through December 5, 2011. Full LBTI operations in Nuller mode are expected to start in Spring 2012, beginning with the execution of the exo-zodi characterization Key Science Program, led by P.I. Phil Hinz. It is anticipated that the program will include interested members of the exo-planet community via a call for participation to be issued in Early 2012.

6. Community Call-age: NExScI's KepCon Follow-up

By Dawn Gelino
Kepler 16 image

NExScI supported the much-reported First Science Kepler Conference, held at the NASA Ames Research Center from Dec 5 - 9. The conference's 500 registrants listened to new exoplanet announcements, as well as talks on the full range of scientific results that have emerged from more than two years of Kepler observations and what to expect from continued observations. As part of the conference, NExScI hosted a working lunch presentation, "Support for Community Involvement in Kepler for Follow-up Observing and the Extended Mission," as well as a static booth with information on the Sagan Fellowships, Sagan Summer Workshops, NASA Keck time, the Keck Observatory Archive, and the launch of the new NASA Exoplanet Archive. If you are interested in being part of the Kepler community follow-up, please email: For more information on the conference, and to watch the talks posted online, see

7. Searching for SuperFriends

By Diana Valencia, Sagan Fellow
Diana Valencia

In the search for a habitable planet, super-Earths are excellent candidates. With masses between 1-10 earth-masses and sizes of a few Earth radii, they might share some of Earth's important characteristics that make it habitable, while at the same time being easier to discover and study. However, it is unclear which ones are scaled up versions of Earth and which ones are down-sized versions of Neptune. My work focuses on answering this question by first determining their composition from their measured mass and radius, and then tying it to formation process such as atmospheric evaporation. So far we have seen two families of planets: the warm mini-Neptunes such as GJ 1214b, and the hot super-Mercuries like CoRoT-7b and Kepler-10b. Furthermore, I study the evolutionary pathways that make a planet habitable by investigating their dynamic interior and its connection to the planet's atmosphere. One result is that these planets can sustain plate tectonics and hence have the possibility to regulate surface temperature around that of liquid water for over billions of years, in a similar fashion to Earth. Ultimately, the goal is to map the evolutionary pathways that make a planet habitable and understand what sets the threshold between a rocky super-Earth and a mini-Neptune.

For more information, see Diana's website at

8. Grasping at Ghosts: Adventures in Exoplanet Imaging

By Laurent Pueyo, Sagan Fellow
HR 8799 system

Capturing images of exo-planetary systems orbiting nearby stars is an ambitious endeavor that requires finely tuned high-contrast instruments to operate in unison with sophisticated image analysis methods. My research leads me to investigate these two aspects of high-contrast imaging, a technique that will help constrain the known exo-planetary population in a regime difficult to reach using indirect observations. Our team at STScI, composed of former Michelson Fellow Remi Soummer, three students and myself, recently conducted a meticulous analysis of HST-NICMOS archival data and successfully recovered the location of the three outermost planets orbiting around HR8799 ( Combining this 1998 epoch with the discovery data from 2008 allowed us to constrain the orbital motion in this multiple system ( We are now working on applying this method to the entire HST NICMOS archive, hoping to unravel more hidden planets and use this rich data-set as an astrometric time machine. In parallel, I am seeking to further characterize faint companions using ground based facilities, conducting in-situ low-resolution spectroscopy of sub-stellar objects orbiting nearby stars ( On the instrumentation side I am focusing on lessons learnt from research in high-contrast imaging to define instrument concepts for segmented telescopes. I presented preliminary results of this study at the recent Adaptive Optics for Extremely Large Telescopes conference in Victoria (BC). To summarize, this has been a very busy first year for me in Baltimore and I am looking forward to two more productive years as a Sagan Fellow.

9. Don't Mess with ExEP (at the Austin AAS)

By Anya Biferno

The Exoplanet Exploration Program will have a strong presence at this year's Winter AAS meeting in Austin, TX. Kepler, NExScI, WFIRST, the ExEP Technology program, and PlanetQuest have joined forces to create an island booth space devoted to exoplanets. Hardware and software will be on display and your favorite exoplanet scientists and engineers will be on hand to answer questions! Find us under the 20 foot star shade petal hanging from the ceiling! In addition to the exhibit, PlanetQuest will be participating in the "Connecting Scientists with NASA Astrophysics E/PO" splinter meeting held Thursday the 12th 9:30-11AM. We encourage anyone who wants to participate in E/PO or who already does participate in E/PO (yes, visits to your child's school count!) to stop by and check out the wonderful resources and amazing support offered by the NASA Astrophysics E/PO community.

10. A New View of PQ

By Joshua Rodriguez
new PlanetQuest website

The Exoplanet Exploration Program's public website, PlanetQuest, has undergone a major overhaul and has a dramatic new look and feel for 2012. Highlights include a comprehensive exoplanet image and video gallery, improved interactive and social features, and an in-depth education portal. Check out the new site at

11. Social Media for Scientists

This Issue's Comic

Think you can do better than our Exoplanet cartoon? We're accepting contributions! Please send your cartoons in pdf format, to The best submission received by March 1st 2012 will feature in the next edition of the Newsletter. Selection will be done by a very non-expert committee, comprised of anyone within 30ft of the editor's office on March 2nd. By submitting your work, you are giving us permission to use your cartoon (with credits) for any future edition of the NASA New Worlds News Newsletter. Please remember that, once emailed out to the mailing list, we have no control over what anyone else chooses to do with your work.


NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program Office: Michael Devirian, Wesley Traub.
Editor: Carolyn Brinkworth, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute,
Cartoonist: Randal Jackson, Alexander Novati (JPL)
Written Contributions: Michael Devirian, JPL; Wesley Traub, JPL; Neil Gehrels, Goddard Space Flight Center; Rafael Millan-Gabet, JPL; Nick Gautier, JPL; Dawn Gelino, Caltech; Laurent Pueyo, STSI; Diana Valencia, MIT/NASA Ames; Anya Biferno, JPL; Joshua Rodriguez, JPL
Design and Technical Support: Michael Greene, JPL; Randal Jackson, JPL; Joshua Rodriguez, JPL; Raytheon Web Solutions.
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ExoPAG Meeting - Jan 7-8
Location: Austin, Texas
AAS 219th Meeting - Jan 8-12
Location: Austin, Texas
ExoClimes 2012: the Diversity of Planetary Atmospheres - Jan 16-20
Location: Aspen, Colorado
Planets Around Stellar Remnants - Jan 23-27
Location: Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
Science with a Wide-field Infrared Telescope in Space and The 16th International Conference on Gravitational Microlensing - Feb 13-17
Location: Pasadena, California
Observing Planetary Systems II - March 5-8
Location: Santiago de Chile, ESO headquarters
STFC graduate course: Exoplanets and their host stars - March 12-16
Location: St. Anne's College, Oxford, UK
New Quests in Stellar Astrophysics. III. A Panchromatic View of Solar-like Stars, With and Without Planets - March 12-16
Location: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
From Atoms to Pebbles: Herschel's View of Star and Planet Formation - March 20-23
Location: Grenoble, France
Calibration and Standardization of Missions and Large Surveys in Astronomy and Astrophysics - April 16-19
Location: Fermilab, Batavia, Illinois
Transiting Planets in the House of the Sun - June 3-6
Location: Maui, HI
AAS 220th. Meeting - June 10-14
Location: Anchorage, AK
Nordic-NASA summer school "Water, Ice and the Origin of Life in the Universe" - July 2-15
Location: Reykjavik, Iceland
2012 Sagan Summer Workshop: Working with Exoplanet Light Curves - July 23-27
Location: Pasadena, CA


Oct. 11, 2011
New Proof That Comets Watered the Earth
Oct. 20, 2011
400 Trillion Miles Away, a Comet Storm Waters a World
Oct. 25, 2011
Found: A Watery Solar System Being Born -- and Clues to Earth's Creation
Nov. 7, 2011
Searching for the origins of life... and our future
BBC News
Nov. 14, 2011
Is Our Solar System Missing a Giant Planet?
Nov. 16, 2011
Jupiter moon Europa 'has shallow lakes'
Nov. 23, 2011
Most liveable alien worlds ranked
BBC News
Nov. 30, 2011
Anyone Out There? A New Way to Look for Alien Life
Dec. 5, 2011
Kepler 22-b: Earth-like planet confirmed
Dec. 20, 2011
First Earth-sized planets spotted
Dec. 21, 2011
The Really, Truly, Newest, Earthiest Planets Yet — Until the Next Ones
Dec. 29, 2011
Can a Planet Survive the Death of Its Sun? Scientists Find Two That Did


Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP)
PlanetQuest - Public Outreach Website
NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI)