Category: Exoplanets (page 1 of 13)

The Cosmos, As Viewed By The James Webb Space Telescope

The iconic “Pillars of Creation” image, on left, was taken in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. A new, near-infrared-light view from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, at right, helps us peer through more of the dust in this star-forming region. The thick, dusty brown pillars are no longer as opaque and many more red stars that are still forming come into view.  The pillars of gas and dust seem darker and less penetrable in Hubble’s view, and they appear more permeable in Webb’s. (NASA)

The James Webb Space Telescope was developed to allow us to see the cosmos in a new way — with much greater precision, using infrared wavelengths to piece through dust around galaxies, stars and planets, and to look further back into time and space.

In the less than four months since the first Webb images were released,  the pioneering telescope has certainly shown us a remarkable range of abilities.  And as a result, we’ve been treated to some dazzling new views of the solar system, the galaxy and beyond.  This is just the beginning and we thankfully have years to come of new images and the scientific insights that come with them.

Just as the Hubble Space Telescope, with its 32 years of service and counting, ushered in a new era of space imagining and understanding, so too is the Webb telescope revolutionizing how we see and understand our world writ large.  Very large.

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 during a flyby more than three decades ago, the Hubble Space Telescope last year, and the JWST this summer. ( NASA/ESA/CSA))

The differences between the Webb’s image and previous images of Neptune are certainly dramatic, in terms of color, precision and what they tell us about the planet.

Surely most striking in Webb’s new image is the crisp view of the planet’s rings, some of which have not been seen since NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during its flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows Neptune’s fainter, never-seen dust bands as well.

Neptune is an ice giant planet. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, which consist primarily of hydrogen and helium, Neptune has an interior that is much richer in heavier elements (“heavier is the sense of not hydrogen or helium.) One of the most abundant heavy molecules is methane, which appears blue in Hubble’s visible wavelengths but largely white in the Webb’s near-infrared camera.… Read more

How Planetary Orbits, in Our Solar System and Beyond, Can Affect Habitability

Varying degrees of orbital eccentricity around a central star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As scientists work to understand what might make a distant planet habitable, one factor that is getting attention is the shape of the planet’s orbit, how “eccentric” it might be.

It might seem that a perfect circular orbit would be ideal for habitability because it would provide stability, but a new model suggests that it is not necessarily the case.  The planet in question is our own and what the model shows is that if Jupiter’s orbit were to change in certain ways, our planet might become more fertile than it is.

The logic play out as follows:

When a planet has a perfectly circular orbit around its star, the distance between the star and the planet never changes and neither does the in-coming heat. But most planets — including our own — have eccentric orbits around their stars, making the orbits oval-shaped. When the planet gets closer to its star it receives more heat, affecting the climate.

Using multi-factored models based on data from the solar system as it is known today, University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers created an alternative solar system. In this theoretical system, they found that if Jupiter’s orbit were to become more eccentric, it would in turn produce big changes in the shape of Earth’s orbit.  Potentially for the better.

“If Jupiter’s position remained the same but the shape of its orbit changed, it could actually increase this planet’s habitability,” said Pam Vervoort, UCR Earth and planetary scientist and study lead author.

The paper upends two long-held scientific assumptions about our solar system, she said.

“Many are convinced that Earth is the epitome of a habitable planet and that any change in Jupiter’s orbit, being the massive planet it is, could only be bad for Earth,” Vervoort said in a release. “We show that both assumptions are wrong.”

Size comparison of Jupiter and Earth shows why any changes relating to the giant planet would have ripple effects. (NASA)

 

As she and colleagues report in the Astronomical Journal, if Jupiter pushed Earth’s orbit to become more eccentric based on its new gravitational pull, parts of the Earth would sometimes get closer to the sun.  As a results, parts of the Earth’s surface that are now sub-freezing would get warmer, increasing temperatures in the habitable range.

While the Earth-Jupiter connection is a focus of the paper and forms a relationship that’s not hard to understand, the thrust of the paper is modeling how similar kinds of exoplanet orbits and solar system relationships can affect habitability and the potential for life to emerge and prosper.… Read more

The Virtual Planetary Lab and Its Search for What Makes an Exoplanet Habitable, or Even Inhabited

As presented by the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, exoplanet habitability is a function of the interplay of processes between the planet, the planetary system, and host star.  These interactions govern the planet’s evolutionary trajectory, and have a larger and more diverse impact on a planet’s habitability than its position in a habitable zone. (Meadows and Barnes)

For more than two decades now, the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington in Seattle has been at the forefront of the crucial and ever-challenging effort to model how scientists can determine whether a particular exoplanet is capable of supporting life or perhaps even had life on it already.

To do this, VPL scientists have developed or combined models from many disciplines that characterize and predict a wide range of planetary, solar system and stellar attributes that could identify habitability, or could pretty conclusively say that a planet is not habitable.

These include the well known questions of whether water might be present and if so whether temperatures would allow it to be sometimes in a liquid state, but on to questions involving whether an atmosphere is present, what elements and compounds might be in the atmospheres, the possible orbital evolution of the planet, the composition of the host star and how it interacts with a particular orbiting planet and much, much more, as shown in the graphic above.

This is work that has played a significant role in advancing astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

More specifically, the VPL approach played a considerable part in building a body of science that ultimately led the Astro2020 Decadal Study of the National Academy of Sciences to recommend last year that the NASA develop its  first Flagship astrobiology project — a mission that will feature a huge space telescope able to study exoplanets for signs of biology in entirely new detail.  That mission, approved but not really defined yet, is not expected to launch until the 2040s.

With that plan actually beginning to move forward, the 132 VPL affiliated researchers at 28 institutions find themselves at another more current-day inflection point:  The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope has begun to collect and send back what will be a massive and unprecedented set of spectra  of chemicals from the atmospheres of distant planets.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory has modeled the workings of exoplanets since 2001, looking for ways to predict planetary conditions based on a broad range of measurable factors.

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The James Webb Space Telescope Begins Looking at Exoplanets

 

Artist rendering of Gliese (GJ) 436 b  is a Neptune-sized planet that orbits a red dwarf  star.  Red dwarfs are cooler, smaller, and less luminous than the Sun. The planet completes one full orbit around its parent star in just a little over 2 days. It is made, scientists say, of extremely hot ice.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCF)

The James Webb Space Telescope has begun the part of its mission to study the atmospheres of 70 exoplanets in ways, and at a depth, well beyond anything done so far.

The telescope is not likely to answer questions like whether there is life on distant planet — its infrared wavelengths will tell us about the presence of many chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres but little about the presence of the element most important to life on Earth, oxygen.

But it is nonetheless undertaking a broad study of many well-known exoplanets and is likely to produce many tantalizing results and suggest answers to central questions about exoplanets and their solar systems.

Many Worlds has earlier looked at the JWST “early release” program, under which groups are allocated user time on the telescope under the condition that they make their data public quickly.  That way other teams can understand better how JWST works and what might be possible.

Another program gives time to scientists who worked on the JWST mission and on its many instruments.  They are given guaranteed time as part of their work making JWST as innovative and capable as it is.

One of the scientist in this “guaranteed time observations program” is Thomas Greene, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center.  The groups he leads have been given 215 hours of observing time for this first year (or more) of Cycle 1 of JWST due to his many contributions to the JWST mission as well as his history of accomplishments.

In a conversation with Greene, I got a good sense of what he hopes to find and his delight at the opportunity.  After all, he said, he has worked on the JWST idea and then mission since 1997.

“We will be observing a diverse sample of exoplanets to understand more about them and their characteristics,” Greene said.  “Our goal is to get a better understanding of how exoplanets are similar to and different from those in our solar system.”

And the JWST spectra will tell them about the chemistry, the composition and the thermal conditions on those exoplanets, leading to insights into how they formed, diversified and evolved into planets often so unlike our own.Read more

The World’s Most Capable Space Telescope Readies To Observe. What Will Exoplanet Scientists Be Looking For?

This artist’s concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star.  The James Webb is expected to begin science observations this summer. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The decades-long process of developing, refining, testing, launching, unfurling and now aligning and calibrating the most capable space telescope in history is nearing fruition.  While NASA has already released a number of “first light” images of photons of light moving through the James Webb Space Telescope’s optical system, the  jaw-dropping “first light” that has all the mirrors up and running together to produce an actual scientific observation is a few months off.

Just as the building and evolution of the Webb has been going on for years, so has the planning and preparation for specific team observation “campaigns.”   Many of these pertain to the earliest days of the universe, of star and galaxy formation and other realms of cosmology,  but an unprecedented subset of exoplanet observations is also on its way.

Many Worlds earlier discussed the JWST Early Release Science Program, which involves observations of gigantic hot Jupiter planets to both learn about their atmospheres and as a way to collect data that will guide exoplanet scientists in using JWST instruments in the years ahead.

Now we’ll look at a number of specific JWST General Observation and Guarantreed Time efforts that are more specific and will collect brand new information about some of the major characteristics and mysteries of a representative subset of the at least 100 billion exoplanets in our galaxy.

This will be done by using three techniques including transmission spectroscopy — collecting and analyzing the light that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere as it passes in front of its Sun.  The JWST will bring unprecedented power to characterizing the wild diversity of exoplanets now known to exist; to the question of whether “cool” and dim red dwarf stars (by far the most common in the galaxy) can maintain atmospheres; to newly sensitive studies of the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres; and to the many possibilities of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, a seven rocky planet solar system that is relatively nearby.

An artist’s interpretation of GJ 1214b,one of a group of super-Earth to mini-Neptune sized planets to be studied in the JWST Cycle1 observations. The planet is known to be covered by a thick haze which scientists expect the JWST to pierce as never before and allow them to study atmospheric chemicals below.

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The James Webb Space Telescope And Its Exoplanet Mission (Part 1)

 

This artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in space shows all its major elements fully deployed. The telescope was folded to fit into its launch vehicle, and then was slowly unfolded over the course of two weeks after launch. (NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez)

 

The last time Many Worlds wrote about the James Webb Space Telescope, it was in the process of going through a high-stakes, super-complicated unfurling.  About 50 autonomous deployments needed to occur after launch to set up the huge system,  with 344 potential single point failures to overcome–individual steps that had to work for the mission to be a success.

That process finished a while back and now the pioneering observatory is going through a series of alignment and calibration tests, working with the images coming in from the 18 telescope segments to produce one singular image.

According to the Space Telescope Science Institute,  working images from JWST will start to appear in late June, though there may be some integrated  “first light” images slightly earlier.

Exciting times for sure as the observatory begins its study of the earliest times in the universe, how the first stars and galaxies formed, and providing a whole new level of precision exploration of exoplanets.

Adding to the very good news that the JWST successfully performed all the 344 necessary steps to unfurl and that the mirror calibration is now going well is this:  The launch itself went off almost exactly according to plan.  This means that the observatory now has much more fuel on hand than it would have had if the launch was problematic. That extra fuel means a longer life for the observatory.

 

NASA announced late last month that it completed another major step in its alignment process of the new James Webb Space Telescope, bringing its test images more into focus. The space agency said it completed the second and third of a seven-phase process, and had accomplished “Image Stacking.” Having brought the telescope’s mirror and its 18 segmented parts into proper alignment, it will now begin making smaller adjustments to the mirrors to further improve focus in the images. (NASA/STScI)

Before launch, the telescope was expected to last for five years.  Now NASA has said fuel is available for a ten year mission and perhaps longer.  Quite a start.

(A NASA update on alignment and calibration will be given on Wednesday. … Read more

More On The Very Hot Science of Stellar Flares and Their Implications For Habitability

A solar flare, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Among the many scientific fields born, or reborn, by the rise of astrobiology and its search for life beyond Earth is the study of stars, including our own Sun.  Now that we know that planets — from the large and gaseous to the small and rocky — are common in our galaxy and number in the many, many billions, there is suddenly vast amount of real estate where life potentially could arise.

We already know that many of those planets large and small are not candidates for habitability for any number of reasons, and that makes the understanding of what general conditions are required for life all the more pressing.

And as the astrobiological effort speeds ahead, it has become clear that the make-up, behavior and location of the stars that host exoplanets is central to that understanding.

Many stellar issues are suddenly important, and perhaps none more so than the nature, frequency and consequences of the constant stellar eruption of  flares, superflares and coronal mass ejections.

Created as intense bursts of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy following reconnections in stars’ coronas, flares and related coronal mass ejections are the largest explosive events in solar systems. The energy released by a major flare from our Sun is about a sixth of the total solar energy released each second and equal to 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT

The current focus of study is flares coming off red dwarf stars — much smaller and less energetic than our Sun, but the most common stars in the galaxy, by a lot.  Many are already known to have multiple rocky planets within a distance from the star termed the “habitable zone,” where in theory water could sometimes be liquid.

But red dwarf stars universally experience intense flaring in their early periods, and the planets orbiting in the those red dwarf habitable zones can be 20 times closer to their stars than we are to the Sun.

The crucial question is whether those flares forever sterilize the planets in their systems, which is certainly a possibility.  But a related question is whether the flares might also deliver amounts of ultraviolet radiation that may be essential to the formation of the chemical building blocks of life.

Not surprisingly, this is a subject of not only intense study but of heated debate as well.

Violent stellar flares from young red dwarf stars, as illustrated here, could potentially evaporate the atmosphere of a planet.

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The Amazing Unfurling Of The James Webb Space Telescope

The last view of the JWST and its unfurled solar arrays after it separated from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and started it’s month-long and extraordinarily complicated deployment. (NASA)

Over the next three weeks-plus, the James Webb Space Telescope will play out an unfurling and deployment in deep space unlike anything this world has seen before.

It took decades to perfect the observatory — a segmented telescope on a heat shield  the length of a tennis court that was squeezed for launch into a rocket payload compartment less than 30 feet in diameter.  The unfurling has begun and will continue over 25 more days, with 50 major deployments and 178 release mechanisms to set the pieces free.

The process has been likened to the undoing of an origami creation, or like the opening of a massive, many-featured Swiss army knife but without a human to pull the parts out.

Adding to the stress of these days,  the JWST will be much further out into space than the Hubble Space Telescope, which is in a very close orbit around the Earth at an altitude of about 340 miles.  The JWST will be over 930,000 miles away from Earth at the stable orbital point called the second Lagrange point 2 (L2) — way too far away for any manual fixes or upgrades like the ones accomplished by astronauts for the Hubble.

Four days after liftoff, the observatory has unfurled some of its solar panels, has deployed some of the pallet that will hold the sunshield and has extended the tower assembly about 6 feet from its storage space.   Here is a video from the Goddard Space Flight Center illustrating all the steps needed to make JWST whole:

 

And here is a more detailed depiction of the many stages of deployment, what is being deployed and how.

JWST will  have the largest telescope mirror ever sent into space — 21 feet in diameter compared with the Hubble’s 8-foot diameter.  Because it is so large, it had to be divided into 18 hexagonal segments of the lightweight element beryllium, each one roughly the size of a coffee table. Together, the segments must align almost perfectly, moving in alignment within a fraction of a wavelength of light.

Webb mission systems engineer Mike Menzel, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a deployment-explaining video called “29 Days on the Edge” that every single releases and deployment must work.… Read more

What The James Webb Space Telescope Can Do For Exoplanet Science and What It Cannot Do

The James Webb Space Telescope, as rendered by an artist. The telescope is scheduled to launch later this month. (NASA)

When the James Webb Space Telescope finally launches (late this month, if the schedule holds) it will forever change astronomy.

Assuming that its complex, month-long deployment in space works as planned, it will become the most powerful and far-seeing observatory in the sky.  It will have unprecedented capabilities to probe the earliest days of the universe, shedding new light on the formation of the first stars and galaxies.  And it will observe in new detail the most distant regions of our solar system.

Deep space astrophysics is what JWST was first designed for in the early 1990s, and that will be its transformative strength.

But much is also being made of what JWST can do for the study of exoplanets and some are even talking about how it just might be able to find biosignatures — signs of distant life.

While it is probably wise to never say never regarding an observatory with the power and capabilities of JWST,  the reality is that it was not designed to look for the exoplanets most likely to be habitable.  Actually, when it was first proposed, the observatory had no exoplanet-studying capabilities at all because no exoplanets had yet been found.

What was added on is substantial and exoplanet scientists say JWST can help advance the field substantially.  But there are definite limits and finding biosignatures — life — is almost certainly a reach too far for JWST.

When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, certain parts of the light are absorbed by the atmosphere’s elements. By studying which parts of light are absorbed, scientists can determine the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. (Christine Daniloff/MIT, Julien de Wit)

Astronomer Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, who has played a leadership role in planning JWST exoplanet observations for the telescope’s early day, says that people need to know these limitations so the pioneering exoplanet science that will be possible with JWST is not seen as somehow disappointing.

As he explained, it is essential to understand that the kind of exoplanet observing that the JWST will mostly do is “transit spectroscopy.”  This involves staring at a star when an exoplanet is expected to transit in front of it.  When that happens, light from the star will pass through the atmosphere of the exoplanet (if there is one) and through spectroscopy scientists can determine what molecules are in that hoped-for atmosphere.… Read more

Why Does Our Solar System Have No Super-Earths, and Other Questions for Comparative Planetology

An artist’s impression of the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Using the European Southern Observatory’s telescope at La Silla, Chile, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered this super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth. (ESO)

Before the explosion in discovery of extrasolar planets, the field of comparative planetology was pretty limited  — confined to examining the differences between planets in our solar system and how they may have come to pass.

But over the past quarter century, comparative planetology and the demographics of planets came to mean something quite different.  With so many planets now identified in so many solar systems, the comparisons became not just between one planet and another but also between one solar system and another.

And the big questions for scientists became the likes of:  How and why are the planetary makeups of distant solar systems often so different from our own and from each other; what does the presence  or absence of large planets in a solar system do to the distribution of smaller planets;  how large can a rocky planet can get before it turns to a gas giant planet; and on a more specific subject, why do some solar systems have hot Jupiters close to the host star and others have cold Jupiters much further out like our own

Another especially compelling question involves our own solar system, though as something of an outlier rather than a prototype.

That question involves the absence in our solar system of anything in the category of a “super-Earth” — a rocky or gaseous extrasolar planet with a mass greater than Earth’s but substantially below those of our solar system’s planets next in mass,  Uranus and Neptune.

The term “super-Earth” refers only to the mass and radii of the planet, and so does not imply anything about the surface conditions or habitability. But in the world of comparative planetology “super-Earths” are very important because they are among the most common sized exoplanets found so far and some do seem to have planetary characteristics associated with habitability.

Yet they do not exist in our solar system.  Why is that?

Artist rendition of Earth in comparison to one of the many super-Earth planets. (NASA)

In a recent article in The Astrophysical Journal Letters,  planetary demographer Gijs D.… Read more

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