Kepler Team Releases Catalog with 219 new Exoplanet Candidates
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The story of the Kepler space telescope is a saga of discovery, heartbreak, and redemption. Launched in 2009, Kepler’s mission was to search for Earth-size and smaller planets orbiting nearby stars, and to estimate how many stars in the Milky Way have such planets. Within the first few weeks of observations, five previously unknown exoplanets were found orbiting close to their parent star. Over the next few years, thousands of planetary candidates were discovered. In July of 2012, one of the telescope’s four reaction wheels failed; these are a type of flywheel that keep the spacecraft pointed at its target, and the telescope needs three to function properly. In May of 2013 a second reaction wheel failed, ending new data collection for the original mission and putting the continuation of the mission into jeopardy. In November of 2013, a new mission plan dubbed K2 “Second Light” was devised – by balancing “light pressure” from the Sun on spacecraft’s solar panels to act as a … Continue reading

Exoplanet Extravaganza
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Exoplanet news has been all the buzz since the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 39 light-years away from Earth – that’s 229 trillion miles or 369 trillion kilometers. Three of those worlds orbit within that star’s habitable zone, increasing their likelihood of supporting life. Two hours after the announcement, I discussed with students in the Endeavour Space Academy, what exoplanets are, exoplanet detection methods, and the thousands of exoplanets found to date. The questions I got mirror those I’ve seen asked online: Can we go there? Well, there are a lots of gotchas to that question. At our current level of technology, and using the fastest object humans have created as a baseline, it would take well over 100,000 years to reach this star system; Remember: “Space is big. Really big!” Speaking of “we,” what will modern-day humans have evolved into after 100,000 years? Could life exist there? It’s certainly possible. With the discovery of … Continue reading

The Beer and the Telescope
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During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L’Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour — I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway — and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition… click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them… they edited it slightly. Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director … Continue reading

Newborn Exoplanet Orbits Parent Star in Five Days
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Astronomers have discovered the youngest fully formed exoplanet ever detected. The discovery was made using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope and its extended K2 mission, as well as the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars beyond our sun. The newfound planet, K2-33b, is a bit larger than Neptune and whips tightly around its star every five days. It is only 5 to 10 million years old, making it one of a very few newborn planets found to date. “Our Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old,” said Trevor David of Caltech in Pasadena, lead author of a new study published online June 20, 2016, in the journal Nature. “By comparison, the planet K2-33b is very young. You might think of it as an infant.” David is a graduate student working with astronomer Lynne Hillenbrand, also of Caltech. Planet formation is a complex and tumultuous process that remains shrouded in mystery. Astronomers have discovered … Continue reading

Kepler-452b, Exoplanet, Super-Earth
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Using data from the NASA Kepler space telescope, scientists have confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a sun-like star, 1400 light-years away. A star’s habitable zone is an orbital region where temperatures are just right for water to exist on planetary surfaces. Earth-sized exoplanets (or exomoons) within the habitable zone (sometimes referred to as the “Goldilocks zone”), with liquid water on their surfaces, are good candidates for hosting life. Kepler-452b is about 60% larger than Earth, and more massive – this type of exoplanet is typically referred to as a “Super-Earth;” a human standing on its surface would weigh almost twice as much as they would on Earth. Both Earth and Kepler-452b orbit a G2-type star, each about the same temperature. Kepler-452b’s star is 1.5 billion years older than our sun (about 6 billion years old), and is hotter and brighter than our Sun. Kepler-452b is receiving ten percent more energy from its parent star … Continue reading

Spitzer Space Telescope Finds Exoplanet 13,000 Light Years Away
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Fast Facts: › Space observatory discovers one of the most distant planets known › Research helps map whereabouts of exoplanets throughout the Milky Way NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has teamed up with a telescope on the ground to find a remote gas planet about 13,000 light-years away, making it one of the most distant planets known. The discovery demonstrates that Spitzer — from its unique perch in space — can be used to help solve the puzzle of how planets are distributed throughout our flat, spiral-shaped Milky Way galaxy. Are they concentrated heavily in its central hub, or more evenly spread throughout its suburbs? “We don’t know if planets are more common in our galaxy’s central bulge or the disk of the galaxy, which is why these observations are so important,” said Jennifer Yee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a NASA Sagan fellow. Yee is the lead author of one of three new studies that appeared … Continue reading