Category Archives: James Webb Space Telescope

NASA launches satellite ‘TESS’ in hunt for exoplanets

With the TESS launch scheduled for this very day, I wrote the following popular-level piece for The Conversation (which has also been re-published by the BBC Focus Magazine).

Previous generations have looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered whether they are also orbited by planets. Our generation is the first to find out the answer. We now know that nearly all stars have planets around them, and as our technology improves we keep finding more. NASA’s newest satellite, TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), scheduled for launch on April 16, 2018, will extend the hunt for small, rocky planets around nearby, bright stars.

NASA’s TESS planet hunter (artist’s impression)

We want to know how big such planets are, what kind of orbits they have and how they formed and evolved. Do they have atmospheres, are they clear or cloudy, and what are they made of? Over the coming decades, we will find Earth-like planets at the right distance from their star for water to be liquid. It’s conceivable that one will have an atmosphere containing molecules such as free oxygen that indicate biological activity. TESS is a major step towards this long-term goal.

Planets are so faint and tiny compared to their host stars that it is remarkable we can detect them at all, let alone study their atmospheres. Yet planets can, from our viewpoint, appear to travel or “transit” across the face of their star as they orbit, blocking a small fraction of the star’s light. TESS will monitor 200,000 bright stars in the solar neighbourhood, looking for tiny dips in their brightness that reveal a transiting planet.

To understand the atmospheres of exoplanets, we have to examine how they interact with starlight. As a planet transits across a star, the thin smear of its atmosphere is backlit by starlight. Some wavelengths of the starlight will be absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere while other wavelengths will shine straight through. So looking at which wavelengths reach us and which don’t can reveal what the atmosphere is made of.

The spectrum of starlight passing through a planet’s atmosphere can tell us what the atmosphere is made of. Credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT, Julien de Wit

Such observations are right at the limit of current capabilities, requiring the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the $8 billion successor to Hubble scheduled for launch in 2020. With a 6.5-metre-wide mirror, collecting much more light than Hubble ever could, and with specially designed instruments, JWST has been built to study exoplanet atmospheres.

In order to use JWST most effectively, we first need to know which stars host the best transiting exoplanets to study, and that’s why we need TESS. Its predecessor spacecraft, Kepler, surveyed 150,000 stars in a patch of sky near the constellation Cygnus, and found over a thousand planets ranging from gaseous giants like Jupiter to rocky planets as small as Mercury. But Kepler covered only a small patch of sky containing few stars bright enough for us to study their planets.

In contrast, ground-based telescopes have searched wider swathes of the sky looking at many more brighter stars for transiting exoplanets. The most successful has been the UK-led Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) project, of which I am a member. Using an array of camera lenses, WASP has spent the last decade monitoring a million stars every clear night looking for transit dips, and has found nearly 200 exoplanets, some of which have now been chosen as targets for JWST.

But ground-based transit surveys have one big limitation: they look through Earth’s atmosphere and that severely limits the data quality. They can detect brightness dips as small as 1%, which is sufficient to find giant gaseous planets that are like our own Jupiter and Saturn. But smaller, rocky planets block out far less light. Our Earth would produce a dip of only 0.01% if seen projected against our sun.

The JWST is currently being readied for launch. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

TESS will combine the best of both these approaches, observing bright stars over the whole sky with the advantage of doing so from space. It should find the small, rocky planets that Kepler proved are abundant but find them orbiting stars that are bright enough for us to study their atmospheres with JWST.

TESS will typically observe each region of sky for 30 days. This means that it will detect planets that don’t take long to orbit their stars and so will produce several transits while TESS is looking at them. Planets with short orbits are located close to their stars, meaning that most planets TESS finds will be too hot for liquid water. But planets orbiting dimmer, cooler red dwarf stars might be at the right temperature for life even if they are so close. The dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is 1,000 times dimmer than our sun, and is known to host seven closely orbiting planets.

While TESS looks for planets orbiting dwarf stars from space, the SPECULOOS survey will be looking at even smaller and dimmer stars from the ground. Any planets it finds will be prime targets for JWST.

This exploration is a step towards finding rocky planets in the habitable zone of stars like our sun. In 2026, The European Space Agency is expected to launch PLATO, a satellite with the potential to discover rocky planets in Earth-like orbits with periods of a year. The race will then begin to find biomarker molecules, such as free oxygen, in the atmosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet.


Two K2 planets transiting bright stars

With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope only a year away the exoplanet community is gearing up to exploit its capability for characterising exoplanet atmospheres. A new paper by Yu et al contains a plot of the best targets, giving the expected “signal to noise” for each planet as a function of the planet’s mass. The higher the S/N the better, enabling more atmospheric features to be discerned.

It is notable that most of the best targets do not come from Kepler (which had a relatively small field of view, and so looked at mainly fainter stars), but instead from the ground-based transit surveys (which focus mainly on brighter stars, which are thus better targets for follow-up). WASP features strongly, supplying half of the best targets.

The focus of the Yu et al paper, however, is the discovery of two very good targets from the K2 phase of Kepler‘s mission. K2 is observing more fields for less time than the original Kepler, and so covers more bright stars.

HD 89345b (labelled in red above) is only 10% of Jupiter’s mass but is bloated to 0.6 Jupiter radii. Transiting a bright star of V = 9.4 makes it a prime target.

The transit depth of only 0.15% means that it is too shallow to have been detected by WASP (which can do 0.2–0.3% at best), especially given the 11.8-day orbit, which means that it produces fewer transits than shorter-period planets.

The other new discovery, HD 286123b (which had also been independently found by Brahm et al), is a larger and more massive planet producing a 0.8% dip. This one should have been within the reach of the WASP survey, but happens to lie in a region of the Northern sky where SuperWASP-North has only limited data.

WASP planets selected for James Webb Space Telescope ERS and GTO

Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets is one of the main goals of the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for launch in mid 2019. The mission recently asked for proposals for “Early Release Science”, observations to test out the instruments, show what JWST can so, and supply the community with data to start analysing.

Of 13 ERS proposals accepted, the “The Transiting Exoplanet Community ERS Program”, led by Kepler lead-scientist Natalie Batalha, got all the time it asked for.

WASP planets feature heavily in the ERS program, since many transit relatively bright stars. Large, puffy gaseous planets will also give the strongest and clearest signals of atmospheric features, and so are optimum early targets. While JWST will want to look also at atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets, “Astronomers initially will train their gaze onto gaseous Jupiter-sized worlds like WASP-39b and WASP-43b because they are easier targets on which to [look for the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s gases]”.

The target list for the ERS proposal is currently being finalised in the light of the recent delay in JWST launch from 2018 to 2019, though an earlier draft of the proposal featured 7 WASP planets out of 12 targets.

Further, the four GTO teams have also selected WASP planets for early JWST observations. GTO time (“Guaranteed Time Observations”) is time allocated to the teams who built the JWST instruments as a reward and incentive. All four instrument teams have picked WASP planets, including WASP-17b, WASP-52b, WASP-43b, WASP-69b, WASP-77Ab, WASP-80b, WASP-107b and WASP-121b.

Meanwhile, Kevin Heng, of the University of Bern, has written a popular-level account for American Scientist of how JWST is expected to revolutionise the study of exoplanet atmospheres.