When an (exo)planet passes in between us and its star, it blocks some of the light travelling from its star to us. When it then travels out of our line of sight, the star regains its original brightness. This phenomenon makes the star appear to “twinkle”. As we’ve already gone over in this blog, these twinkling stars can be used to spot exoplanets. But for our mission, we want to do something slightly different: we want to understand what these exoplanets are made of. The best way to do this is by analysing their atmospheres, which contain markers of the planet’s composition, history and evolution.
Professor John Zarnecki of the International Space Science Institute, Switzerland describes his thoughts on the announcement of Twinkle Space Mission at The Royal Astronomical Society.
Any LEGO enthusiast knows the importance of good build instructions. Any housing project relies on detailed plans by architects. Building a space mission is no different – before construction work can begin, there must be a functional blueprint to show how you can achieve your goal within the budget, with the resources available and within your deadlines. In fact, given challenges for materials working in the harsh space environment and the cost implications of additional size and mass at launch, anyone building a space mission will need to rely on the accuracy of that blueprint – down to the very smallest nut and bolt.
The type of information we know about exoplanets today: Mass, Radius and distance from the host star [click to enlarge]. Plot generated on the http://exoplanets.org/plots site – try plotting your own graph!
Twinkle, as you possibly know by now from reading our website, is not a mission trying to find new exoplanets, but rather to study known ones. This means of course that to do our work, we need the exoplanets to already have been discovered.
There are many ways to find a planet, some unexpectedly simple for such a complex field as astronomy, and some slightly more abstract.
Clara Sousa Silva (second from right, front row) at Downing Street
Although the Twinkle Mission aims to look at the far reaches of space, we also have projects working a little closer to home; namely EduTwinkle. This is the branch of the mission working to bring a little more space exploration to British schools. Space is one of the best gateways into science, and using a gender balanced mission such as Twinkle as a starting point should help to tackle gender stereotypes about STEM professions from an early age by providing relatable role models. EduTwinkle is aimed at any and all students from primary through to the end of secondary education, in line with its aim to increase the uptake of underrepresented groups in STEM at A level and at university.
Watch Professor Jonathan Tennyson’s introduction to Twinkle – we’ll be updating this blog with more videos so stay tuned!