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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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
By Hui Hu
Winter is supposed to be the best season for wind power – the winds are stronger, and since air density increases as the temperature drops, more force is pushing on the blades. But winter also comes with a problem: freezing weather.
Comparing rime ice and glaze ice shows how each changes the texture of the blade. Gao, Liu and Hu, 2021, CC BY-ND
Ice buildup changes air flow around the turbine blade, which can slow it down. The top photos show ice forming after 10 minutes at different temperatures in the Wind Research Tunnel. The lower measurements show airflow separation as ice accumulates. Icing Research Tunnel of Iowa State University, CC BY-ND
While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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