This artist's concept shows NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer begins its "Beyond" mission phase on Oct. 1, 2016. The spacecraft is depicted in the orientation it assumes to establish communications with ground stations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech › Larger image
Celebrating the spacecraft's ability to push the boundaries of space science and technology, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope team has dubbed the next phase of its journey "Beyond."
"Spitzer is operating well beyond the limits that were set for it at the beginning of the mission," said Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We never envisioned operating 13 years after launch, and scientists are making discoveries in areas of science we never imagined exploring with the spacecraft."
NASA recently granted the spacecraft a two-and-a-half-year mission extension. This Beyond phase of the Spitzer mission will explore a wide range of topics in astronomy and cosmology, as well as planetary bodies in and out of our solar system.
Because of Spitzer's orbit and age, the Beyond phase presents a variety of new engineering challenges. Spitzer trails Earth in its journey around the sun, but because the spacecraft travels slower than Earth, the distance between Spitzer and Earth has widened over time. As Spitzer gets farther away, its antenna must be pointed at higher angles toward the sun to communicate with Earth, which means that parts of the spacecraft will experience more and more heat. At the same time, Spitzer's solar panels point away from the sun and will receive less sunlight, so the batteries will be under greater stress. To enable this riskier mode of operations, the mission team will have to override some autonomous safety systems.
"Balancing these concerns on a heat-sensitive spacecraft will be a delicate dance, but engineers are hard at work preparing for the new challenges in the Beyond phase," said Mark Effertz, the Spitzer spacecraft chief engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado, which built the spacecraft.
Spitzer, which launched on Aug. 25, 2003, has consistently adapted to new scientific and engineering challenges during its mission, and the team expects it will continue to do so during the "Beyond" phase, which begins Oct. 1. The selected research proposals for the Beyond phase, also known as Cycle 13, include a variety of objects that Spitzer wasn't originally planned to address -- such as galaxies in the early universe, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and exoplanets.
"We never even considered using Spitzer for studying exoplanets when it launched," said Sean Carey of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. "It would have seemed ludicrous back then, but now it's an important part of what Spitzer does."
Spitzer's exoplanet exploration
Spitzer has many qualities that make it a valuable asset in exoplanet science, including an extremely accurate star-targeting system and the ability to control unwanted changes in temperature. Its stable environment and ability to observe stars for long periods of time led to the first detection of light from known exoplanets in 2005. More recently, Spitzer's Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) has been used for finding exoplanets using the "transit" method -- looking for a dip in a star's brightness that corresponds to a planet passing in front of it. This brightness change needs to be measured with exquisite accuracy to detect exoplanets. IRAC scientists have created a special type of observation to make such measurements, using single pixels within the camera.
Another planet-finding technique that Spitzer uses, but was not designed for, is called microlensing. When a star passes in front of another star, the gravity of the first star can act as a lens, making the light from the more distant star appear brighter. Scientists are using microlensing to look for a blip in that brightening, which could mean that the foreground star has a planet orbiting it. Spitzer and the ground-based Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) were used together to find one of the most distant planets known outside the solar system, as reported in 2015. This type of investigation is made possible by Spitzer's increasing distance from Earth, and could not have been done early in the mission.
Peering into the early universe
Understanding the early universe is another area where Spitzer has broken ground. IRAC was designed to detect remote galaxies roughly 12 billion light-years away -- so distant that their light has been traveling for roughly 88 percent of the history of the universe. But now, thanks to collaborations between Spitzer and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, scientists can peer even further into the past. The farthest galaxy ever seen, GN-z11, was characterized ina 2016 study using data from these telescopes. GN-z11 is about 13.4 billion light-years away, meaning its light has been traveling since 400 million years after the big bang.
"When we designed the IRAC instrument, we didn't know those more distant galaxies existed," said Giovanni Fazio, principal investigator of IRAC, based at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The combination of the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer has been fantastic, with the telescopes working together to determine their distance, stellar mass and age."
Closer to home, Spitzer advanced astronomers' understanding of Saturn when scientists using the observatory discovered the planet's largest ring in 2009. Most of the material in this ring -- consisting of ice and dust -- begins 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Saturn and extends about 7.4 million miles (12 million kilometers) beyond that. Though the ring doesn't reflect much visible light, making it difficult for Earth-based telescopes to see, Spitzer could detect the infrared glow from the cool dust.
The multiple phases of Spitzer
Spitzer reinvented itself in May 2009 with its warm mission, after the depletion of the liquid helium coolant that was chilling its instruments since August 2003. At the conclusion of the "cold mission," Spitzer's Infrared Spectrograph and Multiband Imaging Photometer stopped working, but two of the four cameras in IRAC persisted. Since then, the spacecraft has made numerous discoveries despite operating in warmer conditions (which, at about minus 405 Fahrenheit or 30 Kelvin, is still cold by Earthly standards).
"With the IRAC team and the Spitzer Science Center team working together, we've really learned how to operate the IRAC instrument better than we thought we could," Fazio said. "The telescope is also very stable and in an excellent orbit for observing a large part of the sky."
Spitzer's Beyond mission phase will last until the commissioning phase of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, currently planned to launch in October 2018. Spitzer is set to identify targets that Webb can later observe more intensely.
"We are very excited to continue Spitzer in its Beyond phase. We fully expect new, exciting discoveries to be made over the next two-and-a-half years," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Spitzer, based at JPL.
JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA
A newly discovered, roughly Earth-sized planet orbiting our nearest neighboring star might be habitable, according to a team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile, along with other telescopes around the world.
The exoplanet is at a distance from its star that allows temperatures mild enough for liquid water to pool on its surface.
"NASA congratulates ESO on the discovery of this intriguing planet that has captured the hopes and the imagination of the world," says Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division Director at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "We look forward to learning more about the planet, whether it holds ingredients that could make it suitable for life."
The new planet circles Proxima Centauri, the smallest member of a triple star system known to science fiction fans everywhere as Alpha Centauri. Just over 4 light-years away, Proxima is the closest star to Earth, besides our own sun.
"This is really a game-changer in our field," said Olivier Guyon, a planet-hunting affiliate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and associate professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "The closest star to us has a possible rocky planet in the habitable zone. That's a huge deal. It also boosts the already existing, mounting body of evidence that such planets are near, and that several of them are probably sitting quite close to us. This is extremely exciting."
The science team that made the discovery, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London, will publish its findings Aug. 25 in the journal Nature. The team traced subtle wobbles in the star revealing, the presence of a star-tugging planet.
They determined that the new planet, dubbed Proxima b, is at least 1.3 times the mass of Earth. It orbits its star far more closely than Mercury orbits our sun, taking only 11 days to complete a single orbit -- a "year" on Proxima b.
Long list of unknowns
The stunning announcement comes with plenty of caveats. While the new planet lies within its star's "habitable zone" -- a distance at which temperatures are right for liquid water -- scientists do not yet know if the planet has an atmosphere.
It also orbits a red-dwarf star, far smaller and cooler than our sun. The planet likely presents only one face to its star, as the moon does to Earth, instead of rotating through our familiar days and nights. And Proxima b could be subject to potentially life-extinguishing stellar flares.
"That's the worry in terms of habitability," said Scott Gaudi, an astronomy professor at Ohio State University, Columbus, and JPL affiliate credited with numerous exoplanet discoveries. "This thing is being bombarded by a fair amount of high-energy radiation. It's not obvious if it's going to have a magnetic field strong enough to prevent its whole atmosphere from getting blown away. But those are really hard calculations, and I certainly wouldn't put my money either way on that."
Despite the unknowns, the discovery was hailed by NASA exoplanet hunters as a major milestone on the road to finding other possible life-bearing worlds within our stellar neighborhood.
"It definitely gives us something to be excited about," said Sara Seager, a planetary science and physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and an exoplanet-hunting pioneer. "I think it will definitely motivate people to get moving."
'Not completely unexpected'
Statistical surveys of exoplanets -- planets orbiting other stars -- by NASA's Kepler space telescope have revealed a large proportion of small planets around small stars, she said.
The Kepler data suggest we should expect at least one potentially habitable, Earth-size planet orbiting M-type stars, like Proxima, within 10 light-years of our solar system.
So the latest discovery was "not completely unexpected. We're more lucky than surprised," Seager said. But it "helps buoy our confidence that planets are everywhere."
It's especially encouraging for upcoming space telescopes, which can contribute to the study of the new planet. The James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, may be able to follow-up on this planet with spectroscopy to determine the contents of its atmosphere. NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will find similar planets in the habitable zone in the stellar backyard of our solar system in 2018.
One of TESS's goals is to find planets orbiting nearby M-dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri.
"It's great news just to know that M-dwarf planets could be as common as we think they are," Seager said.
Another possible inspiration Proxima b could reignite: the admittedly far-off goal of sending a probe to another solar system.
Bill Borucki, an exoplanet pioneer, said the new discovery might inspire more interstellar research, especially if Proxima b proves to have an atmosphere.
Coming generations of space and ground-based telescopes, including large ground telescopes now under construction, could yield more information about the planet, perhaps inspiring ideas on how to pay it a visit.
"It may be that the first time we get really good information is from the newer telescopes that may be coming online in a decade or two," said Borucki, now retired, a former principal investigator for Kepler, which has discovered the bulk of the more than 3,300 exoplanets found so far.
"Maybe people will talk about sending a probe to that star system," Borucki said. "I think it does provide some inspiration for an interstellar mission, because now we know there is a planet in the habitable zone, probably around the mass of Earth, around the closest star. I think it does inspire a future effort to go there and check it out."
Since gravity dominates Dawn's orbit at Ceres, scientists can measure variations in Ceres' gravity by tracking subtle changes in the motion of the spacecraft. Using data from Dawn, scientists have mapped the variations in Ceres' gravity for the first time in a new study in the journal Nature, which provides clues to the dwarf planet's internal structure.
"The new data suggest that Ceres has a weak interior, and that water and other light materials partially separated from rock during a heating phase early in its history," said Ryan Park, the study's lead author and the supervisor of the solar system dynamics group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Ceres' gravity field is measured by monitoring radio signals sent to Dawn, and then received back on Earth, by NASA's Deep Space Network. This network is a collection of large antennas at three locations around the globe that communicate with interplanetary spacecraft. Using these signals, scientists can measure the spacecraft's speed to a precision of 0.004 inches (0.1 millimeters) per second, and then calculate the details of the gravity field.
Ceres has a special property called "hydrostatic equilibrium," which was confirmed in this study. This means that Ceres' interior is weak enough that its shape is governed by how it rotates. Scientists reached this conclusion by comparing Ceres' gravity field to its shape. Ceres' hydrostatic equilibrium is one reason why astronomers classified the body as a dwarf planet in 2006.
The data indicate that Ceres is "differentiated," which means that it has compositionally distinct layers at different depths, with the densest layer at the core. Scientists also have found that, as they suspected, Ceres is much less dense than Earth, the moon, giant asteroid Vesta (Dawn's previous target) and other rocky bodies in our solar system. Additionally, Ceres has long been suspected to contain low-density materials such as water ice, which the study shows separated from the rocky material and rose to the outer layer along with other light materials.
"We have found that the divisions between different layers are less pronounced inside Ceres than the moon and other planets in our solar system," Park said. "Earth, with its metallic core, semi-fluid mantle and outer crust, has a more clearly defined structure than Ceres," Park said.
Scientists also found that high-elevation areas on Ceres displace mass in the interior. This is analogous to how a boat floats on water: the amount of displaced water depends on the mass of the boat. Similarly, scientists conclude that Ceres' weak mantle can be pushed aside by the mass of mountains and other high topography in the outermost layer as though the high-elevation areas "float" on the material below. This phenomenon has been observed on other planets, including Earth, but this study is the first to confirm it at Ceres.
The internal density structure, based on the new gravity data, teaches scientists about what internal processes could have occurred during the early history of Ceres. By combining this new information with previous data from Dawn about Ceres' surface composition, they can reconstruct that history: Water must have been mobile in the ancient subsurface, but the interior did not heat up to the temperatures at which silicates melt and a metallic core forms.
"We know from previous Dawn studies that there must have been interactions between water and rock inside Ceres," said Carol Raymond, a co-author and Dawn's deputy principal investigator based at JPL. "That, combined with the new density structure, tells us that Ceres experienced a complex thermal history."
Dawn's mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.