Goodbye Kepler, Hello TESS: Passing the Baton in Search of Distant Planets
For centuries, human beings have wondered about the possibility of other Earths orbiting distant stars. Perhaps some of these alien worlds would harbor strange forms of life or have unique and telling histories or futures. But it was only in 1995 that astronomers spotted the first planets orbiting sunlike stars outside of our solar system.
In the last decade, in particular, the number of planets known to orbit distant stars grew from under 100 to well over 2,000, with another 2,000 likely planets awaiting confirmation. Most of these new discoveries are due to a single endeavor—NASA's Kepler mission.
Number of confirmed exoplanets continues to grow NASA / Ames Research Center / Wendy Stenzel and The University of Texas at Austin / Andrew Vanderburg
Kepler is a spacecraft housing a 1-meter telescope that illuminates a 95 megapixel digital camera the size of a cookie sheet. The instrument detected tiny variations in the brightness of 150,000 distant stars, looking for the telltale sign of a planet blocking a portion of the starlight as it transits across the telescope's line of sight. It's so sensitive that it could detect a fly buzzing around a single streetlight in Chicago from an orbit above the earth. It can see stars shake and vibrate; it can see starspots and flares; and, in favorable situations, it can see planets as small as the moon.
Scientists can determine the size or radius of a planet by measuring the depth of the dip in brightness and knowing the size of the star.NASA Ames
Kepler's thousands of discoveries revolutionized our understanding of planets and planetary systems. Now, however, the spacecraft is nearly out of its hydrazine fuel and will end its fantastic life sometime in the next few months. Luckily for planet hunters, NASA's upcoming TESS mission is waiting in the wings and will take over the exoplanet search.
Prepping the Kepler spacecraft pre-launch in 2009 NASA / Tim Jacobs
The Kepler mission was conceived in the early 1980s by NASA scientist Bill Borucki, with later help from David Koch. At the time, there were no known planets outside of the solar system. Kepler was eventually assembled in the 2000s and launched in March of 2009. I joined the Kepler Science Team in 2008 (as a wide-eyed rookie), eventually co-chairing the group studying the motions of the planets with Jack Lissauer.
Originally, the mission was planned to last for three and a half years with possible extensions for as long as the fuel, or the camera, or the spacecraft lasted. As time passed, portions of the camera began to fail but the mission has persisted. However, in 2013 when two of its four stabilizing gyros (technically "reaction wheels") stopped, the original Kepler mission effectively ended.
NASA scientists figured out how to use solar pressure to stabilize Kepler. NASA Ames / W Stenzel
Even then, with some ingenuity, NASA was able to use reflected light from the sun to help steer the spacecraft. The mission was rechristened as K2 and continued finding planets for another half decade. Now, with the fuel gauge near empty, the business of planet hunting is winding down and the spacecraft will be left adrift in the solar system. The final catalog of planet candidates from the original mission was completed late last year and the last observations of K2 are wrapping up.
Squeezing what knowledge we can from those data will continue for years to come, but what we've seen thus far has amazed scientists across the globe.
We have seen some planets that orbit their host stars in only a few hours and are so hot that the surface rock vaporizes and trails behind the planet like a comet tail. Other systems have planets so close together that if you were to stand on the surface of one, the second planet would appear larger than 10 full moons. One system is so packed with planets that eight of them are closer to their star than the earth is to the sun. Many have planets, and sometimes multiple planets, orbiting within the habitable zone of their host star, where liquid water may exist on their surfaces.
As with any mission, the Kepler package came with trade-offs. It needed to stare at a single part of the sky, blinking every 30 minutes, for four straight years. In order to study enough stars to make its measurements, the stars had to be quite distant—just as when you stand in the middle of a forest, there are more trees farther from you than right next to you. Distant stars are dim, and their planets are hard to study. Indeed, one challenge for astronomers who want to study the properties of Kepler planets is that Kepler itself is often the best instrument to use. High quality data from ground-based telescopes requires long observations on the largest telescopes—precious resources that limit the number of planets that can be observed.
We now know that there are at least as many planets in the galaxy as there are stars, and many of those planets are quite unlike what we have here in the solar system. Learning the characteristics and personalities of the wide variety of planets requires that astronomers investigate the ones orbiting brighter and closer stars where more instruments and more telescopes can be brought to bear.
Once launched, TESS will identify exoplanets orbiting the brightest stars just outside our solar system. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission, led by MIT's George Ricker, is slated to launch in the next few weeks and will search for planets using the same detection technique that Kepler used. TESS' orbit, rather than being around the sun, will have a close relationship with the moon: TESS will orbit the earth twice for each lunar orbit. TESS' observing pattern, rather than staring at a single part of the sky, will scan nearly the entire sky with overlapping fields of view (much like the petals on a flower).
Duration of TESS' observations on the celestial sphere, taking into account the overlap between sectors NASA
Given what we learned from Kepler, astronomers expect TESS to find thousands of more planetary systems. By surveying the whole sky, we will find systems that orbit stars 10 times closer and 100 times brighter than those found by Kepler—opening up new possibilities for measuring planet masses and densities, studying their atmospheres, characterizing their host stars, and establishing the full nature of the systems in which the planets reside. This information, in turn, will tell us more about our own planet's history, how life may have started, what fates we avoided and what other paths we could have followed.
The quest to find our place in the universe continues as Kepler finishes its leg of the journey and TESS takes the baton.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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