NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft TESS is now on its mission to search for new worlds



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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) successfully launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9.
NASA Television

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

The latest of NASA‘s incredible planet-hunting space telescopes was launched today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS to its friends), this exciting new mission promises to provide the next great leap forward in our understanding of our place in the universe.

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Over the next two years, TESS is likely to find thousands of new exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars – and will help to reveal the degree to which our Solar system is unique in the cosmos.




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In doing so, it will build on the fascinating results of the past few decades, cementing our place in the “Exoplanet Era”.

Illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The Kepler revolution

At the end of 2008, the year before NASA’s earlier planet-hunting telescope Kepler launched, about 300 exoplanets had been discovered. Today, the number is an order of magnitude larger: more than 3,700.

Kepler discovered more than 2,300 exoplanets, with a further 2,200 or so “candidate” planets still awaiting followup. This incredible haul is the result of the spacecraft staring, unblinking, at the night sky, watching for the tiny flickers that reveal planets passing between us and their host stars.

An illustration of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft that carried out the first great census of the Exoplanet Era.
NASA Ames/ W Stenzel

In essence, Kepler carried out the first great census of the Exoplanet Era. It taught us that planets are ubiquitous – a standard and natural byproduct of the formation of stars.

But the vast majority of the stars around which Kepler found planets were very faint and very distant. This makes it a great challenge for observers on the ground to follow up on those discoveries and learn more about the planets the spacecraft revealed.

Along comes TESS

Whereas Kepler focused for four years on just one small patch of the northern sky, TESS will target stars across almost the whole night sky. In doing so, it will survey some of the brightest stars in the sky – making the task of following up on its myriad discoveries far easier.

TESS consists of four cameras, configured to give it an observation sector that covers an area slightly larger than a 90° arc on the sky.

Image showing how TESS’ four cameras will be used to survey the night sky, sector by sector.
NASA

TESS will watch that observation sector continually for just over 27 days, never blinking. The spacecraft will then pivot around, swinging to target its next sector.

In this manner, over the course of a year, the spacecraft will target almost the entirety of one hemisphere of the sky. After that, it will flip over, and spend the next year watching the other hemisphere.

TESS will cover much more than Kepler in its hunt for exoplanets.

For the first year TESS will be gazing to the south, scouring skies that are best seen from the southern hemisphere, finding planets orbiting the very stars you see when you step outside and look up at the night sky, right here in Australia.

Many stars, many planets?

TESS’s main mission will involve it observing a total of 200,000 stars, measuring their brightness every single minute that they fall within its field of view. To do this, it will process images before sending them back to Earth, extracting just the data on those stars to send back to the Earth.

TESS will also provide full-frame images (a picture of the spacecraft’s full field of view) every half an hour, yielding a trove of tens of millions of objects observed.

TESS will process data on board the spacecraft, to make the amount sent back to Earth manageable.
NASA

Put all that together, and the expected planet yield should be enormous. Based on the statistics of planet discoveries to date, it is likely that TESS will find at least a couple of thousand potential planets around its main target stars, while those in the full-frame images might yield tens of thousands of additional candidates.

These numbers are incredible, and TESS will revolutionise our understanding of our place in the universe. But such amazing results bring with them a unique problem – and one that we, in Australia, are ideally placed to help solve.

Too many planets, too little time

The reason that only half of the Kepler mission’s candidate planets have been confirmed is that doing so requires extensive follow-up work from the ground.

Astronomers have to rule out other effects that could cause the behaviour seen in the potential planet’s host star before we can be certain that we’re really seeing evidence of a new planet.

Most of the stars observed by Kepler are simply too faint for that kind of work to be carried out from the ground – except, perhaps, with the largest telescopes on the planet. Getting time on those telescopes is challenging – all of the world’s other astronomers covet that time too, for their own projects.

Quite simply, it is a case of too many planets, too little time.

Too many potential exoplanets, too little time.
NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser (ESO)

The problem is only going to get worse with TESS. When the first few planets were found, in the late 20th century, the discoveries came in a trickle. Those discoveries were easy for scientists to drink in and follow up, and all was good.

With Kepler, the discovery rate went through the roof. From a trickle, it was like someone had turned on a tap – a continual stream of new potential planets to study.

If Kepler was a tap, then TESS will be a fire hose, and there are simply too few telescopes available for us to use to study all of the planets TESS finds at once.

That is where the Australian connection comes to the fore – in the form of a dedicated new facility being built on the Darling Downs, in southeast Queensland.

The Australian connection – MINERVA-Australis

At the University of Southern Queensland, we are constructing MINERVA-Australis – a collection of six telescopes dedicated to nothing but the search for and characterisation of planets around other stars.

When TESS turns on the fire hose, finding thousands of planets in the southern sky, we stand ready. Every clear night, we will be observing those stars that TESS suggests could host planets, doing our utmost to confirm whether those planets really exist.




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Once we confirm TESS’s new discoveries, we will be able to use our facility to study the newly found worlds in more detail. By observing the planet’s transits, we can measure its physical size, by seeing how much of the light from its host the planet blocks.

In addition, we will be examining the light we receive from the star, measuring the telltale wobbles caused by the planet as it orbits its host. With those measurements, we will be able to calculate the planet’s mass.

Put the mass and the size together, and we can really begin to work out the planet’s true nature. Is it rocky (like the Earth), or gaseous, like Jupiter and Saturn?

Over the coming years, TESS will push the Exoplanet Era through its next great revolution – finding thousands or tens of thousands of new exoplanets. Here in southeast Queensland, we will be at the forefront of that journey of discovery, helping to reveal the true nature of those alien worlds.

The ConversationI don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what we’ll learn next!

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Abbott, on a mission to destroy, is stepping up his stalking of Turnbull



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Tony Abbott has made the most of media opportunities this week to push his agenda.
Dan Hembrechts/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Tony Abbott has thrown further fuel on the fire of anger against Christopher Pyne over his outburst of factional hubris, as the Liberals’ internal war rages.

Abbott on Wednesday said he could “understand why some of my colleagues are saying that his position as leader of the house now seems difficult to maintain”.

He went on to point the finger at Malcolm Turnbull. “This as always is a matter for the prime minister. The prime minister picks the team, the prime minister decides what jobs people have got. And if Christopher Pyne is to be given some other assignment that would be a question for the prime minister.”

Turnbull might feel like throttling the indiscreet Pyne but he won’t be stripping him of his house job. That sort of over-reaction would just make a bad situation worse.

Senior ministers were publicly locking in behind Pyne on Wednesday, as the man himself grovelled to Liberals in his electorate, saying his remarks were “ill-chosen and unwise” and “I apologise to anyone they have offended”.

Buffeted by what has turned into a toxic mix of factional bitterness, revenge and ambition, Turnbull could do little more than resort to the old tactic of denouncing the media’s “fascination with personalities”.

But his line – “the only personalities I’m interested in are 24 million Australians” – didn’t cut it.

At the moment no minister can venture before the media without being peppered about the kerfuffle that followed Pyne last week gloating, in remarks later leaked, at the ascendancy of the moderates and the prospect of an earlier-than-expected resolution of same-sex marriage.

As the Liberals fight and manoeuvre, their Coalition partners the Nationals are watching on appalled, privately wondering at Turnbull’s inability to control even his moderate supporters, let alone his party as a whole.

They see the government being trashed and the already diminished chances of winning the next election further reduced. It was the Nationals, remember, who increased their House of Representatives seats by one in what was otherwise a rout for the government in 2016.

Turnbull, who has been dudded inadvertently by the big mouth of one of his prominent moderates, is under pressure from two groups of Liberal conservatives.

The old guard, notably Abbott and his tiny band, know how to cause maximum disruption with minimum numbers. Abbott, who is determined to see the end of Turnbull’s leadership even if he can’t personally be the replacement, is out all this week – on Thursday he will make a speech about submarines to the Centre for Independent Studies.

Then there are the younger conservatives, who want to use the crisis to press for moderate cabinet ministers to be despatched so conservatives can climb the ladder in an early reshuffle.

But reshuffling now would be an unwise move for the embattled Turnbull, who above all needs to find a way to restore stability.

The word in prime ministerial circles is that the reshuffle is expected to be at the end of the year, which is the way thinking has been going for quite a while.

A side effect of this is to put on hold the ambition of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton – the effective leader of the conservatives, whom Turnbull keeps very close – to get his homeland security portfoilio.

Pyne’s foolishness has resulted in a conservative backlash against not just himself but the general power of the moderates. It has also further reduced the chance of same-sex marriage activists within the Liberal Party achieving their end before the election.

The latter haven’t abandoned their cause, but admit their prospect of a breakthrough has been made much more difficult by this week’s blow up, as Turnbull has toughened his words against a private member’s bill.

The Liberal activists need to put the issue aside, despite its salience in the electorate and the cause being right, because it has the potential to be very dangerous for Turnbull’s leadership.

In electoral terms, it is now probably unlikely that delivering marriage equality before the election would bring any significant number of votes to the Coalition.

Would failing to deliver it lose votes? One would think most people who put same-sex marriage at the top of what determines their vote would not be supporting the government anyway.

The ConversationThis week’s mini-crisis will likely have blown over by the time Turnbull leaves next week for Europe and the G20. But it has exposed his vulnerability in a fractious and divided party and sent the worst of messages to the electorate. And even when it is over, Abbott will still be on his case.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Denmark: Mission Update


The link below is to an article that reports on outreach work in Denmark and the conversion of Muslims in that country.

For more visit:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2016/03/muslims-turning-to-christ-in-denmark/

Mission Life


The links below are to three articles dealing with real life on the mission field – well worth a read.

For more visit:
http://gilandamy.blogspot.com.au/2015/05/what-missionaries-arent-telling-you_27.html
http://gilandamy.blogspot.ca/2015/05/what-missionaries-arent-telling-you-and.html
http://gilandamy.blogspot.com.au/2015/05/what-missionaries-arent-telling-you-and_28.html

Nepal: Mission Update


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the situation in Nepal and how to pray for that country.

For more visit:
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/pray-for-nepal

Cuba: Christian Mission News


The link below is to an article reporting on the growth of Christianity in Cuba.

For more visit:
http://www.christianpost.com/news/83000-bibles-sent-to-cuba-to-keep-up-with-incredible-growth-of-christianity-136042/