A target bonanza for Twinkle

EdTwinkle

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/multimedia/images/2007/kepler_iotd.html

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

EdEduTwinkle

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.

 

 

Gas on the Diamond Planet

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First-of-Its-Kind Glimpse at a Super Earth.jpg

This month we’d like to extend a huge congratulations to the UCL team, led by our own science lead Giovanna Tinetti who have detected gases in the transiting super-earth planet 55 Cancri e. The planet which was recently renamed ‘Janssen’ by the IAU, is also sometimes called ‘The Diamond Planet’ due to suspected high levels of carbon in its interior. Janssen is over 8 times the mass of the Earth and is located in a solar system 40 light years away. Despite the term ‘super-Earth’, the planet is far from habitable: it orbits so close to its star that its year is just 18 hours long and the surface temperatures are thought to be over 2000K.

The team used data from the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope to obtain a number of spectra of starlight that had passed through Janssen’s atmosphere. These spectra were then combined and processed with new, sophisticated computer software to obtain spectral fingerprints of gases present. This is the first time that these detections have been successfully made for a super-Earth type planet. The team found hydrogen and helium in Janssen’s atmosphere, as well as a possible signature for hydrogen cyanide, an indicator of high levels of carbon in a planet’s atmosphere.

Janssen is the type of planet that Twinkle will be aiming to study (very hot and bright transiting planets), but this new result is from a one-off detection. The Twinkle satellite will make regular spectral observations for around 100 exoplanets, including super-Earths, to allow researchers to understand a planet’s atmosphere in more detail and track any changes over time. This will help build up a picture of the planet’s current atmosphere, and also provide clues as to how the planet has developed and evolved.

We are excited by these first results for Janssen, and we look forward to the increased detail that Twinkle might be able to give for this exotic exoplanet and others.

Why is the mission called Twinkle?

EdTwinkle

NASA/ESA/Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

NASA/ESA/Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Do you remember first hearing or learning the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”? Me neither…. It’s one of those songs that seems to have been around forever.

In fact, the tune is a French song, “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”, which was first published in 1761 and later arranged as a set of variations by Mozart. The words are from a poem, “The Star”, by Jane Taylor who, together with her sister Ann, published a collection of poetry in 1808.

But what does a nursery rhyme have to do with detecting exoplanets and why have we called our mission Twinkle?

Most space mission names fall into three categories: acronyms of longer titles that describe what the mission is doing e.g. SOHO (the Solar and Heliospheric Orbiter), or OSIRIS-Rex (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer); names of famous astronomers, physicists or philosophers (e.g. Cassini-Huygens, Galileo or the Hubble Space Telescope); or names that related to Greek mythology (e.g. Apollo or Juno).

As our mission is slightly different from most, we wanted to be creative with the name. We wanted to call it something that was easy to remember and didn’t require background knowledge of science, history or culture: a name that would be accessible to everyone, of all ages.

Twinkle seemed to fit for several reasons. When an exoplanet passes in front of its host star, the tiny drop in light makes the star appear to Twinkle. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is one of the most well-known songs in the English language, familiar to babies and great-grandparents. And the words of the song are so appropriate:

“How I wonder what you are.” The second line sums up perfectly the starting point for any scientific discovery – wondering what something is, how it works and how it came to be there.

“Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.” Some of the most exotic exoplanets found recently may possibly be made actually of diamond!

It seems to us that Twinkle is the perfect name for our mission. We hope you agree.

 

 

– Post by Anita Heward – Communications Officer

Twinkle’s Year

EdEduTwinkle, Twinkle

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This year has been a pretty great year for Twinkle! Since our project’s public launch at the Royal Astronomical Society in February the mission has reached some really import milestones, both in developing our payload and in our education and outreach programme.

The payload study has in fact reached completion, and we will be releasing a detailed design proposal early in the New Year, as well as a short proceedings paper describing our project. This will pave the way for the actual construction work to start on the payload, and we are still on track for the Twinkle satellite’s launch in 2018.

EduTwinkle too has carried out some great work this year. The Continued Professional Development (CPD) sessions have been a great success so far. Our Original Research By Young Twinkle Scientists (ORBYTS) programme, which you might have read about previously, is starting up at Highams Park School in Waltham Forrest and additional schools are continuing to sign up. We plan to take both ORBYTS and our CPD sessions to a wider national audience with the help of our associates and partners as the New Year goes on.

As always, keep in touch through Twitter, or our newsletter here. Thanks to all of you for your support so far, and we hope you’re all as excited as we are about what 2016 will bring for Twinkle.

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited

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We’re coming to the end of the Twinkle payload study, which started in March this year. We’ve had the detailed design review of the specifications and design for our telescope on the 26th of November, and plans will be finalised by the end of the year. It was possible to complete the study in a relatively short time in part due to working together with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL). The structure of the Twinkle satellite will be based on the tried and tested SSTL-300 platform, which has allowed our payload consortium to focus on how to build the telescope, rather than the satellite body itself. This is an approach we’ve taken with most of our mission hardware, going with ‘off-the-shelf’ components rather than spending time and money developing entirely new technology.

The SSTL-300 satellite has a lifetime of around seven years, and is typically used for Earth observation missions; looking down at the Earth from orbit. Data from these missions have many useful applications, such as building maps of cities, carrying out surveillance, or agricultural monitoring. For Twinkle, instead of pointing the satellite at the ground, we want it to look away from the world, towards faraway exoplanets.

As the SSTL-300 has been, and still is being used by a number of other missions, SSTL already have existing infrastructure for its control, but the satellite does need some adaptation for our mission. For instance, the satellite needs to accommodate our slightly wider than usual payload, and as we are measuring light from far off stars we need better light shielding and stability than is usual.

SSTL has been involved with a huge number of successful missions since it was founded as a spin-off company from the University of Surrey in 1985. Over the past 15 years, the company has worked on series of disaster monitoring satellites (DMC 1, 2, and 3), and it is also currently working with the European Space Agency to develop satellites for the Galileo satellite navigation system.

Working with SSTL allows us to keep our mission’s costs down while making sure that we have the best possible hardware. SSTL has worked on satellites for a number of different countries, and it’s a real bonus that we are able to work with an industry leader, while still keeping our mission based within the United Kingdom.

An EduTwinkle update.

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A big part of the Twinkle mission, as we’ve mentioned before on our blog, is our EduTwinkle educational programme. EduTwinkle, run by Dr Clara Sousa-Silva, aims to use both the exciting idea of a space mission and real exoplanet-related data to engage school students with STEM subjects. Recently, there have been major developments for EduTwinkle, with Clara running a series of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) sessions, hosting a #ASEchat, and starting up the ORBYTS (Original Research By Young Twinkle Students) programme.

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What makes a planet habitable?

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Full Earth

While in the last twenty years we have discovered thousands of exoplanets, we’ve not yet been able to tell if some are habitable. Habitable planets could have the right conditions for primitive, or more complex life to develop, and could also be potential homes to future generations of humans. So what makes a planet habitable?

Often we hear about the “habitable zone” around a star: the right distance for a planet to be receiving enough energy from the star to not be too cold, but not too much energy to be too hot. Under these conditions, we can expect the water to be present on the planet as a liquid (rather than ice or vapour).

With the exoplanets discovered to date, we know how far they are from their star and we can tell how much energy they get. So we should be able to say if they are habitable, right?

Well not exactly. Let’s look at our solar system: viewed from a distance, our neighbours Venus and Mars are similar to our planet: they have roughly the same size and mass (Mars is a bit smaller), and they orbit the Sun at 108 million and 228 million kilometres respectively (Earth is on an orbit in between, at a distance of 150 million kilometres). These three planets are pretty close to each other – in comparison Neptune, the furthest planet in our solar system, orbits the Sun at an impressive distance of 4,495 million kilometres.

You would expect these planets to be quite similar, yet Venus is a hot place: the temperature there is over 450ºC, while Mars is a freezing -60ºC! Only Earth has been lucky enough to have the right temperature for life as we know it. Life is thought not to be possible at temperatures lower than -20oC, and has been found existing at temperatures over 100oC in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. It would be fair to assume that a planet should be somewhere between these to be habitable – and being as close as possible to Earth’s 15ºC, with vast amounts of liquid water on the surface.

The reason why these planets are so different is because of their atmospheres. An atmosphere is a layer of gas that surrounds a planet, held in place by its gravity. An atmosphere may block some radiation from the Sun, and/or may hold in heat, stabilising a planet’s temperature. By looking at a planet’s atmosphere you can also learn a lot about the rest of the planet, as you can read about on a previous blog post here. Atmospheres tend not to be found on the very smallest and lightest planets, as they don’t have enough gravity to stop atmospheric gases boiling off in to space. Heavier planets do better at holding onto an atmosphere but, if a planet’s gravity is too strong, then the planet becomes a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn with no real surface, so it’d be pretty uninhabitable for humans at least!

Venus has become so hot due to the greenhouse effect from the gases in its atmosphere. At the other extreme, Mars has lost almost all its atmosphere, and can’t retain the heat it receives from the Sun. So just knowing how far a planet is from its star will not tell us whether it is habitable, we will need to know what their atmosphere is like.

Twinkle will look for all sorts of exoplanets and, as long as they have an atmosphere, we will be able to find out what are they made of and their temperatures. That in turn will tell us so much about the planets we are looking at, including whether they are potentially habitable or unfriendly environments for life!

Reaching out with Twinkle

EdTwinkle

Outreach

Since our launch back in February at the Royal Astronomical Society, members of the Twinkle team have been hard at work trying to spread information about the purpose and scope of our mission to a wider audience. There are a lot of different groups of people out there that we would like to engage with Twinkle, such as schools, the general public, teachers, space industry, scientists, policy makers, amateurs… and many more. That means that we’ve had to attend a lot of different types of event, all around the UK, to spread the word!

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