A National Strategy for Finding and Understanding Exoplanets (and Possibly Extraterrestrial Life)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine took an in-depth look at what NASA, the astronomy community and the nation need to grow the burgeoning science of exoplanets — planets outside our solar system that orbit a star. (NAS)

 

An extensive, congressionally-directed study of what NASA needs to effectively learn how exoplanets form and whether some may support life was released today, and it calls for major investments in next-generation space and ground telescopes.  It also calls for the adoption of an increasingly multidisciplinary approach for addressing the innumerable questions that remain unanswered.

While the recommendations were many, the top line calls were for a sophisticated new space-based telescope for the 2030s that could directly image exoplanets, for approval and funding of the long-delayed and debated WFIRST space telescope, and for the National Science Foundation and to help fund two of the very large ground-based telescopes now under development.

The study of exoplanets has seen remarkable discoveries in the past two decades.  But the in-depth study from the private, non-profit National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concludes that there is much more that we don’t understand than that we do, that our understandings are “substantially incomplete.”

So the two overarching goals for future exoplanet science are described as these:

 

  • To understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems as products of star formation and characterize the diversity of their architectures, composition, and environments.
  • To learn enough about exoplanets to identify potentially habitable environments and search for scientific evidence of life on worlds orbiting other stars.

 

Given the challenge, significance and complexity of these science goals, it’s no wonder that young researchers are flocking to the many fields included in exoplanet science.  And reflecting that, it is perhaps no surprise that the NAS survey of key scientific questions, goals, techniques, instruments and opportunities runs over 200 pages. (A webcast of a 1:00 pm NAS talk on the report can be accessed here.)

 


Artist’s concept showing a young sun-like star surrounded by a planet-forming disk of gas and dust.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

These ambitious goals and recommendations will now be forwarded to the arm of the National Academies putting together 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey — a community-informed blueprint of priorities that NASA usually follows.

This priority-setting is probably most crucial for the two exoplanet direct imaging missions now being studied as possible Great Observatories for the 2030s — the paradigm-changing space telescopes NASA has launched almost every decade since the 1970s.

HabEx (the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory) and LUVOIR (the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor) are two direct-imaging exoplanet projects in conception phase that would indeed significantly change the exoplanet field.

Both would greatly enhance scientists’ ability to detect and characterize exoplanets. But the more ambitious LUVOIR in particular, would not only find many exoplanets in all stages of formation, but could readily read chemical components of the atmospheres and thereby get clear data on whether the planet was habitable or even if it supported life.  The LUVOIR would provide either an 8 meter or a record-breaking 15-meter space telescope, while HabEx would send up a 4 meter mirror.

HabEx and LUVOIR are competing with two other astrophysics projects for that Great Observatory designation, and so NAS support now and prioritizing later is essential if they are to become a reality.

 

An artist notional rendering of an approximately 15-meter telescope in space. This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. (NASA)

These two potential Great Observatories will be costly and would take many years to design and build.  As the study acknowledges and explains, “While the committee recognized that developing a direct imaging capability will require large financial investments and a long time scale to see results, the effort will foster the development of the scientific community and technological capacity to understand myriad worlds.”

So a lot is at stake.  But with budget and space priorities in flux, the fate of even the projects given the highest priority in the Decadal Survey remains unclear.

That’s apparent in the fact that one of the top recommendations of today’s study is the funding of the number one priority put forward in the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey — the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST.)

The project — which would boost the search for exoplanets further from their stars than earlier survey mission using microlensing– was cancelled in the administration’s proposed 2019 federal budget.  Congress has continued funding some development of this once top priority, but its future nonetheless remains in doubt.

WFIRST could have the capability of directly imaging exoplanets if it were built with technology to block out the blinding light of the star around which exoplanets would be orbiting — doing so either with internal coronagraph or a companion starshade.  This would be novel technology for a space-based telescope, and the NAS survey recommends it as well.

 

An artist’s rendering of a possible “starshade” that could be launched to work with WFIRST or another space telescope and allow the telescope to take direct pictures of other Earth-like planets. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The list of projects the study recommends is long, with these important additions:

That “ground-based astronomy – enabled by two U.S.-led telescopes – will also play a pivotal role in studying planet formation and potentially terrestrial worlds, the report says. The future Giant Magellan telescope (GMT) and proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) would allow profound advances in imaging and spectroscopy – absorption and emission of light – of entire planetary systems. They also could detect molecular oxygen in temperate terrestrial planets in transit around close and small stars, the report says.”

The committee concluded that the technology road map to enable the full potential of GMT and TMT in the study of exoplanets is in need of investments, and should leverage the existing network of U.S. centers and laboratories. To that end, the report recommends that the National Science Foundation invest in both telescopes and their exoplanet instrumentation to provide all-sky access to the U.S. community.

And for another variety of ground-based observing the study called for the funding of a project to substantially increase the precision of instruments that find and measure exoplanets using the detected “wobble” of the host star.  But stars are active with or without a nearby exoplanet, and so it has been difficult to achieve the precision that astronomers using this “radial velocity” technique need to find and characterize smaller exoplanets.

Several smaller efforts to increase this precision are under way in the U.S., and the European Southern Observatory has a much larger project in development.

Additionally, the report recommends that the administrators of the James Webb Space Telescope give significant amounts of observing time to exoplanet study, especially early in its time aloft (now scheduled to begin in 2021.)  The atmospheric data that JWST can potentially collect could and would be used in conjunction with results coming from other telescopes, and to further study of exoplanet targets that are already promising based on existing theories and findings.

 

Construction has begun on the Giant Magellan Telescope at the Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. This artist rendering shows what the 24.5 meter (80 foot) segmented mirror and observatory will look like when completed, estimated to be in 2024. (Mason Media Inc.)

 

While the NAS report gives a lot of attention to instruments and ways to use them, it also focuses as never before on astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

Much work has been done on how to determine whether life exists on a distant planet through modeling and theorizing about biosignatures.  The report encourages scientists to expand that work and embraces it as a central aspect of exoplanet science.

The study also argues that interdisciplinary science — bringing together researchers from many disciplines — is the necessary way forward.  It highlights the role of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, a NASA initiative which since 2015 has brought together a broad though limited number  of science teams from institutions across the country to learn about each other’s work and collaborate whenever possible.

The initiative itself has not required much funding, instead bringing in teams that had been supported with other grants.   However, that may be changing. One of the study co-chairs, David Charbonneau of Harvard University, said after the release of the study that the “promise of NExSS is tremendous…We really want that idea to grow and have a huge impact.”

The NAS study itself recommends that “building on the NExSS model, NASA should support a cross-divisional exoplanet research coordination network that includes additional membership opportunities via dedicated proposal calls for interdisciplinary research.”

The initiative, I’m proud to say, sponsors this interdisciplinary column in addition to all that interdisciplinary science.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

False Positives, False Negatives; The World of Distant Biosignatures Attracts and Confounds

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
This artist’s illustration shows two Earth-sized planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope looked for signs of atmospheres around these planets. (NASA/ESA/STScI/J. de Wit, MIT)

What observations, or groups of observations, would tell exoplanet scientists that life might be present on a particular distant planet?

The most often discussed biosignature is oxygen, the product of life on Earth.  But while oxygen remains central to the search for biosignatures afar, there are some serious problems with relying on that molecule.

It can, for one, be produced without biology, although on Earth biology is the major source.  Conditions on other planets, however, might be different, producing lots of oxygen without life.

And then there’s the troubling reality that for most of the time there has been life on Earth, there would not have been enough oxygen produced to register as a biosignature.  So oxygen brings with it the danger of both a false positive and a false negative.

Wading through the long list of potential other biosignatures is rather like walking along a very wet path and having your boots regularly pulled off as they get captured by the mud.  Many possibilities can be put forward, but all seem to contain absolutely confounding problems.

With this reality in mind, a group of several dozen very interdisciplinary scientists came together more than a year ago in an effort to catalogue the many possible biosignatures that have been put forward and then to describe the pros and the cons of each.

“We believe this kind of effort is essential and needs to be done now,” said Edward Schwieterman, an astronomy and astrobiology researcher at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

“Not because we have the technology now to identify these possible biosignatures light years away, but because the space and ground-based telescopes of the future need to be designed so they can identify them. ”

“It’s part of what may turn out to be a very long road to learning whether or not we are alone in the universe”.

 

Artistic representations of some of the exoplanets detected so far with the greatest potential to support liquid surface water, based on their size and orbit.  All of them are larger than Earth and their composition and habitability remains unclear. They are ranked here from closest to farthest from Earth.  Mars, Jupiter, Neptune an Earth are shown for scale on the right. (Planetary Habitability Laboratory, managed by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.)

The known and inferred population of exoplanets — even small rocky exoplanets — is now so vast that it’s tempting to assume that some support life and that some day we’ll find it.  After all,  those billions of planets are composed of same basic chemical elements as Earth and are subject to the same laws of physics.

That assumption of life widespread in the galaxies may well turn out to be on target.  But assuming this result, and proving or calculating a high probability of finding extraterrestrial life, are light years apart.

The timing of this major community effort is hardly accidental.  There is a National Academy of Sciences effort underway to review progress in the science of reading possible biosignatures from distant worlds, something that I wrote about recently.

Edward Schwieterman, spent six years at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory.  He now works with the NASA Astrobiology Institute Alternative Earths team UCR.

The results from the NAS effort will in term flow into the official NAS decadal study that will follow and will recommend to Congress priorities for the next ten or twenty years.  In addition, two NASA-ordered science and technology definition teams are currently working on architectures for two potential major NASA missions for the 2030s — HabEx (the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission) and Luvoir (the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor.)

The two mission proposals, which are competing with several others, would provide the best opportunity by far to determine whether life exists on other distant planets.

With these formal planning and prioritizing efforts as a backdrop, NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) called for a biosignatures workshop in the fall of 2016 and brought together scientists from many disciplines to wrestle with the subject.  The effort led to the white paper submitted to NAS and will result in and will result in the publication of series of five detailed papers in the journal Astrobiology this spring.” The overview paper with Schwieterman as first author, which has already been made available to the community for peer review, is expected to lead off the package.

So what did they find?  First off, that Earth has to be their guide.

“Life on Earth, through its gaseous products and reflectance and scattering properties, has left its fingerprint on the spectrum of our planet,” the paper reads. “Aided by the universality of the laws of physics and chemistry, we turn to Earth’s biosphere, both in the present and through geologic time, for analog signatures that will aid in the search for life elsewhere.

Considering the insights gained from modern and ancient Earth, and the broader array of hypothetical exoplanet possibilities, we have compiled a state-of-the-art overview of our current understanding of potential exoplanet biosignatures including gaseous, surface, and temporal biosignatures.”

In other words, potential biosignatures in the atmosphere, on the ground, and that become apparent over time.  We’ll start with the temporal:

These vegetation maps were generated from MODIS/Terra measurements of the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Significant seasonal variations in the NDVI are apparent between northern hemisphere summer  and winter. (Reto Stockli, NASA Earth Observatory Group, using data from the MODIS Land Science Team.)

Vegetation is probably clearest example of how change-over-time can be a biosignature.  As these maps show and we all know, different parts of the Earth have different seasonal colorations.  Detecting exoplanetary change of this sort would be a potentially strong signal, though it could also have some non-biological explanations.

If there is any kind of atmospheric chemical corroboration, then the time signal would be a strong one.  That corroboration could come in seasonal modulations of biologically important gases such as CO2 or O2.  Changes in cloud cover and the periodic presence of volcanic gases can also be useful markers over time.

Plant pigments themselves which have been proposed as a surface biosignature.  Observed in the near infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, the pigment chlorophyll — the central player in the process of photosynthesis — shows a sharp increase in reflectance at a particular wavelength.  This abrupt change is called the “red edge,” and is a measurement known to exist only which chlorophyll engaged in photosynthesis.

So the “red edge,” or parallel dropoffs in reflectance of other pigments on other planets, is another possible biosignature in the mix.

And then there is “glint,” reflections from exoplanets that come from light hitting water.

True-color image from a model (left) compared to a view of Earth from the Earth and Moon Viewer (http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Earth/). A glint spot in the Indian Ocean can be clearly seen in the model image.

Since biosignature science essentially requires the presence of H2O on a planet, the clear detection of an ocean is part of the process of assembling signatures of potential life.  Just as detecting oxygen in the atmosphere is important, so too is detecting unmistakable surface water.

But for reasons of both science and detectability, the chemical make-up exoplanet atmospheres is where much biosignature work is being done.  The compounds of interest include (but are not limited to) ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur gases, methyl chloride and less specific atmospheric hazes.  All are, or have been, associated with life on Earth, and potentially on other planets and moons as well.

The Schwieterman et al review looks at all these compounds and reports on the findings of researchers who have studied them as possible biosignatures.  As a sign of how broadly they cast their net, the citations alone of published biosignature papers number more than 300.

(Sara Seager and William Bains of MIT, both specialists in exoplanet atmospheres, have been compiling a separate and much broader list of potential biosignatures, even many produced in very small quantities on Earth.  Bains is a co-author on one of the five biosignature papers for the journal Astrobiology.)

All this work, Schwieterman said, will pay off significantly over time.

“If our goal is to constrain the search for life in our solar neighborhood, we need to know as much as we possibly can so the observatories have the necessary capabilities.  We could possibly save hundreds of millions or billions of dollars by constraining the possibilities.”

“The strength of this compilation is the full body of knowledge, putting together what we know in a broad and fast-developing field,” Schwieterman said. ”

He said that there’s such a broad range of possible biosignatures, and so many conditions where some might be more or less probable, that’s it’s essential to categorize and prioritize the information that has been collected (and will be collected in the future.)

“We have a lot of observations recorded here, but they will all have their ambiguities,” he said.  “Our goal as scientists will be to take what we know and work to reduce those ambiguities. It’s an enormous task.”

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

A Vision That Could Supercharge NASA

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
An artist rendering of an approximately 16-meter telescope in space.  This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.  Advocates say such a large space telescope would revolutionize the search for life on exoplanets, as well as providing the greatest observing ever for general astrophysics. (NASA)

Let your mind wander for a moment and let it land on the most exciting and meaningful NASA mission that you can imagine.  An undertaking, perhaps, that would send astronauts into deep space, that would require enormous technological innovation, and that would have ever-lasting science returns.

Many will no doubt think of Mars and the dream of sending astronauts there to explore.  Others might imagine setting up a colony on that planet, or perhaps in the nearer term establishing a human colony on the moon.  And now that we know there’s a rocky exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri — the star closest to our sun — it’s tempting to wish for a major robotic or, someday, human mission headed there to search for life.

All are dream-worthy space projects for sure.  But some visionary scientists (and most especially one well-known former astronaut) have been working for some time on another potential grand endeavor — one that you probably have not heard or thought about, yet might be the most compelling and achievable of them all.

It would return astronauts to deep space and it would have them doing the kind of very difficult but essential work needed for space exploration in the far future. It would use the very costly and very powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule being built now by NASA and Lockheed Martin respectively.  Most important, it would almost certainly revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos near and far.

At a recent meeting of the House Science Committee, chairman Lamar Smith, said of the hearing’s purpose that, “Presidential transitions offer the opportunities to reinvigorate national goals. They bring fresh perspectives and new ideas that energize our efforts.”

That said, here’s the seemingly feasible project that fires my imagination the most.

It has been quietly but with persistence promoted most visibly by John Grunsfeld, the former astronaut who flew to the Hubble Space Telescope three times to fix and upgrade it, who has spent 58 hours on spacewalks outside the Shuttle, and towards the end of his 40 years with the agency ultimately became an associate administrator and head of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

A visualization of the assembly in space of a large segmented telescope, with work being done by astronauts and robots.  The honeycomb blocks are parts of the mirror, and the grey cylinders on the right are habitats for astronauts.  (NASA)

His plan:  Build a segmented space telescope mirror that is 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter or larger, package it into one or several payload fairings and launch it into deep space.  Accompanying astronauts would put it together either at its final destination or at a closer point where it could then be propelled to that destination.

This would provide invaluable humans-in-space experience, would put the Orion and SLS to very good use in advance of a projected human mission to Mars, and would deploy the most penetrating telescope observing ever.  By far.

No mirror with a diameter greater than 3.5 meters (11.5 feet)  has ever been deployed in space,  although the the James Webb  Space Telescope mirror will be substantially larger at 6.5 meters (21 feet) when launched in 2018.  The largest ground telescopes are in the 10-meter (33 foot) range.

John Grunsfeld working on the Hubble Space Telescope, some 350 miles above Earth. He said that based on his own experience with spacewalks and space repairs, he thinks that a crew of four astronauts could assembled a 16-meter segmented telescope mirror within four weeks. (NASA)

What Grunsfeld’s space behemoth would provide is an unprecedented power and resolution to see back to the earliest point possible in the history of the universe, and doing that in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths. But perhaps more significantly and revolutionary, it would supercharge the agency’s ability to search for life beyond Earth.

Like nothing else currently in use or development, it would provide a real chance to answer what is arguably humanity’s most fundamental question:  Are we alone in the universe?

Grunsfeld has been introducing people to the project/vision inside NASA for some time.  He also told me that he has spoken with many members of Congress about it, and that most have been quite supportive.  Now he’s starting to make the case to the public.

“We need our leaders to be bold if we want to stay in the forefront of science and engineering,” he said.  “Assembling a 16-meter telescope in space would not be easy by any means.  But we can do it and — this is the key — it would be transformational. It’s a rational thing to do.”

His confidence in the possibility of launching the segmented mirror parts and having astronauts assemble them in space comes, he says, from experience.  Not only has he flown on the space shuttle five times and has his three very close encounters with the Hubble, but he has also overseen the difficult process of getting the JWST project — with its pioneering segmented, folding mirror — back on track after large budget overruns and delays.  He’s also trained in astrophysics and is enamored of exoplanets.

“If your goal is to search for inhabited planets, you just have to go up to the 16-meter range for the primary telescope mirror,” he said.

“Think about it:  if we sent up something smaller, it will give us important and potentially very intruiging information about what planets might be habitable, that could potentially support life.  But then we’d have to send up a bigger mirror later to actually make any detection.  Why not just go to the 16-meter now?”

The strongest driver on the size of the LUVOIR telescope is the desire to have a large sample of exoEarth candidates to study. This figure shows the real stars in the sky for which a planet in the habitable zone can be observed. The color coding shows the probability of observing an exoEarth candidate if it’s present around that star (green is a high probability, red is a low one). This is a visualization of the work of Chris Stark at Space Telescope Science Institute, who created an advanced code to calculate yields of exoplanet observations with different facilities.  (C. Stark and J. Tumlinson, STScI)

While all this may sound to many like science fiction, NASA actually has a team in place studying the science and technology involved with a very large space telescope, and has funded studies of in-space assembly as well.

The current team is one of four studying different projects for a grand observatory for the 2030s.  Their mission is called LUVOIR (the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor), and both it and a second mission under study (Hab-Ex) have exoplanets as a primary focus. It was Grunsfeld and Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, who selected the four concepts for more in-depth study based in large part on astronomy and astrophysics community thinking and aspirations, especially as laid out in the 2013 Thirty-Year Astrophysics Visionary Roadmap.

The LUVOIR team started out with the intention of studying the engineering and technological requirements — and science returns — of a space telescope between 8 and 16 meters in diameter, while Hab-Ex would look at the 4 to 7 meter option for a telescope designed to find exoplanets.  Grunsfeld addressed the LUVOIR study team and encouraged them to be ambitious in their thinking — a message delivered by quite a few others as well.  What’s more, a number of study team members were inclined towards the 16-meter version from the onset.

Aki Roberge of the Goddard Space Flight Center is the team scientist for the LUVOIR Science and Technology Definition Team.

The LUVOIR team has not addressed the issue of assembly in space — their goals are to understand the science made possible with telescopes of different sizes, to design an observatory that can be repaired and upgraded, and to determine if the technology to pull it all together is within reach for the next decade or two.

A key issue is how large a folded up mirror the launch vehicle rocket nose cone (the fairing) can hold.  While the current version of the SLS would certainly not accommodate a 16-meter segmented mirror, team study scientist Aki Roberge — an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center — said that the team just recently got the good news that a next generation SLS fairing looks like it could well hold a folded mirror of up to 15 meters. Quite a few “ifs” involved, but still promising.

“We’re still in the midst of our work, but it’s clear that a LUVOIR with a large aperture (mirror) gives us a major science return,” she said.  “Going up to nine meters would be a major leap forward, and going to 16 would be a dramatic advance on that.”

“But we have to assess what we gain in terms of going large and what we might lose in terms of added technical difficulty, cost and time.”  As is, the 9 or 16-meter project — if selected — would not be ready to launch until the mid 2030s.  All the great space observatories and missions have had decades-long gestation periods.

The results from the LUVOIR and other formal NASA study teams will be reviewed by the agency and then assessed by a sizeable group of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences for the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey.  They set the next decade’s topic and mission priorities for the astronomy and astrophysics communities (as well as others) — assessments that are sent back to NASA and generally followed.

One of Grunsfeld’s goals, he told me, is to make the assembled-in-space 16-meter telescope a top Decadal Survey priority.  While supportive of the LUVOIR efforts, he believes that including astronauts in the equation, deploying a somewhat larger mirror even if the difference in size is not great, and making a mirror that he says will be easier to fix and upgrade than a folded up version, gives the assembled-in-space option the advantage.

These images, which are theoretical simulations using the iconic Hubble Deep Field image, are adjusted to reflect the light collected by telescopes of different sizes. They show the increased resolution and quality of images taken by a 16-meter telescope, a 9-meter, and the Hubble Space Telescope, which is 2.4 meters in diameter.  They illustrate pretty clearly why astronomers and exoplanet hunters want ever larger telescope mirrors to collect those photons from galaxies, stars and planets.

Simulated views of galaxies in deep space, as seen with a proposed 16-meter telescope. This and the two images below are of the same part of the sky. The exposure time for each image was assumed to be the same, to make them comparable. Scientists get higher resolution images with the larger telescopes.  (G. Snyder, STScI /M. Postman, STScI.)

 

Deep space galaxies as seen with nine meter telescope.

 

Once again the same view, taken with Hubble’s 2.4-meter telescope for the same period of time as the images above.  The iconic Hubble Deep Field images are much clearer than this one, and that’s because the telescope was collecting light for a much longer period of time.

Whether or not the LUVOIR project is selected to be a future NASA flagship observatory, and whether or not it will be an assembled-in-space version of it, many at the agency clearly see human activity and habitation in space (as well as on planets or moons) as a necessary and inevitable next step.

Harley Thronson is the senior scientist for Advanced Concepts in Astrophysics at Goddard, and he has worked on several projects related to how and where astronauts might live and work in space.

Harley Thronson, the senior scientist for Advanced Concepts in Astrophysics at the Goddard Space Flight Center, standing outside the JWST clean room. (NASA)

He said this research goes back decades, having gained the attention of then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin around 2000.  It has recently experienced another spurt of interest as the agency has been assessing opportunities for human operations beyond the immediate vicinity of the Earth.

“It’s inevitable that the astronomy community will want and need larger space observatories, and so we have to work out how to design and build them, how and where they might be assembled in space, and how they can be serviced,” Thronson said.  The JWST will not be reachable for upgrades and servicing, and Congress responded to that drawback by telling NASA will make sure future major observatories can be serviced if at all possible.

Thronson said that he supports and is inspired by the idea of a 16-meter space telescope, and he agrees with Grunsfeld that assembly in space is the wave of the future.  But he said “I’m not quite as optimistic as John that we’re ready to attack that now, though it would be terrific if we were.”

Part of Thronson’s work involves understanding operation sites where space telescopes would be most stable, and that generally involves the libration points, where countervailing gravity pulls are almost neutralized.  LUVOIR, like JWST, is proposed for the so-called Sun-Earth L-2 point, about one million miles outward from Earth where the Earth and sun create a gravitational equilibrium of sorts.

Thronson said there has been some discussion about the possibility of assembling a telescope at a closer Earth-moon libration point and then propelling it towards its destination.  That assembly point could, over time, become a kind of depot for servicing space telescopes and as well as other tasks.

As a sign of the level of interest in these kind of space-based activities, NASA last year awarded $65 million to six companies involved in creating space habitats for astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.

One of the locations in relatively nearby space where a space telescope would have a stable gravitational environment. (NASA

At the time, the director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, Jason Crusan,  said that “the next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

Not surprisingly, building and maintaining telescopes and habitats in space will be costly (though less so than any serious effort to send humans to Mars).  As a result, how much support NASA gets from the White House, Congress and the public — as well as the astronomy and astrophysics communities — will determine whether and when this kind of space architecture becomes a reality.

John Grunsfeld, who has walked the walk like nobody else, plans to be stepping up his own effort to explain how and why this is a vision worth embracing.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Storming the One-Meter-Per-Second Barrier

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Kitt Peak National Observatory mountain top at Dusk looking north. Visible in the picture are the NOAO 4-meter Mayall, the Steward Observatory 90-inch, the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Spacewatch Telescopes, LOTIS, 0.4-meter Visitor Center Telescope, Case Western Reserve University Observatory and the SARA Observatory. Credit: P. Marenfeld (NOAO/AURA/NSF)
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, RV 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.

“For many reasons, the (radial velocity) community has been desperate for an instrument that would allow for detections of smaller planets, and ones in habitable zones,” he said.  “We’re confident that the instrument we’re building will — in time — provide that capability.”

Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network.
A illustration of how the radial velocity method of planet hunting works.  The wobble of the stars is far away miniscule in galactic terms, making extreme precision essential in measuring the movement. (Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network)

Project scientist Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, put it this way:  “NEID will be more stable than any existing spectrograph, allowing astronomers around the world to make the precise measurements of the motions of nearby, Sun-like stars.”  He said his Penn State team will use the instrument “to discover and measure the orbits of rocky planets at the right distances from their stars to host liquid water on their surfaces.”

NASA and the NSF wanted the new spectrograph built on an aggressive timetable to meet major coming opportunities and needs, Mahadevan said.

The speedy three-year finish date is a function of the role that radial velocity detection plays in exoplanet research.  While many planets have been, and will be, first detected through the technique, it is also essential in the confirming of candidate planets identified by NASA space telescopes such as Kepler, the soon-to-be launched TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and others into the future.  There is a huge backlog of planets to be confirmed, and many more expected in the relatively near future.

What’s more, as Mahadevan explained, an instrument like NEID could significantly help NASA’s planning for a possible 2030s Flagship space telescope mission focused on exoplanets.  Two of the four NASA contenders under study are in that category — LUVOIR (Large Ultraviolet Visible Infrared) Surveyor and Hab-Ex — and their capabilities, technologies, timetables and cost are all now under consideration.

If NEID can identify some clearly Earth-sized planets in habitable zones, he said, then the planning for LUVOIR or Hab-Ex could be more focused (and the proposal potentially less costly.)  This is because the observatory could be designed to look at a limited number of exoplanets and their host stars, rather than scanning the skies for a clearly Earth-like planet.

“Right now we have no definite Earth-sized planets in a habitable zone, so a LUVOIR or Hab_ex design would have to include a blind search.  But if we know of maybe 15 planets we’re pretty sure are in their habitable zones, the targets get more limited and the project becomes a lot cheaper.”

Suvrath Mahadevan, assistant professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, and principal investigator for a new-generation high precision spectrometer. (Penn State)
Suvrath Mahadevan, assistant professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, and principal investigator for a new-generation high precision spectrometer. (Penn State)

These possibilities, however, are for the future.  Now, Mahadevan said, the Penn State team has to build a re-considered spectrograph, a significant advance on what has come before.  With its track record of approaching their work through interdisciplinary collaboration, the Penn State team will be joined by collaborators from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Colorado, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Macquarie University in Australia, Australian Astronomical Observatory, and Physical Research Laboratory in India.  Much of the work will be done over the next three years at Penn State, but some at the partner institutions as well.

Key to their assembly approach is that the instrument will be put together in vacuum-sealed environment and will have no vibrating or moving parts.  This design stability will prevent, or minimize, instrument-based misreadings of the very distant starlight being analyzed.

A major issue confronting radial velocity astronomers is that light from stars can fluctuate for many reasons other than a nearby planet — from sunspots, storms, and other magnetic phenomena.  The NEID instrument will try to minimize these stellar disruptors by providing the broadest wavelength coverage so far in an exoplanet spectrograph, Mahadevan said, collecting light from well into the blue range of the spectrum to almost the end of the red.

“We’re not really building a spectorograph but a radial velocity system, he said.  That includes upgrades to the telescope port, the data pipeline and more.

This is how Lori Allen, Associate Director for Kitt Peak, described that new “system”: “The extreme precision (of NEID) results from numerous design factors including the extreme stability of the spectrometer environment, image stabilization at the telescope, innovative fiber optic design, as well as state-of-the-art calibration and data reduction techniques”.

 

The new generation spectrograph will be installed on the 3.5 meter WYN telescope at Kitt Peak. Operated by National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the $10 million project is a collaboration of NASA and the National Science Foundation.
The new generation spectrograph will be installed on the 3.5 meter WYN telescope at Kitt Peak. The site is managed by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and $10 million spectrograph project is a collaboration of NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Sixteen teams ultimately competed to build the spectrograph, and the final two contenders were Penn State and MIT.  Mahadevan said that, in addition to its spectrograph design, he believed several factors helped the Penn State proposal prevail.

His team has worked for several years on another advanced spectrograph for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas, one that required complex vacuum-sealed and very cold temperature construction.  Although the challenges slowed the design, the team ultimately succeeded in demonstrating the environmental stability in the lab.  So Penn State had a track record. What’s more, the school and its Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds have a history of working in an interdisciplinary manner, and have been part of several NASA Astrobiology Institute projects. (The instrument has a blog of its own: NEID.)

The Kitt Peak observatory, which saw first light in 1994, has been the sight of many discoveries, but in recent years has faced cutbacks in NSF funding.  There was some discussion of reducing its use, and the NASA-NSF decision t0 upgrade the spectrograph was in part an effort to make it highly relevant again.  And given the scientific need to confirm so many planets — a need that will grow substantially after TESS launches in 2017 or 2018 and begins sending back information on thousands of additional transiting exoplanets — enhancing the capabilities of the Kitt Peak 3.5 meter telescope made sense.

Kitt Peak is unusual in being open to all comers with a great proposal, whether they’re from the U.S. or abroad.  The Penn State team and partners will get a certain number of dedicated night to observe, but many others will be allocated through competitive reviews.  And so when NEID is completed, astronomers from around will have a shot at using this state-of-the-art planet finder.

 

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Habitable Zone Gets Poked, Tweaked and Stretched to the Limits

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
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)
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.

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.

Their concept became something of a consensus model, and remains an often-used working definition.

But with the detection now of thousands of exoplanets, as well as a better understanding of potential habitability in our solar system and the workings of atmospheric gases around planets, some scientists argue the model is getting outdated.  Not wrong, per se, but perhaps not broad enough to account for the flood of planetary and exoplanetary research and discovery since the early 1990s.

Consider, first our own habitable zone:  Two bodies often discussed as potentially habitable are the moons Europa and Enceladus. Both are far from the solar system’s traditional habitable zone, and are heated by gravitational forces from Jupiter and Saturn.

And then there’s the Mars conundrum.  The planet, now viewed as unable to support life on the surface, is currently within the range of our sun’s habitable zone.  Yet when Mars was likely quite wet and warmer and “habitable” some 3.5 billion years ago — as determined by the Curiosity rover team — it was outside the traditional habitable zone because the sun was less luminous and so Mars would ostensibly be frozen.

Remnants of an ancient alluvial fan have been found at Gale Crater, Mars, indicating that water flowed there for long periods of time billions of years ago.
Remnants of an ancient alluvial fan have been found at Gale Crater, Mars, indicating that water flowed there for long periods of time billions of years ago. Traditional habitable zone models cannot account for this wet and warm period on ancient Mars.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Just as the source of heat keeping water on the moons liquid is not the sun, scientists have also proposed that even giant and distant planets with thick atmospheres of molecular hydrogen, a powerful greenhouse gas, could maintain liquid water on their surfaces.  Some have suggested that a hydrogen-rich atmosphere could keep a planet ten times further from the sun than Earth warm enough for possible life.

It was Raymond Pierrehumbert  at University of Chicago and Eric Gaidos of the University of Hawaii who first proposed this possibility in 2011, but others have taken it further.  Perhaps most forcefully has been Sara Seager at MIT, who has argued that the exoplanet community’s definition of a habitable zone needs to be broadened to keep up with new thinking and discoveries.  This is what she wrote in an influential 2013 Science paper:

“Planet habitability is planet specific, even with the main imposed criterion that surface liquid water must be present. This is because the huge range of planet diversity in terms of masses, orbits, and star types should extend to planet atmospheres and interiors, based on the stochastic nature of planet formation and subsequent evolution. The diversity of planetary systems extends far beyond planets in our solar system. The habitable zone could exist from about 0.5 AU out to 10 AU (astronomical units, the distance from the sun to the Earth) for a solar-type star, or even beyond, depending on the planet’s interior and atmosphere characteristics. As such, there is no universal habitable zone applicable to all exoplanets.”

Seager even makes room for the many rogue planet floating unconnected to a solar system as possible candidates, with the same kind of warming deep hydrogen covering that Pierrehumbert proposed. Clearly, her goal is to add exoplanets that are far less like Earth to the possible habitable mix.

 

In this artist's concept shows "The Behemoth," an enormous comet-like cloud of hydrogen bleeding off of a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 30 light-years from Earth. The hydrogen is evaporating from the planet due to extreme radiation from the star, but on many exoplanets it remains a thick covering. (NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon, STScI)
In this artist’s concept shows “The Behemoth,” an enormous comet-like cloud of hydrogen bleeding off of a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 30 light-years from Earth. The hydrogen is evaporating from the planet due to extreme radiation from the star, but on many exoplanets it remains a thick covering. (NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon, STScI)

Meanwhile, scientists have been adding numerous conditions beyond liquid surface water to enable a planet to turn from a dead to a potentially habitable one.  Kasting and Whitmore did include some of these conditions in their initial 1993 paper, but the list is growing.  A long-term stable climate is considered key, for instance, and that in turn calls for the presence of features akin to plate tectonics, volcanoes, magnetic fields and cycling into the planet interior of carbon, silicates and more.  Needless to say, these are not planetary features scientists will be able to identify for a long time to come.

So the disconnect grows between how exoplanet hunters and researchers use the term “habitable zone” and how the public understands its meaning.  Scientists describe a myriad of conditions and add that they are “necessary but not sufficient.”  Meanwhile, many exoplanet enthusiasts in the public are understandably awaiting a seemingly imminent discovery of extraterrestrial life on one of the many habitable zone planets announced.  (In fairness, no Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun-like star has been identified so far.)

Kasting, for one, does not see all this questioning of the necessary qualities of a habitable zone as a problem.

“Push back is what scientists do; we’re brought up to question authority.  My initial work is over 20 years old and a lot has been learned since then.  Not all things that are written down are correct.”

James Kasting of Penn State University, a pioneer in defining a habitable zone.
James Kasting of Penn State University, a pioneer in defining a habitable zone.

But in this case, he says, a lot of the conventional habitable zone concept is pretty defensible.

What’s more, it’s practical and useful.  While not discounting the possibility of life on exo-moons, on giant planets surrounded by warming molecular hydrogen or other possibilities, he says that the technical challenges to making a telescope that could capture the light necessary to analyze these moons or far-from-their-star planets would be so faint as to be undetectable given today’s (or even tomorrow’s) technology.  With those two exoplanet-focused telescopes (LUVOIR and Hab-Ex) now under formal study for a possible mission in the 2030s, Kasting thinks it’s essential to think inside, rather than outside, the box.

“I think that when the teams sit down and think about the science and technology of those projects, our habitable zone is the only one that make sense.  If you design a telescope to capture possible evidence of life as far out as 10 AU, you give up capability to study with the greatest precision planets close in the traditional habitable zone.  That doesn’t mean the telescope can’t look for habitable worlds outside the traditional habitable zone, but but don’t design the telescope with that as a high priority.  Better to focus on what we know does exist.”

Coming soon:  The Habitability Inde

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail