Kepler Might be Out with the Exoplanets, but TESS Will be Out with the Indo-planets

The size comparison of Earth like exoplanets.

In March 2018, Jack Lissauer of NASA’s Ames Research Center talked about the new phases of NASA’s efforts to identify and research exoplanets. What’s an Exoplanet you ask? Well, it’s a planet that orbits around a star outside of our solar system, much like our Earth does to our Sun. The first phase of this effort started in 2009 when NASA launched the Kepler Spacecraft on a mission to identify Exoplanets. Over the next four years, the Kepler Spacecraft delivered outstanding results by identifying more than 4,000 candidate planets. After detailed investigations, more than 2,000 of these planets were deemed as exoplanets. In 2013, the spacecraft lost two important reaction wheels that control small position adjustments, but it was still able to be repurposed in to see many fields on the sky for short periods of time. This new mission was labeled K2 and the Kepler was able to identify an additional 600 potential exoplanets. Approximately 200 of those planets have been verified. These last 600 planets are closer to the Earth then the previous missions, so it’s possible that one day we might be able to get a closer look! Kepler has done all it can do, so now it’s time to transition to the new phase and launch a planet hunter named TESS.

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) will be launched into outer space in 2018. Its primary mission is to survey most of the sky for more exoplanets, but with emphasis on those planets orbiting nearby or around bright host stars. With these criteria, it will make the located planets more suited to follow up observations, such as the characterization of atmospheric compositions and other properties. During the search for exoplanets, more than one third of the planet candidates that were found were associated with target stars. Target stars are only visible every few hours and Kepler was required to continuously monitor them during exploration. When a candidate planet was found around a target star, it was often the case that another candidate planet was found around that same star.  These clusters were called “multis” and the scientists discovered that this configuration was quite common and more likely to yield actual planets after research.  This large number of “multis” told the scientists that flat multi planet systems like our solar system are common in the universe! With all of these great discoveries made by Kepler and K2, who knows what TESS will come up with!




Lissauer, J. 2018. Transiting Planets from Kepler, K2 & TESS. NASA Technical Reports Server.


Our Earth? Headed to Wall-e Trash Planet? More Likely Then You Think

Space Debris
Diagram of where debris could be around the Earth.

The recent space launch of a Tesla roadster aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket (video below) has once again raised the conversation level surrounding the issue of orbital debris. Orbital debris is “any human-made object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves any useful purpose.” In December of 2017, J. –C. Lious, PhD, Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris, gave a presentation about the current state of orbital debris and its policies. In the 1990s, NASA was the first organization in the world to create a space debris policy with specific guidelines. Entitled the NASA Procedural Requirements for Limiting Orbital Debris, the organization spearheaded an effort to expand this policy throughout the entire United States Government. The United States is not the only country that is worried about space debris.

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) is a collection of a spacefaring countries that has developed a set of international space debris guidelines. Space Debris has also been on the agenda at the United Nations since 1994. Since there are so many space debris committees there must be a lot of disagreement, right? Correct! The international community created at least four separate standards that all contain different guidelines and criteria governing space debris in Low Earth Orbit (anything below 2000 km).  Many of these policies are not quantitative and contain phrases such as “minimize the probability of occurrence.” Of these organizations, NASA has been the global pioneer on orbital debris. They were the first to acknowledge the problem, and the first to set up measurable guidelines to manage it.

Even with all of these regulations, launches still occurred from January 2008 to September 2017 that did not comply with the guidelines set forth by NASA. These guidelines consist of three simple rules; the post mission orbital lifetime must be less than 25 years, the threat of orbital debris from a mission explosion must be less than 0.001 and finally, the reentry human casualty risk must be less than 1 in 10000. Examples of missions that did not follow these rules are NOAA-19, with an orbital lifetime of 500 years, and MMS Atlas 5, with a human casualty risk of 1 in 600. NASA is trying to create better compliance for the future projects by working on a set of new standards that include reducing orbital debris during normal operations, minimizing the amount of debris created by accidental explosions, and by launching missions with disposable space structures.

OPINION: The Falcon Heavy launch was definitely a site to see, but the Tesla that is in space now is unnecessary. Yes, I think it’s comical, and I understand the promotional value that Elon Musk received for shooting a Tesla into space. But at what cost?  Currently, we don’t know where it is going. All we know is that it is going to pass Mars orbit in about 6 months and eventually make it back to somewhere around Earth.  Most orbital debris serves a useful purpose at some point during its mission but Musk’s Tesla was nothing more than a rocket payload. Sustainability is on everyone’s minds right now, but what about space sustainability? How long will it be until we need to start worrying about not being able to see the sky because of orbital trash?


Liou, J.-C. 2017. Orbital Debris Briefing. NASA Technical Reports Sever: JSC-E-DAA-TN50234. 

“How would you like to see the beginning of everything?”: New telescope, JWST, to be launched in 2018

Picture of the JWST's large mirror plate
The James Webb Space Telescope being worked on by a team member at NASA.

With help from the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), researchers at NASA have been working for the past few years on a new telescope designed to surpass The Hubble Space Telescope. In January, Matt Greenhouse from the JWST Project office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center presented about The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Mission and its progress. Set to launch later in 2018, JWST, named after the second administrator of NASA, James Webb, is designed to look back in time to the very first galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope can only look back one billion years (although it has been known to look back a little further than one billion years) and the universe is 13.7 billion years old.  Light from the most ancient galaxies is emitted in the ultraviolet spectrum which eventually stretches to infrared as it travels through expanding space.  Unlike the Hubble, JWST is engineered to see in this infrared spectrum.

The JWST will have many other uses once it is launched. It will be able to see stars form so we can finally understand how stars are born. We will be able to watch how planetary systems are formed and how they evolve. A skill that will be very import for humans in the future is our ability to understand planets that orbit a star outside our solar system (exoplanets). JWST utilizes spectroscopy, a branch of research that looks at the spectra an objects reflects when in contact with or gives off electromagnetic radtion, to allow us to monitor atmospheres and possible life on these exoplanets that might allow us to find a new home far in the future. JWST will even be capable of looking at our own solar system. There are so many possibilities from looking at our sun and seeing the first solid bodies that were formed 4.567 billion years ago. JWST will even let us map out our future to when the sun becomes a red giant and destroys earth (currently estimated at 8 million years from now).

As amazing as this sounds, it’s been a massive technical project. JWST had to be designed to operate in very low temperatures (cryogenic) and it will be the largest cryogenic telescope ever constructed. The team had two main problems: the mirror from the telescope is bigger than the Ariane Rocket Fairing (a rocket fairing is the nose cone that protects the item that is going into space through launch), and it was hard to create a high stability cryogenic operating temperature (-233 degrees Celsius, -388 degree Fahrenheit). The telescope is made up of three important elements: an optical telescope, an integrated science instrument module, and a spacecraft. The mirror is a major accomplishment in itself because it is made up of multiple mirrors that will be able to work together as one big mirror. The mirrors were crafted from Beryllium because it conducts heat well, does not expand and contract with a large changes in temperature, and is lightweight and rigid.

Workers posing in one of the JWST mirrors.
JWST crew posing in one of the large mirrors that make up the giant optical telescope.

Overall, 3,200 bonded composite pieces were put together to build the telescope. The JWST will be transported by ship through the Panama Canal to French Guiana for its launch during 2018. When launched, it will be placed in orbit 1.5 million km from earth to help with the passive cryogenic cooling. Ultimately the telescope will be able to see the whole sky which will lead to very interesting discoveries in the next few years.


OPINION: I can’t believe the Hubble Space Telescope isn’t going to be the new cutting edge technology anymore. The Hubble Space Telescope was a part of my childhood so a part of me is sad to see it go.  However, this new telescope is so exciting, I think I could forgo my sadness. I’m really excited to see what comes out of this new telescope and I’ll be sure to live stream its launch when it goes up later this year.


Greenhouse, M. 2018. The James Webb Space Telescope Mission. NASA Technical Reports Server: Oral/Visual Presentation, GSFC-E-DAA-TN51070.