Twinkle in India


In early March, our team visited the beautiful town of Jaipur in India (often referred to as the “Pink City”) for the Astronomical Society of India (ASI) 2017 conference. We were invited to attend and discuss exoplanet spectroscopy, to develop collaborative research links and to jointly deliver a workshop on spectroscopic data reduction to an audience of Indian students. The organisers of the conference kindly invited Twinkle’s Senior Adviser, Prof Jonathan Tennyson, to present a plenary talk on the topic of “Molecular line lists for the opacity of exoplanets, cool stars and other atmospheres”. We also gave a series of presentations on latest developments in exoplanet spectroscopy and, of course, on the Twinkle space mission.

The main focus of our visit was to deliver a workshop on using software developed for the analysis of spectroscopic observations of transiting exoplanets. The hands on session was led by UCL PhD student, Angelos Tsiaras, who published last February the first detection of an atmosphere on the hot super-Earth 55 Cancri e (a planet also called “Janssen”). Angelos, together with colleagues at UCL, designed software to analyse data obtained with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which is currently the most widely used instrument for this purpose. The observations are made by scanning WFC3 very quickly across the star to create a number of spectra. By combining these observations and processing through computer analytic “pipeline” software, the spectral fingerprints of exoplanet atmospheres can be retrieved from the starlight.

We provided the participants with the code and with an example data set, as well as a set of instructions on how to analyse the data set. The outcome of the workshop was particularly successful as all the participants were able to use the software while understanding the main steps in processing spectroscopic data from the HST. In addition, many of them managed to extract the final spectrum of the exoplanet, despite the fact that they had no previous experience in analysing such data. Apart from publicising our work, this was an extremely important step in testing the accessibility of our software, as plans to make it publicly available are underway. Discussions with the attendees are leading to new collaborations: students and researchers have expressed interest in using our tools and following-up observations with local observational capabilities.

We were very grateful for the warm welcome received at the ASI, and look forward to many years of successful collaboration with the Indian community!

This trip was made possible by the support offered by the UCL Global Engagement Office, which aims to foster international research links and collaboration.

ORBYTS meets an astronaut


We were very excited to welcome the UK’s first astronaut, Dr Helen Sharman, to UCL last week to present the Norman White Awards to ORBYTS students on behalf of the Spacelink Learning Foundation.

Initiated in 2016, the Original Research By Young Twinkle Students, or ORBYTS, programme has expanded into 5 teams with 45 students from 8 different schools across England. The two Norman White Awards, each of £500, are supporting the participation of groups at Highams Park School and Westminster School in the ORBYTS programme. Further groups are supported by Highgate School and its Chrysalis Partnership programme.

For this month’s Twinkle blog post, we would like to highlight the fantastic work done by our team of ORBYTS tutors and hear directly from two of them about their experiences.

Katy Chubb: Life as an ORBYTS tutor


Katy Chubb (3rd from right) at the presentation of the Norman White Awards to ORBYTS students by Helen Sharman. Credit: Twinkle Space Mission/B. Coates

We had an event recently where our groups of students were given the chance to present their work to a room of people, including the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman. I was quite overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and effort that they put into preparing and practising. A huge highlight of a project like this is the realisation that these students aren’t here because they have to, but because they choose to be. The start of a project can be a bit overwhelming for everyone, and as a tutor it can be difficult knowing where to start, but it gets easier and there are loads of small rewards along the way. Watching their progress over the weeks, and how they begin to become familiar with physics terms and concepts that are beyond their current curriculum is one. Another thing that I really enjoy about the project is when it gets to the stage when they begin helping each other; it takes the pressure off you as a tutor but also shows that they are learning. We have a couple of months break now for their AS-level exams before a few more weeks of meetings. I should feel relieved that I have more time to focus on my PhD work but I have a feeling I’m going to miss the ORBYTS sessions!

Katy Chubb is a Team Lead for the EduTwinkle ORBYTS programme. She has been a PhD student with the ExoMol group at UCL since September 2014. Read full biography

Jack Baker: Highlights as ORBYTS Tutor

Jack Baker with Helen Sharman at the ORBYTS Meet an Astronaut event. Credit: Twinkle Space Mission/B. Coates

Jack Baker with Helen Sharman at the ORBYTS Meet an Astronaut event. Credit: Twinkle Space Mission/B. Coates

What I enjoy most about being an ORBYTS tutor is being able to bring important but often neglected aspects of physics and chemistry to the class room. Furthermore, students in the ORBYTS programme are often of the age where they are making important decisions in their lives with regards to University Admissions. I think that ORBYTS gives vital insider information on what it really like is to be a physics/chemistry undergraduate through the content and vision of the project – a chance most do not get at this crucial time.

A definite highlight for me was to see my group and groups from other schools present their work to an audience including astronaut Helen Sharman. It showcased how hard students had worked but also their new-found, genuine, interests in their Diatomic Molecule of choice. It was also a great chance to see the different approaches the other tutors had towards the project. I was then able to reflect upon my own methods and begin to implement good ideas from the other tutors.

Jack Baker is a PhD student at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, UCL, undertaking ground-breaking research in the field of Computational Condensed Matter Physics. Read full biography

Your Universe


Twinkle your universe 2017

The Twinkle team was delighted to participate once again in Your Universe, UCL’s annual festival of astronomy and particle physics, from 2-4 March. Your Universe features lectures, panel discussions, live demonstrations and opportunities to observe through telescopes, with activities aimed at primary and secondary schools as well as members of the general public. The event is the brainchild of the indefatigable Dr Francisco Diego and has been running since 2008. This year, there was even higher demand and an extra 150 primary school students attending, taking total attendance to over 650.

For Twinkle, Your Universe is a chance to share our enthusiasm for our mission and see directly the inspirational capacity of the search to understand worlds beyond our Solar System. It’s also a further opportunity for the young PhD and Post Doc researchers associated with our team to demonstrate their communication skills. As Francisco Diego points out, “A real highlight of Your Universe is seeing the students interacting with the schools. They are really professional and it shows in the feedback. The feedback from teachers has been very, very positive.”

Best of all, this is an opportunity to show schools that science is about discovery and unanswered questions, not just static information to learn from a text book. For Twinkle, the ongoing discovery of exoplanets – such as some of the Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system – means an ever more interesting choice of potential targets. For the scientists and engineers of the future, some of whom may have visited the Twinkle stand over the past few days, there is the opportunity see how they could be the ones to take our understanding of these distant worlds to the next level as the fledgling field of exoplanet research reaches maturity.

Many thanks to Tom, Daniel, Katy, Bex, Laura and Claudio for their time and for doing a fantastic job staffing the Twinkle stand.

Enlisting amateur astronomers in support of Twinkle’s mission



Unravelling the story of 100 planets in our galaxy is an ambitious goal for a small mission like Twinkle. We are now in the process of writing the prologue to that story by finalising the preliminary list of exactly which planets Twinkle will study (look out for an announcement soon).

There are a number of ways in which we can prepare the ground for Twinkle’s observations and maximise the chances that scientists using Twinkle will secure high-quality data to decode the chemical make-up of exoplanet atmospheres. Firstly, we will focus on hot, Jupiter-like planets orbiting close to their star, providing Twinkle’s instruments with the brightest objects possible from which to extract the spectral information. Secondly, we will gather as much information as possible on the target planetary systems so that we can build up a picture of how they vary over time and understand what that can tell us about the transiting planets and host stars.

This latter challenge ideally requires frequent observations from locations spread around the world. To achieve this mammoth task, the Twinkle science team is proposing to invite the global amateur astronomy community for their support in providing observations of Twinkle’s target list.

On 9th January, Twinkle organised a workshop in collaboration with the British Astronomical Association (BAA) to explore the scope of amateur support for Twinkle. Twenty-seven keen participants gathered at Burlington House in Piccadilly to discuss the mission and the steps needed to start building a worldwide network of amateur observers dedicated to exoplanet transit studies. Discussions suggest that useful ground-based observations of target stars brighter than V=11.5 can be carried out using modest-sized telescopes equipped with CCD cameras.

We hope very much that this will be the first in a series of meetings to cement links and develop productive collaborations between Twinkle and the amateur community. We are very grateful to Richard Miles and Roger Pickard of the BAA for their help in organising and promoting the meeting.

For further details about the workshop and future events, see here.

Twinkle’s Year



The past 12 months have been a transformative time for the Twinkle mission.

In June, we announced the results of our payload study and we have presented this work at a number of significant conferences this year, including the 4S Symposium and SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation 2016. Work is now underway on the next phase, the payload integration study, after which construction of the satellite can begin.

Our fundraising activities are also progressing well. The team from Blue Skies Space Ltd, which leads Twinkle’s commercial side, has been travelling the world to explore interest from potential international partners, including countries in South America, the Middle East, South East Asia and Oceania. Back in March, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), who will be constructing the Twinkle satellite, kindly hosted a Twinkle Preview event where we briefed potential stakeholders and opinion leaders about our current mission status and funding opportunities. We were very honoured that Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, agreed to attend and gave an inspirational introduction to exoplanet science.

There have been some major advances in exoplanet research this year too. At the beginning of the year, the team at UCL announced the first successful detection of gases in the atmosphere of a super-Earth, revealing the presence of hydrogen and helium, but no water vapour on the exotic exoplanet, 55 Cancri e. In May, the science team behind NASA’s Kepler mission announced a further 1,284 objects verified as being more than 99% likely to be a planet. This brings the overall total to around 3,500 known worlds orbiting stars in our galaxy, out of nearly 5000 candidates. All these discoveries are great news for Twinkle. We are currently compiling our preliminary list of targets (although we have until 2019 to make the final decisions) – watch out for an announcement in the New Year.

Our outreach and education teams have been busy too. We presented Twinkle at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2016 in Manchester and the Herstmonceux Astronomy Festival 2016 and took part in a week of space-themed events at the European Parliament. In February, we launched ORBYTS (Original Research By Young Twinkle Students), which brings together young PhD and post-doc scientists with groups of secondary school students to perform original research associated with the Twinkle Space Mission. The first cohort of ORBYTS students graduated in July and papers on their work have been submitted for publication. From July-August 2016, we held an ORBYTS Summer School project with Nuffield students. We currently have two teams at Highams Park school and a team at Westminster City school participating in the ORBYTS programme and, last month, ORBYTS was accredited as a CREST Gold Award. As part of UCL’s Widening Participation Agenda, we will be running a residential ORBYTS Summer school in August 2017.

Thanks for your continued interest and support of the mission. Everything is on track for a launch in 2019!

Twinkle at the European Parliment


Sir Martin Sweeting speaking during the STOA Annual Lecture. Credit: Europlanet.

Sir Martin Sweeting speaking during the STOA Annual Lecture. Credit: Europlanet.

This November, Twinkle’s project manager, Marcell, and communications manager, Anita, went to Brussels to visit the European Parliament.

We were invited by Europlanet, Europe’s community organisation for planetary science, which had in turn been invited to take part in events and an exhibition for the 8th European Innovation Summit (EIS) and the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Annual Lecture.

It was an interesting few days in which we talked to many Members of the European Parliament, their assistants and policy advisors, members of the Commission and visitors to the Parliament. Other companies attending the EIS ranged from a start-up to use drones for air-cargo to a company that used a serum derived from snails for skin products.

EIS sessions covered a wide range of topics, including European funding for science and technology, disruptive technologies and promoting STEM education. Prof Sir Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (the company that will build Twinkle) gave a keynote address at the STOA lecture about how small satellites have changed the economics of space. You can watch a webstream of the lecture here.

A real highlight was the opportunity to explore Mars in the exhibition through a Virtual Reality experience that used real data from NASA missions to the Red Planet. It may be some time before we can experience planets beyond our Solar System in such a realistic manner, but we’re proud that Twinkle will provide the first steps in helping us find out what exoplanets are really like.

Presenting Twinkle abroad


Marcell (second from right) and members of the UK delegation from RAL Space and the UK Space Agency in Shanghai

Marcell (second from right) and members of the UK delegation from RAL Space and the UK Space Agency in Shanghai

Democratisation of Space



Twinkle was invited to take part at a session on the democratisation of space, as part of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2016 in Manchester last week. ESOF is a biennial, pan-European, general science conference dedicated to scientific research and innovation. The 2016 meeting in Manchester attracted 4,500 people.

Alongside our own Marcell Tessenyi, the panel comprised:

* Prof Alan Wells, Vice Chair of the Google Lunar XPRIZE Judging Panel

* Eike Kircher, Deputy Head of the Technology Office and Head of the Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP) at the European Space Agency’s Directorate of Technical & Quality Management

* Dr Amara Graps, University of Latvia and Planetary Science Institute and Deep Space Industries Latvia

* Dr Sarah Roberts, Education Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project

Perhaps the key message that came across from the debate is that the space sector as we know it will change. The affordable technology available today puts access to space missions within reach of small, national space programmes, research institutions and private enterprise alike.

For the Twinkle team, it was a very interesting to hear the viewpoints of the other panellists. For example, we heard how ESA is supporting some of their member states through CubeSat programmes, and that the Agency sees the potential of CubeSats or small satellites as tools to enhance the value of their larger missions. Essentially, while large missions (e.g. interplanetary probes) will remain within the remit of the large space agencies, small missions are very well suited for independent development for commercial applications or for niche scientific research.

One of the points Marcell made during the debate was that the democratisation of data-access will be enabled by independent projects. At present, it’s mainly the best-funded scientists from countries with well-established space programmes that have access to data from space missions. As part of our funding strategy, Twinkle will provide commercial access to exoplanet data from the satellite to scientists around the world at affordable rates.

We were also interested to have a progress update on the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a race to land the first commercial robotic spacecraft on the Moon. To win the prize, teams must have less than 10% governmental funding and so, like Twinkle, they have needed to find new ways of funding a space mission. Two teams now have launch contracts and hope to complete their mission to the lunar surface by the end of 2017. The Twinkle team wishes them every success.

The other thing that came across in the discussion is that space is genuinely becoming more democratised through the involvement of the public, teachers and students in real space research. The Faulkes Telescope Project has been designed for making astronomical observations from the classroom via a remote connection, so that schoolchildren can experience the process of observing and discovery. In the Gaia-Alerts programme, Faulkes Telescope students make follow-up observations of transient objects spotted by the Gaia satellite to find new supernovae, or black holes swallowing stars.

Our own ORBYTS EduTwinkle programme links PhD students and young post-docs with A-level students to perform original research in support of the Twinkle mission development. With Twinkle’s short timeframe, our ORBYTS students could graduate, do a PhD and end up being the young researchers working on data from the satellite. This has the effect of bringing space closer to young people and may have an influence on their career choices.

All the initiatives discussed at ESOF indicate a trend towards a greater democratisation of the space sector, be it hardware, data or outreach. The Twinkle team is proud to be part of this movement.

Thanks to Europlanet for organising the session at ESOF.

Twinkle’s first milestone – payload study complete



As you might have read in our recent press release or seen on our Twitter this month, the payload study for Twinkle is now complete. This is a major milestone for us and our partners, and a big step towards our launch. We’ve written on the blog before about why we have a payload study, but what does its completion mean for the mission?

Our Twinkle satellite has to be able to perform to a baseline standard for it to be useful for the type of science we want to carry out. To gather information about planets orbiting distant stars, the instruments in the satellite have to be able to detect features at certain wavelengths of light. They also have to be capable of picking out the light that has been affected by an exoplanet’s atmosphere, which can be just 0.01% of the overall light from the star.

Twinkle’s telescope is based on technology developed for Earth observation missions by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) RAL Space. It will collect light with a primary mirror that’s about 50cm in diameter, and use a number of other small mirrors to ‘fold’ or redirect the light to into the sensors for analysis. Twinkle will find signatures of gases in exoplanet atmospheres (e.g. water vapour, carbon dioxide or methane) by analysing light at infrared wavelengths, using an instrument designed by STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC). Twinkle will also have a visible-light spectrometer, built by the Open University, that will look for signs of cloud cover and clues about weather and climate, as well as more general variations in the light from the host star.

The design-work and the simulations that we’ve carried out in the payload study over the past year have confirmed that this setup will allow us to study our target exoplanets: bright super-earths and hot Jupiters orbiting close to their stars.

But demonstrating how Twinkle will tackle its science goals is only part of the payload study story; we’ve also had to show that the payload will be able to survive the challenges of simply being in space.

Heating and cooling can be huge problems. If our satellite gets too warm, it might end up detecting its own heat radiation, rather than the light from far off stars. There will also be a huge temperature difference between the side of the satellite facing the sun and the side facing away, which could cause parts of the satellite to expand or contract. This could be a real problem as Twinkle’s precise optics have to be kept steady for observations to be made.

To deal these issues we turned again to the STFC RAL Space facility, which has been building coolers for successful satellite missions for the last 30 years. They will provide Twinkle with a compact, low-cost cooling system that has been specially designed for small satellites.

We are very excited to have passed this milestone and move onto the next phase of developing the mission: a study of how our payload will be integrated into the spacecraft structure designed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL).

The Twinkle Management Team (Marcell Tessenyi, Giovanna Tinetti, Giorgio Savini and Jonathan Tennyson) would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our partners who helped us complete this important step for our mission:

Cardiff University (Instrument lead, ExoSim simulations) – Enzo Pascale, Rashmi Sudiwala, Andreas Papageorgiou, Subhajit Sarkar, Peter Ade, Matt Griffin

LEONARDO (Infrared detectors) – Ken Barnes, Les Hipwood, Peter Knowles

Open University (ELVIS Exoplanet Light Visible Spectrometer) – Manish Patel, Mark Leese, J.P. Mason

STFC RAL Space (Telescope, cooling system) – Martin Crook, Technology Department, Ian Tosh, Saad Alsari, Paul Eccleston,

Bryan Shaughnessy, Ted Brooke

STFC UKATC (Infrared spectrometer) – Martyn Wells, Ian Bryson, Alistair MacLeod, William Taylor, Naidu Bezawada, Gillian Wright

SSTL (Satellite platform) – Susan Jason, Jonathan Friend, James Williams, Gavin Johnston, Simon Prasad, Amor Vora, Chris Saunders

UCL MSSL (Mechanical design, telescope) – Berend Winter, P. Curry, Alan Smith

UCL (Overall payload design) – Claudio Arena, Tiziano Zingales

ORBYTS Graduation


We’re really excited to have the first cohort of our young A-level scientists graduating from the ORBYTS programme this July! These students have been working with PhD and post-doc scientists on molecular astrophysics since January, and are currently working on getting their research on acetylene, titanium oxide, and methane ready for publication.

To celebrate their achievement we’re holding a graduation ceremony on Monday 11th July, from 2:30pm – 5:30pm (there’ll be a break for coffee and a reception afterwards).

If you’re interested in finding out about more about the space mission, our education programme (EduTwinkle), or how to join ORBYTS, then please come along! The event is free, but space is limited, so please register here.