Nasa exoplanet exploration

Nasa exoplanet exploration DEFAULT

Cornell Chronicle

When it comes to directly imaging Earth-like exoplanets orbiting faraway stars, seeing isn’t always believing.

A new Cornell study finds that next-generation telescopes used to see exoplanets could confuse Earth-like planets with other types of planets in the same solar system.

With today’s telescopes, dim distant planets are hard to see against the glare of their host stars, but next-generation tools such as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, currently under development by NASA, will be better at imaging Earth-like planets, which orbit stars at just the right distance to offer prime conditions for life.

“Once we have the capability of imaging Earth-like planets, we're actually going to have to worry about confusing them with completely different types of planets,” said Dmitry Savransky, associate professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (College of Engineering) and the Department of Astronomy (College of Arts and Sciences).

“The future telescopes that will enable these observations will be so huge, expensive, and difficult to build and launch that we can't afford to waste a single second of time on them,” Savransky said, “which is why it is so important to think through all of these potential issues ahead of time.”

By using Earth’s own solar system as a model of an unexplored star system, Savransky and Dean Keithly, doctoral student in the field of mechanical and aerospace engineering, calculated that even with direct-imaging techniques and the increased capabilities of future, high-powered telescopes, exoplanets as different as Uranus and Earth could be mistaken for one another.

The research was published Sept. 23 in Astrophysical Journal Letters, and details how measurements estimating planet-star separation and brightness can cause “planet confusion.” The modeling finds that when two planets share the same separation and magnitude along their orbits, one planet can be confused for the other.

“I’m asking the question, ‘Is it possible that Jupiter could have the same separation and brightness as Earth? Can we possibly confuse these two things that we have just detected?’ And the answer is yes,” Keithly said. “A habitable Earth-like exoplanet around a star in a different solar system could be confused with many other types of planets.”

Keithly and Savransky – both members of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute – identified 21 cases within their solar system model in which an individual planet had the same apparent planet-star separation and brightness as another planet. Using this data, it was calculated that an Earth-like planet could be misidentified with a Mercury-like planet in 36% of randomly generated solar systems; with a Mars-like planet in about 43% of randomly generated solar systems; and with a Venus-like planet in more than 72% of randomly-generated solar systems.

In contrast, confusion between Earth-like planets and larger gas-giant planets similar to Neptune, Saturn and Uranus was less likely, and could occur in 1-4% of randomly generated solar systems.

Confusing planets for one another can be an expensive and time-consuming problem for researchers. Extensive planning and funds go into each use of a high-powered telescope, so the false identification of a habitable exoplanet wastes valuable telescope time. With this problem identified, researchers can design more efficient exoplanet direct-imaging mission surveys. The researchers warn that further improvements to instrument contrast and inner-working angles could exacerbate the problem, and advise that future exoplanet direct-imaging missions make multiple observations to more accurately differentiate between planets.

The research was funded by NASA through the Science Investigation Team of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

Erin Philipson is a communications specialist with the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

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Since the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star in 1995, several thousand more have been discovered. We've peered into the atmospheres of some, and we've found whole families of planets orbiting strange stars — many in configurations starkly different from our own. We've learned a lot from NASA's Kepler mission, which launched 10 years ago and ceased operations in November 2018.

A new NASA planet-hunting spacecraft called TESS, which began science operations as Kepler was winding down, will give us thousands of new discoveries in the coming years. And the Spitzer Space Telescope has provided us valuable insights into what these worlds might be like.

This show will look at the state of exoplanet science and give us a view of what future discoveries may be around the corner.


  • Jessie Christiansen, Research Scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, Caltech
  • Karl Stapelfeldt, Chief Scientist, NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program, JPL

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About the Series

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Get set for launch. “Eyes on Exoplanets” will fly you to any planet you wish—as long as it's far beyond our solar system. This fully rendered 3D universe is scientifically accurate, allowing you to zoom in for a close look at more than 1,000 exotic planets known to orbit distant stars.

With the click of a mouse, you can visit newly discovered gas giants, Earth-sized planets and “super Earths”—rocky like ours, but gargantuan. The program is updated daily with the latest finds from NASA's Kepler mission and from ground-based observatories around the world as they hunt for planets like our own.

You can instantly find out the time it would take to travel to each planetary system by car, jet plane, bullet train or starship. Use an overlay to compare the orbits of planets in our solar system with those around other stars. Or you can search for planets that might support life by toggling the “habitable zone” display, showing the region around a star where temperatures are right for liquid water.

“Eyes on Exoplanets” is powered by NASA's Exoplanet Archive, the official database used by professional astronomers engaged in exploring new worlds.

exoplanet: a planet that orbits a star outside our solar system


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NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program - Karl Stapelfeldt (JPL)

Exoplanet Exploration: The Search Continues for New, Exciting Worlds

Thousands of fascinating new worlds have been discovered beyond our own solar system, ranging from supersize gas giant planets to small rocky bodies — and the search continues to better understand these distant worlds. NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launching today (April 16) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will help pinpoint exoplanets comparatively close to Earth.

An exoplanet is a planet located outside our solar system that generally orbits a star, much like Earth orbits the sun. Most exoplanets discovered to date have been detected using what is known as the transit method, which looks for dips in a star's brightness that suggest a planet is passing across the face of the star. Another technique, called radial velocity, looks for repeated "wobbles" in a star's movements that suggest a planet's gravitational pull is yanking it back and forth. 

Using these methods, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 3,000 exoplanets, and counting. These exoplanets come in a variety of sizes and boast intriguing characteristics. Some are gigantic planets hugging close to their parent stars, while others are ice-covered worlds or rocky bodies like Earth. There have even been signs of "rogue planets" wandering through space alone. [10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]

While most exoplanets found so far are hundreds or thousands of light-years away, and we don't yet have the technology to travel to them, astronomers are still able to study their temperature, atmosphere, composition and other details from afar, in the hope of finding possible signs of life, according to a statement from NASA. 

In 2016, a roughly Earth-size alien planet was discovered around our nearest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, which lies just 4.2 light-years from our own solar system. That planet, known as Proxima b, circles in the "habitable zone" of its parent star, suggesting it has the potential to host liquid water, and possibly life, on its surface. 

However, the search for exoplanets began long before the discovery of Proxima b. In 1988, a team of Canadian researchers proposed the existence of an exoplanet now known as Tadmor. At the time, their data wasn't strong enough to publish, and, as a result, their discovery was withdrawn in 1992. It wasn't until 10 years later that the existence of Tadmor was confirmed in 2002, according to the statement from NASA.

Instead, the first exoplanet to make its debut to the world was 51 Pegasi b — a "hot Jupiter" gas giant found in 1995. This strange alien world is 50 light-years away and orbits close to its sun-like parent star.

While 51 Pegasi b was the first alien world ever discovered around a sun-like star, scientists detected three "pulsar planets" even earlier. These planets were found in 1992 around a superdense, rotating stellar corpse, called a pulsar, located some 2,300 light-years away. 

Today, equipped with advanced technology, the rate of finding new and exciting exoplanets continues to increase. 

And there are many left to find: Our Milky Way galaxy alone "probably contains about 400 billion stars, our sun among them. And if each of those stars has not just one planet, but, like ours, a whole system of them, then the number of planets in the galaxy is truly astronomical: We're already heading into the trillions," according to the statement from NASA.

Future missions such as TESS will expand our search for exoplanets, looking for planets orbiting some of the closest and brightest stars in Earth's sky. TESS will monitor at least 200,000 stars for signs of exoplanets, ranging from Earth-size rocky worlds to huge gas giant planets. Data collected during this mission will be used to identify targets requiring further study by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2020.

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us @Spacedotcom,Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: [email protected]

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13. 

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