Bon Voyage, TESS

This past week, my daughter and I watched live as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched into orbit. This satellite is the follow-up to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which was designed to point to a specific region of space known to have many sun-like stars and get a sense for how many of them have exoplanets. As it turns out, the answer is many! The only problem is that Kepler’s region of interest didn’t include many nearby stars. TESS’s mission is to look at stars close to Earth and see which ones harbor planets. Here’s the video of the launch for those who missed it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the NEID Spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory where I work will be supporting and following up on TESS observations. This launch is a major milestone in the overall search for exoplanets. I gather it will take about two months for TESS to reach its final orbit. During that time, cameras and instruments will be tested to make sure everything made it through launch with no problems.

The most amazing part of the launch for me was to see how fast TESS made it into orbit, really only a couple of minutes after launch itself. And yet, with current technology, even the nearest exoplanets are still out of feasible travel range for humans. Despite that, I still have hopes that we’ll find destinations that we, as a species, will feel driven to explore. Once we do, I hope we’ll find ways to make the trip happen. In fact, one of the technologies that might allow a voyage to nearby solar systems is scheduled for testing later this year. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy this summer. I imagine what a voyage through the solar system might be like using such a craft in my novel The Solar Sea.

Of course this is part of the reason that Steve Howell from NASA and I felt compelled to compile the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. They allow us to envision what the worlds we’ve been discovering might be like. They allow us to imagine life in new ways, and even to imagine exciting possibilities for things we could find on worlds that don’t harbor life as we know it. Of course, reality is such that what we discover will no doubt go far beyond what we imagine!

So, once the TESS and NEID teams start finding worlds near the Earth that we can imagine, will Steve Howell and I put together another anthology? I suspect there’s a good chance we will. Whether or not we do, I encourage writers to keep an eye on the discoveries because there will be plenty of inspiration for some cool science fiction stories in the coming years.

Learn more about the Kepler Anthologies and The Solar Sea at:

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NEID – A New Way of Seeing Exoplanets

Last week, I talked a little about the work we’re doing refitting the Mayall 4-meter Telescope for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. However, it’s not the only construction going on at Kitt Peak. The WIYN 3.5-meter telescope, which I also work with, is getting a new spectrograph installed called NEID. Deploying NEID doesn’t require a full telescope refit like deploying DESI, but there’s still quite a bit of work happening in the building.

Most of the work right now is going into building a new bench spectrograph room. NEID is an acronym for “NN-explore Exoplanet Investigations with Dopler spectroscopy”. The word “neid” is also the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.” An appropriate choice, given Kitt Peak’s location on the Tohono O’Odham Nation in Southern Arizona. The goal of NEID is to provide the astronomical community with a state-of-the-art Doppler spectrograph to investigate exoplanets around nearby stars.

The way this will work is that an optical fiber assembly will be mounted to the telescope itself at the port in the photo to the right with the sign on it. That optical fiber will carry the light from the star to the new bench spectrograph downstairs where it will be spread out, like a rainbow. The reason for doing this is not to see a pretty rainbow, but to see dark lines interspersed through the rainbow. Those dark lines are like the star’s chemical fingerprint.

Now, here’s the fun part. When a planet moves around the star, it drags the star just a tiny amount toward the Earth which causes that spectral fingerprint to shift a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum. When the planet passes behind the star, it drags it away from the Earth and moves the spectral fingerprint toward the red end of the spectrum. Looking for this shift is the “Doppler” approach to finding planets that NEID will employ.

In addition to discovering new planets, NEID will be used to follow up observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and will help to determine masses and densities for planets TESS discovers. By the way, the NN-Explore that’s part of NEID’s acronym stands for NASA-NSF-EXoPLanet Observational REsearch. The current plan is to begin commissioning the instrument this fall and for regular observations to commence in 2019.

Being part of on-going research into planets around other stars is what inspired Dr. Steve Howell of NASA’s Ames Spaceflight Center and I to invite science fiction writers to imagine what these planets around other stars might be like. The results were our two anthologies, A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about the anthologies by clicking on their titles.

Once NEID goes online and starts making discoveries, Steve and I may have to “see” into the future and collect a third anthology. This time, including stories about planets discovered by a telescope on a mountaintop in Arizona’s Tohono O’Odham Nation.