Citizen Scientists Discover Dozens of New Cosmic Neighbors in NASA Data

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In this illustration, the small white orb represents a white dwarf (a remnant of a long-dead Sun-like star), while the foreground object is its newly discovered brown dwarf companion, spotted by citizen scientists working with a NASA-funded project called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld/Acknowledgement: William Pendrill

Using a NASA-designed software program, members of the public helped identify a cache of brown dwarfs – sometimes called failed stars – lurking in our cosmic neighborhood.

We’ve never met some of the Sun’s closest neighbors until now. In a new study, astronomers report the discovery of 95 objects known as brown dwarfs, many within a few dozen light-years of the Sun. They’re well outside the solar system, so don’t experience heat from the Sun, but still inhabit a region astronomers consider our cosmic neighborhood. This collection represents some of the coldest known examples of these objects, which are between the sizes of planets and stars.

Members of the public helped make these discoveries through Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, a NASA-funded citizen science project that is a collaboration between volunteers and professional scientists. Backyard Worlds incorporates data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2010 and 2011 under its previous moniker,WISE. Data from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the facilities of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab were also instrumental in the analysis.

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Kepler Telescope Bids ‘Goodnight’ with Final Commands

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NASA’s Kepler space telescope discovered thousands of planets outside our solar system, and revealed that our galaxy contains more planets than stars. Credit: CNASAredit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech


On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 15, NASA’s Kepler space telescope received its final set of commands to disconnect communications with Earth. The “goodnight” commands finalize the spacecraft’s transition into retirement, which began on Oct. 30 with NASA’s announcement that Kepler had run out of fuel and could no longer conduct science. 

Coincidentally, Kepler’s “goodnight” falls on the same date as the 388-year anniversary of the death of its namesake, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion and passed away on Nov. 15, 1630.

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Newly Discovered Exoplanet May be Best Candidate in Search for Signs of Life

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Jason Dittmann
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Transiting rocky super-Earth found in habitable zone of quiet red dwarf star

This artist’s impression shows the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered this super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. Credit: ESO/spaceengine.org 

An exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered a “super-Earth” orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. This, along with the fact that it passes in front of its parent stars as it orbits, makes it one of the most exciting future targets for atmospheric studies. The results will appear in the 20 April 2017 issue of the journal Nature.

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Ultracool Dwarf and the Seven Planets

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Dr. Paola Rebusco
MIT – Experimental Study Group

This artist’s impression shows the view from the surface of one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. At least seven planets orbit this ultra cool dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and they are all roughly the same size as the Earth. They are at the right distances from their star for liquid water to exist on the surfaces of several of them. This artist’s impression is based on the known physical parameters for the planets and stars seen, and uses a vast database of objects in the Universe. Credit: ESO/N. Bartmann/spaceengine.org

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST–South telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world [1], have now confirmed the existence of at least seven small planets orbiting the cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 [2]. All the planets, labelled TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h in order of increasing distance from their parent star, have sizes similar to Earth [3].

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New Planet Imager Delivers First Science

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Written by Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
January 30, 2017  

The vortex mask shown at left is made out of synthetic diamond. Viewed with an scanning electron microscope, right, the “vortex” microstructure of the mask is revealed. Image credit: University of Liège/Uppsala University

A new device on the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii has delivered its first images, showing a ring of planet-forming dust around a star, and separately, a cool, star-like body, called a brown dwarf, lying near its companion star.

The device, called a vortex coronagraph, was recently installed inside NIRC2 (Near Infrared Camera 2), the workhorse infrared imaging camera at Keck. It has the potential to image planetary systems and brown dwarfs closer to their host stars than any other instrument in the world.

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NASA’s Spitzer Spots Planet Deep Within Our Galaxy

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This artist’s map of the Milky Way shows the location of one of the farthest known exoplanets, lying 13,000 light-years away. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has teamed up with a telescope on the ground to find a remote gas planet about 13,000 light-years away, making it one of the most distant planets known.

The discovery demonstrates that Spitzer — from its unique perch in space — can be used to help solve the puzzle of how planets are distributed throughout our flat, spiral-shaped Milky Way galaxy. Are they concentrated heavily in its central hub, or more evenly spread throughout its suburbs?

“We don’t know if planets are more common in our galaxy’s central bulge or the disk of the galaxy, which is why these observations are so important,” said Jennifer Yee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a NASA Sagan fellow. Yee is the lead author of one of three new studies that appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal describing a collaboration between astronomers using Spitzer and the Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or OGLE. 

OGLE’s Warsaw Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile scans the skies for planets using a method called microlensing. A microlensing event occurs when one star happens to pass in front of another, and its gravity acts as a lens to magnify and brighten the more distant star’s light. If that foreground star happens to have a planet in orbit around it, the planet might cause a blip in the magnification. 

Astronomers are using these blips to find and characterize planets tens of thousands of light-years away in the central bulge of our galaxy, where star crossings are more common. Our sun is located in the suburbs of the galaxy, about two-thirds of the way out from the center. The microlensing technique as a whole has yielded about 30 planet discoveries so far, with the farthest residing about 25,000 light-years away. 

“Microlensing experiments are already detecting planets from the solar neighborhood to almost the center of the Milky Way,” said co-author Andrew Gould of The Ohio State University, Columbus. “And so they can, in principle, tell us the relative efficiency of planet formation across this huge expanse of our galaxy.”

Microlensing complements other planet-hunting tools, such as NASA’s Kepler mission, which has found more than 1,000 planets closer to home. But it faces one key problem: This method can’t always precisely narrow down the distance to the stars and planets being observed. While a passing star may magnify the light of a more distant star, it rarely can be seen itself, making the task of measuring how far away it is challenging. 

Of the approximately 30 planets discovered with microlensing so far, roughly half cannot be pinned down to a precise location. The result is like a planetary treasure map lacking in X’s.

That’s where Spitzer can help out, thanks to its remote Earth-trailing orbit. Spitzer circles our sun, and is currently about 128 million miles (207 million kilometers) away from Earth. That’s father from Earth than Earth is from our sun. When Spitzer watches a microlensing event simultaneously with a telescope on Earth, it sees the star brighten at a different time, due to the large distance between the two telescopes and their unique vantage points. This technique is generally referred to as parallax.

“Spitzer is the first space telescope to make a microlens parallax measurement for a planet,” said Yee. “Traditional parallax techniques that employ ground-based telescopes are not as effective at such great distances.” 

Using space telescopes to observe microlensing events is tricky. Ground telescopes send out alerts to the astronomy community when an event starts, but the activity can quickly fade, lasting on average about 40 days. The Spitzer team has scrambled to start microlensing campaigns as soon as three days after receiving an alert. 

In the case of the newfound planet, the duration of the microlensing event happened to be unusually long, about 150 days. Both Spitzer and OGLE’s telescopes detected the telltale planetary blip in the magnification, with Spitzer seeing it 20 days earlier.

This time delay between viewing of the event by OGLE and Spitzer was used to calculate the distance to the star and its planet. Knowing the distance allowed the scientists also to determine the mass of the planet, which is about half that of Jupiter.

Spitzer has eyed 22 other microlensing events in collaboration with OGLE and several other ground-based telescopes. While these observations have not turned up new planets, the data are essential to learning the population statistics of stars and planets at the heart of our galaxy. Spitzer will watch approximately 120 additional microlensing events this summer.

“We’ve mainly explored our own solar neighborhood so far,” said Sebastiano Calchi Novati, a Visiting Sagan Fellow at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “Now we can use these single lenses to do statistics on planets as a whole and learn about their distribution in the galaxy.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. 

Fast Facts:

  • Space observatory discovers one of the most distant planets known
  • Research helps map whereabouts of exoplanets throughout the Milky Way

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