Enlisting amateur astronomers in support of Twinkle’s mission

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

A target bonanza for Twinkle

EdTwinkle

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The number of confirmed exoplanets discovered to date has just dramatically increased. The science team behind NASA’s Kepler mission has just announced a further 1,284 objects verified as being more than 99% likely to be a planet. This brings the overall total to more than 3,200 known worlds orbiting stars in our galaxy, out of nearly 5000 candidates. And it’s not just Kepler making discoveries. At the beginning of May, a team of Belgian astronomers using the ground-based TRAPPIST telescope spotted three potentially habitable planets orbiting a cold, red dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth.

All these discoveries are great news for Twinkle. We are currently compiling our preliminary list of targets and plan to make that public this autumn (although we have until 2019 to make the final decisions). Because Twinkle is a small satellite, the majority of exoplanets on our target list will be hot, bright, Jupiter-like planets orbiting close to their star, as it will be easiest to extract the spectral information on the atmosphere of this type of planet. However, Twinkle will also be able to study a sample of cooler super-Earth planets if we can find targets that are not too far away. The more exoplanets – of all types – that we know about, the more choice we have in targets for Twinkle. This new treasure-trove of planets from Kepler includes nine rocky planets within the habitable zone. With new discoveries happening all the time, it may be that some super-Earths in the habitable zone will make it onto Twinkle’s target list. But large or small, hot or cold, Twinkle’s dedicated observations will enable a revolution in understanding exoplanets atmospheres and how they have developed and evolved.

Watch Twinkle’s Senior Science Sdvisor, Jonathon Tennyson, comment on Kepler’s new discoveries in this BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36263341

Keep an eye out for updates on Twinkle’s targets through Twitter, or our newsletter here.

Women in STEM

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There are not enough women working in, or studying at a higher level, the STEM subjects. This should not be shocking news although is hugely disappointing. The sciences have traditionally been dominated by men and, although at GCSE level girls do as well (if not better) than boys at the sciences and maths, at any level past GCSE women are hugely under represented.
In a recent radio interview with Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkRADIO Dr Clara Sousa-Silva, Twinkle’s education lead and astrophysicist identified why this might be. “There are so many factors at play…but what we do know is that there is a lack of role models. It is very hard to feel welcomed in a field where you don’t see anyone in your textbooks, or in your teachers, or in the media being a female scientist.”
Although this isn’t the only reason for the gender disparity seen in STEM subjects, it is one that can be clearly combatted. Within our Twinkle team, we are lucky enough to have some fantastic female role models, including our science lead, Prof Giovanna Tinetti, and our lead engineer from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Dr Susan Jason. Through our outreach and EduTwinkle programmes, we aim to show that women are indeed leading the way in developing missions to understand exoplanets.
Clara is ensuring that this message is getting out into schools. She is splitting her time between working for the Twinkle mission and teaching physics at Highams Park School, a local comprehensive, as part of the Researchers In Schools (RIS) programme. In addition to this, she has enlisted 16 Highams Park students in the ORBYTS programme, where they are working with Clara on molecular data for studies of transiting exoplanets, the same type of data that the Twinkle satellite will use. “The kids feel like they themselves are scientists…initially they were really fearful: there’s no answer at the back of the book because they’re writing the book. This isn’t undergraduate level stuff – it’s graduate level,” explained Clara.
Getting to work with scientists like Clara can be hugely influential for young students, and will hopefully lead to a higher number of students deciding to take STEM subjects at A-level and at university. If you, or a school you are linked with, would like to get involved in the ORBYTS programme, please get in touch with us. You can find more information and contact details over on our EduTwinkle page. Twinkle is a gender balanced mission, but it would be amazing if in the near future that was no longer something unique in our field.

ORBYTS

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This article was written by Georgia White, who is part of the first cohort of ORBYTS students. Georgia is a Year 12 student at Highams Park School.

We first got told about the ORBYTS (Original Research By Young Twinkle Students) project by our physics teacher, Clara Sousa-Silva, at Highams Park School; as you could imagine we were all very excited. After getting through the interview stage and being told that I was eligible for this project alongside a handful of my peers, I was buzzing to start.
We went to the launch at UCL on the 25th of January, where we met a number of very interesting and knowledgeable people. There were Professor Giovanna Tinetti (the science lead for the Twinkle mission), Professor Jonathan Tennyson (senior advisor for Twinkle) and Dr Marcell Tessenyi (Project Manager for the Twinkle mission). To even be able to meet these people was amazing – to be given a chance to talk about the project and just to have a normal conversation with them was unbelievable. I know everyone says that they’re just normal people but let’s face it – how many people can say they had lunch with the person who runs the Twinkle mission? There was of course also my teacher Dr Clara Sousa-Silva (runs EduTwinkle, and ORBYTS), without whom I would have never been given this chance, and I’m sure I speak on the behalf of my peers as well when I say that we are all very grateful for this opportunity. There were the mentors that will be helping us along this journey, Dr Laura McKemmish and Emma Barton. The other two mentors, Alec Owens and Katy Chubb, weren’t able to be present at the launch.
At the launch, Professor Jonathan Tennyson gave us a quick run through of what we were going to be doing on the mission – by which I can safely say we were all left more than slightly confused – but with the help of our mentors and our excitement and dedication I’m sure that we will pick it up very quickly! In my group we will be looking at where methane is present in the extrasolar planets and creating a description of its energies. We had some lunch (which I’m sure everyone would agree was very nice) and got to talk to the scientists, followed by a tour of the UCL campus.

We got to see some of the lecture halls and some of the labs, where we saw first year physics undergraduates doing their own projects.

I look forward to venturing on this mission (pardon the pun), which will test me and make me more knowledgeable but also be a chance to have fun and explore the world of science.