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 […]
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.
Maryland Science Center in Baltimore is truly an amazing place to visit. Now even more so since the model of NASA’s New James Webb Space Telescope will be displayed there. The telescope will be launched in 2018. The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST) will be a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary […]
Maryland Science Center in Baltimore is truly an amazing place to visit. Now even more so since the model of NASA’s New James Webb Space Telescope will be displayed there. The telescope will be launched in 2018. The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST) will be a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror.
The Webb will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.
Webb was formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” (NGST); it was renamed in Sept. 2002 after a former NASA administrator, James Webb.
Webb is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is managing the development effort. The prime contractor is Northrop Grumman; the Space Telescope Science Institute will operate Webb after launch.
Several innovative technologies have been developed for Webb. These include a folding, segmented primary mirror, adjusted to shape after launch; ultra-lightweight beryllium optics; detectors able to record extremely weak signals, microshutters that enable programmable object selection for the spectrograph; and a cryocooler for cooling the mid-IR detectors to 7K. The long-lead items, such as the beryllium mirror segments and science instruments, are under construction. All mission enabling technologies were demonstrated by January 2007. In July 2008 NASA confirmed the Webb project to proceed into its implementation phase, and the project conducted a major mission review in March 2010.
There will be four science instruments on Webb: the Near InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), the Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec), the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), and the Fine Guidance Sensor Tunable Filter Camera (FGS-TFI) . Webb’s instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range. It will be sensitive to light from 0.6 to 27 micrometers in wavelength.
Webb has four main science themes: The End of the Dark Ages: First Light and Reionization, The Assembly of Galaxies, The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems, and Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life.