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How old could alien civilizations be?

Guest post by Sarah Pearson, Columbia Astronomy Graduate student and creator of the Space with Sarah YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/spacewithsarah). Today Sarah is describing her latest YouTube episode.

Within the last couple of decades, humans have detected thousands of planets around stars other than our own Sun (exoplanets). The enormous number of galaxies each with billions of stars which statistically all have a planet orbiting them, makes it weird to think that life here on Earth should be the only life that exists in the entire Universe.

A question which hasn’t received that much attention yet is: how old could the oldest planetary system be?

We know that our own solar system is roughly 4.6 billion years old, which is actually quite young compared to the whole Universe which is ~13.8 billion years old. The Big Bang, mostly produced Hydrogen and Helium, while Earth’s crust consists mostly of oxygen, silicon and iron. This means Earth couldn’t have formed right after the Big Bang. But for how long would we need to wait?

To create the elements that rocky planets like Earth consist of, stars in the Universe actually need to first be created and then die to spread elements heavier than Hydrogen and Helium into space. Heavier elements are mostly produced in stellar interiors through fusion and when the stars eventually explode and shed their layers to their surroundings. It takes hundreds of thousands of years for the stars’ material to fully mix into nearby space, and subsequently this material needs to collapse and form new stars and planets.

While there’s definitely an observed correlation between the amount of time passed since the Big Bang and the amount of heavier elements in the Universe, astronomers are still having a hard time creating a precise timeline for the amount of heavy elements created at what time. But we do know that something like Earth could not have formed until enough stars in the Universe had exploded, and we also know that this could have happened a lot earlier than when our own solar system formed.

One of the most interesting planetary systems astronomers have found in our own Galaxy is Kepler-444 (Campante et al. 2015, ApJ) which consists of five rocky planets orbiting a star which is 6.6 billions years older than our own solar system, meaning that it formed only 2.6 billion years after the Big Bang! While this system probably doesn’t harbor life (the planets are too close to their star to have liquid water), its existence demonstrates that planetary systems could have formed a lot earlier in the history of the Universe than our solar system. This begs the question: how intelligent would alien civilization be if they have evolved for billions of years longer than life here on earth?

Find out more about this topic in the newest Space with Sarah’s YouTube episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq14s5-FKhc

On the Space with Sarah YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/spacewithsarah), astrophysicist Sarah Pearson answers frequently asked space related questions in 3-6 minute videos.

New Candidates from K2 from Planet Hunters and Their Nearest Neighbors

By Yale grad student, Joey Schmitt

In the 10th paper(!) from the Planet Hunters citizen science program, a stupendously great number, we independently discovered 10 new planet candidates in the K2 *Kepler* data (Campaigns 1 and 3). However, simply discovering them was not the main goal of the new paper. We wanted to explore their neighborhoods.

The environment in which a star is created has a large and enduring impact on how planets form. Under standard planet formation theory, when a star collapses, it forms a disk, called a protoplanetary disk, due to the conservation of angular momentum. It is in this disk of material orbiting the infant star that planets are formed. Solid material clumps together and forms planets. In the inner disk, the material is hotter, so the only solid material is metallic or rocky. In the outer disk, the material is cooler, which allows molecules like ice and frozen ammonia to clump together as well. This extra solid mass in the outer solar system allows the outer planet to grow bigger and eventually capture gas. Interactions between all these planets can then jumble them around.

However, most stars are not born alone. They more often come in pairs or triplets or even larger clusters. If two stars are forming too close together, each star could disrupt or even completely destroy the other’s
protoplanetary disk, making one or both stars devoid of planets. Conversely, it’s at least hypothetically possible that, at certain distances, a star could funnel its protoplanetary disk material into the protoplanetary disk of a neighboring star, giving the star more material to make planets out of. Current research has suggested that the destructive effect dominates. We aimed to test this suggestion and to further examine the potential effects of stellar neighbors to planetary systems. There are similarly interesting questions exploring the effect of a third star in eclipsing binary (EB) systems.

In this paper, we made a selection of many planet candidates, several from Planet Hunters and several others from previously published journal articles, and also many EB candidates, all of which were discovered through Planet Hunters volunteers, for a total of 75 targets. In order to find nearby stellar companions to these planet or EB systems, one has to take very high resolution images. Typically, this is impossible due to atmospheric turbulence blurring the starlight (seeing). To get around this,
we used two telescopes, SOAR in Chile and Keck in Hawaii, that get around this problem. The SOAR telescope uses speckle imaging, which takes hundreds images so quickly that the air doesn’t have time to move around and blur the image and then combines them. The Keck telescope, on the other hand, uses lasers to measure the air turbulence and then deforms its mirrors many times per second to correct the light before it reaches the camera.

With these techniques, we were able to find three stellar companions to our planet-host stars and six companions to our EBs. While we did not have a large enough set of targets to definitively measure the overall effect of nearby neighbors on planetary and EB formation, the results were suggestive
of two things. First, we found just one very close companion to a planet-host, strengthening the hypothesis that nearby stars are in fact destructive to planet formation. Secondly, we discovered several new stars
near very short-period EBs, implying that the shortest period EBs necessarily need a third star in the system. The third star steals energy from the close pair, which pushes those two stars on a shorter and shorter orbit.

The six companion stars found by the SOAR telescope are shown in the image below:

image

In the meantime, we are continuing to show data from the original *Kepler* set of stars. This current project will allow us to calculate the frequency of planets in long-period orbits around *Kepler *stars, something
that no other research project is yet capable of doing. An integral part of this is displaying synthetic (or “fake”) planets in the data. The synthetic transits allow us to measure how good Planet Hunters are at
finding planets of different sizes and periods around different kinds of stars. This knowledge is *required* to know how frequent planets occur because it allows us to correct for the planets that are there but *not*
found.

We would like to thank everyone involved in this program! The volunteers here at Planet Hunters are simply wonderful. This is one of the most popular *and scientifically productive* of the Zooniverse projects. We’re
also looking into if and how we can reincorporate K2 data and, in the future, TESS data. We hope that you continue to contribute to astronomical research.

The (not *quite* final) public version of this paper is here.
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Tabby’s Star

In February 2016, Tabby Boyajian gave a fabulous TED talk on Planet Hunters and the mysterious star KIC 8462852 (a.k.a. “Tabby’s star”). Check her out on this YouTube video, released in April 2016.

Chambliss Amateur Achievement Award

Please join me in congratulating one of our prolific Planet Hunters, Daryll LaCourse (aka Nighthawk Black), who received the Chambliss Prize for Amateur Astronomy. Woo-hoo! The award was announced at the American Association of Astronomy meeting on January 6th 2016.

Daryll is the second Planet Hunter to receive the Chambliss Amateur Achievement award, which goes to a person not employed in the field of astronomy in a professional capacity, who is resident in North America. The key factor in judging nominations is that the work contributes to the advancement of the science of astronomy.

The citation reads: Daryll LaCourse is a dedicated and talented amateur astronomer who has made significant contributions to exoplanet research as a leading member of the Zooniverse Planet Hunters program. Through painstaking examination and independent reanalysis of Kepler data, he has discovered several new exoplanet candidates, more than 100 previously unknown eclipsing binary systems, and other notable, enigmatic variable stars. He is an energetic and productive collaborator with many professional astronomers. He has coauthored several scientific publications and was lead author on a paper with more than a dozen professional astronomers as co-authors. To quote from one of his letters of support, “If Daryll were a professional astronomer, I would be impressed by the quantity, quality, and creative insight of his work. He is an extraordinary citizen scientist — and highly deserving of the Chambliss award for scientific contributions from amateur astronomers.”

Planet Hunters – Paper VIII

 – post by Ji Wang

Planet Hunters have just made another important contribution to our understanding of planets beyond the solar system! The paper entitled “PLANET HUNTERS. VIII. CHARACTERIZATION OF 41 LONG-PERIOD EXOPLANET CANDIDATES FROM KEPLER ARCHIVAL DATA” has been accepted for publication by the Astrophysical Journal. A preview paper can be found at the astro-ph archive: http://arxiv.org/abs/1512.02559. This work is made possible by many diligent and creative citizen scientists who are acknowledged on http://www.planethunters.org/#/acknowledgements.

The census of exoplanets is incomplete for orbital distances larger than 1 AU. In this new work, we present 41 long-period planet candidates in 38 systems identified by Planet Hunters based on Kepler archival data (Q0-Q17). Among them, 17 exhibit only one transit, 14 have two visible transits and 10 have more than three visible transits. The majority of the planet candidates in this work (75%) have orbital periods that correspond to distances of 1-3 AU from their host stars. In comparison, Earth and Mars are located at 1 and 1.5 AU, respectively. With the help of hundreds of thousands of eyes of planet hunters, we are starting to probe exoplanets at Mars distance and beyond.

The majority of these new planet candidates have 1-2 visible transits during Kepler’s 4.5 years’ life time and were therefore not prioritized by the automatic Kepler planet search pipeline, which requires at least 3 visible transits. These discoveries from the Planet Hunters project are complementary to the discoveries by the Kepler mission that focuses on planets located in and interior to the habitable zones of stars. The following figure best illustrates this point. The yellow points are previous PH detections and the red points are discoveries from the latest paper. We are pushing the limit for long-period planets that can be detected by the transit method!

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.25.33 PM

We conducted follow-up imaging and spectroscopic observations to validate and characterize planet host stars. These observations took place at some of the world’s biggest optical telescopes, including the two Keck 10-m telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the 200-inch Hale telescope at the Palomar observatory, and a fully-robotic adaptive optics instrument, Robo-AO. In total, we obtained adaptive optics images for 33 stars to search for possible blending sources. We obtain high-resolution spectra for 6 stars to determine their physical properties. Thanks to these follow-up observations, 7 planet candidates have been validated including 3 planets with just a single transit (KIC-3558849c, KIC-5951458b, and KIC-8540376d), 3 planets with two transits (KIC-8540376c, KIC-9663113c, and KIC- 10525077b), and 1 planet with 4 transits (KIC-5437945c).

This work provides new information about the existence of additional planets at even wider separations. More than half of the long-period planets with at least three transits in this paper exhibit transit timing variations up to 41 hours, which suggest additional components that dynamically interact with the transiting planet candidates The long transiting timing variation, surpassing those of any previously known systems, elevates some discoveries in this work as truly exceptional. This was highlighted in the following quote from the paper: “Four systems have synodic transiting timing variation larger than 20 hours, making them the “queens” of transit variations as opposed to the 12-hr “king” system KOI-142.”

We now have more than 260,000 users and have analyzed more than 20,000,000 30-day light curves. The focus of the Planet Hunters now includes the K2 mission, and we expect that citizen scientists will find many more exciting and unexpected discoveries with the K2 data.

Hot Friends of Hot Jupiters: The WASP-47 system

Ever since a mechanical failure caused the end of the original Kepler mission in 2013, the Kepler spacecraft has been conducting a survey of new stars, searching for planets across the ecliptic plane in its new K2 mission (https://blog.planethunters.org/2014/12/12/more-about-the-k2-campaign-0/). The K2 dataset is a goldmine of fascinating science results. One such result is the recent discovery of two new planets in the WASP-47 system.

Until a few months ago, everyone knew that hot Jupiter planets don’t have “friends”, or nearby small planets in close orbits to the host star. These other planets had been searched for extensively, through radial velocity measurements, analysis of the transit times of the hot Jupiters, and even through transits by Kepler during its original mission. All of these searches turned up nothing.

This all changed one day last July, when Hans Martin Schwengeler, a Planet Hunter who enjoys poring over Kepler and K2 data searching for new transiting planets by eye, came across the telltale signatures of two extra transiting planets in the hot Jupiter system WASP-47. WASP 47b was, by all indications, a perfectly normal hot Jupiter — in the discovery paper, Coel Hellier wrote “With an orbital period of 4.16 days, a mass of 1.14 Jupiter masses, and a radius of 1.15 Jupiter radii, WASP-47b is an entirely typical hot Jupiter”. The discovery of additional transiting planets dramatically changed the narrative.

When Hans came across the planets, he posted them to the Planet Hunters forum, where he and other citizen scientists discuss their findings. Andrew Vanderburg came across the post suggesting that a known hot Jupiter had planetary companions. Using his K2 data reduction pipeline (https://blog.planethunters.org/2015/01/08/a-recipe-for-making-a-k2-light-curve/), he analyzed the light curve and confirmed Hans’s discovery – there were additional planets in the system, a super-Earth at a 0.8 day period and a Neptune at a 9 day period!

Andrew emailed me, and at first I hardly believed that the lightcurve was real. How could a hot Jupiter have close-in planetary companions? I knew people had been looking for this type of companion for years via both photometry and transit timing variations, but the lack of discoveries indicated that they might not exist. I performed some numerical stability simulations (because it seemed at first like this system could not be dynamically stable!) and sure enough, the N-body simulations showed that the system was likely stable on timescales of 10 million years.

At that point, we formed a team with Hans, Andrew, MIT Professor Saul Rappaport, University of Michigan Professor Fred Adams (my advisor!), and me. Once this team was formed, we devoted ourselves to understanding as much about the systems as we could. Some work by Saul and Andrew confirmed that the planets were all orbiting the same star, Andrew fit the lightcurve to get the planet properties, and I ran more stability simulations. Soon enough, Fred suggested that I look at what transit timing variations (or TTVs, which happen when transits come late or early because of the gravity of other planets in the system) we would theoretically expect to see from the system – and I found that for the outer two planets, the TTVs should be observable.

I then measured the TTVs from the lightcurve, and sure enough – there was something there. After some discussion, we realized we could measure the masses of the planets from those TTVs! Though I had never done dynamical fits before, I wrote the code to utilize Kat Deck’s TTVFAST code in a Markov Chain Monte Carlo fit. With some advice from Kat and help from Fred, I eventually got the fits working and we were able to measure or put limits on the masses of each planet.

In a little less than two weeks, we had put together a paper deriving planet properties from the lightcurve, mass limits from the TTVs, and showing that you CAN detect companions to hot Jupiters using TTVs!

This result is exciting because it is the very first time a hot Jupiter has been found to have such close-in other planets. Before this discovery, it was unclear if hot Jupiter could have nearby friends, as they might destabilize the friends’ orbits during migration. This discovery opens up new questions about how these systems form – it is possible that there is more than one migration mechanism for hot Jupiters.

The paper on WASP-47 and its new companions, which was published earlier this week in ApJ Letters and is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1508.02411, was a collaboration between myself (Juliette Becker, a graduate student at the University of Michigan), graduate student Andrew Vanderburg (Harvard CfA), Professor Fred Adams (the University of Michigan), Professor Saul Rappaport (MIT), and Hans Schwengeler (a citizen scientist).

 

NameExoWorlds – Last Week to Vote!

The last votes are nearly cast, get in before it is too late! On October 31, the IAU is closing voting on NameExoWorlds.org. So make sure to case your vote.

Planet Hunters submitted a naming option for PSR1257+12 (Photo, Lofio, Xekiní̱ste, Amydrós) please help us by voting!

Comets or Aliens?

Let’s deal with the big question first. Has Planet Hunters discovered aliens?

The answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that all of the press who have written about us in the last 48 hours, sending a flood of volunteers to the site, are completely misguided. Let me backtrack…

A few weeks ago we submitted the ninth planet hunters paper to the journal, and that paper is now available on the arXiv service. Led by Tabetha Boyajian at Yale, it describes a rather unusual system (what the Atlantic called the most interesting star in the Galaxy), which was identified by Planet Hunters, four of whom (Daryll, Kian, Abe, Sam) are named on the paper*. They spotted a series of transits – which is normally what signifies the presence of a planet – but these were unusual.

The star’s light dimmed for a long period of time, loosing a fifth of its brightness for days or even months at a time. More mysteriously, the duration of the dips was not always the same, so this couldn’t possibly be a planet. This behaviour is unique amongst the more than a hundred thousand stars studied by Kepler – we have a bone fide mystery on our hands.I think the team’s immediate thoughts were that it must be the star itself that’s misbehaving, but stars aren’t known to behave like this and some careful follow up reveals it to be nothing more than a normal F-type star, slightly hotter and more massive than the Sun. So it’s not the star, and we’re sure too that it’s not Kepler itself misbehaving; something is really blocking the light from this star.One option is a disk of dust around the star. It’s from such disks that planets form (see DiskDetectives.org for more on this!) and so that wouldn’t be too surprising. Yet enough dust to cause the deep eclipses we see would glow brightly in the infrared, and there’s no sign of a strong infrared source around this star.

You can read the paper to find out what else we considered, but we think the best explanation is that there is a group of exocomets in orbit around the star. Comets are an appealing scenario to invoke because they would be faint in the infrared, and because they move on elliptical orbits, accounting for the random timing of the transits and their different lengths. Such a group of comets could have come from the breakup of a larger object, leaving a cloud of smaller remnants in similar orbits behind.

Much detailed work is needed to flesh out the details of this (pleasingly outlandish!) scenario. One possibility is that the recent passage of a nearby star triggered the cometary bombardment whose effects we’re seeing. The paper is currently in the peer review process and there is – of course – the possibility that there is a perfectly sensible solution we haven’t yet considered. However, so  far over 100 professional scientists have had a look at the lightcurves and not managed to come up with a working solution.

One other proposed theory is that this pattern of behaviour is due to a fleet of alien spaceships in orbit around a star, a possibility considered by Jason Wright and collaborators here. Jason and co were tipped off about our discovery by the team, and it’s included in their paper as an object with ‘a bizarre light curve consistent with a “swarm” of megastructures’, much to the excitement of much of the internet. ‘Consistent with’ isn’t the same as ‘definitely is’, of course – and personally, my money is very firmly on the comet theory with a side bet on weird stellar behaviour – but until those models are properly investigated alien spaceships remain a possibility. The Wright paper points out this star is now a supremely interesting target for SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and we agree – I hope radio astronomers will go and listen for signals. We need more observations of transits in action, too, and will be trying to follow-up to try and work out what’s actually going on.In the meantime, who knows what else is lurking in the Kepler data? Planet Hunters is about finding planets, but this ability to identify the weird and unusual is one of the project’s great advantages. Get clicking at http://www.planethunters.org, and let us know through Talk if you find anything a little odd.

Chris

* – This isn’t the final version of the paper, and we have more names to mention too before we’re done.

New Horizons visits Pluto!

Today’s blog post is from Dr. Michelle Collins, a Hubble Fellow working at Yale.

After 9 years, 3 billion miles, a Jupiter fly by, and some of the most complex route calculations ever implemented, New Horizons reached its destination a couple of weeks ago on July 14th. This NASA probe went whizzing by our distant, dwarf planet neighbour Pluto at a dizzying speed of 31,000 mph, and has already provided us with a wealth of spectacular images, data and science. It will continue to spew out incredible discoveries about Pluto over the coming 16 months or so, as the flyby data trickles back to us.

To say that this space probe has revolutionized our view of this failed planet is a giant understatement. Pluto has long been an elusive, poorly understood system, hovering on the periphery of our solar system. It was discovered back in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, an American working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona. Due to some miscalculations of the mass of Neptune, it was initially believed that Pluto was a massive planet, at least as big as the Earth, and possibly up to 4 times the size of our home planet. So naturally, it was classified as a planet. However, as the decades wore on, the mass of Pluto was revised downwards, finally lurching to a halt at a mass of only ~0.2% the mass of the Earth in 1978, much lighter than originally thought. With this extreme weight loss, and the discovery of similar size – and even more massive – dwarf planets in the solar system (particularly Eris, discovered in 2005), Pluto’s status as a planet was starting to raise some eyebrows. And so, in 2006, when the International Astronomical Union met to decide what the lower bound on a planet should be defined as, Pluto didn’t make the cut, and was relegated to a dwarf planet.

But, aside from it’s low mass, and controversial status as the only de-throned planet in the Solar System, what else did we know about Pluto, pre-New Horizons? Well, not very much, really. Given it’s huge distance (it’s orbit takes it anywhere between 2.7-4.8 billions miles from the Earth during a single Pluto year), it was hard for us to study Pluto in detail, or take a decent image of it, even with the Hubble Space Telescope. We knew it was an icy world, probably with a rocky core, and maybe underground oceans. It is mostly composed of Nitrogen, with some methane and carbon monoxide. It has an extended, tenuous atmosphere and 5 moons – Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. It is locked in a binary orbit with the largest of these, Charon. But the other, smaller moons appeared to us a little more than points of light in Hubble images. If we wanted to learn more about their composition, and that of Pluto itself, we’d need to get A LOT closer to Pluto. And so, New Horizons was constructed and launched on a mammoth journey on 19th January 2006 to our favorite minor planet to get a better look. It was the fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth, and even managed to image Jupiter and its moons as a bonus science project on its way out to Pluto.

Much of New Horizons journey was spent in hibernation (roughly 7 years), and it was finally awoken on December 6th 2014. From then on, it began imaging Pluto with its onboard cameras, LORRI (a high resolution reflection imager) and Ralph (a multi-filter, lower resolution camera and spectrograph). The combination of these two instruments provided us with incredibly detailed, color images of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, that got clearer and clearer the closer they got to Pluto. In the weeks before the flyby, we could see that Pluto is a red world, with complex geology. A huge, heart shaped ice plain could be seen on its surface (informally named Tombaugh Reggio after the man who discovered Pluto), and evenly spaced dark spots located on the opposite side of Pluto, which are the size of Missouri, surprised astronomers. Huge craters could also be seen, and regions that seemed surprisingly crater-free too. We also learned that Pluto is a little bigger than we thought, with a radius of 1473 miles, making it larger (though still less massive) than Eris. The sheer variety of surface features, not only on Pluto, but on Charon also, increased the anticipation of the New Horizons team as their target drew nearer, as it was clear that the high resolution flyby would provide them with a treasure trove of answers to the questions already forming.

Tensions were probably pretty high on the day of the flyby itself. After traveling 3 billion miles over 9 years, New Horizons needed to hit a window in space that was only 60×90 miles in size within 100 seconds of its predicted arrival time, otherwise it would miss Pluto. But the orbital calculations were bang on, and New Horizons was able to complete its full range of observations of Pluto and Charon, as well as taking detailed images of Pluto’s 4 other moons. Over the course of a few hours, New Horizons made high resolution maps of segments of both Pluto and Charon, with a maximum resolution of 60 meters per pixel. With that level of detail, you’d be able to count the ponds in central park! In addition to these maps, New Horizons also used several instruments – Alice, REX, PEPSSI and SWAP – to study the atmosphere of Pluto.

So, what else do we know about Pluto now? TONS! For example, the high resolution mapping of Pluto has shown us ice flows on the surface, and evidence for recent geological activity, such as cryovolcanism, which is completely unexpected for such a low mass object that isn’t orbiting a more massive planet. It also has huge mountains ranges, that tower up to 11,000 ft above the surrounding plains. These are most likely composed of water ice.

We also know more about Pluto’s atmosphere. For one thing, the solar wind appears to be stripping it away from Pluto, resulting in a cometary tail-like feature. It also has a hazy quality, where gaseous methane molecules are irradiated by UV light, causing them to condense into complex hydrocarbon molecules known as tholins, which are responsible for the reddish color of Pluto. Its atmosphere also seems to have a lower pressure than previously measured, and could imply that half of it is freezing out and condensing back onto the surface as Pluto segues into its colder season.

We also have high resolution maps of Charon, Pluto’s binary companion. It too, has a geologically young surface, which is totally unexpected for such a small moon. It has a complex set of cliffs, troughs and canyons whose sizes eclipse the Grand Canyon here on Earth. These are thought to be signs of fractured crust on the moon, caused by internal processes. It also has an extended, diffuse dark spot at its pole, informally named ‘Mordor’.

Speaking of moons, we’ve also received the most detailed images of Nix and Hydra from New Horizons. Nix is jelly bean-shaped, approximately 22×26 miles in size, and seems to have a large red spot on one of its faces which may be a crater. Hydra has an irregular shape, that has been compared to the state of Michigan and is about 34 miles in length. It too shows signs of cratering.

And this is only the beginning. There’s much more to come over the next year, and we’re highly anticipating the first ever images of the other 2 Pluto moons, Styx and Kerberos, which should be downloaded in October. There’s more to learn about the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon, with detailed spectroscopy coming in from the Ralph instrument, and more to come on the atmosphere too. So stay tuned to NASA for updates. New Horizons and Pluto have plenty more surprises in store for us, as we learn just how complex and awesome dwarf planets can be.

Update from Jay Pasachoff’s Pluto Occultation program

Today’s guest blogger, Jay Pasachoff, gives us an update (as of July 1, 2015) on his exciting occultation program, first described on May 26, 2015.  This is the wild west of astronomy!

Observations of the occultation of June 29, 2015, were very successful both from the ground and from the air.  My team has a wonderful light curve from the Mt. John University Observatory in New Zealand; we were close enough to the center of the path that the light curve showed a central peak (a “central flash”), a focusing of starlight as it passed around Pluto, that allowed probing very low in Pluto’s atmosphere.  Other teams had light curves from elsewhere in New Zealand and from Tasmania.  NASA’s instrumented SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), with its 2.5-m telescope mirror, recorded excellent light curves from high altitude above New Zealand.  The views of this occultation will provide excellent comparisons with the ultraviolet and radio occultation results that should be provided by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft about two weeks later. Further, the long-term run of occultation studies should provide context for the high-quality snapshot view of Pluto’s atmosphere that New Horizons should provide.