Science and Space…NASA’s Kepler Mission Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone of Sun-like Star

This diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-22, a star system containing the first "habitable zone" planet discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the “habitable zone,” the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.

Previous research hinted at the existence of near-Earth-size planets in habitable zones, but clear confirmation proved elusive. Two other small planets orbiting stars smaller and cooler than our sun recently were confirmed on the very edges of the habitable zone, with orbits more closely resembling those of Venus and Mars.

“This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Kepler’s results continue to demonstrate the importance of NASA’s science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe.”

Kepler discovers planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets that cross in front, or “transit,” the stars. Kepler requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

“Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet,” said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., who led the team that discovered Kepler-22b. “The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season.”

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates the spacecraft finds. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

Kepler-22b is located 600 light-years away. While the planet is larger than Earth, its orbit of 290 days around a sun-like star resembles that of our world. The planet’s host star belongs to the same class as our sun, called G-type, although it is slightly smaller and cooler.

Of the 54 habitable zone planet candidates reported in February 2011, Kepler-22b is the first to be confirmed. This milestone will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Kepler team is hosting its inaugural science conference at Ames Dec. 5-9, announcing 1,094 new planet candidate discoveries. Since the last catalog was released in February, the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler has increased by 89 percent and now totals 2,326. Of these, 207 are approximately Earth-size, 680 are super Earth-size, 1,181 are Neptune-size, 203 are Jupiter-size and 55 are larger than Jupiter.

The findings, based on observations conducted May 2009 to September 2010, show a dramatic increase in the numbers of smaller-size planet candidates.

Kepler observed many large planets in small orbits early in its mission, which were reflected in the February data release. Having had more time to observe three transits of planets with longer orbital periods, the new data suggest that planets one to four times the size of Earth may be abundant in the galaxy.

The number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates has increased by more than 200 and 140 percent since February, respectively.

There are 48 planet candidates in their star’s habitable zone. While this is a decrease from the 54 reported in February, the Kepler team has applied a stricter definition of what constitutes a habitable zone in the new catalog, to account for the warming effect of atmospheres, which would move the zone away from the star, out to longer orbital periods.

“The tremendous growth in the number of Earth-size candidates tells us that we’re honing in on the planets Kepler was designed to detect: those that are not only Earth-size, but also are potentially habitable,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. “The more data we collect, the keener our eye for finding the smallest planets out at longer orbital periods.”

NASA’s Ames Research Center manages Kepler’s ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development.

Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters.

Released: December 5, 2011

Source: NASA

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Hubble Uncovers Tiny Galaxies Bursting with Star Birth in Early Universe

Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and the CANDELS team CANDELS DWARF GALAXIES. The CANDELS team identified 69 dwarf galaxies that are undergoing intense bursts of star formation. The dwarf galaxies were found in two regions of the sky called the Great Observatories Deep Survey-South and the UKIDSS Ultra Deep Survey (part of the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey). Each dwarf is shown centered in cutouts made from near-infrared (I, J, and H band) images acquired by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. The light from these galaxies has been traveling for about 9 billion years. Many of the stars in nearby dwarf galaxies may have formed in similar starbursts around the same time. The background shows a wider near-infrared view of the CANDELS Ultra Deep Survey field.

Newswise — Using its near-infrared vision to peer 9 billion years back in time, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered an extraordinary population of tiny, young galaxies that are brimming with star formation. The galaxies are typically a hundred times less massive than the Milky Way galaxy, yet they churn out stars at such a furious pace that their stellar content would double in just 10 million years. By comparison, the Milky Way would take a thousand times longer to double its population.

These newly discovered dwarf galaxies are extreme even for the young universe, when most galaxies were forming stars at higher rates than they are today. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. Hubble spotted the galaxies because the radiation from young, hot stars has caused the oxygen in the gas surrounding them to light up like a bright neon sign. The rapid star birth likely represents an important phase in the formation of dwarf galaxies, the most common galaxy type in the cosmos.

“The galaxies have been there all along, but up until recently astronomers have been able only to survey tiny patches of sky at the sensitivities necessary to detect them,” said Arjen van der Wel of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. Van der Wel is the lead author of a paper that will be published online Nov. 14 in The Astrophysical Journal. “We weren’t looking specifically for these galaxies, but they stood out because of their unusual colors.”

The observations were part of the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS), an ambitious three-year survey to analyze the most distant galaxies in the universe. CANDELS is the census of dwarf galaxies at such an early epoch in the universe’s history.

“In addition to the images, Hubble has captured spectra that show us the oxygen in a handful of galaxies and confirm their extreme star-forming nature,” said co-author Amber Straughn at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Spectra are like fingerprints–they tell us the galaxies’ chemical composition.”

The observations are somewhat at odds with recent detailed studies of the dwarf galaxies that are orbiting as satellites of the Milky Way.

“Those studies suggest that star formation was a relatively slow process, stretching out over billions of years,” explained Harry Ferguson of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., co-leader of the CANDELS survey. “The CANDELS finding that there were galaxies of roughly the same size forming stars at very rapid rates at early times is forcing us to re-examine what we thought we knew about dwarf galaxy evolution.”

Added team member Anton Koekemoer, also of STScI, who is producing all the Hubble imaging data for the survey: “As our observations continue, we should find many more of these young galaxies and gather more details on their star-forming histories.”

The CANDELS team uncovered the 69 young dwarf galaxies in near-infrared images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. The galaxies were found in two regions of the sky called the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey South and the UKIDSS Ultra Deep Survey (part of the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey).

The observations suggest that the newly discovered galaxies were very common 9 billion years ago. It is a mystery, however, why the newly found dwarf galaxies were making batches of stars at such a high rate. Computer simulations show that star formation in small galaxies may be episodic. Gas cools and collapses to form stars. The stars then reheat the gas through, for example, supernova explosions, which blow the gas away. After some time, the gas cools and collapses again, producing a new burst of star formation, continuing the cycle.

“While these theoretical predictions may provide hints to explain the star formation in these newly discovered galaxies, the observed ‘bursts’ are much more intense than what the simulations can reproduce,” van der Wel said.

The James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared observatory scheduled to launch later this decade, will be able to probe these faint galaxies at an even earlier era to see the glow of the first generation of stars, providing detailed information of the galaxies’ chemical composition.

“With Webb, we’ll probably see even more of these galaxies, perhaps even pristine galaxies that are experiencing their first episode of star formation,” Ferguson said. “Being able to probe down to dwarf galaxies in the early universe will help us understand the formation of the first stars and galaxies.”

For images and more information about Hubble and the CANDELS results, visit:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. in Washington, D.C.

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Science Update: Star Blasts Planet with X-Rays

Optical: NASA/NSF/IPAC-Caltech/UMass/2MASS, PROMPT; Wide field image: DSS; X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Hamburg/S.Schröter et al; Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss This graphic contains an image and illustration of a nearby star, named CoRoT-2a, and an orbiting planet known as CoRoT-2b. The image contains X-rays from Chandra (purple) of CoRoT-2a along with optical and infrared data of the field of view in which it is found. CoRoT-2b, which is not seen in this image, orbits extremely closely to the star. In fact, the separation between the star and planet is only about 3 percent of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The Chandra data indicate that planet is being blasted by X-rays with such intensity that some 5 millions of tons of material are being eroded from the planet every second.

Newswise — A nearby star is pummeling a companion planet with a barrage of X-rays a hundred thousand times more intense than the Earth receives from the Sun.

New data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope suggest that high-energy radiation is evaporating about 5 million tons of matter from the planet every second. This result gives insight into the difficult survival path for some planets.

The planet, known as CoRoT-2b, has a mass about 3 times that of Jupiter (1000 times that of Earth) and orbits its parent star, CoRoT-2a at a distance roughly ten times the distance between Earth and the Moon.

The CoRoT-2 star and planet — so named because the French Space Agency’s Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) satellite discovered them in 2008 — is a relatively nearby neighbor of the Solar System at a distance of 880 light years.

“This planet is being absolutely fried by its star,” said Sebastian Schroeter of the University of Hamburg in Germany. “What may be even stranger is that this planet may be affecting the behavior of the star that is blasting it.”

According to optical and X-ray data, the CoRoT-2 system is estimated to be between about 100 million and 300 million years old, meaning that the star is fully formed. The Chandra observations show that CoRoT-2a is a very active star, with bright X-ray emission produced by powerful, turbulent magnetic fields. Such strong activity is usually found in much younger stars.

“Because this planet is so close to the star, it may be speeding up the star’s rotation and that could be keeping its magnetic fields active,” said co-author Stefan Czesla, also from the University of Hamburg. “If it wasn’t for the planet, this star might have left behind the volatility of its youth millions of years ago.”

Support for this idea come from observations of a likely companion star that orbits CoRoT-2a at a distance about a thousand times greater than the separation between the Earth and our Sun. This star is not detected in X-rays, perhaps because it does not have a close-in planet like CoRoT-2b to cause it to stay active.

Another intriguing aspect of CoRoT-2b is that it appears to be unusually inflated for a planet in its position.

“We’re not exactly sure of all the effects this type of heavy X-ray storm would have on a planet, but it could be responsible for the bloating we see in CoRoT-2b,” said Schroeter. “We are just beginning to learn about what happens to exoplanets in these extreme environments.”

These results were published in the August issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The other co-authors were Uwe Wolter, Holger Mueller, Klaus Huber and Juergen Schmitt, all from the University of Hamburg.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra’s science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

Released: 9/13/2011
Source: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Via Newswise

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Traveling to Mars: Filling the Pantry for the First Voyages to the Red Planet

PhotoCredit: NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC) Astronauts en route to Mars may not have it as easy as this space shuttle astronaut — they may have to grow their own food.

Newswise — DENVER, Aug. 28, 2011 — A green thumb and a little flair as a gourmet chef may be among the key skills for the first men and women who travel to the Red Planet later this century, according to a scientist who reported here today on preparations for the first manned missions to Mars.

Speaking at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Maya R. Cooper said that provisioning the astronauts with food stands as one of the greatest challenges in scripting the first manned mission to Mars. ACS, the world largest scientific society, opened the meeting today at the Colorado Convention Center and downtown hotels. With more than 7,500 reports on new advances in science and some 9,500 scientists and others expected in attendance, it will be one of 2011’s largest scientific gatherings.

Cooper explained that the challenges of provisioning space vehicles and Martian surface bases begin with tangible factors, such weight and nutrition, and encompass psychological nuances, such as providing a varied, tasty menu that wards off boredom. The solutions envisioned now include requiring astronauts to grow some of their own food and engage in much more food preparation than their counterparts on the International Space Station.

The major challenge is to balance weight, food acceptability and resource utilization, Cooper explained. She is a senior research scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in the Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston, Texas. For flights on the space shuttles and the International Space Station, astronauts get 3.8 pounds of food per day. For a 5-year round-trip mission to Mars, that would mean almost 7,000 pounds of food per person.

“That’s a clear impediment to a lot of mission scenarios,” Cooper said. “We need new approaches. Right now, we are looking at the possibility of implementing a bioregenerative system that would involve growing crops in space and possibly shipping some bulk commodities to a Mars habitat as well. This scenario involves much more food processing and meal preparation than the current food system developed for the space shuttles and the International Space Station.”

Bioregenerative systems involve growing plants that multi-task. They would supply food, of course. But just as plants do in natural environments on Earth, those growing in bioregenerative systems also would release oxygen for the astronauts to breathe, purify the air by removing the carbon dioxide that crews exhale and even purify water.

Ideally, these plants would have few inedible parts, would grow well with minimal tending and would not take up much room. Ten crops that fit those requirements have emerged as prime candidates for the Mars mission’s kitchen garden. They are lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs and cabbages.

Cooper cited another option for these missions, the first of which could launch in the 2030s, according to some forecasts. Shipping bulk commodities to Mars could involve unmanned spacecraft launched a year or two before the astronauts depart to establish stashes of food with long shelf-lives that the crew could use while exploring the Red Planet.

Engaging astronauts in food production and preparation is the latest concept in a 50-year evolution of technology for filling astronauts’ and cosmonauts’ larders, Cooper noted. It began when Yuri Gagarin reportedly munched on paté and caviar during that first manned spaceflight in 1961.

Space food has come a long way since the days of freeze-dried food blocks and squeezing gooey foods out of toothpaste tubes that astronauts ate in the earliest days of space flight. By the late 1960s, astronauts for the first time could have hot food and eat their food with a spoon in a special bowl. Other utensils were introduced in the 1970s with Skylab — the U.S.’ first space station. These astronauts could choose from 72 different foods, some of which were stored in an on-board refrigerator or freezer — a first for space cuisine. In recent years, space shuttle astronauts could drink a coffee with their scrambled eggs for breakfast, snack on chocolates or a brownie and choose from chicken al a King, mushroom soup or rice pilaf among other foods for lunch and dinner — just like on Earth. These prepackaged foods take only a few minutes and little effort to prepare.

“The NASA Advanced Food Technology project is currently working to address the issues of food variety, weight, volume, nutrition and trash disposal through research and external academic and commercial collaborations,” Cooper noted.

The American Chemical Society is a non-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 163,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

Released: 8/25/2011     Source: American Chemical Society (ACS)

Via Newswise

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