Issue 15 - May 2015
NASA has selected six scientists as recipients of the 2015 Carl Sagan Exoplanet Postdoctoral Fellowships.
Significant discoveries and advances have already been made by previous Sagan Fellows. Recent science results from the fellows include the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system, and images of exoplanets obtained with an Earth-based telescope using the same type of imaging sensor found in digital cameras.
Meet the 2015 Sagan Fellow and read the full press release here....
After a year and a half, the direct imaging probe studies have been completed and their results publicly released in two final reports. In 2013, NASA commissioned two Science and Technology Definition Teams (STDTs) to examine the feasibility of developing exoplanet direct imaging missions with compelling science, ready to start in 2017, and targeted at $1B. One STDT--chaired by Karl Stapelfeldt (GSFC)--addressed a space telescope with a coronagraph design (Exo-C), while the other STDT--led by Sara Seager (MIT)--examined the starshade mission concept (Exo-S). Engineering support for the studies was provided by JPL. Both teams successfully met their objectives.
Read more about the work of both the coronagraph and starshade teams here....
The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope-Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (WFIRST-AFTA) Science Definition Team (SDT) was selected and chartered by the NASA Astrophysics Division in July 2013 to develop the AFTA Design Reference Mission. Under the leadership of David Spergel and Neil Gehrels, the team--consisting of Charles Baltay, Dave Bennett, James Breckinridge, Megan Donahue, Alan Dressler, Scott Gaudi, Tom Greene, Olivier Guyon, Chris Hirata, Jason Kalirai, Jeremy Kasdin, Bruce Macintosh, Warren Moos, Saul Perlmutter, Marc Postman, Bernie Rauscher, Jason Rhodes, Yun Wang, and David Weinberg--worked together with the WFIRST Study Team over the last two years to develop their 2015 Final Report, which has recently been released to the public. It is the result of an in-depth study into how the transfer of the 2.4-meter AFTA to NASA will enable a truly compelling version of the WFIRST, the top-priority space mission identified in the 2010 National Academy of Sciences' decadal survey, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the maturation of exoplanet direct imaging technology and exoplanet precursor science.
Read more here....
It was nearly a year ago that the Kepler spacecraft made a comeback after a technical setback: the loss of its ultra precise pointing capability. Revived as the K2 mission, now in its fifth observing campaign, the spacecraft continues to operate beautifully.
K2 began Campaign 5 on April 26. The observation targets include more than 25,000 stars, which can be searched for exoplanets and examined for a variety of astrophysical phenomena. The field of study also includes M67, an open cluster home to thousands of stars younger than our sun and 2002 YH140, a dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune. The field is in the direction of the constellation Cancer.
Data collected for Campaigns 0, 1 and 2 have been made available to the public through the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST). Campaign 3 data are scheduled for delivery to MAST in June 2015 and Campaign 4 data will be processed with a delivery to MAST planned for August 2015.
Read the whole Mission Manager Update here....
The Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI), P.I. Phil Hinz, University of Arizona, has made tremendous progress in instrument performance over the last year. We have demonstrated null calibration at the 500 ppm level for a bright (7 Jy) star. For the spectral type of that particular star (A3V), this translates to 8 "zodi" sensitivity, or 15 zodi if it had been a star like the Sun located at 10 pc.
Pending the recommendations of an Operational Readiness Review being held this spring, the project expects to begin the NASA exozodi survey (HOSTS, or Hunt for Observable Signatures of Terrestrial Systems) in Fall 2015 (as soon as the Summer Monsoon season ends) and to continue for a minimum of two years. At the same time, further instrument improvements will be implemented during the first year of operations, with a goal of achieving a typical sensitivity of 6 zodi for the HOSTS target list.
Meanwhile, three papers have been published by the HOSTS Science Team: on the exozodi survey target list (Weinberger et al., ApJ, 2015), on the modeling and interpretation of LBTI nulling observables (Kennedy et al., ApJ, 2015), and on the first exozodi detection by LBTI, for the well-studied object eta Corvi (Defrere et al, ApJ, 2015).
The search for life is accelerating! The science, the search, and the studies each gained ground recently.
Science. Two events stand out for me. First, at the "Life in the Universe" symposium at the Earth-Life Science Institute of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, we heard a lot about the possibilities of life on other planets, and the means for detecting it, but the talk that surprised me the most was by Nicholas Hud (Georgia Tech) who championed the idea that proto-RNA molecules could have self-assembled themselves on the exposed surface of the early Earth through the daily cycle of hydrating from a local puddle of water, solar heating, and subsequent drying out; if correct, this means that life could start under fairly ordinary circumstances on a suitable planet. Second, John Sutherland (University of Cambridge) finds a chemical pathway to the origin of RNA and the materials for a cell, using ingredients that were probably present on the early Earth: hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and UV light, reported in http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v7/n4/full/nchem.2202.html.
For more updates about the enabling the search for exoplanets and mission studies, read more here....
Planet-finding surveys have revealed thousands of confirmed exoplanets and candidates awaiting verification. Many of these objects were discovered indirectly using the transit technique, which is a powerful tool that has transformed our understanding of planetary system architecture. Furthermore, this technique has provided extraordinary insights into some of these planets' atmospheres, thus revealing unexpected discoveries and altering our perspective of these worlds.
As a Sagan Fellow, it is my goal to better understand the nature and diversity of exoplanets through atmospheric characterization. Using ground- and space-based telescopes to spectroscopically determine their atmospheric compositions, thermal structures, and chemical properties, I am pursuing answers to some of the most fundamental questions that are influencing the current trajectory of our field.
My latest research includes measuring the first spectroscopic phase curve of an exoplanet (http://astro.uchicago.edu/~kbs/wasp43b.html, http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.2241) and disproving the existence of a strong thermal inversion in the atmosphere of the exoplanet archetype HD 209458b (http://arxiv.org/abs/1409.5336). To learn more about my research, please visit http://astro.uchicago.edu/~kbs/.
The high quality data available from Kepler unveils not only the variability during transit (primary eclipse) and secondary eclipse, but for the first time also the variability throughout the entire orbital phase of star-planet systems and stellar binaries. My research is focused on studying Kepler's visible-light phase curves which contain information about the companion's atmosphere and the tidal interaction between the two objects. In addition I am using orbital phase modulations to detect non-eclipsing systems. The sensitivity to non-eclipsing systems in combination with the availability of data for a large number of stars from Kepler (and K2) allows to detect intrinsically rare objects, like short period brown dwarf and white dwarf companions. A more detailed description of my work is available on my homepage: http://web.gps.caltech.edu/~shporer/
The public has been enthusiastically tuning into the hunt for exoplanets. They are fascinated with the stunning work of the community--from discovery, to characterization, to the amazing possibilities the future holds. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star, we turn our focus to the search for another Earth. In April, ExEP Public Engagement supported NASA Earth Day activities in Washington, DC. A few hundred thousand people attended these events, learning about exoplanets through a whole new lens. The Public Engagement office unveiled a brand-new interactive demonstration explaining how NASA uses transit spectroscopy to characterize exoplanets in our search for another Earth. Using diffraction grating and an "atmosphere" made from didymium glass, the public viewed a simulated transit of planet with a sodium atmosphere.
The coming months hold a bounty of opportunities for the exoplanet community to come together in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first exoplanet discovered around a main sequence star. We would love to hear from you about any plans you may have--and would be overjoyed to partner in any events we are having, or that you may be considering. Please contact Anya Biferno at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or with any questions. The Public Engagement office will send out an update on the plans for this anniversary soon.
In January, the Exoplanet Exploration Program Office debuted three new images at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) winter meeting held in Seattle, Washington. The images were an instant hit and continue to be in high demand. They have made appearances in news outlets, TED talks, exhibit areas, television shows, and across all social media platforms.
The Program Office is proud to acknowledge the creators of these images, Joseph Harris, David Delgado, and Dan Goods, resident artists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Three new poster concepts are in the works, so stay tuned!
You can download these images for print by visiting the Exoplanet Travel Bureau website.