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NASA's Webb Space Telescope to Inspect Atmospheres of Gas Giant Exoplanets
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Baltimore MD (SPX) Jul 12, 2018 -
In April 2018, NASA launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Its main goal is to locate Earth-sized planets and larger "super-Earths" orbiting nearby stars for further study. One of the most powerful tools that will examine the atmospheres of some planets that TESS discovers will be NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Since observing small exoplanets with thin atmospheres like Earth will be challenging for Webb, astronomers will target easier, gas giant exoplanets first.Some of Webb's first observations of gas giant exoplanets will be conducted through the Director's Discretionary Early Release Science program. The transiting exoplanet project team at Webb's science operations center is planning to conduct three different types of observations that will provide both new scientific knowledge and a better understanding of the performance of Webb's science instruments."We have two main goals. The first is to get transiting exoplanet datasets from Webb to the astronomical community as soon as possible. The second is to do some great science so that astronomers and the public can see how powerful this observatory is," said Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, a co-principal investigator on the transiting exoplanet project."Our team's goal is to provide critical knowledge and insights to the astronomical community that will help to catalyze exoplanet research and make the best use of Webb in the limited time we have available," added Natalie Batalha of NASA Ames Research Center, the project's principal investigator.Transit - An atmospheric spectrum
When a planet crosses in front of, or transits, its host star, the star's light is filtered through the planet's atmosphere. Molecules within the atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths, or colors, of light. By splitting the star's light into a rainbow spectrum, astronomers can detect those sections of missing light and determine what molecules are in the planet's atmosphere.For these observations, the project team selected WASP-79b, a Jupiter-sized planet located about 780 light-years from Earth. The team expects to detect and measure the abundances of water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide in WASP-79b. Webb also might detect new molecules not yet seen in exoplanet atmospheres.Phase curve - A weather map
Planets that orbit very close to their stars tend to become tidally locked. One side of the planet permanently faces the star while the other side faces away, just as one side of the Moon always faces the Earth. When the planet is in front of the star, we see its cooler backside. But as it orbits the star, more and more of the hot day-side comes into view. By observing an entire orbit, astronomers can observe those variations (called a phase curve) and use the data to map the planet's temperature, clouds, and chemistry as a function of longitude.The team will observe a phase curve of the "hot Jupiter" known as WASP-43b, which orbits its star in less than 20 hours. By looking at different wavelengths of light, they can sample the atmosphere to different depths and obtain a more complete picture of its structure. "We have already seen dramatic and unexpected variations for this planet with Hubble and Spitzer. With Webb we will reveal these variations in significantly greater detail to understand the physical processes that are responsible," said Bean.Eclipse - A planet's glow
The greatest challenge when observing an exoplanet is that the star's light is much brighter, swamping the faint light of the planet. To get around this problem, one method is to observe a transiting planet when it disappears behind the star, not when it crosses in front of the star. By comparing the two measurements, one taken when both star and planet are visible, and the other when only the star is in view, astronomers can calculate how much light is coming from the planet alone.This technique works best for very hot planets that glow brightly in infrared light. The team plans to study WASP-18b, a planet that is baked to a temperature of almost 4,800 degrees Fahrenheit (2,900 K). Among other questions, they hope to determine whether the planet's stratosphere exists due to the presence of titanium oxide, vanadium oxide, or some other molecule.Habitable planets
Ultimately, astronomers want to use Webb to study potentially habitable planets. In particular, Webb will target planets orbiting red dwarf stars since those stars are smaller and dimmer, making it easier to tease out the signal from an orbiting planet. Red dwarfs are also the most common stars in our galaxy."TESS should locate more than a dozen planets orbiting in the habitable zones of red dwarfs, a few of which might actually be habitable. We want to learn whether those planets have atmospheres and Webb will be the one to tell us," said Kevin Stevenson of the Space Telescope Science Institute, a co-principal investigator on the project. "The results will go a long way towards answering the question of whether conditions favorable to life are common in our galaxy."The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world's premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
TESS Spacecraft Continues Testing Prior to First Observations
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Jul 12, 2018 -
After a successful launch on April 18, 2018, NASA's newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is currently undergoing a series of commissioning tests before it begins searching for planets.The TESS team has reported that the spacecraft and cameras are in good health, and the spacecraft has successfully reached its final science orbit. The team continues to conduct tests in order to optimize spacecraft performance with a goal of beginning science at the end of July.Every new mission goes through a commissioning period of testing and adjustments before beginning science operations. This serves to test how the spacecraft and its instruments are performing and determines whether any changes need to be made before the mission starts observations.TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Dr. George Ricker of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission.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's Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.
Rocky planet neighbor looks familiar, but is not Earth's twin
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Pasadena, CA (SPX) Jul 11, 2018 -
Last autumn, the world was excited by the discovery of an exoplanet called Ross 128 b, which is just 11 light years away from Earth. New work from a team led by Diogo Souto of Brazil's Observatorio Nacional and including Carnegie's Johanna Teske has for the first time determined detailed chemical abundances of the planet's host star, Ross 128.Understanding which elements are present in a star in what abundances can help researchers estimate the makeup of the exoplanets that orbit them, which can help predict how similar the planets are to the Earth."Until recently, it was difficult to obtain detailed chemical abundances for this kind of star," said lead author Souto, who developed a technique to make these measurements last year.Like the exoplanet's host star Ross 128, about 70 percent of all stars in the Milky Way are red dwarfs, which are much cooler and smaller than our Sun. Based on the results from large planet-search surveys, astronomers estimate that many of these red dwarf stars host at least one exoplanet.Several planetary systems around red dwarfs have been newsmakers in recent years, including Proxima b, a planet which orbits the nearest star to our own Sun, Proxima Centauri, and the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1, which itself is not much larger in size than our Solar System's Jupiter.Using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's APOGEE spectroscopic instrument, the team measured the star's near-infrared light to derive abundances of carbon, oxygen, magnesium, aluminum, potassium, calcium, titanium, and iron."The ability of APOGEE to measure near-infrared light, where Ross 128 is brightest, was key for this study," Teske said. "It allowed us to address some fundamental questions about Ross 128 b's `Earth-like-ness'," Teske said.When stars are young, they are surrounded by a disk of rotating gas and dust from which rocky planets accrete. The star's chemistry can influence the contents of the disk, as well as the resulting planet's mineralogy and interior structure. For example, the amount of magnesium, iron, and silicon in a planet will control the mass ratio of its internal core and mantle layers.The team determined that Ross 128 has iron levels similar to our Sun. Although they were not able to measure its abundance of silicon, the ratio of iron to magnesium in the star indicates that the core of its planet, Ross 128 b, should be larger than Earth's.Because they knew Ross 128 b's minimum mass, and stellar abundances, the team was also able to estimate a range for the planet's radius, which is not possible to measure directly due to the way the planet's orbit is oriented around the star.Knowing a planet's mass and radius is important to understanding what it's made of, because these two measurements can be used to calculate its bulk density. What's more, when quantifying planets in this way, astronomers have realized that planets with radii greater than about 1.7 times Earth's are likely surrounded by a gassy envelope, like Neptune, and those with smaller radii are likely to be more-rocky, as is our own home planet.The estimated radius of Ross 128 b indicates that it should be rocky.Lastly, by measuring the temperature of Ross 128 and estimating the radius of the planet the team was able to determine how much of the host star's light should be reflecting off the surface of Ross 128 b, revealing that our second-closest rocky neighbor likely has a temperate climate."It's exciting what we can learn about another planet by determining what the light from its host star tells us about the system's chemistry," Souto said. "Although Ross 128 b is not Earth's twin, and there is still much we don't know about its potential geologic activity, we were able to strengthen the argument that it's a temperate planet that could potentially have liquid water on its surface."Research paper
NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Pauses Science Observations to Download Science Data
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Jul 10, 2018 -
Earlier this week, NASA's Kepler team received an indication that the spacecraft fuel tank is running very low. NASA has placed the spacecraft in a hibernation-like state in preparation to download the science data collected in its latest observation campaign. Once the data has been downloaded, the expectation is to start observations for the next campaign with any remaining fuel.Since May 12, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, staring at a patch of sky towards the constellation of Cancer it previously studied in 2015. The data from this second look will provide astronomers with an opportunity to confirm previous exoplanet candidates and discover new ones. Returning the data back to Earth is the highest priority for the remaining fuel.To bring the data home, the spacecraft must point its large antenna back to Earth and transmit the data during its allotted Deep Space Network time, which is scheduled in early August. Until then, the spacecraft will remain stable and parked in a no-fuel-use safe mode.On August 2, the team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its no-fuel-use state and maneuver the spacecraft to the correct orientation and downlink the data. If the maneuver and download are successful, the team will begin its 19th observation campaign on August 6 with the remaining fuel.NASA will provide an update after the scheduled download. The agency has been monitoring the Kepler spacecraft closely for signs of low fuel, and expects it to run out of fuel in the next few months.As engineers preserve the new data stored on the spacecraft, scientists are continuing to mine existing data already on the ground. Among other findings, recently 24 new planet discoveries were made using data from the 10th observation campaign, adding to the spacecraft's growing bounty of 2,650 confirmed planets.
Researchers see beam of light from first confirmed neutron star merger emerge from behind sun
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Warwick UK (SPX) Jul 03, 2018 -
A research team led by astronomers at the University of Warwick had to wait over 100 days for the sight of the first of confirmed neutron star merger to remerge from behind the glare of the sun.They were rewarded with the first confirmed visual sighting of a jet of material that was still streaming out from merged star exactly 110 days after that initial cataclysmic merger event was first observed. Their observations confirm a key prediction about the aftermath of neutron star mergers.The binary neutron star merger GW170817 occurred 130 million light years away in a galaxy named NGC 4993. It was detected in August 2017 by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO), and by Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) observations, and then became the first ever neutron star merger to be observed and confirmed by visual astronomy.After a few weeks the merged star then passed behind the glare of our sun leaving it effectively hidden from astronomers until it remerged from that glare 100 days after the merger event.It was at that point that the University of Warwick research team were able to use the Hubble Space Telescope to see the star was still generating a powerful beam of light in a direction that, while off centre to the Earth, was starting to spread out in our direction.Their research has just been published in a paper entitled: "The optical afterglow of the short gamma-ray burst associated with GW170817" in Nature Astronomy's website at 4pm UK time on Monday 02 July 2018.The lead author of the paper, Dr Joe Lyman from the University of Warwick's Department of Physics, said:"Early on, we saw visible light powered by radioactive decay of heavy elements, over a hundred days later and this has gone, but now we see a jet of material, ejected at an angle to us, but at almost of the speed of light. This is quite different than some people have suggested, that the material wouldn't come out in a jet, but in all directions."Professor Andrew Levan from the University of Warwick's Department of Physics, another of the papers leading authors added:"If we'd looked straight down this beam we'd have seen a really powerful burst of gamma-ray. This means that it is quite likely that every neutron star that mergers actually creates a gamma-ray burst, but we only see a small fraction of them because the jet doesn't line up all that often. Gravitational waves are a whole new way to find this kind of event, and they might be more common than we think."These observations confirm the prediction made by the second author of the paper, Dr Gavin Lamb from the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy, said that these types of events will reveal the structure of these jets of material travelling close to the speed of light:"The behaviour of the light from these jets, how it brightens and fades, can be used to determine the velocity of the material throughout the jet. As the afterglow brightens we are seeing deeper into the jet structure and probing the fastest components. This will help us understand how these jets of material, travelling close to the speed of light, are formed and how they are accelerated to these phenomenal velocities."
Detecting the Boiling Atmosphere of the Hottest Known Exoplanet
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Heidelberg, Germany (SPX) Jul 03, 2018 -
Astronomers have found that the atmosphere of the hottest known exoplanet, the hot Jupiter-like planet KELT-9b, is "boiling off," with the escaping gas being captured by the host star. Using the CARMENES  instrument at Calar Alto Observatory, Fei Yan and Thomas Henning of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg were able to detect the escaping hydrogen atmosphere of the planet. Their observations indicate a spread-out hydrogen envelope that is being pulled towards the host star.By all definitions, KELT-9b is a hellish kind of exoplanet: Due to its proximity to an extremely hot host star, the planet itself is the hottest exoplanet yet discovered. Now Fei Yan and Thomas Henning of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have detected that planet's extended atmosphere, showing that the star is not only heating up the planet's hydrogen atmosphere - it is then using its gravity to pull the hydrogen onto itself.Specifically, the planet's host star KELT-9 is an extremely hot star with a temperature of up to 10,000 K (compare this with the Sun's much more modest 5,800 K, or 5,500 degrees Celsius). The planet's orbit is extremely small - ten times smaller than the orbit of Mercury in our solar system (corresponding to only about 3% of the diameter of Earth's orbit around the Sun).When the planet was discovered in 2017 by a team of astronomers led by B. Scott Gaudi (Ohio State University), the astronomers measured its day-side temperature to be at 4,600 K (4,300 degrees Celsius), which is hotter than many stars!The planet itself is a significantly larger version of our solar system's Jupiter, at almost 3 times Jupiter's mass and almost twice Jupiter's diameter. These properties combined place KELT-9b firmly in the class of what astronomers call "hot Jupiter."The planet's orbit regularly takes it between the host star and an observer on Earth - during each such transit, the planet blocks some of the starlight, causing the star to dim a little bit as measured by telescope on Earth. The planet was initially discovered by astronomers looking for that kind of regular little dip in the star's apparent brightness (the so-called transit method).When Yan and Henning observed KELT-9b using the CARMENES spectrograph installed at the 3.5 meter telescope at Calar Alto Observatory, they found traces of the planet's atmosphere: Whenever the planet was in front of its star, there would be a clear absorption line for hydrogen (H-alpha), a narrow wavelength region where the planet's hydrogen-rich atmosphere absorbs some of it's host star's bright light. CARMENES gives a particularly detailed, high-resolution view of stellar spectral making it an excellent tool for this kind of observation.The extended hydrogen atmosphere surrounding KELT-9b is surprisingly large - more than half as large again as the planet's radius. Models of how the star's gravity will pull on the planet's gas show that this is close to the maximal size of such an atmosphere.The large size suggests that the planet is losing hydrogen gas at a significant rate of more than 100,000 tons of hydrogen per second. The star is "boiling off" the planet's atmosphere, and pulling the gas onto itself, in a blatant case of interplanetary theft.The way the wavelength of the absorption line changes during the transit amounts to a rare direct detection of the planet's motion: the wavelength shift is due to the Doppler shift, which tells us how fast the planet is moving towards us or away from us.Fey Yan, lead author of the article, says: "This is a very special kind of measurement - this kind of direct measurement of planetary motion has only been possible for about half a dozen exoplanets so far."Thomas Henning, director at the MPIA and co-author of the study, says: "This planet reminds me of the mythical Icarus, who came to close to the Sun and crashed. Our planet will not crash, but it will certainly lose an essential part of itself, namely its atmosphere."Research Report: "An Extended Hydrogen Envelope of the Extremely Hot Giant Exoplanet KELT-9b," F. Yan and T. Henning, 2018 July 2, Nature Astronomy
More clues that Earth-like exoplanets are indeed Earth-like
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Atlanta GA (SPX) Jul 02, 2018 -
A new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology provides new clues indicating that an exoplanet 500 light-years away is much like Earth.Kepler-186f is the first identified Earth-sized planet outside the solar system orbiting a star in the habitable zone. This means it's the proper distance from its host star for liquid water to pool on the surface.The Georgia Tech study used simulations to analyze and identify the exoplanet's spin axis dynamics. Those dynamics determine how much a planet tilts on its axis and how that tilt angle evolves over time. Axial tilt contributes to seasons and climate because it affects how sunlight strikes the planet's surface.The researchers suggest that Kepler-186f's axial tilt is very stable, much like the Earth, making it likely that it has regular seasons and a stable climate. The Georgia Tech team thinks the same is true for Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-sized planet orbiting around a star about 1,200 light-years away from us.How important is axial tilt for climate? Large variability in axial tilt could be a key reason why Mars transformed from a watery landscape billions of years ago to today's barren desert."Mars is in the habitable zone in our solar system, but its axial tilt has been very unstable - varying from zero to 60 degrees," said Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Gongjie Li, who led the study together with graduate student Yutong Shan from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics."That instability probably contributed to the decay of the Martian atmosphere and the evaporation of surface water."As a comparison, Earth's axial tilt oscillates more mildly - between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees, going from one extreme to the other every 10,000 or so years.The orientation angle of a planet's orbit around its host star can be made to oscillate by gravitational interaction with other planets in the same system. If the orbit were to oscillate at the same speed as the precession of the planet's spin axis (akin to the circular motion exhibited by the rotation axis of a top or gyroscope), the spin axis would also wobble back and forth, sometimes dramatically.Mars and Earth interact strongly with each other, as well as with Mercury and Venus. As a result, by themselves, their spin axes would precess with the same rate as the orbital oscillation, which may cause large variations in their axial tilt.Fortunately, the moon keeps Earth's variations in check. The moon increases our planet's spin axis precession rate and makes it differ from the orbital oscillation rate. Mars, on the other hand, doesn't have a large enough satellite to stabilize its axial tilt."It appears that both exoplanets are very different from Mars and the Earth because they have a weaker connection with their sibling planets," said Li, a faculty member in the School of Physics."We don't know whether they possess moons, but our calculations show that even without satellites, the spin axes of Kepler-186f and 62f would have remained constant over tens of millions of years."Kepler-186f is less than 10 percent larger in radius than Earth, but its mass, composition and density remain a mystery. It orbits its host star every 130 days. According to NASA, the brightness of that star at high noon, while standing on 186f, would appear as bright as the sun just before sunset here on Earth. Kepler-186f is located in the constellation Cygnus as part of a five-planet star system.Kepler-62f was the most Earth-like exoplanet until scientists noticed 186f in 2014. It's about 40 percent larger than our planet and is likely a terrestrial or ocean-covered world. It's in the constellation Lyra and is the outermost planet among five exoplanets orbiting a single star.That's not to say either exoplanet has water, let alone life. But both are relatively good candidates."Our study is among the first to investigate climate stability of exoplanets and adds to the growing understanding of these potentially habitable nearby worlds," said Li."I don't think we understand enough about the origin of life to rule out the possibility of their presence on planets with irregular seasons," added Shan. "Even on Earth, life is remarkably diverse and has shown incredible resilience in extraordinarily hostile environments."But a climatically stable planet might be a more comfortable place to start."The paper, "Obliquity Variations of Habitable Zone Planets Kepler 62-f and Kepler 186-f," is published online in The Astronomical Journal.
First confirmed image of newborn planet caught with ESO's VLT
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Munich, Germany (SPX) Jul 03, 2018 -
Astronomers led by a group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany have captured a spectacular snapshot of planetary formation around the young dwarf star PDS 70. By using the SPHERE instrument on ESO'sVery Large Telescope (VLT) - one of the most powerful planet-hunting instruments in existence - the international team has made the first robust detection of a young planet, named PDS 70b, cleaving a path through the planet-forming material surrounding the young star.The SPHERE instrument also enabled the team to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths, which allowed properties of its atmosphere to be deduced.The planet stands out very clearly in the new observations, visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened centre of the image. It is located roughly three billion kilometres from the central star, roughly equivalent to the distance between Uranus and the Sun.The analysis shows that PDS 70b is a giant gas planet with a mass a few times that of Jupiter. The planet's surface has a temperature of around 1000 C, making it much hotter than any planet in our own Solar System.The dark region at the centre of the image is due to a coronagraph, a mask which blocks the blinding light of the central star and allows astronomers to detect its much fainter disc and planetary companion. Without this mask, the faint light from the planet would be utterly overwhelmed by the intense brightness of PDS 70."These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them," explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70's still-forming planet. "The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc."The discovery of PDS 70's young companion is an exciting scientific result that has already merited further investigation. A second team, involving many of the same astronomers as the discovery team, including Keppler, has in the past months followed up the initial observations to investigate PDS 70's fledgling planetary companion in more detail.They not only made the spectacularly clear image of the planet shown here, but were even able to obtain a spectrum of the planet. Analysis of this spectrum indicated that its atmosphere is cloudy.PDS 70's planetary companion has sculpted a transition disc - a protoplanetary disc with a giant "hole" in the centre. These inner gaps have been known about for decades and it has been speculated that they were produced by disc-planet interaction. Now we can see the planet for the first time."Keppler's results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution," comments Andre Muller, leader of the second team to investigate the young planet."We needed to observe a planet in a young star's disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation." By determining the planet's atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers are able to test theoretical models of planet formation.This glimpse of the dust-shrouded birth of a planet was only possible thanks to the impressive technological capabilities of ESO's SPHERE instrument, which studies exoplanets and discs around nearby stars using a technique known as high-contrast imaging - a challenging feat. Even when blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph, SPHERE still has to use cleverly devised observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around bright young stars at multiple wavelengths and epochs.Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of the teams, summarises the scientific adventure: "After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now SPHERE enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!"
Airbus completes the integration of CHEOPS satellite
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Madrid, Spain (SPX) Jul 04, 2018 -
Airbus has completed the integration of Cheops (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite), the European Space Agency's (ESA) first small mission satellite that will carry out an exciting scientific mission, to define the properties of the planets orbiting nearby stars.Cheops will study these planets using a Ritchey-Chretien Telescope supplied by the University of Bern, in Switzerland. It was integrated last month at Airbus' Madrid-Barajas site on the already-finished platform. Following successful integration the spacecraft will be sent to France, Switzerland and The Netherlands for a comprehensive test campaign on 9 July.The campaign will include a complete set of functional and environmental tests to ensure that the spacecraft is fit for launch. The satellite will then return to Madrid for final functional tests and a final inspection before it is shipped to Kourou, French Guiana, for launch.The satellite, which is implemented as a partnership between ESA and Switzerland, is on track for launch by the end of the year on a Soyuz rocket from Kourou. The Cheops mission will analyse, for at least three and a half years, the transit of exoplanets as they pass in front of their stars. It will operate from a Sun-synchronous orbit, at an altitude between 650 and 800 km.
NASA should update policies that protect planets and other solar system bodies
Montag, 16.07.2018, 00:17:33 Uhr
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 03, 2018 -
The current process for planetary protection policy development is inadequate to respond to increasingly complex solar system exploration missions, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.To prepare effectively for new dimensions of space exploration - including the entry of new international and private sector players and eventual human presence on other planetary bodies - the report calls for NASA to develop a planetary protection strategic plan, assess the completeness of policies, and initiate a process to formally define requirements that are missing. NASA should also identify a strategy for dealing with major policy issues, such as sample-return from and human missions to Mars and private-sector solar system exploration missions.Even before Sputnik began the spaceflight era, the international community expressed concern that space exploration could potentially contaminate other planetary bodies, thereby making it impossible to search for scientific evidence for life outside Earth. Likewise, samples of material returned from other bodies could pose risks to Earth.Therefore, planetary protection - to prevent harmful contamination of other celestial bodies or the introduction of possible extraterrestrial life to Earth's inhabitants and environment - has been an important principle throughout the history of space exploration. Presently, developing planetary protection policy involves a process that flows between national and international policy formulation and national policy implementation."NASA has played a pivotal leadership role on behalf of the United States in developing successful planetary protection policies for more than five decades, and our recommendations are intended to help sustain that success in the future," said Joseph Alexander, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and a private consultant in science and technology policy. "Soundly framed and executed planetary protection policies will play a critical role in ensuring that space exploration efforts will deliver unambiguous answers about the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system."The committee recommended that NASA develop a strategic plan that would help manage planetary protection policy implementation, secure outside advice, envision future exploration missions that could have planetary protection implications, and set research and technology investment priorities.Planetary protection policies are facing unprecedented challenges as NASA and other national and international space agencies move forward on missions such as Mars Sample Return and exploration campaigns to the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. NASA also does not currently have a planetary protection policy in place regarding human exploration to Mars, which could take place in the 2030s.Moreover, the current U.S. government process to oversee samples returned from Mars and elsewhere dates back to the Apollo era and is out of date. The committee recommended that NASA's agency-wide planetary protection strategic plan prepare for the policy development challenges that sample return and human missions to Mars are creating, as well as revise or replace its provisions for engaging relevant federal agencies in developing protection policies for returned samples.Private-sector space exploration activities are another reason why planetary protection policies need re-examination. The only commercial space missions that are currently required to undergo rigorous spacecraft decontamination procedures are those that might go to Mars, because Mars is the only body of current interest to private-sector entities that is potentially capable of harboring life.Moreover, there is no regulatory agency within the U.S. government with the authority to regulate space exploration by non-government entities. Legislation should be proposed that grants authority to an appropriate federal regulatory agency to authorize and supervise private sector space activities, the report says. The policy development process also should take into account the views of the private sector and increase its participation in international discussions of planetary protection policy.Copies of Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes are available from The National Academies