7 Earth-Sized Worlds Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star

Artist's concept of the surface of TRAPPIST1-f.

Artist’s concept of the surface of TRAPPIST1-f. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA held a press conference today, announcing an exciting new discovery: A record-breaking seven Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a star located about 40 light years from Earth. Three of these planets are firmly located within what’s called the habitable zone–the area around a star that is likely to have rocky planets with liquid water.

The star is named TRAPPIST-1 (also known as 2MASS J23062928-0502285). It’s an ‘ultra-cool dwarf’ star, with approximately 8% of the mass and 11% of the radius of our Sun. Size-wise, this is approximately the difference between a basketball and a golfball.

The seven plants surrounding TRAPPIST-1 orbit much closer to their star than Earth does to the Sun. As well, these exoplanets are much closer to each other than the planets in our own system. You could stand on one of these planets and see the next closest one with a similar type of view that we have with the Moon here on Earth, and you could clearly make out the disc-shape of many of the other planets rather than mere points of light.

The discoveries were made using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003. Although Spitzer wasn’t specifically designed to observe exoplanets, the suite of instruments it carries allows it to discover exoplanets in the same manner that the Kepler spacecraft uses. These observatories can discover exoplanets by precisely measuring dips in the light emitted from a star that coincides with a planet orbiting in-between that star and our vantage point and blocking a portion of the light that we can measure. Continued observations can determine orbital periods, distance from the star, and the number of exoplanets in a system. This data can be used to plot habitable zones.

During the press conference, the team stated that they had preliminary mass measurements for six of the planets, and they believe that one is likely to have a water-rich composition.

Artist's concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances.

Artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There currently isn’t a system for naming exoplanets in the way that bodies like asteroids are named, so they’re simply provided with alphabetic designations appended to their host stars’ name, with the designation ‘b’ being the closest to the star.

These planets orbit so close to their star that they’re likely tidally-locked in the same manner that the Moon is to the Earth. These planets would have permanent day and night sides.

One of the planets, Trappist-1c, is very similar in size to Earth and receives about the same amount of light as Earth receives from the Sun. It could very well have temperatures similar to those we have on Earth. Trappist-1f has a 9-day orbit and receives about as much light as Mars does. Trappist-1g is the largest planet in the system with an estimated radius 13% larger than Earth.

All of the planets are within a few times the distance between the Earth and the Moon of each other, and being so close to their star their orbits (their years) are about 1.5 Earth days for the closest planet and 20 days for the furthest.

Concept art for TRAPPIST-1 and its seven Earth-sized exoplanets.

Concept art for TRAPPIST-1 and its seven Earth-sized exoplanets. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next step, which is already ongoing, is to study their atmospheres and to look for water. This can be accomplished using a technique called transmission spectroscopy. We have observatories that can do this now, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and the future James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to push these capabilities even further. JWST will be able to look for greenhouse gas content and determine the surface temperatures of these planets, as well as detect gases that are produced by life. It’s expected that the first cycle of observations of the JWST will include the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, referred to our moment in time as “the gold rush phase of exoplanet discovery.”  It was just in 1995 that the first exoplanet was discovered, he explained, and that thousands have been discovered since.

Following the announcement, the panel held a Q&A session. During the course of their answers, they explained that there was no indication of these planets having moons, but that if water was present there would be tidal activity resulting from the other planets. They said they expect substantial progress in determining the atmospheric composition of these exoplanets within the next 5 years, utilizing the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope after it begins operations in 2018. JWST’s transmission spectroscopy will cover the range needed to determine the potential for life.

One member asked if any attempts have been made to listen to the system with SETI-style instruments, to which there was a reply that SETI itself had listened to the system but hadn’t picked-up any signals.

One of the most interesting answers came from Zurbuchen, when he was asked when we could expect to construct a craft that could journey to this system. Rather than give an estimate in the number of years in the future we could expect such capabilities, he answered with the estimated “number of miracles” that are required before we get there. He explained that the JWST required 10 miracles to become possible. He likened the construction of a craft that could explore TRAPPIST-1 as requiring “100 miracles”, but that we shouldn’t be dissuaded, that to get there you have to “start inventing your way forward.” Some of the “miracles” require advancements in propulsion systems and radiation-protection, and that the good news was that substantial work is already being accomplished towards about 5-10 of these miracles. He said it’s about “leaning forward” and “not backing up”.

Discoveries like these are constant reminders of just how big and amazing our Universe is. We’re reminded that the night sky isn’t just full of points of light, but worlds, perhaps some of which might be very similar to our own.

A poster advertising a hypothetical planet-hopping trip in the Trappist-1 system

A poster advertising a hypothetical planet-hopping trip in the Trappist-1 system – Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Galileo Spacecraft: First Orbiter of Jupiter

Artist rendering of Galileo arriving at Jupiter

Artist rendering of Galileo arriving at Jupiter – Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Atlantis carried a special payload during its STS-34 mission. Commander Don Williams and crew transported the Galileo spacecraft into Earth orbit, from which point it was launched on a years-long voyage to Jupiter. Galileo would become the first spacecraft to orbit an outer planet and would go on to reveal fascinating views of the gas giant and its moons, as well as make monumental discoveries about the nature of the Jovian system.


Quick Facts:

  • Launch Date: October 18, 1989, Shuttle Atlantis STS-34
  • Primary Mission: October ’89 to December ’97.
  • Extended Missions: 3, from ’97 to ’03.
  • Number of Jupiter orbits: 34
  • Total distance traveled during mission: 4,631,778,000 km (approx 2.8 billion miles)
  • Mission End: September 21, 2003

Getting Galileo to Jupiter

Work on the Galileo craft began in 1977, after the exploration of Jupiter was listed as the number one priority in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey published in 1968. Fly-bys of the massive planet were conducted by the twin Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, but Galileo was set to do more than just perform a fly-by. It would launch an instrument-laden probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere, and then continue to orbit the planet for years. This mission would provide knowledge of the Jupiter system that could hardly even be imagined.

Galileo deploying from Shuttle Atlantis

Galileo deploying from Shuttle Atlantis – Credit: NASA

Galileo suffered a number of postponements. The first planned launch was to be from Space Shuttle Columbia in 1982, but development delays in the Space Shuttle program made that early of a launch unfeasible. The upside is that this gave the Galileo developers more time to work on the probe. Further planned launches and postponements occurred in 1984, 1985, and 1986.

As we all know, 1986 was the year of the Challenger disaster. Galileo would be put on hold during the 32-month hiatus that followed the tragedy, as every detail of the Shuttle program was examined and made safer. Galileo was originally planned to be attached to a liquid hydrogen-fueled Centaur-G booster; however, new safety protocols following Challenger prohibited the booster from being carried in the Space Shuttle’s payload bay. Mission designers had to reconsider how they would get Galileo from the Shuttle’s low Earth orbit to Jupiter. They decided on employing a solid-fuel Inertial Upper Stage booster (IUS). Whereas the Centaur-G would have propelled Galileo on a short and direct trajectory to Jupiter, the IUS would take longer and also require some technical gravitational slingshot maneuvers to make it to the gas giant.

Galileo was finally launched from Space Shuttle Atlantis, during mission STS-34 on October 18, 1989. From there, its IUS booster was started and it began its unique “VEEGA”, or Venus Earth Earth Gravity Assist, maneuvers.

Galileo spacecraft trajectory

Galileo spacecraft trajectory – Source: NASA

  • Galileo flew by Venus on February 10, 1990 at an altitude of 16,000 km (10,000 miles).
  • It then flew by Earth on December 8, 1990 at an altitude 960 km (597 miles).
  • Its trajectory took it near Asteroid Gaspra on October 29, 1991, coming within 1,601 km (1,000 miles).
  • Then it was back to another Earth fly-by on December 8, 1992, this time at an altitude of only 303 km (188 miles).
  • On its way back towards the outer solar system it flew by Asteroid Ida on August 28, 1993, coming within 2,400 km (1,400 miles) of the asteroid.

On its way to Jupiter, Galileo was positioned perfectly to observe the doomed Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as it impacted the planet. Pieces of the comet, having been torn into fragments by Jupiter’s immense tidal forces, impacted Jupiter from July 16 – 22, 1994, on the side facing away from Earth. Fortunately, Galileo had a prime view and was able to record the impact. Earth-based telescopes could only observe the impact sites as they rotated into view a few minutes afterwards.

In July, 1995, Galileo released its atmospheric probe component. For the next five months, the probe and orbiter continued their cruise to Jupiter. On December 7, 1995, Galileo had arrived. The orbiter and probe diverged onto their separate missions.

Atmospheric Probe

On December 7, 1995 Galileo’s atmospheric probe sliced into Jupiter’s atmosphere at 47.6 kilometers per second (106,000 miles per hour). As the atmosphere began to slow the probe, it deployed its drogue and main parachutes and dropped its heat shield to expose its scientific instruments. The probe began recording data and transmitting it up to the main Galileo spacecraft orbiting high above, which then re-transmitted the data to Earth. The probe recorded 58 minutes of data on Jupiter’s weather and atmosphere. Towards the end of its descent, the probe measured wind speeds of 724 kilometers per hour (450 miles per hour). The intense heat and pressure of Jupiter’s atmosphere melted and vaporized the probe less than an hour into its journey through Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Orbiter

While the atmospheric probe’s job was complete, the Galileo orbiter still had years of work left to do. The orbiter received its electric power from two radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). That may sound complicated, but it’s really quite simple. These RTGs carry the radioactive element plutonium-238. As the plutonium decays, it releases energy in the form of heat. That heat can then be easily turned into electricity through the Seebeck effect. This type of energy generation is long-lasting and reliable, as well as impervious to the cold temperatures and strong radiation fields of the Jupiter system. Galileo carried two of these RTGs, with a combined total of approximately 22.7 kilograms (50 pounds) of plutonium-238. While these radioactive components had been used on previous space missions, Galileo drew extra concern due to it being both carried by the Shuttle as well as the multiple Earth fly-bys. Anti-nuclear activists protested Galileo’s launch, fearing a malfunction could cause radiation poisoning for many thousands of people on Earth. NASA, however, argued that the probability of risk was extremely low.

Jupiter's ring system, as observed by Galileo

Jupiter’s ring system, as observed by Galileo – Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Galileo conducted slow orbits of Jupiter, approximately 2 months long each. The orbits were elongated, and designed to bring the spacecraft within different distances to Jupiter, which allowed it to sample different areas of the planet’s magnetosphere. These orbits were also designed to bring Galileo and its instruments into close fly-bys of Jupiter’s largest moons. Galileo completed its primary mission on December 7, 1997; however, the craft was still functioning extremely well and was able to continue taking measurements and sending valuable data back to Earth. Its mission was extended three times, operating until 2003.

Volcanic activity on Io, as observed by Galileo

Volcanic activity on Io, as observed by Galileo – Credit: NASA/JPL

The orbiter made several discoveries during its mission:

  • It discovered a possible ocean under Europa’s icy crust
  • Revealed Ganymede’s very own magnetic field, the only moon known to have this feature
  • Made the first observations of ammonia clouds in another planet’s atmosphere
  • It created hundreds of images of Jupiter’s large ‘Galilean moons’: Io, Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede
  • It measured the high levels of volcanic activity on Io

Sagan Criteria for Life

The late astronomer Carl Sagan devised a set of experiments to be conducted by Galileo during its first fly-by of Earth. The purpose of the experiments was to see if life could be easily detected from a spacecraft. The results of the experiments were published by Sagan in 1993, in the scientific journal Nature. The experiments were a success, as Galileo was easily able to detect what are referred to as the ‘Sagan requirements for life’. These include strong absorption of light at the red end of the spectrum (indicative of plant photosynthesis), absorption bands of molecular oxygen (again, indicative of plant life), the detection of methane in the atmosphere (a gas created by either volcanic or biological activity), and the detection of narrowband radio wave transmissions (could indicate a technologically advanced civilization).


By the end of its mission, Galileo had conducted 34 orbits of Jupiter and had made multiple fly-bys of Jupiter’s moons: Io 7 times, Callisto 8 times , Ganymede 8 times, Europa 11 times, and one fly-by of Amalthea.

Due in part to Galileo’s discovery of potential oceans on Europa (and possibly other Jovian moons), the decision was made to end the orbiter’s mission by sending it to the same fate as the atmospheric probe eight years prior. Rather than risk contaminating (with either Earth bacteria or radiation from the RTGs) one of Jupiter’s potentially life-harboring moons, Galileo would be ordered to impact Jupiter. On September 21, 2003, Galileo entered Jupiter’s atmosphere at 48.2 kilometers per second (108,000 mph).

The Galilean Moons: Jupiter's four largest satellites

The Galilean Moons: Jupiter’s four largest satellites – Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

The total mission cost was approximately $1.4 billion USD, had more than 100 scientist partners from many different countries, and involved the work of more than 800 individuals.

In spite of postponements, an antenna that failed to fully deploy, and a tape recorder malfunction, Galileo performed magnificently. It was a mission that brought us up close and personal with our Solar system’s largest planet and provided us with a much more detailed understanding of the Jovian system. Galileo paved the way for future studies of Jupiter and its moons. Its successor, the Juno orbiter, is currently en route and arriving in July of 2016, and plans are being considered to investigate Europa’s oceans. Like the astronomer that the spacecraft took its name from, Galileo Galilei, this mission revealed new worlds that we previously could only distantly wonder about.

 

Clyde Tombaugh Discovers Pluto

*click* ….. *click* …. *click* …. *click*

On this day in 1930, a 24-year-old man named Clyde Tombaugh was squinting into the Lowell Observatory’s Zeiss Blink microscope. The unique device, also known as a blink comparator, held two photographic plates that each contained the image of a star field taken the previous month–the images showing the same section of sky, taken a few days apart. Tombaugh could rapidly switch between the two images by rotating a dial, allowing him to quickly compare the images and watch for any variations between the two that would indicate a body moving more rapidly than the background stars (eg. planets, asteroids, etc.).

*click* ….. *click*

Late into that February afternoon, a subtle difference between the two images caught his eye.

Animation comparing Tombaugh's star fields.

Can you spot Pluto?  Click on the image to see a version with Pluto identified.   Image Credit: National Air & Space Museum

 

*click* … *click* … *click* .. *click* . *click* *click*

He spent 45 minutes comparing the two images. Convinced of his findings, he contacted his supervisors. Over the next couple of weeks, the observatory focused its attention to the object before confirming Tombaugh’s discovery. On May 1st, 1930, a new planet was introduced to the world: Pluto.

And of course, in 2015, we got to see Pluto in a way that Mr. Tombaugh himself could only have imagined.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.        Source: NASA

Majestic Conjunction

Have you seen the wondrous show that’s been taking place in the night sky recently? Maybe you noticed what appeared to be some especially bright stars, glittering near a crescent Moon. Perhaps you haven’t been looking up at the night sky lately (shame on you) or conditions have been too cloudy to give it a look (I live in a coastal city in Alaska, I feel your pain). Whether you’re looking or not, there’s a fantastic conjunction taking place, starring (pardon the pun!) the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.

I took the following photo shortly after sunset on February 28, 2012, from within Joshua Tree National Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lens to give me a wider field of view, but the top of a Yucca Plant provides a nice touch.
Moon, Jupiter, and Venus conjunction, labeled.

[Click image for larger and unlabeled version / Credit: Ryan Marquis/46BLYZ]

This cosmic spectacle will continue over the next few days, so get out and enjoy it while you can.

Also in the night sky this month:
While the Moon will have moved away from the planets, Venus and Jupiter will be within three degrees of each other on March 12. That’s approximately the same “width” as three fingertips held at arm’s length… The planets will appear quite close to one another!

Mars also refuses to be left out of this month’s planetary attention. Look for the red planet in the Eastern sky, just a few hours after the sun sets.

Clear skies!


A Tale Of One Crater

Dickens Crater

(Dickens crater as imaged from the Messenger spacecraft / Image Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Charles Dickens was the acclaimed English novelist who brought the world such classics as ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘David Copperfield’, among others (another is alluded to in the title of this post, but you knew that). Widely considered the greatest Victorian period author, he has been honored in many ways throughout the past century-and-a-half.

Dickens might have come to expect many of the honors he received, and those dedicated posthumously, but one that I don’t suspect he ever looked forward to was having a crater on the planet Mercury named after him. Nearly all Mercurian craters are named after artists; writers, painters, composers, etc. Naturally, Dickens wouldn’t be excluded.

The name of the 78km-diameter crater, Dickens, was approved by the International Astronomical Union in 1976, which appears to be the first year they began the unique naming program. (For your general interest, recent “inductees” are a couple of my favorite writers, Khalil Gibran and Rudyard Kipling; having their surnames assigned to craters in 2009 and 2010, respectively.)




For a full list of the currently-291 named Mercurian craters, check out this list.