Are we alone in the Universe? For our latest Café Sci session, Dr. Jon M. Jenkins from NASA Ames Research Center updates us on the progress made towards answering one of humanity’s greatest questions. As the Co-Investigator for Data Processing for both of NASA’s Kepler and TESS Missions, he develops innovative algorithms and builds complex science pipelines search through the cosmic hay stack for the miniscule signatures of planets as they cross the face of their stars from our point of view.
Jenkins hopes that one day we will detect signatures of life on another planet similar to Earth in our celestial neighborhood.
How Kepler worked
In the past 25 years, we went from knowing only the planets in our solar system to discovering 4,000+ outside of it. Kepler’s purpose was to find Earth-sized planets that were in the habitable zone of sun-like stars. Jenkins starts off by explaining what makes a planet habitable based on size, temperature and composition. He then transitions into Kepler’s role in recording the dips in brightness of sun-like stars when a planet crosses in front of it. Measuring the shadow provides key information on the actual size of the planet and whether it is comparable to that of Earth.
Kepler by the numbers
Kepler was launched out into space using a sling shot method from the Delta II and has been able to travel 94 million miles into space with just three gallons of gas. Accomplishments of the Kepler mission include: the publication of nearly 3,000 scientific papers, documentation of 61 supernovae, observation of 500,000+ stars, and confirmation of 2,700+ planets.
Kepler revolutionized Asteroseismology
One of the interesting new ways scientists are identifying planets and stars is to look at interference patterns in light rays over time. The way to interpret data like that is audio. Through data collected by Kepler, scientists were able to measure the acoustic oscillation of over 15,000 stars. Lower amplitude oscillations meant that the stars were smaller and still burning hydrogen. Whereas, higher amplitude oscillations meant they were giant stars.
The new TESS initiative
After 10 years in operation, Kepler has now passed the torch onto TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. How it differs from Kepler is that, TESS’s purpose is to discover new earths and super earths in the solar neighborhood making it a more focused mission closer to home. That way scientists are more likely to be able to study the mass of the planets rather than simply the size.
Preliminary results of TESS
A year after its launch, there are now 20 confirmed planets from TESS. The data collected so far has allowed us to start filling in the mass-radius diagram of planets which gets us closer to the characterization of a planet’s composition. Within a year of operation, TESS has discovered 50+ supernovae in comparison to the 61 that Kepler documented in the span of 10 years. The reason for this level of improvement has mainly to do with the amount of data we are able to process now in comparison to the technology of Kepler over 10 years ago. In addition, TESS is at a much smaller distance from Earth allowing it to send over data to us a lot quicker than Kepler was able to. The results from TESS will be a phenomenal science treasure trove for many years to come according to Dr. Jon M. Jenkins.
In case you missed this exciting talk, watch the video recording here.