The Kitt Peak National Observatory, on the Tohono O’odham reservation outside Tucson, will be home to a next-generation spectrometer and related system which will allow astronomers to detect much smaller exoplanets through the radial velocity method. P. Marenfeld (NOAO/AURA/NSF)
When the first exoplanet was identified via the radial velocity method, the Swiss team was able to detect a wobble in the star 51 Pegasi at a rate of 50 meters per second. The wobble is the star’s movement back and forth caused by the gravitational pull of the planet, and in that first case it was dramatic — the effects of a giant Jupiter-sized planet orbiting extremely close to the star.
Many of the early exoplanet discoveries were of similarly large planets close to their host stars, but it wasn’t because there are so many of them in the cosmos. Rather, it was a function of the capabilities of the spectrographs and other instruments used to view the star. They were pioneering breakthroughs, but they didn’t have the precision needed to measure wobbles other than the large, dramatic ones caused by a close-in, huge planet.
That was the mid 1990s, and radial velocity astronomers have worked tirelessly since to “beat down” that 50 meters per second number. And twenty years later, radial velocity astronomers using far more precise instruments and more refined techniques have succeeded substantially: 1 meter per second of wobble is now achieved for the quietest stars. That has vastly improved their ability to find smaller exoplanets further from their stars and is a major achievement. But it has nonetheless been a major frustration for astronomers because to detect terrestrial exoplanets in the Earth-sized range, they have to get much more precise — in the range of tens of centimeters per second.
A number of efforts to build systems that can get that low are underway, most notably the ESPRESSO spectrograph scheduled to begin work on the High Accuracy Radial Vlocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) in Chile next year. Then earlier this month an ambitious NASA-National Science Foundation project was awarded to Penn State University to join the race. The next-generation spectrograph is scheduled to be finished in 2019 and installed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and its stated goal is to reach the 20 to 30 centimeters per second range.
Suvrath Mahadevan, an assistant professor at Penn State, is principal investigator for the project. It is called NEID, which means ‘to see’ in the language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land the Kitt Peak observatory is located.… Read more
To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the “Goldilocks” or habitable zone around stars–where it’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)
For more than 20 years now — even before the first detection of an extra-solar planet — scientists have posited, defined and then debated the existence and nature of a habitable zone. It’s without a doubt a central scientific concept, and the idea has caught on with the public (and the media) too. The discovery of “habitable zone planets” has become something of a staple of astronomy and astrophysics.
But beneath the surface of this success is a seemingly growing discomfort about how the term is used. Not only do scientists and the general public have dissimilar understandings of what a habitable zone entails, but scientists have increasingly divergent views among themselves as well.
And all this is coming to the fore at a time when a working definition of the habitable zone is absolutely essential to planning for what scientists and enthusiasts hope will be a long-awaited major space telescope focused first and foremost on exoplanets. If selected by NASA as a flagship mission for the 2030s, how such a telescope is designed and built will be guided by where scientists determine they have the best chance of finding signs of extraterrestrial life — a task that has ironically grown increasingly difficult as more is learned about those distant solar systems and planets.
Most broadly, the habitable zone is the area around a star where orbiting planets could have conditions conducive to life. Traditionally, that has mean most importantly orbiting far enough from a star that it doesn’t become a desiccated wasteland and close enough that it is not forever frozen. In this broad definition, the sometimes presence of liquid water on the surface of a planet is the paramount issue in terms of possible extraterrestrial life.
The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
It was James Kasting of Penn State University, Daniel Whitmire, then of Louisiana State University, and Ray Reynolds of NASA’s Ames Research Center who defined the modern outlines of a habitable zone, though others had weighed in earlier. But Kasting and the others wrote with greater detail and proposed a model that took into account not only distance from the host star, but also the presence of planetary systems that could maintain relatively stable climates by cycling essential compounds.… Read more
A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI
Assuming for a moment that life exists on some exoplanets, how might researchers detect it?
This is hardly a new question. More than ten years ago, competing teams of exo-scientists and engineers came up with proposals for a NASA flagship space observatory capable of identifying possible biosignatures on distant planets. No consensus was reached, however, and no mission was developed.
But early this year, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz announced the formation of four formal Science and Technology Definition Teams to analyze proposals for a grand space observatory for the 2030s. Two of them in particular would make possible the kind of super-high resolution viewing needed to understand the essential characteristics of exoplanets. As now conceived, that would include a capability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres that are associated with living things.
These two exo-friendly missions are the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared (LUVOIR) Surveyor and the Habitable Exoplanet (HabEx) Imaging Mission. Both would be on the scale of, and in the tradition of, scientifically and technically ground-breaking space observatories such as the Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018. These flagship missions provide once in a decade opportunities to move space science dramatically forward, and not-surprisingly at a generally steep cost.
A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and as viewed by the kind of high definition space telescope now under study. Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high definition image resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only high definition can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. (D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)
Because the stakes are so high, planning and development takes place over decades — twenty years is the typical time elapsed between the conception of a grand flagship mission and its launch. So while what is happening now with the science and technology definition teams is only a beginning — albeit one with quite a heritage already — it’s an essential, significant and broadly-supported start. Over the next three years, the teams will undertake deep dives into the possibilities and pitfalls of LUVOIR and HabEx, as well as the two other proposals. There’s a decent chance that a version of one of the four will become a reality.… Read more