Join us on Wednesday, January 15 at noon Pacific for the Habitable Exoplanets Hack Chat with Alberto Caballero!
Many of the major scientific achievements of the last 100 years or so have boiled down to problems of picking out a signal from the noise. Think about analyzing the human genome, for instance: we each have something like two meters of DNA coiled up inside each cell in our body, and yet teasing out the information in a single gene had to wait until we developed sufficiently sophisticated methods like PCR and CRISPR.
Similarly, albeit on the other end of the scale, the search for planets beyond our solar system wasn’t practical until methods and instruments that could measure the infinitesimal affect a planet’s orbit on its star were developed. Once that door was unlocked, reports of exoplanets came flooding in, and Earth went from being a unique place in the galaxy to just one of many, many places life could possibly have gotten a foothold. And now, the barrier for entry to the club of planet hunters has dropped low enough that amateur astronomers are getting in on the action.
Alberto Caballero is one such stargazer, and he has turned his passion for astronomy into an organized project that is taking a good, hard look at some of our nearest stellar neighbors in the hope of finding exoplanets in the habitable zone. The Habitable Exoplanet Hunting Project is training the instruments in 33 observatories around the globe on ten stars within 100 light-years, hoping to detect the faint signal that indicates an orbiting planet. They hope to add to the list of places worthy of exploration, both from Earth via optical and radio telescopes, and perhaps, someday, in person.
Continue reading “Habitable Exoplanets Hack Chat”
Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has provided us with an incredible amount of data about exoplanets within our galaxy, proving these worlds are more varied and numerous than we could ever have imagined. Before its launch we simply didn’t know how common planets such as ours were, but today we know the Milky Way contains billions of them. Some of these worlds are so hot they have seas of molten rock, others experience two sunsets a day as they orbit a pair of stars. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of the planets found by Kepler are much like our own: potentially playing host to life as we know it.
Kepler lived a fruitful life by any metric, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Too far into deep space for us to repair it as we did Hubble, hardware failures aboard the observatory nearly brought the program to a halt in 2013. When NASA announced the spacecraft was beyond hope of repair, most assumed the mission would end. Even by that point, Kepler was an unqualified success and had provided us with enough data to keep astronomers busy for years. But an ingenious fix was devised, allowing it to continue collecting data even in its reduced capacity.
Leaning into the solar wind, Kepler was able to use the pressure of sunlight striking its solar panels to steady itself. Kepler’s “eyesight” was never quite the same after the failure of its reaction wheels, and it consumed more propellant than originally intended to maintain this careful balancing act, but the science continued. The mission that had already answered many of our questions about our place in the galaxy would push ahead in spite of a failure which should have left it dead in space.
As Kepler rapidly burned through its supply of propellant, it became clear the mission was on borrowed time. It was a necessary evil, as the alternative was leaving the craft tumbling through space, but mission planners understood that the fix they implemented had put an expiration date on Kepler. Revised calculations could provide an estimate as to when the vehicle would finally run its tanks dry and lose attitude control, but not a definitive date.
For the last several months NASA has known the day was approaching, but they decided to keep collecting data until the vehicle’s thrusters sputtered and failed. So today’s announcement that Kepler has at long last lost the ability to orient itself came as no surprise. Kepler has observed its last alien sunset, but the search for planets, and indeed life, in our corner of the galaxy doesn’t end today.
Continue reading “Kepler Closes Eyes After A Decade Of Discovery”
[David Schneider] was reading about recent discoveries of exoplanets. Simply put these are planets orbiting stars other than the sun. The rigs used by the research scientists include massive telescopes, but the fact that they’re using CCD sensors led [David] to wonder if a version of this could be done on the cheap in the backyard. The answer is yes. By capturing and processing data from a barn door tracker he was able to verify a known exoplanet.
Barn Door trackers are devices used to move a camera to compensate for the turning of the earth. This is necessary when taking images throughout the night, as the stars will not remain “stationary” to the camera’s frame without it. The good news is that they’re simple to build, we’ve seen a few over the years.
Other than having to wait until his part of the earth was pointed in the correct direction (on a clear night) at the same time as an exoplanet transit, [David] was ready to harvest all the data he needed. This part gets interesting really quickly. The camera needed to catch the planet passing in between the earth and the star it revolves around (called a transit). The data to prove this happened is really subtle. To uncover it [David] needed to control the data set for atmospheric changes by referencing several other stars. From there he focused on the data for the transit target and compared points across the entire set of captured images. The result is a dip in brightness that matches the specifications of the original discovery.
[David] explains the entire process in the clip after the break.
Continue reading “Astrophotography And Data-Analysis Sense Exoplanets”