Extrasolar Planets: May 2013

For centuries, humans have pondered what life on other planets beyond our solar system might be like. With the launch of the Kepler spacecraft in 2009 we now have evidence for the widespread existence of such planets.

Following the apparent failure of reaction wheel 4 on May 11, 2013, engineers were successful at transitioning the spacecraft from a Thruster-Controlled Safe Mode to Point Rest State at approximately 3:30 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. The spacecraft has remained safe and stable in this attitude and is no longer considered to be in a critical situation.

Detecting alien worlds presents a significant challenge since they are small, faint, and close to their stars. The two most prolific techniques for finding exoplanets are radial velocity (looking for wobbling stars) and transits (looking for dimming stars). A team at Tel Aviv University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has just discovered an exoplanet using a new method that relies on Einstein's special theory of relativity.

A Comparative Climatology Symposium was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Tuesday, May 7. The symposium focused on new approaches to climate research by highlighting the similarities and contrasts between the environments of the terrestrial planets Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn's smoggy moon Titan. The symposium also included discussions about exoplanets, the Sun, and past, present and future space missions.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found the building blocks for Earth-sized planets in an unlikely place: the atmospheres of a pair of burned-out stars called white dwarfs.

The purpose of the hearing is to review the recent discovery of three super-Earth sized planets by the NASA's Kepler space telescope. The hearing will also assess the state of exoplanet surveying, characterization, and research; NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program; National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Science; as well as coordination within the government and with external partners. NASA and NSF both contribute to the search for exoplanets.

Our galaxy is teeming with a wild variety of planets. In addition to our solar system's eight near-and-dear planets, there are more than 800 so-called exoplanets known to circle stars beyond our sun. One of the first "species" of exoplanets to be discovered is the hot Jupiters, also known as roasters. These are gas giants like Jupiters, but they orbit closely to their stars, blistering under the heat.

Observational surveys for extrasolar planets probe the diverse outcomes of planet formation and evolution. These surveys measure the frequency of planets with different masses, sizes, orbital characteristics, and host star properties. Small planets between the sizes of Earth and Neptune substantially outnumber Jupiter-sized planets.

Keith's note: NASA has cancelled the Second Kepler Science Conference, which was to be held at NASA Ames on November 4-8, 2013. This cancellation is now posted on the Kepler Mission web site. I am told that the organizers hope to postpone this meeting and hold it again at NASA Ames, perhaps one year later, i.e., November 2014, assuming that the sequestration restrictions on NASA will have been lifted by then.

The symposium will highlight the similarities and contrasts between the environments of the terrestrial planets: Venus, Earth, Mars, and Titan. Presentations will cover current Earth climate models, Earth observation, past and current Venus missions (as a laboratory for Earth climate), observational studies of the Terrestrial planets (exoplanets), and the influence of the Sun on climate. The Symposium will conclude with a panel discussion and Q/A.