NASA’s Next Generation Wide Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope

Will study dark energy, conduct a census of discovered exoplanets, and image and analysis their spectroscopy using coronagraphy.  

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Credits: NASA/WFIRST

Space news (Astrophysics: next generation infrared telescope; WFIRST) – Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) –  

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Credits: NASA.

Scheduled for launch sometime in 2020, the exact date hasn’t been set in stone, NASA’s Wide Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope (WFIRST)’s currently in the formation stage in various science institutions around the United States. NASA’s next generation wide-field infrared survey telescope, WFIRST’s expected to open a wider window on the infrared cosmos and unravel secrets of the universe. 

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Credits: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble has,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.”  

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Former astronaut and current NASA assistant director John Grunsfeld. Credits: NASA.

Utilizing a view 100 times bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope, it will compliment astrophysicists exploring dark energy, dark matter, and the origins and evolution of the cosmos. Carrying a chronograph capable of blocking the individual glare of a star, WFIRST will detect the faint light of planets, making it possible for the first time to make detailed measurements of the chemical makeup of alien atmospheres light-years away. By making a survey of the atmospheres of many alien worlds astronomers will add to our knowledge of their origins and physics and search for planetary atmospheres capable of sustaining life. 

Credits: NASA
Credits: NASA

“WFIRST is designed to address science areas identified as top priorities by the astronomical community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington. “The Wide-Field Instrument will give the telescope the ability to capture a single image with the depth and quality of Hubble, but covering 100 times the area. The coronagraph will provide revolutionary science, capturing the faint, but direct images of distant gaseous worlds and super-Earths.”  

Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. Credits: NASA
Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. Credits: NASA

Designed and engineered to compliment the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope, and future Transiting Exoplanet Survey Telescope (TESS), WFIRST will follow the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope around 2018. One of NASA’s next generation astrophysics observatories, WFIRST will offer a treasure trove of astronomical data and survey the cosmos to discover the mysteries of the universe. 

Credits: NASA
Credits: NASA

“In addition to its exciting capabilities for dark energy and exoplanets, WFIRST will provide a treasure trove of exquisite data for all astronomers,” said Neil Gehrels, WFIRST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This mission will survey the universe to find the most interesting objects out there.” 

WFIRST’s sensitivity and wide view of the cosmos will allow astronomers to conduct a large-scale survey of exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of millions of stars. Utilizing numerous methods, astrophysicists will use this space observatory to investigate the ways dark energy and dark matter have altered, affected the evolution of the cosmos. 

Credits: NASA
Credits: NASA

Go for launch!

NASA’s chiseled a tentative date on paper of sometime in the 2020s for the launch of WFIRST, but delays and even improvements of this timetable are possible. After reaching space, NASA’s next generation wide-field infrared survey telescope will travel to an L2 point millions of miles from Earth, before starting astrophysical operations and improving and enhancing our view of the infrared cosmos. 

Watch this video on WFIRST.

Read about ASCA, Advanced Satellite for Cosmology & Astrophysics.

Read and learn about the discoveries of the Giant Magellan Telescope, located high up on an Andes Mountain peak in Las Campanas, Chile.

Learn more about the new Japanese X-ray satellite Hitomi, “Pupil of the Eye”.

Learn more about the mysteries of the universe discovered by NASA

Read more about WFIRST here

Discover the Hubble Space Telescope

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope here

Discover NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Learn more about TESS here

Learn what scientists have discovered about dark energy

Discover dark matter here

Discover the Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler Captures Supernova Shockwave in Visible Light

Mining of Kepler space mission data reveals “supernova’s shockwave” in visible light

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Space news (massive supernovae) – 1.2 billion light-years from Earth –

An international team of scientists at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana mining three years of Kepler Space Telescope data for massive supernovae discovered something never seen during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Buried in the Kepler data Peter Garnavich and team observed for the first time the brilliant flash of a massive supernova’s shockwave in visible light as it reached the surface of the exploding star.

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NASA scientists Peter Garnavich. Credit: NASA

“In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky,” said Garnavich. “You don’t know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler’s vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began.”

Garnavich’s the leader of the Kepler Extragalactic Survey (KEGS) research team, which is currently mining NASA’s Kepler K2 mission data looking for massive supernovae. NASA’s repurposed planet hunter is expected to detect around a dozen more events during its mission to capture the light from hundreds of distant galaxies and trillions of stars.

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The diagram illustrates the brightness of a supernova event relative to the sun as it unfolds. For the first time, a supernova shockwave has been observed in the optical wavelength or visible light as it reaches the surface of the star. This early flash of light is called a shock breakout. 

Astronomers call the brilliant flash of a supernova’s shockwave “a shock breakout”. This event only lasts around twenty minutes in the cases observed, so catching the flash as it happens is truly a milestone for astronomers studying supernovae. By piecing together individual moments of a supernova astronomers hope to learn more about the history of chemical complexity and the evolution of life.

“All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Life exists because of supernovae.”

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NASA scientist Steve Howell. Credit: NASA

Massive supernovae and their less energetic brothers are the seeds of chemical complexity in the cosmos, spreading the elements of creation across the breadth of the universe. Understanding the physics behind these titanic events can help tell us how these elements of creation were spread across the universe.

Kepler observes two massive supernovae

The Kepler Space Telescope observed a type II supernova shockwave in visible light as it broke the surface of the star for the first time in history as supermassive red giant KSN 2011d went supernova in 2011. Containing roughly 500 times the mass of Sol, this supermassive star at the moment the shockwave from the supernova reached its surface was 130,000,000 times brighter than the Sun. Continuing to explode and grow, the star eventually reached a maximum brightness over 1 billion times greater than Sol 14 days later.

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This artist’s conception of the repurposed Kepler K2 spacecraft. Credit. NASA/Kepler K2

The Kepler Space Telescope also observed a second type II supernova in 2011. Red super massive star KSN 2011a contains 300 times as much mass as Sol and occupies a volume of space that would easily engulf the orbit of Earth around the Sun. Only 700 million light-years from Earth, astronomers weren’t able to observe a shock breakout in the data for this supernova, but they think it might be due to gas masking the shockwave as it reached the surface of the star.

“That is the puzzle of these results,” said Garnavich. “You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That’s maximum diversity.”

“While Kepler cracked the door open on observing the development of these spectacular events, K2 will push it wide open observing dozens more supernovae,” said Tom Barclay, senior research scientist and director of the Kepler and K2 guest observer office at Ames. “These results are a tantalizing preamble to what’s to come from K2!”

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Drawing of Tom Barclay. Credit: Tom Barclay.com

Watch this YouTube video on this event here.

Learn more about K2.

Discover what the Kepler Extragalactic Survey has told us here.

Take the voyage of the Kepler Space Telescope.

Learn more about type II supernovas here.

Discover NASA.

Learn more about astronomy at the University of Notre Dame here.

Read about the giant bubble observed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Learn more about the prominent emission lines in young stars.

Read about two merging black holes astronomers are watching.

Astronomers Witness First Cosmic-moments of Rare, Newborn Supernovae

Three Type Ia supernovae they study in order to measure cosmic distances and lift the veil of mystery surrounding dark energy

This graphic depicts a light curve of the newly discovered Type Ia supernova, KSN 2011b, from NASA's Kepler spacecraft. The light curve shows a star's brightness (vertical axis) as a function of time (horizontal axis) before, during and after the star exploded. The white diagram on the right represents 40 days of continuous observations by Kepler. In the red zoom box, the agua-colored region is the expected 'bump' in the data if a companion star is present during a supernova. The measurements remained constant (yellow line) concluding the cause to be the merger of two closely orbiting stars, most likely two white dwarfs. The finding provides the first direct measurements capable of informing scientists of the cause of the blast. Credits: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel
This graphic depicts a light curve of the newly discovered Type Ia supernova, KSN 2011b, from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. The light curve shows a star’s brightness (vertical axis) as a function of time (horizontal axis) before, during and after the star exploded. The white diagram on the right represents 40 days of continuous observations by Kepler. In the red zoom box, the agua-colored region is the expected ‘bump’ in the data if a companion star is present during a supernova. The measurements remained constant (yellow line) concluding the cause to be the merger of two closely orbiting stars, most likely two white dwarfs. The finding provides the first direct measurements capable of informing scientists of the cause of the blast.
Credits: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

Space news (astrophysics: supernovae; 3 new candidates) – billions of light-years from Earth –

A team of determined astronomers studying the largest explosions viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time recently found three new candidates. Three candidates, they found after viewing 400 galaxies for two years using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

Kepler’s unprecedented pre-event supernova observations and Swift’s agility in responding to supernova events have both produced important discoveries at the same time but at very different wavelengths,” says Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Not only do we get insight into what triggers a Type Ia supernova, but these data allow us to better calibrate Type Ia supernovae as standard candles, and that has implications for our ability to eventually understand the mysteries of dark energy.”

In the data they collected over this two year period using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, this amazing team of explorers found three new and distant Type Ia supernovae, designated KSN 2011b, KSN 2011c, KSN 2012a. Due to the frequent observations of Kepler in the direction of the three distant supernovae, the data collected even contains the first moments of each tremendous blast. Measurements that will allow scientists to piece together the events leading to these events and the reasons for such a tremendous release of energy.

Astrophysicists believe Type Ia supernovae erupt with the same apparent brightness because in all cases the exploding body is a white dwarf star. It’s this property scientists use as a standard candle to more accurately measure the distance to objects around the cosmos than was previously possibly.

Astronomers use computer simulations to simulate the debris field of a Type Ia supernovae (brown) slamming into a companion star (blue) at tens of millions of miles per hour. Resulting ultraviolet light escapes as the supernova shell sweeps over the companion star, which is detected by the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Alert Telescope and other instruments. Credits: UC Berkeley, Daniel Kasen
Astronomers use computer simulations to simulate the debris field of a Type Ia supernovae (brown) slamming into a companion star (blue) at tens of millions of miles per hour. Resulting ultraviolet light escapes as the supernova shell sweeps over the companion star, which is detected by the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Alert Telescope and other instruments. Credits: UC Berkeley, Daniel Kasen

Astronomers also believe that every Type Ia supernovae are either the result of two white dwarf stars merging, or a white dwarf gathering so much material from a nearby companion star, it causes a thermonuclear reaction resulting in the white dwarf going supernova.

Our Kepler supernova discoveries strongly favor the white dwarf merger scenario, while the Swift study, led by Cao, proves that Type Ia supernovae can also arise from single white dwarfs,” said Robert Olling, a research associate at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study. “Just as many roads lead to Rome, nature may have several ways to explode white dwarf stars.”

In the case of KSN 2011b, KSN 2011c, and KSN 2012a, astronomers found no evidence to support the existence of material being taken from a companion star. This leads them to believe the cause in these cases is collision and merger between two closely orbiting white dwarf stars. 

Now, astronomers will use NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and other Earth and space-based telescopes to search for Type Ia supernovae among thousands of galaxies included in the study. This will allow them to determine the distance of stellar objects across the cosmos more accurately. It will also help them delve deeper into the mystery surrounding dark energy and its true nature. 

The search for supernovae continues

The Kepler spacecraft has delivered yet another surprise, playing an unexpected role in supernova science by providing the first well-sampled early time light curves of Type Ia supernovae,” said Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “Now in its new mission as K2, the spacecraft will search for more supernovae among many thousands of galaxies.”

Learn more about supernovae here.

Take the journey of the Kepler Space Telescope here.

Learn more about the search for the identity of dark energy here.

Learn more about the things astronomers are learning about the formation of new stars.

Read about plans of private firm Planetary Resources Inc. to mine an asteroid in the near future.

Discover and learn about the things NASA’s New Horizons mission has told us about Pluto and its system of moons.

Survey of Debris Fields Around Infant Suns Reveals Structures with Unexpected Diversity and Complexity

Structures created during cataclysmic collisions between objects left over from planet formation or something unknown?

This is a set of images from a NASA Hubble Space Telescope survey of the architecture of debris systems around young stars. Ten previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus (a mature protoplanetary disk of age comparable to the youngest of the debris disks), were studied.
This is a set of images from a NASA Hubble Space Telescope survey of the architecture of debris systems around young stars. Ten previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus (a mature protoplanetary disk of age comparable to the youngest of the debris disks), were studied.

Space news (July 13, 2015) – collisions indicating possible gravitational effects of unseen orbiting exoplanets or consequences of the star traveling through interstellar space –

Space scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope recently completed a visible-light imaging survey of the debris field systems around 10 young stars between the ages of 10 million to 1 billion years old. Debris fields they studied in order to better understand the early solar system and formation of the planets.

Explore 25 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope NASA will host a one-day-long event for 50 social media and media attendees at the Newseum and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into a low Earth orbit and began returning groundbreaking images and data that continue to revolutionize astronomy.
Explore 25 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope
NASA will host a one-day-long event for 50 social media and media attendees at the Newseum and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into a low-Earth orbit and began returning groundbreaking images and data that continue to revolutionize astronomy.

It’s like looking back in time to see the kinds of destructive events that once routinely happened in our solar system after the planets formed,” said survey leader Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.

eclipseguy with Glenn Schneider from The Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Glenn is the Project Lead – he makes the calculations for our Totality Run: the aircraft’s interception of the Moon’s umbra. He’s seen 32 Total Solar Eclipses
eclipseguy with Glenn Schneider from The Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Glenn is the Project Lead – he makes the calculations for our Totality Run: the aircraft’s interception of the Moon’s umbra. He’s seen 32 Total Solar Eclipses

What did the survey find?

Space scientists studying the evolution of stars and the formation of planets used to think debris fields surrounding young stars should be composed of simple pancake-like structures.

The complexity and diversity in debris fields studied in this recent survey strongly suggest this scenario is a little more involved than theories suggest. Facts indicate the possibility of gravitational effects of unseen exoplanets hidden within the dusty debris, the results of the young star traveling through interstellar space, or something unthought of as the reason for the deviation from theory.

We find that the systems are not simply flat with uniform surfaces,” Schneider said. “These are actually pretty complicated three-dimensional debris systems, often with embedded smaller structures. Some of the substructures could be signposts of unseen planets.” The astronomers used Hubble’s Space Telescope

Imaging Spectrograph to study 10 previously discovered circumstellar debris systems.

Star HD 181327 Shows Huge Debris Spray

Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, this image shows the huge dusty debris discs around a star called HD 181327, showing a huge spray of debris possibly caused by the recent collision of two bodies into the outer part of the system. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2826048/Hubble-spots-massive-eye-sky-reveal-massive-dust-clouds-left-planets-form-say-moon-formed.html#ixzz3gjPl6sI1 Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, this image shows the huge dusty debris discs around a star called HD 181327, showing a huge spray of debris possibly caused by the recent collision of two bodies into the outer part of the system. Image credit NASA

The ring-like debris system surrounding star HD 181327 has irregularities space scientists think could be due to a recent collision between two bodies on the outer part of the system.

This spray of material is fairly distant from its host star — roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the sun,” said co-investigator Christopher Stark. “Catastrophically destroying an object that massive at such a large distance is difficult to explain, and it should be very rare. If we are in fact seeing the recent aftermath of a massive collision, the unseen planetary system may be quite chaotic.

Another interpretation for the irregularity is that the disk has been mysteriously warped by the star’s passage through interstellar space, directly interacting with the unseen interstellar material. “Either way, the answer is exciting,” Schneider said. “Our team is currently analyzing follow-up observations that will help reveal the true cause of the irregularity.

As of 07/09/2015 space scientists have verified the existence of 1858 exoplanets, including 468 exosolar systems with multiple planets, and 92 Earth-size terrestrial-type planets. The structure and overall architecture of the systems discovered so far are more diverse than astrophysicists first proposed.

Habitable Worlds Image Credit & Licence: Planetary Habitability Laboratory (UPR Arecibo) Explanation: Is Earth the only known world that can support life? In an effort to find life-habitable worlds outside our Solar System, stars similar to our Sun are being monitored for slight light decreases that indicate eclipsing planets. Many previously-unknown planets are being found, including over 700 worlds recently uncovered by NASA's Kepler satellite. Depicted above in artist's illustrations are twelve extrasolar planets that orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life on Earth might be able to survive on them. Although technology cannot yet detect resident life, finding habitable exoplanets is a step that helps humanity to better understand its place in the cosmos.
Habitable Worlds
Image Credit & Licence: Planetary Habitability Laboratory (UPR Arecibo)
Explanation: Is Earth the only known world that can support life? In an effort to find life-habitable worlds outside our Solar System, stars similar to our Sun are being monitored for slight light decreases that indicate eclipsing planets. Many previously unknown planets are being found, including over 700 worlds recently uncovered by NASA’s Kepler satellite. Depicted above in artist’s illustrations are twelve extrasolar planets that orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life on Earth might be able to survive on them. Although technology cannot yet detect resident life, finding habitable exoplanets is a step that helps humanity to better understand its place in the cosmos.

During this time, space scientists have only viewed about two dozen light-scattering, circumstellar debris systems due to their comparative faintness and proximity to their parent stars. Despite the small sample size in exoplanetary debris systems astronomers view a surprising variety of architectures.

We are now seeing a similar diversity in the architecture of the accompanying debris systems,” Schneider said. “How are the planets affecting the disks, and how are the disks affecting the planets? There is some sort of interdependence between a planet and the accompanying debris that might affect the evolution of these exoplanetary debris systems.

What’s next?

Space scientists will now use the results obtained through this survey and the overall study of the debris system disks viewed to devise new theories and experiments to determine more about the evolution and growth of young stars in the cosmos.

They’ll also use the data and information gained to begin looking at how our solar system formed and evolved during the past 4.6 billion years. They want to study collisions between objects like HD 181327 and Earth-like planets to give more insight into the birth and evolution of our planet and the Moon during the first moments of the solar system.

You can learn more about and follow NASA’s space mission here.

Learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope here.

Learn about the NExSS Coalition’s Search for Habitable Planets and Life Beyond Earth.

Read about NASA telescopes detection of water vapor and clear skies on a Neptune-sized exoplanet.

Learn how to calculate the orbit of asteroids within the Main Asteroid Belt.

Planets Existing in Quadruple Star Systems More Common Than First Thought

Four percent of star systems seen during human journey to the beginning of space and time contain four stars

Space news (March 09, 2015) – 136 light-years away in the constellation Aries –

Astronomers operating instruments fitted to the Palomar Observatory in San Diego recently discovered the second exoplanet found existing in a quadruple star system. The first such exo-planet, KIC 4862625, was found in 2013 by citizen researchers using data obtained using the Kepler Space Telescope. This latest discovery indicates to many scientists and interested citizens that it’s more common for planets to exist in multiple star systems than first thought.

“About four percent of solar-type stars are in quadruple systems, which is up from previous estimates because observational techniques are steadily improving,” said co-author Andrei Tokovinin of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Called 30 Ari, this newly discovered quadruple star system is just 136 light-years away in the constellation Aries. The exo-planet is huge at over ten times the mass of Jupiter and orbits the parent star in an interesting 335 days. Could life exist on such a planet? Astronomers and space scientists think this is unlikely, but what do they know for certain?

The planet only orbits the primary star, not the second star which is relatively close to the first star at 23 astronomical units. The third and fourth stars are locked in a gravitational battle with this pair of stars at a distance of 1,670 A.U. from the primary star.

What would the view be like from the surface of this exoplanet? The first pair of the four stars would appear as a single small sun in the sky, along with two exceedingly bright stars visible during the day. Life existing on this planet would be one tough customer.

The image below is an artists conception of the 30 Ari star system.

This artist's conception shows the 30 Ari system, which includes four stars and a planet. The planet, a gas giant, orbits its primary star (yellow) in about a year's time. The primary star, called 30 Ari B, has a companion -- the small
This artist’s conception shows the 30 Ari system, which includes four stars and a planet. The planet, a gas giant, orbits its primary star (yellow) in about a year’s time. The primary star, called 30 Ari B, has a companion — the small “red dwarf” star shown at upper left. This pair of stars is itself locked in a long-distance orbit with another pair of stars (upper right), known as 30 Ari A. Researchers using instruments at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif., recently discovered the red star at upper left, bringing the total number of known stars in the system from three to four.
Image copyright: Karen Teramura, UH IfA

This planet could have brothers and sisters orbiting one of the stars within the system and even moons itself. Life could exist on one of these worlds. But we best leave these thoughts and ideas for the science fiction books.

We have discovered star systems with as many as four suns during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. So far, about four percent of systems viewed have at least four stars, and we have just started the journey. What will we discover next?

What’s next?

What’s next for astronomers and planetary scientists? A detailed study of multiple star systems, including 30 Ari, and their family dynamics. This should also hopefully tell us more about other possible exoplanets and moons in the 30 Ari star system.

Astronomers also want to take a look at why the second star, which in fact was only recently discovered, doesn’t seem to have changed the orbit of the exoplanet discovered. This does seem rather odd? We’ll have to wait and see what they discover.

Read about NASA looking for private and business to help drive the human journey to the beginning of space and time

Read about methane clouds seen moving over the northern seas of Saturn’s moon Titan

Read about Einstein’s Spacetime

You can learn more about NASA’s search for exoplanets here.

Did Life Evolve in the Early Universe?

Were there even suitable planets upon which life could survive? 

Space news (February 03, 2015) 117 light-years away in the constellation Lyra –

Astronomers have often wondered if life could have evolved in the early universe? Space scientists using data provided by NASA’s Kepler mission recently discovered a planetary system containing as many as five earth-sized planetthat formed when the universe was two billion years old.

The tightly packed system, named Kepler-444, is home to five small planets in very compact orbits. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist's conception. Image Credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Devine
The tightly packed system, named Kepler-444, is home to five small planets in very compact orbits. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist’s conception.
Image Credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Devine

  

The five earth-sized planets discovered orbit close to their home star in the star system called Kepler-444, range in size between Mercury and Venus. They also take less than ten days to complete each orbit, which means the weather on these planets is hotter and more extreme than any planet in our solar system.

Earth-based life would never survive on these planets unless of course, these planets were once further from their home star. If these planets were once located within the habitable zone of their home planet? It’s possible life once evolved and flourished on one or more of these early planets.

“While this star formed a long time ago, in fact before most of the stars in the Milky Way, we have no indication that any of these planets have now or ever had life on them,” said Steve Howell, Kepler/K2 project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “At their current orbital distances, life as we know it could not exist on these ancient worlds.”

Space scientists studying the age of planets within a star system measure small changes in the brightness of the parent sun produced by pressure waves within the star. These pressure waves result in small variations in star temperature and luminosity leading to very small changes in brightness. Asteroseismologists – asteroseismology is the study of the interior of suns – use these measurements to determine the diameter, mass, and age of the parent sun. The age of the planets within a star system is the same as the parent sun since they formed at about the same time. 

The existence of earth-sized planets in the early universe indicates life could have evolved and survived. This news doesn’t tell us how common solar systems with planets of this size were, but it does mean the possibility existed. 

What’s next?

Space scientists will now begin looking further back in time and at more early star systems to see if they can find more earth-sized planets life could have evolved on. Any intelligent life evolving in these planets would have long ago moved to another planet. Is it possible we could be descendants of life that evolved in the early universe? If any civilization had the time to develop the technology required to travel the universe and seed planets it would be one that developed on one of these early earth-sized planets.

For more information on NASA’s Kepler space mission go here.

Read about methane clouds moving over the northern seas of Saturn’s moon Titan

Read about the first earth-sized planet discovered orbiting within its home star’s habitable zone

Read about the search for extraterrestrial life taking a turn at Jupiter

NASA Telescopes Detecting Clear Skies and Steamy Water Vapor on Neptune-size Exoplanet

A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist's depiction. Such crossings, or transits, are observed by telescopes like NASA's Hubble and Spitzer to glean information about planets' atmospheres.
A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist’s depiction. Such crossings, or transits, are observed by telescopes like NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer to glean information about planets’ atmospheres Image Credit NASA

Is a sign smaller exoplanets could have similar or more hospitable environments

Space news (November 07, 2014) 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus –

NASA space scientists using the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes detected clear skies and steamy water vapor on exoplanet HAT-P-11b. This is the first detection of molecules on an exoplanet the size of Neptune or smaller. It’s also a sign smaller exoplanets have similar or more hospitable environments.  

Scientists were excited to discover clear skies on a relatively small planet, about the size of Neptune, using the combined power of NASA's Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Space scientists were excited to discover clear skies on a relatively small planet, about the size of Neptune, using the combined power of NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

How did space scientists detect clear skies and steamy vapor on a planet 120 light-years away in the Constellation Cygnus? Astronomers used the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to observe HAT-P-11b as it passed in front of its parent star in relation to Earth. By analyzing the starlight passing through the atmosphere of the exoplanet, space scientists determined the specific molecules making it up. 

This scientific technique is called Transmission Spectroscopy and it was particularly effective in the case of HAT-P-11b because of this Neptune-size exoplanet (exo-Neptune), unlike previous ones detected, has no clouds in the atmosphere to block the starlight from coming through, which allowed for the detection of water vapor molecules.  

A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA's Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA’s Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer space observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

“This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories.” 

“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, College Park, lead author of a new study appearing in Nature. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.” 

“We think that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions, which reflect their formation histories,” said study co-author Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Now with data like these, we can begin to piece together a narrative for the origin of these distant worlds.” 

“We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes,” said Drake Deming, a co-author of the study also from the University of Maryland. “We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets.” 

NASA space scientists will now use the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to begin looking at more exoplanets the size of HAT-P-11b for clear skies and water vapor. They’ll also hope to use Transmission Spectroscopy to detect smaller exoplanets, more like our home planet, called super-Earths orbiting distant stars. Once the James Webb Space Telescope comes online in 2018, they’ll begin looking at any super-Earths detected for signs of water vapor and other molecules. 

Find more on the Hubble Space Telescope here

More information on the Spitzer Space Telescope can be found here

Look here for more on the Kepler Space Telescope. 

Go here for more information on NASA and the exoplanets discovered.

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