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Issue 9 - January 2013


  1. Wild Winter of Exo News
  2. Geniuses, Prize Papers, and More as we Head to the Harbor
  3. Tech Triumphs: Quite the Contrast in Starlight Suppression
  4. Past its Prime, Kepler still Kicking: 120 Confirmed and Counting
  5. AFTA the Storm: New Study, New Name, New Committee
  6. LBTI Sensitive to Dust-and Its a Good Thing!
  7. NExSci Hosts Sagan Fellow Confab, 29 Share Latest on Exos
  8. For MagAO, Seeing is Believing
  9. Using 18,000 Processors to Stir the Digital Pot
  10. Planet-Hunting In Pajamas
  11. ExoToon: Planetary Migration for Dummies

1. Wild Winter of Exo News

Photo of Gary Blackwood
By Gary Blackwood, Manager, Exoplanet Exploration Program Office

Dear Exoplaneteers,

The past few months have been very busy in the Exoplanet Exploration Program! Kepler released all data up to Quarter 13 to the public, with over a half-million light curves and target pixel files available to the general astronomical community. Kepler also began a four-year extended mission to complete the determination of the frequency of Earth-like planets in our corner of the galaxy. Read More...

2. Geniuses, Prize Papers, and More as we Head to the Harbor

Photo of Wes Traub
By Wes Traub and Steve Unwin

In a wonderful surprise, the Geneva planet-hunters announced their discovery of an Earth-mass planet orbiting alpha Cen B, a member of the triple system that, at 1.3 pc, is our nearest bright-star neighbor. The planet, alpha Cen Bb, has an m*sin(i) value of 1.13 Earths, and a period of 3.2 days, so it is certainly terrestrial, but it is not habitable-zone material. The detection was made with the HARPS spectrograph in Chile, measuring an amazingly small semi-amplitude of 0.51 m/s. See for details. Read More...

3. Tech Triumphs: Quite the Contrast in Starlight Suppression

By Peter Lawson
Artist concept of Kepler spacecraft.

This past quarter saw remarkable progress in starlight suppression technology, demonstrated across several fronts. At JPL, in the original High Contrast Imaging Testbed (HCIT-1), Gene Serabyn obtained narrow-band contrasts less than 1 x 10-9 with the vector vortex coronagraph. In the new HCIT-2, and also in narrow-band light, Olivier Guyon and collaborators reached 6 x 10-10 with the Phase Induced Amplitude Apodization (PIAA) coronagraph. Moreover, Mark Clampin at NASA/GSFC reached 3 x 10-9 contrast monochromatically with the Visible Nulling Coronagraph. These each represent about an order of magnitude improvement in performance over where they were a year ago. Read More...

4. Past its Prime, Kepler still Kicking: 120 Confirmed and Counting

By Steve Howell and Nick Gautier

On 14 November 2012, Kepler marked two milestones in the search for planets like Earth: the successful completion of the Kepler Space Telescope's 3.5- year prime mission, and the beginning of Kepler's extended mission that could last as long as four years. Read More...

5. AFTA the Storm: New Study, New Name, New Committee

By Steve Howell and Neil Gehrels
panorama of conference

We are starting a new study of WFIRST with a new committee. This version of the mission is called AFTA-WFIRST (Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets - Wide Field InfraRed Space Telescope). Now that is a mouthful! The purpose of this study is to consider a version of the mission utilizing one of two 2.4m telescopes given to NASA by the Naval Reconnaissance Office. The committee, chosen by NASA HQ, is chaired by Neil Gehrels and David Spergel with prominent members from the dark energy, IR surveys and exoplanet communities (see membership list on the WFIRST web site: See a panoramic picture of the SDT committee below at the first meeting Nov 19-20 at Goddard.

The SDT will meet 3 times and have weekly telecons. One aspect of the study will be to assess adding an optional coronagraph to the WFIRST payload complement. The report is due in April 2013.

6. LBTI Sensitive to Dust-and Its a Good Thing!

By Rafael Millan-Gabet

The new observing season has started well for the Large Binocular Telescope (LBTI, Principal Investigator Phil Hinz - University of Arizona). Clear nights during two runs in September and October-November 2012 enabled the LBTI team to demonstrate several critical commissioning milestones. Most significantly, the first on-sky nulling data were obtained! These first nulling observations were obtained "open-loop", in other words, not yet tracking and correcting for the fast-changing optical path differences induced by Earth's atmosphere. Nevertheless, these early nulling trials indicate very encouraging levels of exozodi sensitivity. The next observing runs are planned for February, May and July 2013. During these runs, final commissioning tasks will take place, while early exozodi key science gradually begins. The NASA-LBTI exozodi science team is busy preparing optimum target lists for the survey, and assisting in analyzing the commissioning data.

7. NExSci Hosts Sagan Fellow Confab, 29 Share Latest on Exos

By Dawn Gelino

The NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) hosted the Sagan/Michelson Fellows Symposium on November 8-9, 2012 at Caltech. The symposium featured 29 current and past Sagan/Michelson graduate student and postdoctoral fellows, who presented their current research results and highlighted many of their cutting-edge efforts. The symposium also included a panel on Career Paths and Transitions, as well as two keynote speakers: Professor Peter Goldreich (Caltech and the Institute of Advanced Study), who talked about ancient impacts; and Professor John Grotzinger (Caltech), the project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, who spoke on early results from the Mars Science Lab and Curiosity Rover.

8. For MagAO, Seeing is Believing

By Katie Morzinski, Sagan Fellow, University of Arizona
Photo of Kaie Morzinski

Only a handful of exoplanets have been directly imaged, mostly with adaptive optics providing a sharper image to reveal the planet close to its host star. As a Sagan Fellow, I am part of the team developing Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) for the 6.5-meter Magellan Clay telescope at Las Campanas Observatory. MagAO is unique in having broad wavelength coverage at high spatial resolution. This allows me to analyze exoplanets in visible and infrared light, giving us better leverage on understanding the composition, chemical equilibrium, and dynamics of their atmospheres. I am writing this from Chile at the end of our first commissioning run, which has been a great success and allowed me to make important strides toward understanding exoplanet atmospheres. We blog at -- check it out for our latest results! For more on my research, see my website at

9. Using 18,000 Processors to Stir the Digital Pot

By Wladimir Lyra, Sagan Fellow, JPL
Photo of Bryce Croll

Have you ever wondered how did the Earth come to be? Virtually every culture known to anthropology has at some point tried to answer this question. In modern times this quest has been stirred up by the discovery of the roughly 1000 exoplanets known to date; the vast majority of these lying in planetary systems remarkably different from our own. A major goal of my research is to understand this diversity, while at the same time tracing back our own origin. I do it by reconstructing simulated models of the conditions that existed in the Solar Nebula and related protoplanetary disks, building a digital laboratory to study the processes taking place during planet formation. For this, we harness the full power of modern computers. For instance, we have recently published results on the excitation of planet-forming whirlpools in protoplanetary disks, in a model calculated using over 18,000 processors. Eighteen thousand! That's the highest processor count used in a published astrophysical simulation to date (in comparison, the celebrated Millennium simulation was done using 512 processors). In addition to building next-generation models of accretion disks and planet formation, my Sagan research has uncovered a mechanism to produce the puzzling rings seen in debris disks even without planets, a result that has exciting implications for the ongoing controversy over Fomalhaut b. More on my research can be found on my website.

10. Planet-Hunting In Pajamas

By Michael Greene
Eyes on the Exoplanets

The Exoplanet Exploration EPO Program is collaborating with Zooniverse on their citizen science initiative, which allows individuals from around the world to discover exoplanets using the Kepler database of light curves. Through the collaboration, Zooniverse will produce an Educator's Guide to using PlanetHunters, design a field-trip around transits and the PlanetHunters site, to be run at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and several web upgrades will be accomplished including an updated interface and a mobile site. For more information, see the following links:

11. ExoToon: Planetary Migration for Dummies

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 4, 2013 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 6. 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: Gary Blackwood, Wesley Traub.
Editor: Carolyn Brinkworth, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute,
Cartoonist: Stephen Kane, IPAC
Written Contributions: Gary Blackwood, JPL; Wesley Traub, JPL; Steve Unwin, JPL; Peter Lawson, JPL; Steve Howell, NASA Ames; Dawn Gelino, NExScI; Neil Gehrels, Goddard Space Flight Center; Rafael Millan-Gabet, JPL; Nick Gautier, JPL; Wladimir Lyra, JPL; Katie Morzinski, University of Arizona; Michael Greene, JPL
Design and Technical Support: Michael Greene, JPL; Randal Jackson, JPL; Joshua Rodriguez, JPL; Raytheon Web Solutions.
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AAS Winter Meeting - January 6-10
Location: Long Beach, California
Exoplanets in Multi-body Systems in the Kepler Era - February 9-16
Location: Aspen, Colorado
From Stars to Life: Connecting our understanding of star formation, planet formation, astrochemistry and astrobiology - April 3-6
Location: Gainesville, FL
Ice and Planet Formation - May 15-17
Location: Lund Observatory, Sweden
Characterising exoplanets: detection, formation, interiors, atmospheres and habitability - March 11-12
Location: London, UK
Transformational Science with ALMA: From Dust to Rocks to Planet Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems - April 8-12
Location: Big Island, HI
Habitable Worlds Across Time and Space - Apr 29 - May 2
Location: STScI, Baltimore, MD
From Exoplanets to Distant Galaxies: SPICA's New Window on the Cool Universe - Jun 18-21
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Protostars and Planets VI - Jul 15-20
Location: Heidelburg, Germany
Dust Growth in Star & Planet Formation 2013 - Jul 22-25
Location: Heidelburg, Germany
2013 Sagan Summer Workshop: Imaging Planets and Disks - Jul 29 - Aug 2
Location: Pasadena, CA


December 19, 2012
Tau Ceti's planets nearest around single, Sun-like star
November 28, 2012
Flickering Stars: Could Aliens Be Sending Us Signals?
November 24, 2012
Catching up with the 'Planet Hunter' Geoff Marcy
NY Times
November 21, 2012
Dwarf planet Makemake examined for the first time
November 14, 2012
'Rogue planet' spotted 100 light years away
November 8, 2012
'Super-Earth' exoplanet spotted 42 light years away
October 23, 2012
Celestial mechanics: The "three body problem"
October 17, 2012
Exoplanet around Alpha Centauri is nearest-ever
October 15, 2012
Planet with four suns discovered by volunteers


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