Hunting for Exoplanets Via TESS

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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.

Tranit
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

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

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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.

image

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.

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Retro Exo and Its Originators

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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.
        (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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)
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Counting Our Countless Worlds

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The Milky Way has several hundred billion stars, and many scientists are now convinced it has even more planets and moons. (NASA)
The Milky Way is home to several hundred billion stars, and many scientists are now convinced it has even more planets and moons. (NASA)

Imagine counting all the people who have ever lived on Earth, well over 100 billion of them.

Then imagine counting all the planets now orbiting stars in our Milky Way galaxy , and in particular the ones that are roughly speaking Earth-sized. Not so big that the planet turns into a gas giant, and not so small that it has trouble holding onto an atmosphere.

In the wake of the explosion of discoveries about distant planets and their suns in the last two decades, we can fairly conclude that one number is substantially larger than the other.

Yes, there are many, many billions more planets in our one galaxy than people who have set foot on Earth in all human history. And yes, there are expected to be more planets in distant habitable zones as there are people alive today, a number upwards of 7 billion.

This is for sure a comparison of apples and oranges. But it not only gives a sense of just how commonplace planets are in our galaxy (and no doubt beyond), but also that the population of potentially habitable planets is enormous, too.   “Many Worlds,” indeed.

The populations of exoplanets identified so far, plotted according to the radius of the planet and how many days it takes to orbit. The circles in yellow represent planets found by Kepler, light blue by using ground-based radial velocity, and pink for transiting planets not found by Kepler, and green, purple and red other ground-based methods. (NASA Ames Research Center)
The populations of exoplanets identified so far, plotted according to the radius of the planet and how many days it takes to orbit. The circles in yellow represent planets found by Kepler, light blue by using ground-based radial velocity, and pink for transiting planets not found by Kepler, and green, purple and red other ground-based methods. (NASA Ames Research Center)

It was Ruslan Belikov, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley who provided this sense of scale.  The numbers are of great importance to him because he (and others) will be making recommendations about future NASA exoplanet-finding and characterization missions based on the most precise population numbers that NASA and the exoplanet community can provide.

Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist for the Kepler Space Telescope mission and the person responsible for assessing the planet population out there, sliced it another way. When I asked her if her team and others now expect each star to have a planet orbiting it, she replied: “At least one.”

Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet to be found within the habitable zone -- the region around the host star where the temperature is right for liquid water. This planet is also very close in size to Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)
Kepler-186f was the first rocky planet to be found within the habitable zone — the region around the host star where the temperature is right for liquid water. This planet is also very close in size to Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

I caught up with Belikov, Batalha and several dozen others intimately involved in cataloguing the vast menagerie of exoplanets at a “Hack Event” earlier this month at Ames. The goal of the three-day gathering was to find ways to improve the already high level of reliability and completeness regarding planets identified by Kepler.

It also provided an opportunity to learn more about how, exactly, these scientists can be so confident about the very large numbers of exoplanets and habitable zone exoplanets they describe. After all, the total number of confirmed exoplanets is a bit under 2,000 – a majority found by Kepler but hundreds of others by pioneering astronomers using ground-based telescopes and very different techniques. Kepler has another 3,000 planet candidates that scientists are in the process of analyzing and most likely confirming, but still. Four thousand is minuscule compared with two hundred billion.

Not everyone completely agrees that we’re ready to estimate such large numbers of exoplanets—suggesting that we need more data before making such important estimates — but the community consensus is that their extrapolations from current data are solid and scientific. And here is why:

The Kepler telescope looks out at a very small portion of the sky with a limited number of stars – about 190,000 of them during its four year survey. And it identifies planets based on the tiny dimming of stars when an object (almost always a planet) crosses between the star and the telescope.

The Kepler telescope looked constantly for four years at almost 200,000 stars in the Cygnus constellation. (Carter Roberts)
The Kepler telescope looked constantly for four years at almost 200,000 stars in the Cygnus & Lyra constellations.  Its lens is always open, by design. (Carter Roberts)

By identifying those 4,000-plus confirmed and candidate planets over four years, Kepler infers the existence of many, many more. As Batalha explained, a transit of the planet is only observable when the orbit is aligned with the telescope, and the probability of that alignment is very small. Kepler scientists refer to this as a “bias” in their observations, and it is one that can be quantified. For example, the probability that an Earth-Sun twin will be aligned in a transiting geometry is just 0.5%. For every one that Kepler detects, there are 200 others that didn’t transit simply because of the orientation of their orbits.

Then there’s the question of faintness and reliability. Kepler is looking out at stars hundreds, sometimes thousands of light years away.  The more distant a star, the fainter it is and the more difficult it is to gather measurements of –and especially dips in — brightness. When it comes to potentially habitable, Earth-sized planets, Batalha said that only 10,000 to 15,000 of the stars observed are bright enough for planets to be detectable even if they do transit the disk of their host star.

Here’s why: Detecting an Earth-sized planet would be roughly equivalent to capturing the image of a gnat as it crosses a car headlight shining one mile away. For a Jupiter-size planet, the bug would grow to only the size of a large beetle.

Add this bias to the earlier one, and you can see how the numbers swell so quickly. And since Kepler’s mission has been to provide a survey of planets in one small region – and not a census – this kind of statistical extrapolation is precisely what the mission is supposed to do.

There are numerous other detecting challenges posed by the dynamics of exoplanets, stars and the great distances. But then there are also innumerable challenges associated with the workings of the 95 megapixel CCD array that is collecting light for Kepler.   “Sensitivity dropouts” caused by those cosmic rays, horizontal “rolling bands” on the CCDs caused by temperature changes in the electronics, “optical ghosts” from binary stars that create false signals of transits on nearby stars — they are some of the many instrument artifacts that can be mistaken as a drop in light coming from a planet. Kepler’s data processing pipeline, much of which has been transferred over to the NASA Ames supercomputer, has the job of sorting all this out.

 

After the CCDs on the Kepler telescope record the light from stars in its viewing field, the data is sent back to Earth and goes through numerous steps before possibly delivering a “Kepler object of interest,” and possibly a planet candidate. Pleiades is the Ames supercomputer. (NASA Ames)
After the CCDs on the Kepler telescope record the light from stars in its viewing field, the data is sent back to Earth and goes through numerous steps before possibly delivering a “Kepler object of interest,” and possibly a planet candidate. Pleiades is the Ames supercomputer. (NASA Ames)

Adding to the challenge, said Jon Jenkins, a Kepler co-investigator at Ames and the science lead for the pipeline development, is that the stars viewed by Kepler turned out to be themselves “noisier” than expected. Stars naturally vary in their overall brightness, and the data processing pipeline had to be upgraded to account for that changeability.  But that stellar noise has played a key role in keeping Kepler from seeing some of the small planet transits that the team hoped to detect.

What the Hack event and other parallel efforts are doing is finding ways to, as Jenkins put it, “dig into the noise…to move towards the hairy edge of what our data can show.” The final goal: “To come up with the newest, best washer we can to clean the data and come out with an improved catalog of sparkling planets.”

All the data that will come from the primary Kepler mission, which came to a halt in the summer of 2013, has been collected and analyzed already on a first round. But now the entire pipeline of data is going to be reprocessed with its many improvements so the researchers can dig deeper into data trove. Batalha said they hope to find planets – especially Earth-sized planets – this way.

One of the key techniques to measure the performance of Kepler’s analysis pipeline is to inject fake transit signals into the data and see if it picks up their presence. As Batalha explained, this provides another way to gauge the biases in the system, its efficiency at detecting the planets that it could and should see. “If we inject 100 fake things into the pipeline and find 90 of them, that’s means we’re 90 percent complete.” She said the number would then be worked into the calculations of how many planets are out there, and how many of certain sizes will be caught and missed.

Natalie Batalha is the Chief Scientist for the Kepler mission, while announcing the discovery of Kepler’s first rocky planet, Kepler-10b, in January 2011.

So the Hack Event, which brought together astrophysicists, planetary scientists and computer hakers, was designed to come up with ways to improve Kepler’s completeness (seeing everything there to be seen) and reliability (the likelihood that the signal comes from a planet and not an instrument artifact or non-planetary phenomena in space). By computing both the completeness and reliability, scientists are confident that they can eliminate the observation biases and transform the discovery catalog into a directory of actual planets.

This is one of the key accomplishments of the Kepler mission – making it scientifically possible to say that there are billions and billions of planets out there. What’s more, the increased power of Kepler allowed for the discovery of smaller planets, which are now known to make up the bulk of the exoplanets. And while the number of Earth-sized planets detected in that habitable zone is small – around thirty – that’s still quite a remarkable feat. And remember, Kepler is looking at but one small sliver of the sky.

The twelve exoplanets detected so far closest to Earth in size, lined up with the type of stars they orbit. (NASA Ames)
The twelve exoplanets detected and confirmed so far closest to Earth in size, lined up with the type of stars they orbit. (NASA Ames)

Why does it matter how many exoplanets are out there, how many are rocky and Earth-sized, and how many within habitable zones? The last twenty years of exoplanet hunting, after all, has made clear that there are an essentially infinite number of them in the universe, and untold billions in our galaxy.

The answer lies in the insatiable human desire to know more about the world writ large, and how and why different stars have very different solar systems. But more immediately, there’s the need to know how to best design and operate future planet-finding missions. If the goal is to learn how to characterize exoplanets – identify components of their atmospheres, learn about their weather, their surfaces and maybe their cores – then scientists and engineers need to know a lot more about where planets generally, and some specifically, can be found. And those planet demographics just might open some surprising possibilities.

For instance, Belikov and his Ames colleague Eduardo Bendek have proposed a NASA “small explorer” (under $175 million) mission to launch a 30-to-45 centimeter mirror designed to look for Earth-sized planets only at our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. That’s as small a telescope as you can buy off-the-shelf.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System at about 4.37 lightyears away. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our Solar System at about 4.37 lightyears away. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

Alpha Centauri is a two-star system, and until recently researchers doubted that binaries like it would have orbiting planets. But Kepler and other planet hunters have found that planets are relatively common around binaries, making Alpha Centauri a better target than earlier imagined.

To make it a truly viable project, ACESat – the Alpha Centauri Exoplanet Satellite – requires something else: a scientifically sound estimate of the likelihood that any star in our galaxy would have an Earth-sized planet in its system. Estimates so far have ranged from 10 percent to 50 percent, but Belikov said newer data is encouraging.

“If that number becomes more firm and approaches 50 percent, then an Alpha Centauri-only mission makes a great deal of sense,” he said. “For a small investment, we could have a real possibility of detecting a planet very close by.”

Intriguing, and an insight into how new space missions are designed based on the science already completed. Both NASA and the European Space Agency have plans to launch three significant exoplanet missions within the decade, and the powerful James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2018 with some known and undoubtedly some not yet understood capabilities for exoplanet discovery. And perhaps most important, NASA is about to study how a potential mission in the 2030s could be designed with the specific purpose of directly imaging exoplanets – the gold standard for the field. All are being designed based on current exoplanet understandings, including the abundance calculations enabled by the Kepler mission’s observations.

Almost 2,000 exoplanets have now been identified, more than half by Kepler. Another 3,000 exoplanet candidates await confirmation. (NASA Ames)
Almost 2,000 exoplanets have now been detected and confirmed, more than half by Kepler. Another 3,000 exoplanet candidates await confirmation. (NASA Ames)

Future posts will dig deeper into a fair number of the subjects raised here, but for now this much is clear: Our galaxy has many billions of planets, and the process of detecting them is robust and on-going, the process of characterizing them has begun, and all the signs point towards the presence of enormous numbers of planets in habitable zones that, in the biggest picture at least, could possibly support life.

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