Astronomie - Scientists pleased with TESS exoplanet mission




SEATTLE — As the first discoveries from a new NASA exoplanet mission start rolling in, project officials are planning for the first in what they hope to be a series of extended missions for the spacecraft.

During a briefing at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society here Jan. 7, scientists working on the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission announced that they have already discovered three planets, each smaller than Neptune, orbiting stars within 100 light-years of the solar system.

The most recent of the three planets, HD 21749b, orbits a star 53-light years away with an estimated mass 23 times that of Earth. The star it orbits may have a second planet, about the size of the Earth, orbiting closer in, said Chelsea Huang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the briefing.

The discoveries come from data from the first few months of TESS operations, covering four of a planned 26 sectors of the sky that the spacecraft will observe over the next two years. The spacecraft, launched in April 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9, started science observations in July. “We’ve made great progress using three months of data,” said Huang.

Scientists involved with TESS said the early results show the potential of the spacecraft to help discover many more small exoplanets around nearby, bright stars, excellent candidates for follow-up observations by other observatories, including the James Webb Space Telescope.

“The very best targets that Webb will be able to spend time studying in detail spectroscopically are, of necessity, going to be the bright targets that TESS will actually find,” said George Ricker, principal investigator for TESS at MIT, at the briefing.

Ricker and others involved with the mission hope that the exoplanet discoveries and other astrophysical phenomena, such as supernova explosions, detected in images from the spacecraft will continue for many years to come.

For now, TESS is about one-fourth the way through a two-year primary mission. However, planning is already underway for one extended mission, Ricker said. That extended mission, lasting a little more than two years from mid-2020 to late 2022, would revisit some areas of the sky observed in the prime mission as well as fill in some gaps not observed.

The proposal for that extended mission, which will be part of the overall senior review of astrophysics missions, is due to NASA Feb. 1. Ricker said that the ongoing partial government shutdown, which affects NASA, could push back that schedule.

Ricker is hopeful that the extended mission is the first of many for TESS. The spacecraft is in excellent condition, with camera performance and stability far better than anticipated. The spacecraft’s reaction wheels — which caused problems for another exoplanet mission, Kepler — are based on designs with commercial satellite heritage that should last for decades, and the spacecraft’s reserves of hydrazine fuel, used at a rate of one gram a week for momentum management, can last for far longer.

At the briefing, Ricker showed a chart of extended missions going out through the 2020s. Those additional extended missions, he said, could support a wide range of other spacecraft and groundbased observatories that can study exoplanets in further detail, such as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and ESA’s Planetary Transits and Oscillations or stars, or PLATO, spacecraft.

“In my plot I only put out extended missions running 10 years,” Ricker said, “but if NASA is patient with the mission and funds us properly, I think we could probably go for several decades.”

Quelle: SN


TESS discovers its third new planet, with longest orbit yet

Measurements indicate a dense, gaseous, “sub-Neptune” world, three times the size of Earth.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS, has discovered a third small planet outside our solar system, scientists announced this week at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

The new planet, named HD 21749b, orbits a bright, nearby dwarf star about 53 light years away, in the constellation Reticulum, and appears to have the longest orbital period of the three planets so far identified by TESS. HD 21749b journeys around its star in a relatively leisurely 36 days, compared to the two other planets — Pi Mensae b, a “super-Earth” with a 6.3-day orbit, and LHS 3844b, a rocky world that speeds around its star in just 11 hours. All three planets were discovered in the first three months of TESS observations.

The surface of the new planet is likely around 300 degrees Fahrenheit — relatively cool, given its proximity to its star, which is almost as bright as the sun.

“It’s the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright,” says Diana Dragomir, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, who led the new discovery. “We know a lot about atmospheres of hot planets, but because it’s very hard to find small planets that orbit farther from their stars, and are therefore cooler, we haven’t been able to learn much about these smaller, cooler planets. But here we were lucky, and caught this one, and can now study it in more detail.”

The planet is about three times the size of Earth, which puts it in the category of a “sub-Neptune.” Surprisingly, it is also a whopping 23 times as massive as the Earth. But it is unlikely that the planet is rocky and therefore habitable; it’s more likely made of gas, of a kind that is much more dense than the atmospheres of either Neptune or Uranus.

“We think this planet wouldn’t be as gaseous as Neptune or Uranus, which are mostly hydrogen and really puffy,” Dragomir says. “The planet likely has a density of water, or a thick atmosphere.”

Serendipitously, the researchers have also detected evidence of a second planet, though not yet confirmed, in the same planetary system, with a shorter, 7.8-day orbit. If it is confirmed as a planet, it could be the first Earth-sized planet discovered by TESS.

In addition to presenting their results at the AAS meeting, the researchers have submitted a paper to Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Something there”

Since it launched in April 2018, TESS, an MIT-led mission, has been monitoring the sky, sector by sector, for momentary dips in the light of about 200,000 nearby stars. Such dips likely represent a planet passing in front of that star.

The satellite trains its four onboard cameras on each sector for 27 days, taking in light from the stars in that particular segment before shifting to view the next one. Over its two-year mission, TESS will survey nearly the entire sky by monitoring and piecing together overlapping slices of the night sky. The satellite will spend the first year surveying the sky in the Southern Hemisphere, before swiveling around to take in the Northern Hemisphere sky.

The mission has released to the public all the data TESS has collected so far from the first three of the 13 sectors that it will monitor in the southern sky. For their new analysis, the researchers looked through this data, collected between July 25 and Oct. 14.

Within the sector 1 data, Dragomir identified a single transit, or dip, in the light from the star HD 21749. As the satellite only collects data from a sector for 27 days, it’s difficult to identify planets with orbits longer than that time period; by the time a planet passes around again, the satellite may have shifted to view another slice of the sky.

To complicate matters, the star itself is relatively active, and Dragomir wasn’t sure if the single transit she spotted was a result of a passing planet or a blip in stellar activity. So she consulted a second dataset, collected by the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, a high-precision spectrograph installed on a large ground-based telescope in Chile, which identifies exoplanets by their gravitational tug on their host stars.

“They had looked at this star system a decade ago and never announced anything because they weren’t sure if they were looking at a planet versus the activity of the star,” Dragomir says. “But we had this one transit, and knew something was there.”

Stellar detectives

When the researchers looked through the HARPS data, they discovered a repeating signal emanating from HD 21749 every 36 days. From this, they estimated that, if they indeed had seen a transit in the TESS data from sector 1, then another transit should appear 36 days later, in data from sector 3. When that data became publicly available, a momentary glitch created a gap in the data just at the time when Dragomir expected the second transit to occur.

“Because there was an interruption in data around that time, we initially didn’t see a second transit, and were pretty disappointed,” Dragomir recalls. “But we re-extracted the data and zoomed in to look more carefully, and found what looked like the end of a transit.”

She and her colleagues compared the pattern to the first full transit they had originally discovered, and found a near perfect match — an indication that the planet passed again in front of its star, in a 36-day orbit.

“There was quite some detective work involved, and the right people were there at the right time,” Dragomir says. “But we were lucky and we caught the signals, and they were really clear.”

They also used data from the Planet Finder Spectrograph, an instrument installed on the Magellan Telescope in Chile, to further validate their findings and constrain the planet’s mass and orbit.

Once TESS has completed its two-year monitoring of the entire sky, the science team has committed to delivering information on 50 small planets less than four times the size of Earth to the astronomy community for further follow-up, either with ground-based telescopes or the future James Webb Space Telescope.

“We’ve confirmed three planets so far, and there are so many more that are just waiting for telescope and people time to be confirmed,” Dragomir says. “So it’s going really well, and TESS is already helping us to learn about the diversity of these small planets.”

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by Goddard. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes, and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

Quelle: MIT News


Update: 10.01.2019


Less than a year after launch, TESS is already finding bizarre worlds

The first few exoplanets nabbed by the telescope are unlike any yet seen


SEATTLE — The next generation exoplanet hunter is coming into its own. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, has already found eight confirmed planets in its first four months of observing — and some are unlike anything astronomers have seen before.

“The torrent of data is starting to flow already,” TESS principal investigator George Ricker of MIT said January 7 in a news conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

TESS launched in April and began science observations in July (SN: 5/12/18, p. 7). It was designed to be a follow-up to the prolific Kepler space telescope, which went dark in October after almost a decade of observing (SN Online: 10/30/18). Like Kepler, TESS searches for planets by watching for dips in starlight as planets cross, or transit, in front of their stars.

Unlike Kepler, which stared unblinkingly at a single patch of sky for years, TESS scans a new segment of sky every month. Over two years, TESS will cover the entire 360 degrees of sky visible from Earth’s orbit.

In the first four segments, TESS has already spotted eight confirmed planets and more than 320 unconfirmed candidates, said Xu Chelsea Huang of MIT. And several of them are downright strange.


Pi Mensae c
WATER WORLD The exoplanet Pi Mensae c, as seen in this artist’s illustration, has the same density as pure water.

Take the third-found planet, HD 21749b. Only 52 light-years away, it has the lowest temperature known for a planet orbiting a bright, nearby star, astronomers reported at the meeting and in a paper posted at on January 1.

That makes it a great candidate for follow-up observations with future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2021. Webb will use starlight filtering through the atmospheres of planets like this one to measure those atmospheres’ properties and search for signs of life (SN: 4/30/16, p. 32).

“If we want to study atmospheres of cool planets, this is the one to start with,” Huang said.

“Cool” is a relative term. This particular planet is still probably too hot and gassy to host life. Its orbit takes 36 Earth days, the longest known orbital period for planets transiting bright stars within 100 light-years of the sun.

That leaves it at a distance from the star that should heat the planet’s surface to about 150° Celsius, too hot for liquid water. And at 2.84 times Earth’s size and 23.2 times Earth’s mass, its density suggests it must have a thick atmosphere, unlike Earth’s life-friendly one.

But it’s still worth checking out, says astronomer Diana Dragomir of MIT, a member of the TESS team. Despite its heat, this planet is “tepid” compared with most of the scorched worlds whose atmospheres astronomers can probe right now, she says, so closer to an Earthlike system. Smaller, cooler, more Earthlike worlds are few and far between, and may not orbit such bright stars.

Finding more longer-period planets “helps you explore the diversity of planets that are out there,” says astronomer Paul Dalba of the University of California, Riverside, who studies exoplanet atmospheres but was not involved in the TESS discovery. Because TESS spends such a short stretch of time looking at each segment of the sky, astronomers expect most of its planets to have shorter years than an Earth month. “The fact that we’re already getting one that’s longer period I think is just really exciting, showing that TESS isn’t just for the shortest-period exoplanets.”


LHS 3844b
LAVA LAND The exoplanet LHS 3844b, illustrated, is slightly bigger than Earth, and orbits its star every 11 hours. It’s probably a lava world, scientists think.

The other planets in TESS’s first haul are equally exotic. TESS’s first find, Pi Mensae c, was reported in September (SN Online: 9/18/18). The planet orbits its star every 6.27 days, and is about 2.14 times Earth’s size and 4.8 times Earth’s mass, giving it a density similar to pure water.

The weirdest thing about that super-Earth is the company it keeps, Huang said. Previous observations showed that the star Pi Mensae also has a planet 10 times the mass of Jupiter that orbits every 5.7 years. That planet, Pi Mensae b, revolves on a wildly eccentric orbit, swinging between the distance of Earth and the distance of Jupiter from its star.

“This is the most extreme system we know of that has this type of architecture,” Huang said.

Theories of how planets develop such wonky orbits suggest that this super-Jupiter should have booted Pi Mensae c out of the system (SN: 5/12/18, p. 28). “We are really surprised that the inner super-Earth actually survived that disruptive event,” Huang said. “It’s a mystery we really want to understand.”

The second planet found by TESS, LHS 3844b, has a radius just 1.3 times Earth’s. But it swings around its planet every 11 hours, giving it a surface temperature of about 540° C, Huang said. “It’s likely a lava world.”

TESS has completed about one-twelfth of its first sky survey, but Ricker is already writing proposals to extend its initial two-year mission. TESS’s orbit is held stable by the moon’s gravity, so it doesn’t need to spend any fuel to stay put. The fuel on board, used to change the direction the telescope points, is enough to last for 300 years.

“The orbit itself was designed to be extremely stable on timescales of decades to centuries,” Ricker said. “TESS is really going to be an important part of our astronomical efforts for the next decade and for more to come.”

Quelle: Science News