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February 10, 2015

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Satellite to check alien skies for traces of life

Feb. 10, 2015
Courtesy of University College London
and World Science staff

A team of U.K. sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers plans to launch a small sat­el­lite that would study the skies of plan­ets out­side our so­lar sys­tem, check­ing for traces of life and oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics.

It’s the “first mis­sion ded­i­cat­ed to an­a­lyz­ing” these at­mo­spheres, said Gio­van­na Tinetti of Uni­vers­ity Col­lege Lon­don, the pro­jec­t’s lead sci­ent­ist.

An illustration  of the plan­ned sa­tellite. (Courtesy UCL)


Plans call for the mis­sion, a col­la­bora­t­ion be­tween the col­lege and Sur­rey Sat­el­lite Tech­nol­o­gy Ltd., based in Guil­ford, U.K, to launch with­in four years. An over­view was pre­sented Friday at an open meet­ing at the U.K.’s Roy­al As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­e­ty.

“Twin­kle is a very am­bi­tious mis­sion,” said Tinetti of the col­lege. “N­early two thou­sand exoplan­ets—plan­ets or­bit­ing stars oth­er than our Sun—have been dis­cov­ered to date, but we know very lit­tle about these al­ien worlds.”

Sci­en­tists can meas­ure their size, weigh them, and meas­ure their dis­tance from the star for an idea of their tem­per­a­ture, she added, get­ting a rough an idea of their make­up in the pro­cess. 

“But be­yond that, we just don’t know. Twin­kle… will give us a com­pletely new pic­ture of what these worlds are really like.”

When an ex­o­plan­et passes in front of the star that it or­bits, a ti­ny amount of star­light goes through the mo­le­cules and clouds in the plan­et’s at­mos­phere. Twin­kle would meas­ure this light and pick out char­ac­ter­is­tic “fin­ger­prints” of in­ter­est­ing sub­stances like wa­ter va­por or meth­ane, which is or­gan­ic.

Un­der­stand­ing what is in these at­mo­spheres helps re­veal a lot of things, she added, in­clud­ing wheth­er there are gas­es con­sist­ent with traces of life, or at least with hab­it­abil­ity. 

Plans call for Twin­kle to an­a­lyze at least 100 exoplan­ets in our Milky Way gal­axy. Us­ing an in­stru­ment called an in­fra­red spec­tro­graph, it would be able to look at of a wide range of plan­et types. For large plan­ets near bright stars, Twin­kle could make maps of clouds and tem­per­a­ture, Tinetti said.

But “the light fil­tered through the plan­et’s at­mos­phere is only about one ten thou­sandth of the over­all light from the star,” she added. “That’s a big chal­lenge and one that re­quires a very sta­ble plat­form out­side the screen­ing ef­fects of Earth’s at­mos­phere.”

While the con­struc­tion of Twin­kle’s sci­en­tif­ic in­stru­ment is led by the col­lege, the space­craft it­self is to be built by Sur­rey Sat­el­lite. 

The space­craft will be built to op­er­ate for three to five years and the proj­ect is funded through a mix­ture of pri­vate and pub­lic sources, the or­ga­niz­ers said. But with a to­tal mis­sion cost of around £50 mil­lion, in­clud­ing launch, they claimed the whole Twin­kle proj­ect costs one-tenth as much as as­t­ro­phys­i­cal space­craft de­vel­oped through in­terna­t­ional space agen­cies. The swift and in­ex­pen­sive de­vel­op­ment were pos­si­ble through ex­pert­ise al­ready de­vel­oped at U.K. in­sti­tu­tions and the use of off-the-shelf com­po­nents, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­niz­ers.


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A team of U.K. scientists and engineers plans a small satellite that would study the skies around planets in our galaxy, checking for traces of life and other characteristics. It’s the “first mission dedicated to analyzing” these atmospheres, said Giovanna Tinetti of University College London, the project’s lead scientist. Plans call for the mission, a collaboration between the college and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., based in Guilford, U.K, to launch within four years. An overview of the science case and instrument design was presented last week at an open meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society. “Twinkle is a very ambitious mission,” said Tinetti of the college. “Nearly two thousand exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our Sun—have been discovered to date, but we know very little about these alien worlds.” Scientists can measure their size, weigh them, and measure their distance from the star for an idea of their temperature, she added, getting a rough an idea of their makeup in the process. “But beyond that, we just don’t know. Twinkle… will give us a completely new picture of what these worlds are really like.” When an exoplanet passes in front of the star that it orbits, a tiny amount of starlight goes through the molecules and clouds in the planet’s atmosphere. Twinkle would measure this light and pick out characteristic “fingerprints” of interesting substances like water vapor or methane, which is organic. Understanding what is in these atmospheres helps reveal a lot of things, she added, including whether there are gases consistent with traces of life, or at least with habitability. Plans call for Twinkle to analyze at least 100 exoplanets in our Milky Way galaxy. Using an instrument called an infrared spectrograph, it would be able to look at of a wide range of planet types. For large planets near bright stars, Twinkle it could produce maps of clouds and temperature, Tinetti said. But “the light filtered through the planet’s atmosphere is only about one ten thousandth of the overall light from the star,” she added. “That’s a big challenge and one that requires a very stable platform outside the screening effects of Earth’s atmosphere.” While the construction of Twinkle’s scientific instrument is led by the college, the spacecraft itself is to be built by Surrey Satellite. The spacecraft will be built to operate for three to five years and the project is funded through a mixture of private and public sources, the organizers said. But with a total mission cost of around £50 million, including launch, they claimed the whole Twinkle project costs one-tenth as much as astrophysical spacecraft developed through international space agencies. The swift and inexpensive development were possible through expertise already developed at U.K. institutions and the use of off-the-shelf components, according to the organizers.