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Origins of Stars and Planets
When studying the origins of stars and planets, researchers at JPL use telescopes and advanced models to study the formation and death of stars, the physical and chemical processes in the spinning clouds of gas and dust where these stars are born, and the direct detection of planets around other stars. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory collaborates with many groups that use telescopes to look for these conditions in the universe.
Planetary systems are thought to form from clouds of gas and dust orbiting the youngest stars. Studies of this process requires making measurements with high spatial resolution
and high contrast. Scientists in the Origins of Stars and Planets Group use the Hubble, Spitzer, and Keck telescopes to study circumstellar matter and extrasolar planets. They are also leading the development of future telescope technologies that will open up the field for further study.
Simulated image of a nearby planetary system, as would be taken using an advanced coronagraph demonstrated at JPL. From Trauger and Traub, Nature 446 771 (2007)
This work comprises:
Development of high contrast imaging technologies and future space telescope mission concepts, toward the goal of directly imaging planets around other stars. A coronagraph achieving contrasts exceeding a billion-to-one has been demonstrated in a JPL laboratory test bed.
High contrast imaging and interferometry experiments are performed at the Palomar and Keck observatories.
Studies of planet formation in the circumstellar disks of young stars using ground and space observatories. Imaging with Hubble, in combination with Spitzer measurements and numerical modeling, is leading to new insights into disk structure and composition.
Characterization of the composition and structure of exoplanet atmospheres using infrared spectroscopy of transiting hot Jupiters.
Studies of outflows from young stars and dying stars
Selected Research Projects
Scientists in the Origins of Stars and Planets Group work on a broad range of cutting-edge research projects, which include:
The Herschel Space Observatory
Onboard The Herschel Space Observatory, the SPIRE instrument will use "spider web bolometers", which are 40 times more sensitive than previous composite bolometers. They were developed at JPL by Dr. James Bock, SPIRE's Co-Investigator. Also onboard Herschel is Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI) instrument. HIFI will sense radiation along six wavelength bands. NASA is providing the mixers and local oscillator chains for the two highest bands, five and six; other local oscillator components for bands one through four; and power amplifiers.
Herschel will help researchers study and understand:
Birth of Stars
How galaxies formed and evolved in the early universe, and the nature of enormously powerful galactic energy sources
The formation, evolution, and interrelationship of stars and the interstellar medium in the Milky Way and other galaxies
Chemistry in our galaxy
Molecular chemistry in the atmospheres of Mars and our solar system's comets and giant planets, and the nature of comet-like objects in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune.
With its unique ability to detect light in the full 60-670 micron range, Herschel will be able to gather information that has previously been unavailable.
The Exoplanet Exploration Program
The Exoplanet Exploration Program has a broad scope of science that includes galactic and extragalactic astrophysics in addition to exoplanet science. The ability to carry out general astrophysics observations follows naturally from the design requirements of the Exoplanet Exploration missions, which provide unprecedented high-angular resolution and high dynamic-range sensitivity.
Many issues for research in this area have been identified by the astronomical community in the National Academies studies -- e.g., the McKee-Taylor decadal survey report Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium (2001), the Turner report of the committee on the physics of the universe Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos (2003), and in the NASA strategic roadmaps.
Spectrum of transiting extrasolar planet, made with the Spitzer Space Telescope. From Swain et al., Astrophysical Journal 674 482 (2008)
The Hubble Space Telescope
Among its many discoveries, the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed the age of the universe to be about 13 to 14 billion years, much more accurate than the old range of anywhere from 10 to 20 billion years. Hubble played a key role in the discovery of dark energy, a mysterious force that causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
Hubble has revealed galaxies in all stages of evolution, as well as protoplanetary disks, clumps of gas and dust around young stars that likely function as birthing grounds for new planets. It discovered that gamma-ray bursts — strange, incredibly powerful explosions of energy — occur in far-distant galaxies when massive stars collapse. And these are only a handful of its many contributions to astronomy.
The Hubble Space Telescope's five science instruments — its cameras, spectrographs, and fine guidance sensors — work either together or individually to bring us stunning images from the farthest reaches of space.
One of these instruments, the Wide Field/Planetary Camera, was installed on the Hubble telescope when it was first launched into Earth orbit on a space shuttle on April 24, 1990. Scientists soon discovered, however, that a tiny error in the curvature of the space telescope's main mirror made it impossible to focus images sharply. Fortunately, JPL engineers determined that by changing the optics of the camera instrument, the telescope's problem could be overcome. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was installed on the Hubble telescope by astronauts on December 2, 1993. This brought Hubble's vision to perfect focus, and over the next few years the space telescope has relayed phenomenal pictures and made possible a variety of discoveries.
Hubble Space Telescope WFPC2 Image of Planetary Nebula MyCn 18.
From Sahai et al., Astronomical Journal 118 468 (1999)
The Spitzer Space Telescope (formerly SIRTF, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility) was launched into space by a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 25, 2003. During its mission, Spitzer will obtain images and spectra by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, radiated by objects in space between wavelengths of 3 and 180 microns (1 micron is one-millionth of a meter). Most of this infrared radiation is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere and cannot be observed from the ground.
Consisting of a 0.85-meter telescope and three cryogenically-cooled science instruments, Spitzer is the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space. Infrared reveals information about the cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars which are too dim to be detected by their visible light, extrasolar planets, and giant molecular clouds. Also, many molecules in space, including organic molecules, have their unique signatures in the infrared.
Because infrared is primarily heat radiation, the telescope must be cooled to near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit or -273 degrees Celsius) so that it can observe infrared signals from space without interference from the telescope's own heat. Also, the telescope must be protected from the heat of the Sun and the infrared radiation put out by the Earth. To do this, Spitzer carries a solar shield and will be launched into an Earth-trailing solar orbit. This unique orbit places Spitzer far enough away from the Earth to allow the telescope to cool rapidly without having to carry large amounts of cryogen (coolant).