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article imageUK's Twinkle space mission will wonder at distant star systems

By Robert Myles     Feb 9, 2015 in Science
London - A team of UK scientists and engineers announced Friday a new mission to examine exoplanets — planets that orbit stars other than our Sun.
The mission, named “Twinkle,” will involve putting a new satellite in orbit with the goal of obtaining radical new insights into the chemistry, formation and evolution of planets orbiting other stars. The proposed Twinkle program promises to build on insights of exoplanets already obtained thanks to the UK’s established SuperWASP extra-solar planet detection program.
It’s intended that the Twinkle mission, led by University College London (UCL) and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), will start within four years. Attendees at an open meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society held Feb. 6 were presented with an outline of the science case for an ambitious mission designed to learn more about alien worlds in orbit around other stars.
To date almost 2,000 exoplanets have been found but other than measuring such planets mass, density and distance from their parent star, hardly anything is known about them.
From these basic exoplanetary stats, astrobiologists can deduce that some are freezing cold; some are so hot they have molten surfaces. They can also identify whether a particular exoplanet is a gas giant, something like Jupiter, or a small, rocky world similar to Earth or Mars.
The Twinkle mission will seek to fill out the growing catalogue of exoplanets, being the first mission tasked with analyzing the atmospheres of these distant worlds. That, said mission lead scientist, UCL’s Professor Giovanna Tinetti, “will give us a completely new picture of what these worlds are really like."
As an exoplanet passes in front of its parent star, a minute amount of starlight is filtered through the molecules and clouds that make up the planet’s atmosphere. Twinkle will measure that filtered starlight and highlight the characteristic spectral "fingerprints" that will allow scientists to identify if gases such as water vapor or methane are present on the target exoplanet.
The Twinkle mission won’t be the first time Tinetti has been engaged in this type of exoplanetary exploration. He played a key role in pioneering the same technique that’s been used in observations by the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes.
Examining the atmospheres of exoplanets can give clues as to how planets have evolved. It may also provide pointers as to whether planets are or even if they are home to life-forms.
Such analysis of the chemical composition planetary atmospheres is also a necessary part of understanding if a planet originated in its present orbit or whether it was ‘bumped’ into that orbit from elsewhere in its planetary system. The composition, evolution and chemical and physical processes that drive any planet’s atmosphere are strongly influenced by its distance from its parent star. Atmospheres possessed by small, terrestrial type-planets may have evolved quite radically compared with their initial composition.
Cosmic events, such as collisions with comets or asteroids, planets losing lighter molecules that once formed part of their atmosphere, volcanic activity and even the basic bodily functions of life itself can all have an impact on the early, primordial atmospheres of planets.
Mission scientists envisage Twinkle analyzing at least 100 exoplanets in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Instrumentation, such as Twinkle’s infrared spectrograph will allow astronomers to assess an array of planetary types from hot Jupiters — gas giants orbiting very close to their parent star — down to what are termed super-Earths — rocky planets between one and 10 times the mass of Earth.
Some of Twinkle’s intended targets orbit star similar to our Sun. Others orbit cooler red dwarf stars. In the case of the largest planets orbiting bright stars, Twinkle should even be able to produce maps of clouds and temperature.
After launch, Twinkle will take up position in a polar low-Earth orbit. The initial mission length will be three years with the possibility of extending that to five years or more. Mission funding will be from a mix of public and private sources but with a projected mission cost of just £50 million ($76 million) Twinkle will be around 10 times cheaper than comparable international space agency programs to date.
Highlighting the UK’s expertise in the relatively new field of exoplanetary exploration, UCL physics professor, Jonathan Tennyson, senior advisor for the Twinkle mission, said, “The UK has already made an outstanding contribution to exoplanet detection with the WASP survey program. Twinkle is a unique chance for the UK to build on this and take the world lead in understanding exoplanet science, as well as to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers”.
More about Exoplanets, Twinkle mission, Twinkle satellite, exoplanetary science, SuperWasp program
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