“The derived composition and profile suggest that WASP-18b is the first example of both a planet with a non-oxide driven thermal inversion and a planet with an atmospheric metallicity inconsistent with that predicted for Jupiter-mass planets.”
The answer is “yes” if there are alien worlds to be found. And we all know that statistically there should be.
NASA’s prolific Kepler space observatory, which has found signs of thousands of alien planets, will keep hunting strange new worlds for at least four more years, the space agency announced.
Funding for the Kepler mission, which has discovered more than 2,300 potential alien planets to date, was slated to run out this November. But a NASA review committee has recommended the telescope’s planet-hunting effort be extended through at least fiscal year 2016.
The $600 milllion Kepler observatory launched in March 2009 on a mission to find Earth-size planets in the so-called habitable zones of their parent stars — a just-right range of distances that could support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it.
The telescope finds alien planets using what scientists call the transit method: It detects the telltale dips in brightness caused when an alien world crosses in front of, or transits, its star from Kepler’s perspective. The Kepler spacecraft typically needs to witness three of these transits to firmly identify a planet candidate.
The instrument has been extremely productive, finding 61 confirmed alien planets to date, along with roughly 2,300 “candidate” worlds that still need to be vetted by follow-up observations. Kepler team members have estimated that the vast majority of these candidates — 80 percent or more — will likely end up being the real deal.
Every two years, NASA conducts a peer-reviewed assessment of the missions in its astrophysics division, an activity called a Senior Review. This year’s committee gave Kepler high marks for both performance and potential.
“The Kepler mission is an outstanding success,” committee members wrote in their report. “Kepler is not only a unique source of exoplanet discoveries, but also an organizing and rallying point for exoplanet research.”
Extending Kepler’s mission could yield big dividends for several reasons, researchers have said. Because of the three-transit requirement, most of the worlds Kepler has found so far zip around their stars relatively quickly, in close-in orbits.
So granting Kepler at least four more years gives it a chance to look for planets in more distant orbits, allowing the telescope to survey the habitable zones of warmer stars. (It could take a hypothetical alien version of Kepler up to three years, after all, to see Earth transit the sun three times.)
Seeing more transits will also increase the signal-to-noise ratio for closer-in planets, allowing more of them to be detected, researchers have said.
The review committee’s report did not explicitly lay out funding for Kepler’s extended operations, but Kepler team members have said that it costs about $20 million per year to operate the mission at its current level.
The review looked favorably on all nine astrophysics missions it examined — which also include the Hubble, Chandra, Fermi and Spitzer space telescopes — saying all had performed well and should continue operating through at least fiscal year 2014.
Pluto may no longer be a planet but it still has moons. Between 1978 and 2005 the little icy world formerly known as the ninth planet in our solar system has revealed moon after moon. Most people may not realize that Pluto has any moons or probably thought it just had one, like Earth.
First there was Charon, which for several decades was believed to be Pluto’s only progeny. Then in 2005, tiny moonsHydra and Nix were discovered.
And last month, while searching for potential rings or other hazards near Pluto the Hubble Space Telescope caught a glimpse of the dwarf planet’s fourth moon. It’s known as P4 for now but the mythological name game has already begun.
Scientists working on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto have been looking for possible dangers the probe may encounter on its way to Pluto. A little blur that was dismissed in 2006 was confirmed to be the a new mini moon, which is estimated to be just 8 to 21 miles in diameter.
Alan Stern, the director of the Southwest Research Institute’s New Horizons program told MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle P4 was discovered on June 28 and confirmed by looking at archived images and by conducting follow-up observations this month.
Boyle, who is the science editor for MSNBC.com and writes the blog Cosmic Log says, “The find is also a testament to Hubble’s amazing vision.” Using its Wide Field Camera 3, which was installed in 2009 and designed to study dark energy, it can capture images in the near-infrared, visible light or near-ultraviolet spectrum.
And, now it’s helped spot a moon in Pluto’s orbit.
Mark Showalter of the California-based SETI Institute says, “I find it remarkable that Hubble’s cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles.”
When the New Horizons probe reaches Pluto in 2015, scientists are excited for what awaits them.
Stern says, “Pluto’s satellite system is truly knocking our socks off with surprises — it’s magnificently complex, and getting more crowded all the time. I can’t wait till we get there to see what other surprises this planet and its moons have in store for us!”