Has America Really Lost It’s “Lead in Space?”

Vice President Mike Pence addresses NASA employees, Thursday, July 6, 2017, at the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Vice President spoke following a tour that highlighted the public-private partnerships at KSC, as both NASA and commercial companies prepare to launch American astronauts in the years ahead.  Pence spoke at length about human space exploration, but very little about NASA space science. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

I was moved to weigh in after reading Vice President Mike Pence’s comments last week down at the Kennedy Space Center — a speech that seemed to minimize NASA’s performance in recent years (decades?) and to propose a return to a kind of Manifest Destiny way of thinking in space.

The speech did not appear to bode well for space science, which has dominated NASA news with many years of exploration into the history and working of the cosmos and solar system, the still little-understood domain of exoplanets, the search for life beyond Earth.

Instead, the speech was very much about human space exploration, with an emphasis on “boots on the ground,” national security, and setting up colonies.

“We will beat back any disadvantage that our lack of attention has placed and America will once again lead in space,” Pence said.

“We will return our nation to the moon, we will go to Mars, and we will still go further to places that our children’s children can only imagine. We will maintain a constant presence in low-Earth orbit, and we’ll develop policies that will carry human space exploration across our solar system and ultimately into the vast expanses. As the president has said, ‘Space is,’ in his words, ‘the next great American frontier.’ And like the pioneers that came before us, we will settle that frontier with American leadership, American courage and American ingenuity.”  (Transcript here.)

Eugene Cernan of Apollo 17, the last team to land on the moon, almost 45 years ago.  (NASA)

That a new president will have a different kind of vision for NASA than his predecessors is hardly surprising.  NASA may play little or no role in a presidential election, but the agency is a kind of treasure trove of high profile possibilities for any incoming administration.

That the Trump administration wants to emphasize human space exploration is also no surprise.  Other than flying up and back to construct and use the International Space Station, and then out to the Hubble Space Telescope for repairs, American astronauts have not been in space since the last Apollo mission in 1972.  It should be said, however, that no other nation has sent astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, either, since then.

Where I found the speech off-base was to talk down the many extraordinary discoveries in recent decades about our planet, the solar system, the galaxy and beyond made during NASA missions and made possible by cutting-edge NASA technology and innovations.

In fact, many scientists, members of Congress and NASA followers would enthusiastically agree that the last few decades have been an absolute Golden Age in space discovery — all of it done without humans in space (except for those Hubble repairs.)

To argue for a more muscular human space program does not have to come with a diminishing of the enormous space science advances of these more recent years;  missions and discoveries that brought to Americans and the world spectacular images and understandings of Mars, of Jupiter and Saturn and their potentially habitable moons, of Pluto, of hot Jupiters, super-Earths and exoplanet habitable zones, and of deep, deep space and time made more comprehensible because of NASA grand observatories.

To say that the United States has given up its “lead in space,” it seems to me, requires a worrisome dismissal of all this and much more.

Selfie of Curiosity rover on sedimentary rock deposited by water in Gale Crater on Mars. (NASA)

Let’s start on Mars.  For the past 20 years, NASA has had one or more rovers exploring the planet.   In all, the agency has successfully landed seven vehicles on the planet — which is the sum total of human machinery that has ever arrived in operational shape on the surface (unless you count the Soviet Mars 3 capsule which landed in 1971 and sent back information for 14 seconds before going silent.)

One of the two rovers now on Mars — Curiosity — has established once and for all time that Mars was entirely habitable in its early life.  It has drilled into the planet numerous times and has tested the samples for essential-for-life carbon organic compounds (which it found.)  It also has detected clear evidence of long-ago and long-standing lakes and rivers.  And it measured radiation levels at the surface over years to help determine how humans might one day survive there.

I think it’s fair to say that Curiosity has advanced an understanding of the history and current realities of Mars more than any other mission, and perhaps more than all the others combined.

Equally important, the almost two-thousand pound rover was delivered to the surface via a new landing technique called the “sky crane.”  If your goal is to some day land a human on Mars, then learning how to deliver larger and larger payloads is essential because a capsule for astronauts would weigh something like 80,000 pounds.

The European Space Agency, as well as the Russians and Chinese, have tried to send landers to Mars in recent years, but with no success.

And as for Curiosity, it has been exploring Mars now for almost five years — well past its nominal mission lifetime.

This Cassini image of Saturn is the of 21 frames across 7 footprints, filtered in groups of red, green, and blue. The sequence was captured by Cassini over the course of 90-plus minutes on the morning of October 28th. Like many premier images from space, an individual — here Ian Regan — used the public access information and images provided by NASA of all its missions to produce the mosaic. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Ian Regan)

NASA missions to Saturn and Jupiter have sent back images that are startling in their beauty and overflowing in their science.  And they have found unexpected features that could some day lead to a discovery of extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

The most surprising discovery was at Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which turns out to be spewing water vapor into space from its south pole region.  This water contains, among other important compounds, those organic building blocks of life, as well as evidence that the plumes are generated by hydrothermal heating of the ocean under the surface of the moon.

In other words, there is a global ocean on Enceladus and at the bottom of it water and hot rock are in contact and are reacting in a way that, on Earth at least, would provide an environment suitable for life.  And then the moon is spitting out the water to make it quite possible to study that water vapor and whatever might be in it.

If the last decades are a guide, up-close study of these icy moons is a challenge and opportunity that the United States alone — sometimes in collaboration with European partners — has shown the ability and appetite to embrace make happen.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The plumes were investigated and even traversed by the Cassini spacecraft, which is a joint NASA-ESA mission.  The primary ESA contribution was the Huygens probe that descended to Titan in 2005.   To people in the space science community, these kind of collaborations — generally with European space agencies — allow for more complex missions and good international relations.

Plumes of water vapor have also been tentatively discovered identified on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.  The data for the discovery came mostly from the Hubble Space Telescope, and is already a part of the previously approved NASA future.  The Europa Clipper is scheduled to launch in the 2020s, to orbit the moon and intensively examine the solar system world believed most likely to contain life.

The plumes would be coming from another large global ocean under a thick shell of ice, a body of water understood to be much older and much bigger than that of Enceladus. Clearly, having some of that H2O available for exploration without going through the thick ice shell would be an enormous obstacle eraser.

A follow-up Europa lander mission has been studied and got favorable reviews from a NASA panel, but was not funded by the Trump Administration.  Several follow-up Enceladus life-detection missions are currently under review.

This very high resolution mosaic image of the Pillars of Creation was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and is a reprise of the iconic image first taken in 1995. The pillars are part of a nebula some 6,500-7000 light-years from Earth, and are immense clouds of gas and dust where stars are born. (NASA)

I think one could make a strong case that the Hubble Space Telescope has been the most transformative, productive and admired piece of space technology ever made.

For more than two decades now it has been the workhorse of the astrophysics, cosmology and exoplanet communities, and has arguably produced more world-class stunning images than Picasso.  In terms of exploring the cosmos and illustrating some of what’s out there, it has no competition.

There is little point to describing its specific accomplishments in terms of discovery because they are so many.  Suffice it to say that a collection of published science papers using Hubble data would be very, very thick.

And because of past NASA, White House and congressional commitment to space science, the over-budget and long behind-schedule James Webb Space Telescope is now on target to launch late next year.  The Webb will potentially be as revelatory as the Hubble, or even more so in terms of understanding the early era of the universe, the nature and origin of ubiquitous dark matter, and the composition of exoplanets.

Preliminary planning for the great observatory for the 2030s is underway now, and nobody knows whether funding for something as ambitious will be available.

The era of directly imaging exoplanets has only just begun, but the science and viewing pleasures to come are appealingly apparent. This evocative movie of four planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting the young star HR 8799 is a composite of sorts, including images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. (Jason Wang/University of California, Berkeley and Christian Marois, National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. )

Many of the early exoplanet discoveries were made by astrophysicists at ground-based observatories, and were made by both American, European and Canadian scientists.  NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and others played a kind of supporting role for the agency, but that all changed with the launch of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

From 2009 to today, the Kepler has identified more than 4,000 exoplanet candidates with more than 2,400 confirmed planets, many of which are rocky like Earth.  Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

The census provided by Kepler, which looked fixedly at only one small part of the deep sky for four years until mechanical, led to the consensus conclusion that the Milky Way alone is home to billions of planets and that many of them are rocky and in the habitable zone of their host stars.

In other words, Kepler made enormous progress in defining the population of exoplanets likely to exist out there — a wild menagerie of objects  very different from what might have been expected, and in systems very different as well.

Two additional NASA observatories designed to detect and study exoplanets are scheduled to launch in the next decade.

A NASA rendering of a possible moon colony, along the lines of the International Space Station. It was proposed in 2006 by President George W. Bush.) NASA

Given the number of references to our moon in Pence’s Kennedy Space Station speech — and the enormous costs of the also often referenced humans-to-Mars idea — my bet is that moon landings and perhaps a “colony” will be the Administration’s human space exploration project of choice.

I say this because it is achievable, with NASA rockets and capsules under construction and the fast-growing capabilities of commercial space competitors.  We have, after all, proven that astronauts can land and survive on the moon, and a return there would be much less expensive than sending a human to Mars and back.  (I’m also skeptical that such a trip to Mars will be technically feasible any time in the foreseeable future, though I know that others strongly disagree.)

As readers of Many Worlds may remember, I’m a fan of a human spaceflight project championed by former astronaut and head of NASA’s Science Directorate John Grunsfeld to assemble a huge observatory in space designed to seriously look for life around distant stars.  This plan is innovative, would give NASA and astronauts an opportunity learn how to live and work in deep space, and would provide another science gem.  It would indeed show American space leadership.

But here is why I think a moon colony is going to be the choice:  Russia, China and the Europeans have all announced tentative plans to build moon colonies in the next decade or two.  So for primarily strategic, competitive and national security reasons, it seems likely that this kind of “new frontier” is what the administration has in mind.

After all, Pence also said in his speech at the KSC that “Under President Donald Trump, American security will be as dominant in the heavens as we are here on Earth.”  (An apparent reference to both NASA and the military space program, which is significantly better funded than NASA.)

Setting up an American moon colony would be very costly in dollars, time and focus, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Given that a pie can be sliced just so many ways, however, it’s pretty clear that a major moon colony project would end up taking a significant amount of funding away from space science missions.

Returning to the moon and even setting up a colony is not, however, an example of American leadership.  Rather, it would constitute a decision for the United States and NASA to, in effect, follow the pack.


How to Give Mars an Atmosphere, Maybe


The Many Worlds site has been down for almost two weeks following the crash of the server used to publish it.  We never expected it would take quite this long to return to service, but now we are back with a column today and another one for early next week.

An artist rendering of what Mars might look like over time if efforts were made to give it an artificial magnetic field to then enrich its atmosphere and made it more hospitable to human explorers and scientists. (NASA)

Earth is most fortunate to have vast webs of magnetic fields surrounding it. Without them, much of our atmosphere would have been gradually torn away by powerful solar winds long ago, making it unlikely that anything like us would be here.

Scientists know that Mars once supported prominent magnetic fields as well, most likely in the early period of its history when the planet was consequently warmer and much wetter. Very little of them is left, and the planet is frigid and desiccated.

These understandings lead to an interesting question: if Mars had a functioning magnetosphere to protect it from those solar winds, could it once again develop a thicker atmosphere, warmer climate and liquid surface water?

James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, thinks it could. And perhaps with our help, such changes could occur within a human, rather than an astronomical, time frame.

In a talk at the NASA Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop at the agency’s headquarters, Green presented simulations, models, and early thinking about how a Martian magnetic field might be re-constituted and the how the climate on Mars could then become more friendly for human exploration and perhaps communities.

It consisted of creating a “magnetic shield” to protect the planet from those high-energy solar particles. The shield structure would consist of a large dipole—a closed electric circuit powerful enough to generate an artificial magnetic field.

Simulations showed that a shield of this sort would leave Mars in the relatively protected magnetotail of the magnetic field created by the object. A potential result: an end to largescale stripping of the Martian atmosphere by the solar wind, and a significant change in climate.

“The solar sytstem is ours, let’s take it,” Green told the workshop. “And that, of course, includes Mars. But for humans to be able to explore Mars, together with us doing science, we need a better environment.”


An artificial magnetosphere of sufficient size generated at L1 – a point where the gravitational pull of Mars and the sun are at a rough equilibrium — allows Mars to be well protected by what is known as the magnetotail. The L1 point for Mars is about 673,920 miles (or 320 Mars radii) away from the planet. In this image, Green’s team simulated the passage of a hypothetical extreme Interplanetary Coronal Mass Ejection at Mars. By staying inside the magnetotail of the artificial magnetosphere, the Martian atmosphere lost an order of magnitude less material than it would have otherwise. (J. Green)

Is this “terraforming,” the process by which humans make Mars more suitable for human habitation? That’s an intriguing but controversial idea that has been around for decades, and Green was wary of embracing it fully.

“My understanding of terraforming is the deliberate addition, by humans, of directly adding gases to the atmosphere on a planetary scale,” he wrote in an email.

“I may be splitting hairs here, but nothing is introduced to the atmosphere in my simulations that Mars doesn’t create itself. In effect, this concept simply accelerates a natural process that would most likely occur over a much longer period of time.”

What he is referring to here is that many experts believe Mars will be a lot warmer in the future, and will have a much thicker atmosphere, whatever humans do. On its own, however, the process will take a very long time.

To explain further, first a little Mars history.

Long ago, more than 3.5 billion years in the past, Mars had a much thicker atmosphere that kept the surface temperatures moderate enough to allow for substantial amounts of surface water to flow, pool and perhaps even form an ocean. (And who knows, maybe even for life to begin.)

But since the magnetic field of Mars fell apart after its iron inner core was somehow undone, about 90 percent of the Martian atmosphere was stripped away by charged particles in that solar wind, which can reach speeds of 250 to 750 kilometers per second.

Mars, of course, is frigid and dry now, but Green said the dynamics of the solar system point to a time when the planet will warm up again.

James Green, the longtime director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. (NASA)

He said that scientists expect the gradually increasing heat of the sun will warm the planet sufficiently to release the covering of frozen carbon dioxide at the north pole, will start water ice to flow, and will in time create something of a greenhouse atmosphere. But the process is expected to take some 700 millon years.

“The key to my idea is that we now know that Mars lost its magnetic field long ago, the solar wind has been stripping off the atmosphere (in particular the oxygen) ever since, and the solar wind is in some kind of equilibrium with the outgassing at Mars,” Green said. (Outgassing is the release of gaseous compounds from beneath the planet’s surface.)

“If we significantly reduce the stripping, a new, higher pressure atmosphere will evolve over time. The increase in pressure causes an increase in temperature. We have not calculated exactly what the new equilibrium will be and how long it will take.”

The reason why is that Green and his colleagues found that they needed to add some additional physics to the atmospheric model, dynamics that will become more important and clear over time. But he is confident those physics will be developed.

He also said that the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter now circling Mars should be able to identify molecules and compounds that could play a significant role in a changing Mars atmosphere.

So based on those new magnetic field models and projections about the future climate of Mars, when might it be sufficiently changed to become significantly more human friendly?

Well, a relatively small change in atmospheric pressure can stop an astronaut’s blood from boiling, and so protective suits and clothes would be simpler to design. But the average daily range in temperature on Mars now is 170 degrees F, and it will take some substantial atmospheric modification to make that more congenial.

Green’s workshop focused on what might be possible in the mid 21st century, so he hopes for some progress in this arena by then.

This image combines depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars, based on data collected from two instruments aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars. About 620 miles across, the white sections are primarily water ice. Frozen carbon dioxide accumulates as a comparatively thin layer about one meter thick on the north cap in the northern winter only. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One of many intriguing aspects of the paper is its part in an NASA effort to link fundamental models together for everything from predicting global climate to space weather on Mars.

The modeling of a potential artificial magnetosphere for Mars relied, for instance, on work done by NASA heliophysics – the quite advanced study of our own sun.

Chuanfei Dong, an expert on space weather at Mars, is a co-author on the paper and did much of the modeling work. He is now a postdoc at Princeton University, where he is supported by NASA.

He used the Block-Adaptive-Tree Solar-Wind Roe-Type Upwind Scheme (BATS-R-US) model to test the potential shielding effect of an artificial magnetosphere, and found that it was substantial when the magnetic field created was sufficiently strong.  Substantial enough, in fact, to greatly limit the loss of Martian atmosphere due to the solar wind.

As he explained, the artificial dipole magnetic field has to rotate to prevent the dayside reconnection, which in turn prevents the nightside reconnection as well.

If the artificial magnetic field does not block the solar winds properly, Mars could lose more of its atmosphere. That why the planet needs to be safely within the magnetotail of the artificial magnetosphere.

In their paper, the authors acknowledge that the plan for an artificial Martian magnetosphere may sound “fanciful,” but they say that emerging research is starting to show that a miniature magnetsphere can be used to protect humans and spacecraft.

In the future, they say, it is quite possible that an inflatable structure can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (a unit that measures the strength of a magnetic field) as an active shield against the solar wind. In the simulation, the magnetic field is about 1.6 times strong than that of Earth.


A Mars with a magnetic field and consequently a thicker atmosphere would not likely be particularly verdant anytime soon. But it might make a human presence there possible.

As a summary of what Green and others are thinking, here is the “results” section of the short paper:

“It has been determined that an average change in the temperature of Mars of about 4 degrees C will provide enough temperature to melt the CO2 veneer over the northern polar cap.

“The resulting enhancement in the atmosphere of this CO2, a greenhouse gas, will begin the process of melting the water that is trapped in the northern polar cap of Mars. It has been estimated that nearly 1/7th of the ancient ocean of Mars is trapped in the frozen polar cap. Mars may once again become a more Earth-like habitable environment.

The results of these simulations will be reviewed (with) a projection of how long it may take for Mars to become an exciting new planet to study and to live on.”



Hunting for Exoplanets Via TESS



The TESS satellite, which will launch in 2017, will use four cameras to search for exoplanets around bright nearby stars. MIT
The TESS satellite, which will launch in 2017, will use four cameras to search for exoplanets around bright nearby stars. MIT initially proposed the mission, and it was approved in 2013.  (MIT)

Seven years ago this month the Kepler spacecraft launched into space – the first NASA mission dedicated to searching for planets around distant stars. The goal was to conduct a census of these exoplanets, to learn whether planets are common or rare. And in particular, to understand whether planets like Earth are common or rare.

With the discovery and confirmation of over 1,000 exoplanets (and thousands more exoplanet candidates that have not yet been confirmed), Kepler has taught us that planets are indeed common, and scientists have been able to make new inferences about how planetary systems form and evolve. But the planets found by Kepler are almost exclusively around distant, faint stars, and the observations needed to further study and characterize these planets are challenging. Enter TESS.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is a NASA Explorer mission designed to search for new exoplanets around bright, nearby stars. The method that TESS will use is identical to that used by Kepler – it looks for planets that transit in front of their host star. Imagine that you’re looking at a star, and that star has planets around it.

If the orbit of the planet is aligned correctly, then once per “year” of the planet (i.e. once per orbit), the planet will pass in front of the star. As the planet moves in front of the star, it blocks a small fraction of the light, so the star appears to get slightly fainter. As the planet moves out of transit, the star returns to normal brightness. We can see an example of this in our own solar system on May 9, 2016, as Mercury passes in front of the Sun.

A small dip in the amount of light emanating from a star tells astronomers that a planet may well be crossing in front of it.

We can learn a lot from observing the transits of a planet. First, we can learn the size of a planet – the bigger the planet, the more light it will block, and the larger the “dip” in the brightness of the host star. Second, we can learn how long the planet’s year is – since it only passes in front of the star once per orbit, the time between transits is the planet’s year.

The duration of the year, in combination with the properties of the host star, also allows us to determine if a planet might be habitable. With high precision measurements, we can also infer much more about the orbit of the planet (e.g., the eccentricity of the orbit). And, in fact, in some cases, we can look at small changes in the apparent year of the planet to discover additional planets in the system that do not transit (Transit Timing Variations).

To observe these transits, TESS will use four identical, extremely precise cameras mounted behind four identical 8-inch telescopes. Each one of these cameras will be sensitive to changes in the brightness of a star as small as about 40 parts per million, allowing TESS to detect planets even smaller than our planet.

Earth, transiting the sun, would produce a dip of about 100 parts per million. Each of the four cameras has a field-of-view of 24°×24°, and the fields of the four cameras are adjacent so that TESS will instantaneously observe a 24°×96° swath of the sky (referred to as an observation sector). Within this field, TESS will collect “postage stamp” images of about 8,000 stars every two minutes – the postage stamps are small sub-images, nominally about 10×10 pixels.

Over the course of two years, TESS will survey nearly the entire sky looking for transiting exoplanets. Each observing sector covers a patch of sky 24°×96° for 27 days; where sectors overlap, TESS will be able to observe planets for a long as nearly a year.
Over the course of two years, TESS will survey nearly the entire sky looking for transiting exoplanets. Each observing sector covers a patch of sky 24°×96° for 27 days; where sectors overlap, TESS will be able to observe planets for a long as nearly a year. (Ricker et al)

TESS will stare continuously at each of these observation sectors for 27 days before moving to the next sector; over the course of one year, this will give TESS coverage of almost one entire hemisphere, with postage stamp data on approximately 100,000 stars. In the second year of the TESS mission, 13 additional sectors will cover the other hemisphere of the sky, resulting in observations of about 200,000 stars.

The method used for these postage stamp-sized observations is very similar to that used for Kepler, but the survey itself is different. While TESS is conducting an all-sky survey (about 40,000 square degrees), Kepler looked at only a relatively small patch of the sky (115 square degrees). But with a telescope seven times larger than those on TESS, Kepler was able to look much further away – TESS surveys stars within only about 200 light years, compared to 3,000 light years for Kepler.

This underscores the difference in the underlying philosophy of the two missions. The goal of Kepler was to understand the statistics of exoplanets, to conduct a census to understand the population as a whole.

Artist's rendering of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet and its host, a star slightly more massive than our sun. Image credit: ESO
Artist’s rendering of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet and its host, a star slightly more massive than our sun. Image credit: ESO

TESS, on the other hand, is about finding planets around bright, nearby stars –planets that will be well-suited to follow-up observations from both the ground and from space. On average, the stars observed by TESS will be between 30 and 100 times brighter than those observed by Kepler. These brighter targets will allow for follow-up observations that will be critical for understanding the nature of the newly discovered planets – more on that in a moment.

In raw numbers, what do we expect from TESS?

Former MIT graduate student Peter Sullivan conducted detailed simulations of the mission to make a prediction on what it might discover, and these results are incredible. With TESS, we expect to find over 1,600 new exoplanets within the postage stamp data, with about 70 of those being about the size of the Earth (within 25% of the Earth’s diameter), and almost 500 “super-Earth” planets (less than twice the diameter of Earth).

Perhaps most exciting is the likelihood that TESS will discover a handful of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their host stars.

Finding an Earth-sized planet in a distant habitable zone is a top goal of TESS, and of the exoplanet community as a whole. (NASA/Chester Harman)
Finding an Earth-sized planet in a distant habitable zone is a top goal of TESS, and of the exoplanet community as a whole. (NASA/Chester Harman)

In addition, while TESS obtains the postage stamp data every two minutes, it also obtains a full-frame image – a picture of the entire observing sector – every thirty minutes.

In those data, we expect to find over 20,000 additional planets. The majority of those will be large (Jupiter-size) planets, but there will also be about 1,400 additional super-Earths discovered. The sheer number of planets that will be found is amazing, but more important than the number is the fact that all of these planets will be orbiting bright, nearby stars. This is a fantastic leap relative to where we were just 25 years ago, when not a single exoplanet was known.

One of the challenges of transit measurements is that they can produce false positives. Stellar activity can cause quasi-periodic dips in the brightness of a star. An eclipsing binary star in the background could mimic the dip from a transiting planet. With careful analysis, most of these effects can be accounted for, but it remains important to follow a transit observation with a confirmation — making a secondary measurement to ensure that what was observed is, in fact, a planet.

The most straightforward way to confirm a transiting exoplanet is with a radial velocity (RV) measurement. The RV method takes advantage of the reflex motion of the star; as a planet orbits a star, the star itself doesn’t remain stationary. In fact, both the planet and the star orbit the center of mass of the system. So, if one looks at spectral lines from the host star, it is possible to measure the Doppler shift of those lines as the star does it’s little pirouette around the center of mass.

From this data, astronomers can measure the mass and the year (orbital period) of the exoplanet. This confirms the orbital period observed from the transit data, and the combination of radius (observed from the transit) and the mass (observed from the RV) gives us the bulk density of the planet. With that, we can make inferences about the composition of the planet – is it a rock, like Earth? A water-world or a ball of ice? A gas giant?

Measurements of the TESS space telescope. (NASA)
Measurements of the TESS space telescope. (NASA)

Making the RV measurement, while straightforward, is not an easy one – less than 10% of the exoplanet candidates found by Kepler have been confirmed with RV measurements, largely because the host stars themselves are faint. For TESS, however, because the host stars are nearby and bright, it will be possible to make follow-up observations on nearly all of the stars that host small planets – the only major limitation will be due to the noise from the stars themselves (i.e. flares, starspots).

Further, because these host stars are bright, they will also be excellent targets for transit spectroscopy. Imagine, for a moment, that there is a transiting planet with a very large atmosphere, and that this atmosphere is transparent in red and blue, but completely opaque in the green. Then, if you observe the planet in red light (or blue light), only the “rock” part of the planet will block light from the star. In green light, however, the rock and the atmosphere will both block light – in the green, the planet appears to be larger than at other wavelengths.

This is the core idea behind transit spectroscopy. By measuring how the apparent size of a transiting planet varies with wavelength, we can infer the composition (and potentially the structure) of the planetary atmosphere. This technique has been used successfully on a very small number of exoplanets to date, but with the large number of planets that TESS will find, and the fact that they will all be around bright, nearby stars, it will be possible to use the James Webb Space Telescope and the next generation of large ground-based telescopes to make these observations.

TESS is expected to add 2,000 new exoplanets to the already long list of the ones alrday detected. (NASA)
TESS is expected to monitor more than 200,000 stars and add 1,500 new exoplanets to the already long list of those confirmed or awaiting confirmation.  (NASA)

For the first time, astronomers will actually be able to study not only individual exoplanets, but will be able to study enough of them to make comparisons and draw conclusions about how planets form and evolve.

For me, TESS is endlessly exciting. The sheer quantity of new exoplanets is stunning. The ability to use follow-up observations to characterize these planets will create new paths for scientific investigation. And the discoveries made will help define the science that will be pursued by future missions such as WFIRST, and perhaps more ambitious missions in the future. But, perhaps most exciting, TESS is in part about making “Exoplanets for Everyone.”

In a few years, it will be possible for everyone to go outside to a dark location, point at a star that you can see with the naked eye, and say “there is a planet around that star.” And the night sky may never feel quite the same again.

Video link: TESS Trailer — https://youtube/ZsPStvGgNuk


How Will We Know What Exoplanets Look Like, and When?


An earlier version of this article was accidently published last week before it was completed.  This is the finished version, with information from this week’s AAS annual conference.

This image of a pair of interacting galaxies called Arp 273 was released to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The distorted shape of the larger of the two galaxies shows signs of tidal interactions with the smaller of the two. It is thought that the smaller galaxy has actually passed through the larger one.
This image of a pair of interacting galaxies called Arp 273 was released to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The distorted shape of the larger of the two galaxies shows signs of tidal interactions with the smaller of the two. It is thought that the smaller galaxy has actually passed through the larger one.

Let’s face it:  the field of exoplanets has a significant deficit when it comes to producing drop-dead beautiful pictures.

We all know why.  Exoplanets are just too small to directly image, other than as a miniscule fraction of a pixel, or perhaps some day as a full pixel.  That leaves it up to artists, modelers and the travel poster-makers of the Jet Propulsion Lab to help the public to visualize what exoplanets might be like.  Given the dramatic successes of the Hubble Space Telescope in imaging distant galaxies, and of telescopes like those on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this is no small competitive disadvantage.  And this explains why the first picture of this column has nothing to do with exoplanets (though billions of them are no doubt hidden in the image somewhere.)

The problem is all too apparent in these two images of Pluto — one taken by the Hubble and the other by New Horizons telescope as the satellite zipped by.


Pluto image taken by Hubble Space Telescope (above) and close up taken by New Horizons in 2015. (NASA)
Pluto image taken by Hubble Space Telescope (above) and close up taken by New Horizons in 2015. (NASA)

Pluto is about 4.7 billion miles away.  The nearest star, and as a result the nearest possible planet, is 25 trillion miles  away.  Putting aside for a minute the very difficult problem of blocking out the overwhelming luminosity of a star being cross by the orbiting planet you want to image,  you still have an enormous challenge in terms of resolving an image from that far away.

While current detection methods have been successful in confirming more than 2,000 exoplanets in the past 20 years (with another 2,000-plus candidates awaiting confirmation or rejection),  they have been extremely limited in terms of actually producing images of those planetary fireflies in very distant headlights.  And absent direct images — or more precisely, light from those planets — the amount of information gleaned about the chemical makeup of their atmospheres  as been limited, too.

But despite the enormous difficulties, astronomers and astrophysicist are making some progress in their quest to do what was considered impossible not that long ago, and directly image exoplanets.

In fact, that direct imaging — capturing light coming directly from the sources — is pretty uniformly embraced as the essential key to understanding the compositions and dynamics of exoplanets.  That direct light may not produce a picture of even a very fuzzy exoplanet for a very long time to come, but it will definitely provide spectra that scientists can read to learn what molecules are present in the atmospheres, what might be on the surfaces and as a result if there might be signs of life.

This diagram illustrates how astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope can capture the elusive spectra of hot-Jupiter planets. Spectra are an object's light spread apart into its basic components, or wavelengths. By dissecting light in this way, scientists can sort through it and uncover clues about the composition of the object giving off the light. To obtain a spectrum for an object, one first needs to capture its light. Hot-Jupiter planets are so close to their stars that even the most powerful telescopes can't distinguish their light from the light of their much brighter stars. But, there are a few planetary systems that allow astronomers to measure the light from just the planet by using a clever technique. Such "transiting" systems are oriented in such a way that, from our vantage point, the planets' orbits are seen edge-on and cross directly in front of and behind their stars. In this technique, known as the secondary eclipse method, changes in the total infrared light from a star system are measured as its planet transits behind the star, vanishing from our Earthly point of view. The dip in observed light can then be attributed to the planet alone. To capture a spectrum of the planet, Spitzer must observe the system twice. It takes a spectrum of the star together with the planet (first panel), then, as the planet disappears from view, a spectrum of just the star (second panel). By subtracting the star's spectrum from the combined spectrum of the star plus the planet, it is able to get the spectrum for just the planet (third panel). This ground-breaking technique was used by Spitzer to obtain the first-ever spectra of two planets beyond our solar system, HD 209458b and HD 189733b. The results suggest that the hot planets are socked in with dry clouds high up in the planet's stratospheres. In addition, HD 209458b showed hints of silicates, indicating those high clouds might be made of very fine sand-like particles.
This diagram illustrates how astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope can capture the elusive spectra of hot-Jupiter planets. Spectra are an object’s light spread apart into its basic components, or wavelengths. By dissecting light in this way, scientists can sort through it and uncover clues about the composition of the object giving off the light. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

There has been lots of technical and scientific debate about how to capture that light, as well as debate about how to convince Congress and NASA to fund the search.  What’s more, the exoplanet community has a history of fractious internal debate and competition that has at times undermined its goals and efforts, and that has been another hotly discussed subject.  (The image of a circular firing squad used to be a pretty common one for the community.)

But a seemingly much more orderly strategy has been developed in recently years and was on display at the just-completed American Astronomical Society annual meeting in Florida.  The most significant breaking news was probably that NASA has gotten additional funds to support a major exoplanet direct imaging mission in the 2020s, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and that the agency is moving ahead with a competition between four even bigger exoplanet or astrophysical missions for the 2030s. The director of NASA Astrophysics, Paul Hertz, made the formal announcements during the conference, when he called for the formation of four Science and Technology Definition Teams to assess in great detail the potentials and plausibilities of the four possibilities.

Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Putting it into a broader perspective, astronomer Natalie Batalha, science lead for the Kepler Space Telescope, told a conference session on next-generation direct imaging that  “with modern technology, we don’t have the capability to image a solar system analog.”  But, she said, “that’s where we want to go.”

And the road to discovering exoplanets that might actually sustain life may well require a space-based telescope in the range of eight to twelve meters in radius, she and others are convinced.  Considering that a very big challenge faced by the engineers of the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch in 2018) was how to send a 6.5 meter-wide mirror into space, the challenges (and the costs) for a substantially larger space telescope will be enormous.

We will come back in following post to some of these plans for exoplanet missions in the decades ahead, but first let’s look at a sample of the related work done in recent years and what might become possible before the 2020s.  And since direct imaging is all about “seeing” a planet — rather than inferring its existence through dips in starlight when an exoplanet transits, or the wobble of a sun caused by the presence of  an orbiting ball of rock (or gas)  — showing some of the images produced so far seems appropriate.  They may not be breath-taking aesthetically, but they are remarkable.

There is some debate and controversy over which planets were the first to be directly imaged. But all agree that a major breakthrough came in 2008 with the imaging of the HR8799 system via ground-based observations.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory - http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/exoplanet20100414-a.html This image shows the light from three planets orbiting a star 120 light-years away. The planets' star, called HR8799, is located at the spot marked with an "X." This picture was taken using a small, 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) portion of the Palomar Observatory's Hale Telescope, north of San Diego, Calif. This is the first time a picture of planets beyond our solar system has been captured using a telescope with a modest-sized mirror -- previous images were taken using larger telescopes. The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants like Jupiter, but more massive. They orbit their host star at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and sun, respectively (Jupiter resides at about 5 times the Earth-sun distance).
This 2010 image shows the light from three planets orbiting HR8799, 120 light-years away.  The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants like Jupiter, but more massive. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory)

First, three Jupiter-plus gas giants were identified using the powerful Keck and Gemini North infrared telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii by a team led by Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. That detection was followed several years later the discovery of a fourth planet and then by the release of the surprising image above, produced with the quite small (4.9 foot) Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory outside of San Diego.

As is the case for all planets directly imaged, the “pictures” were not taken as we would with our own cameras, but rather represent images produced with information that is crunched in a variety of necessary technical ways before their release.  Nonetheless, they are images in a way similar the iconic Hubble images that also need a number of translating steps to come alive.

Because light from the host star has to be blocked out for direct imaging to work, the technique now identifies only planets with very long orbits. In the case of HR8799, the planets orbit respectively at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and sun.  Jupiter orbits at about 5 times the Earth-sun distance.

In the same month as the HR8799 announcement, another milestone was made public with the detection of a planet orbiting the star Formalhaut.  That, too, was done via direct imagining, this time with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble images were taken with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph in 2010 and 2012. This false-color composite image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals the orbital motion of the planet Fomalhaut b. Based on these observations, astronomers calculated that the planet is in a 2,000-year-long, highly elliptical orbit. The planet will appear to cross a vast belt of debris around the star roughly 20 years from now. If the planet's orbit lies in the same plane with the belt, icy and rocky debris in the belt could crash into the planet's atmosphere and produce various phenomena. The black circle at the center of the image blocks out the light from the bright star, allowing reflected light from the belt and planet to be photographed. Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)
The Hubble images the the star Formalhaut and planet Formalhaut b were taken with the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph in 2010 and 2012. This false-color composite image reveals the orbital motion of the Fomalhaut b. Based on these observations, astronomers calculated that the planet is in a 2,000-year-long, highly elliptical orbit. The black circle at the center of the image blocks out light from the very bright star, allowed reflected light from the belt and planet to be captured.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)

Signs of the planet were first detected in 2004 and 2006 by a group headed by Paul Kalas at the University of California, Berkeley, and they made the announcement in 2008.  The discovery was confirmed several years later and tantalizing planetary dynamics began to emerge from the images (all in false color.) For instance, the planet appears to be on a path to cross a vast belt of debris around the star roughly 20 years from now.  If the planet’s orbit lies in the same plane with the belt, icy and rocky debris could crash into the planet’s atmosphere and cause interesting damage.

The region around Fomalhaut’s location is black because astronomers used a coronagraph to block out the star’s bright glare so that the dim planet could be seen. This is essential since Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than its star. The radial streaks are scattered starlight. Like all the planets detected so far using some form of direct imaging,  Fomalhaut b if far from its host star and completes an orbit every 872 years.

Adaptive optics of the Gemini Planet Imager, at the Gemini South Observatory in Chile, has been successful in imaging exoplanets as well.  The GPI grew out of a proposal by the Center for Adaptive Optics, now run by the University of California system, to inspire and see developed innovative optical technology.  Some of the same breakthroughs now used in treating human eyes found their place in exoplanet astronomy.


Discovery image of 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18, 2014. The bright central star has been mostly removed by a hardware and software mask to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter. Credits: J. Rameau (UdeM) and C. Marois (NRC Herzberg).
Discovery image of 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18, 2014. The bright central star has been mostly removed by a hardware and software mask to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter. Credits: J. Rameau (UdeM) and C. Marois (NRC Herzberg).

The Imager, which began operation in 2014, was specifically created to discern and evaluate dim, newer planets orbiting bright stars using a different kind of direct imaging. It is adept at detecting young planets, for instance, because they still retain heat from their formation, remain luminous and visible. Using the GPI to study the area around the y0ung (20-million-year-old) star 51 Eridiani, the team made their first exoplanet discovery in 2014.

By studying its thermal emissions, the team gained insights into the planet’s atmospheric composition and found that — much like Jupiter’s — it is dominated by methane.  To date, methane signatures have been weak or absent in directly imaged exoplanets.

James Graham, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, is the project leader for a three-year GPI survey of 600 stars to find young gas giant planets, Jupiter-size and above.

“The key motivation for the experiment is that if you can detect heat from the planet, if you can directly image it, then by using basic science you can learn about formation processes for these planets.”  So by imaging the planets using these very sophisticated optical advances, scientists go well beyond detecting exoplanets to potentially unraveling deep mysteries (even if we still won’t know what the planets “look like” from an image-of-the-day perspective.

The GPI has also detected a second exoplanet, shown here at different stages of its orbit:


The animation is a series of images taken between November 2013 and April 2015 with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, and shows the exoplanet β Pictoris b, which is more than 60 lightyears from Earth. The star is the black area on the left edge of the frame and is hidden by the Gemini Planet Imager’s coronagraph. We are looking at the planet’s orbit almost edge-on, with the planet closer to the Earth than the star. (M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto; F. Marchis, SETI Institute)
The animation is a series of images taken between November 2013 and April 2015 with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, and shows the exoplanet β Pictoris b, which is more than 60 lightyears from Earth. The star is the black area on the left edge of the frame and is hidden by the Gemini Planet Imager’s coronagraph. (M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto; F. Marchis, SETI Institute)

A next big step in direct imaging of exoplanets will come with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.  While not initially designed to study exoplanets — in fact, exoplanets were just first getting discovered when the telescope was under early development — it does now include a coronagraph which will substantially increase its usefulness in imaging exoplanets.

As explained by Joel Green, a project scientist for the Webb at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the new observatory will be able to capture light — in the form of infrared radiation– that will be coming from more distant and much colder environments than what Hubble can probe.

“It’s sensitive to dimmer things, smaller planets that are more earth-sized.  And because it can see fainter objects, it will be more help in understanding the demographics of exoplanets.  It uses the infrared region of the spectrum, and so it can look better into the cloud levels of the planets than any telescope so far and see deeper.”

James Webb Space Telescope mirror being inspected at Goddard Space Flight Center, as it nears completion.  The powerful, sophisticated and long-awaited telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018.
James Webb Space Telescope mirror being inspected at Goddard Space Flight Center, as it nears completion. The powerful, sophisticated and long-awaited telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018.

These capabilities and more are going to be a boon to exoplanet researchers and will no doubt advance the direct imaging effort and potentially change basic understandings about exoplanets.  But it is not expected produce gorgeous or bizarre exoplanet pictures for the public, as Hubble did for galaxies and nebulae.  Indeed, unlike the Hubble — which sees primarily in visible light —  Webb sees in what Green said is, in effect, night vision.   And so researchers are still working on how they will produce credible images using the information from Webb’s infrared cameras and translating them via a color scheme into pictures for scientists and the public.

Another compelling exoplanet-imaging technology under study by NASA is the starshade, or external occulter, a metal disk in the shape of a sunflower that might some day be used to block out light from host stars in order to get a look at faraway orbiting planets.  MIT’s Sara Seager led a NASA study team that reported back on the starshade last year in a report that concluded it was technologically possible to build and launch, and would be scientifically most useful.  If approved, the starshade — potentially 100 feet across — could be used with the WFIRST telescope in the 2020s.  The two components would fly far separately, as much as 35,000 miles away from each other, and together could produce breakthrough exoplanet direct images.

An artist's depiction of a sunflower-shaped starshade that could help space telescopes find and characterize alien planets. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltec
An artist’s depiction of a sunflower-shaped starshade that could help space telescopes find and characterize alien planets.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Here is a link to an animation of the starshade being deployed: http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/video/15

The answer, then, to the question posed in the title to this post — “How Will We Know What Exoplanets Look Like, and When?”– is complex, evolving and involves a science-based definition of what “looking like” means.  It would be wonderful to have images of exoplanets that show cloud formations, dust and maybe some surface features, but “direct imaging” is really about something different.  It’s about getting light from exoplanets that can tell scientists about the make-up of those exoplanets and their atmospheres, and ultimately that’s a lot more significant than any stunning or eerie picture.

And with that difference between beauty and science in mind, this last image is one of the more striking ones I’ve seen in some time.

Moon glow over Las Campanas Observatory, run by the Carnegie Institution of Science, in Chile. (Yuri Beretsky)
Moon glow over Las Campanas Observatory, operated by the Carnegie Institution of Science, in Chile. (Yuri Beretsky)

It was taken at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile last year, during a night of stargazing.  Although the observatory is in the Atacama Desert, enough moisture was present in the atmosphere to create this lovely moon-glow.

But working in the observatory that night was Carnegie’s pioneer planet hunter Paul Butler, who uses the radial velocity method to detect exoplanets.  But to do that he needs to capture light from those distant systems.  So the night — despite the beautiful moon-glow — was scientifically useless.


Retro Exo and Its Originators

David Delgado, visual Strategist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, co-designed the Orbital Pavillion sculpture for the World Science Festival in New York. (Ramsay de Give, The Wall Street Journal)
David Delgado, visual Strategist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, co-designed the Orbital Pavilion sculpture for the World Science Festival in New York. (Ramsay de Give, The Wall Street Journal)

Exoplanets are mysterious, they’re complicated, they’re important, they’re awe-inspiring.   And, to a team of artists at the Jet Propulsion Lab, they’re also totally fun.

They’re a topic for endless artistic creation because they’re that remarkable combination of brand new and, surprisingly, comfortably familiar.  Exoplanets may be weird and wild but they’re also potentially home to life and, well, people.  And what better way to describe and talk about exoplanets than in a context we all understand — as a travel destination where one of us just might some day spend some time.

Thus was born the series of exoplanet posters — created by artists of JPL’s imaginary Exoplanet Travel Bureau — that have caught the imagination of millions.  When the JPL team put highest quality copies of their posters onto their Planet Quest website in summer, the traffic was so great that the site crashed.

Where the sun shines red. (NASA/JPL)
Where the sun shines red.

We know that JPL is extraordinary when it comes to designing, building and then operating satellites and rovers, but extraordinary in art, too?

“We had this idea — we wanted to say something real about these planets, something based on firm scientific discoveries, but we also wanted it to be approachable and appealing,” said David Delgado, one of the three members of the JPL art team called “The Studio” which designed and produced the now iconic posters. He has a background in teaching (at JPL), in graphic communications and, initially, in advertising.

“Each poster would have one planet, and we would illustrate one strange or wonderful aspect of it.  It kind of caught on.”

While the idea of creating some exo-posters had been bouncing around for some time in the minds of three of the members of the JPL art team — Delgado, Joby Harris and Daniel Goods — it was a specific event and specific need that brought them to life.

Last year, MIT exoplanet pioneer Sara Seager was coming to JPL, and the exoplanet office wanted something special to greet her.  So it was a perfect moment to finally execute the exo-poster plan.  Three posters were created, one showing a super-Earth with low gravity, one a planet orbiting a pair of binary stars, and one where the nature of the sun’s radiation might produce vegetation of a different color than on Earth (if any vegetation existed, that is.)

A Tatoonie planet with two suns. (NASA/JPL)
A Tatoonie planet with two suns. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“They were supposed to be seen in hallway, just to kind of decorate the area for a welcome,” said Harris, the primary illustrator.  “It was really dark, so we had to figure out lighter colors to use and maybe a different kind of style.”

“Little did we know how it would take off.  People were stopping to look at the posters and figure them out, interns were taking pictures, summer students were flocking in,” he said.  “Pretty soon people were asking for copies and our office said, sure, let’s make copies.”

So those copies were released early this year and, because they are NASA products, they were all free.  News of the posters was soon all over Twitter and Reddit and JPL’s Planet Quest site (http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/exoplanet_travel_bureau) came crashing down.

For first recipient Seager, her hallway introduction to the posters was a delightful “wow” moment:  “In exoplanets, so many things that happen surprise us by exceeding anything we could have imagined. Usually that sentiment is for new exponent discoveries, but in this case its for the how iconic the posters have become, and the public reaction to them.”  She has copies hanging in her home, in her office and uses them in her public talks.

None of the particular planets selected is considered habitable by the experts, but all had a human visitor included nonetheless.  And that’s how the seemingly visceral connection with viewers was made. Looking back, Delgado sees the inclusion of people as essential.

“There were some objections for sure to having people in the posters.  It seemed to be communicating that NASA was going to these places with astronauts, and clearly it is not,” Delgado said.  “But people want to place themselves on these planets, to be a viewer who experiences what it might be like.  As a way to get folks excited about exoplanets and learn, seems fine to me.”

Clearly, the look, the artistry of the posters was a driving force, too  Many illustrations of celestial bodies come with a kind of classic sci-fi imagination that emphasizes drama, collisions, sharp lined realism and bright colors.  The Travel Bureau posters are a polar opposite — retro and at times Art Deco. Some have pointed out that they look a tad like Amtrak’s travel posters or the work of a few artists experimenting in science fiction, but there’s no doubting that their work was novel.

Most fully Art Deco poster of a planet with no sun, created for a science gathering. (NASA/JPL)
Most fully Art Deco poster of a planet with no sun, created for a science gathering. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It was illustrator Harris who brought that sensibility to the project.  He has a background in special effects, graphics and film– where he was exposed to the art deco look.  He also works in television; one of his early projects was to design some of the props for what became the cult science fiction series “Firefly.”

The poster’s retro look came from a desire to meld nostalgia and the past with the cutting edge future — a return to travel posters of the 20s and 30s, but with rather different destinations.

“We were aiming for a retro-futuristic look, something that brings science fiction into the everyday present,” Delgado said. “It’s like we’re living in the future, or science fiction is coming to life.”

The look has indeed spawned much competition from private artists, who have created planetary and exoplanetary posters in a similar vein.  Delgado thinks that many are just fine, but a little limited.  “Everyone loves the look.  But some capture the fun without the truth of the science.”

Poster for the 20th anniversary celebration in Washington of the discovery of earliest exoplanets. (NASA/JPL)
Poster for the 20th anniversary celebration in Washington of the discovery of earliest exoplanets. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Visual Strategist” Daniel Goods was the artistic director for the project, and he was the one who came up with the idea of adding a line of text highlighting the science.  Goods, like the others, has also created substantial art and sculpture installations around the JPL campus, some of which tour the nation and the world and have won awards. The posters, for instance, are now on display at a major art exhibition in Stockholm.

Goods is a native of Alaska with little science background, who grew up in Oregon and Seattle somehow now shines in L.A.  He and the others say they thrive on asking questions of the scientists and integrating their knowledge into “The Studio’s” work.

The posters took particular outreach and study to get the right scientific message:

“Where Your Shadow Always has Company” for a planet orbiting a set of binary stars.

“Where the Nightlife Never Ends” for an orphan planet no longer orbiting a sun.

A super-Earth and its gravity (NASA/JPL)
A super-Earth and its gravity (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Experience the Gravity of HD 40307d for a super-Earth where the force of gravity would be much stronger than on Earth.

“Where the Grass is Always Redder on the Other Side” for a planet orbiting a sun cooler than ours and emitting radiation in redder wavelengths.

Given the huge success of the posters, the logical question to ask is whether more are coming, and when.

I certainly asked the question but those who know said they couldn’t answer.

Nonetheless, I think there’s reason to be optimistic that more clever and compelling planetary and exoplanetary art will be coming out of the JPL “Studio” in the months and years ahead.  And some will no doubt be retro.

So stay tuned.

Joby Harris (left) and Dan Goods in "The Studio" at JPL. (NASA/JPL)
Joby Harris (left) and Dan Goods in “The Studio” at JPL. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)