Ashley Baldwin tracks developments in astronomical imaging with a passion, making him a key source for me in keeping up with the latest developments. In this follow-up to his earlier story on interferometry, Ashley looks at the options beyond the James Webb Space Telescope, particularly those that can help in the exoplanet hunt. Coronagraph and starshade alternatives are out there, but which will be the most effective, and just as much to the point, which are likely to fly? Dr. Baldwin, a consultant psychiatrist at the 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust (Warrington, UK) and a former lecturer at Liverpool and Manchester Universities, gives us the overview, one that hints at great things to come if we can get these missions funded.
by Ashley Baldwin
Hubble is getting old.
It is due to be replaced in 2018 by the much larger James Webb Space Telescope. This is very much a compromise of what is needed in a wide range of astronomical and cosmological specialties, one that works predominantly in the infrared. The exoplanetary fraternity will get a portion of its (hoped for) ten year operating period. The JWST has coronagraphs on some of its spectrographs which will allow exoplanetary imaging but as its angular resolution is actually lower than Hubble, its main contribution will be to characterise the atmospheres of discovered exoplanets.
It is for this reason that the designers of TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) have made sure a lot of its most prolonged viewing will overlap with that of the JWST. Its ability to do this will depend on several factors such as the heat (infrared) the planet is giving out, its size and critically its atmospheric depth (the deeper the better) and the proximity of the planet in question. The longer the telescope has to “stop and stare” at its target planet the better, but we already know lots of other experts want some of the telescope’s precious time, so this will be a big limiting factor.
Planet Hunting in Space
The big question is, where are the dedicated exoplanet telescopes? NASA had a mission called WFIRST planned for the next decade, with the predominant aim of looking at dark matter. There was an add on for “micro-lensing” discovery of exoplanets that happened to pass behind further stars, getting magnified by the stars’ gravity and showing up as “blips” in the star’s spectrum. When the National Reconnaissance Mirrors (NRO) were recently donated to NASA, it was suggested that these could be used for WFIRST instead.
Being 2.4 m in diameter they would be much larger than the circa 1.5 m mirror originally proposed and would therefore make the mission more powerful, especially because by being “wide field” they would view far bigger areas of the sky, further increasing the mission’s potency. It was then suggested that the mission could be improved yet further by adding a “coronagraph” to the satellite’s instrument package. The savings made by using one of the “free” NRO mirrors would cover the coronagraph cost.
Coronagraphs block out starlight and were originally developed to allow astronomers to view the Sun’s atmosphere (safely!). Subsequently they have been placed in front of a telescope’s focal plane to cut out the light of more distant stars, thus allowing the much dimmer light of orbiting exoplanets to be seen. A decade of development at numerous research testbeds such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Princeton and at the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea has refined the device to a high degree. When starlight of all wavelengths strikes a planet it can be reflected directly into space, or absorbed to be re-emitted as thermal infrared energy. The difference between the amount of light emitted by planets versus stars is many orders of magnitude in the infrared compared to the visible, so for this reason telescopes looking to visualise exoplanets do so in the infrared. The difference is still a billion times or so.
Thus the famous “firefly in the searchlight “metaphor. Any coronagraph must cut out infrared to the tune of a billion times or more for an exoplanet to first be seen and then analysed spectroscopically. The latter is crucial as it tells us about the planet and its atmosphere according to the factors described above. This light reduction technique is called “high contrast imaging” with the reduction described according to negative powers of ten. Typically a billion times reduction is simplified to 10e9. This level of reduction should allow Jupiter size planets, ice giants like Neptune and, at a push, “super earths”. To visualise Earth like, terrestrial planets, an extra order of magnitude, 10e10 or better is necessary.
Image: A coronagraph at work. This infrared image was taken at 1.6 microns with the Keck 2 telescope on Mauna Kea. The star is seen here behind a partly transparent coronagraph mask to help bring out faint companions. The mask attenuates the light from the primary by roughly a factor of 1000. The young brown dwarf companion in this image has a mass of about 32 Jupiter masses. The physical separation here is about 120 AU. Credit: B. Bowler/IFA.
The Emergence of WFIRST AFTA
Telescope aperture is not absolutely critical (with a long enough view), with even small metre-sized scopes able to see exoplanets with the correct coronagraph. The problem is the inner working angle or IWA. This represents how close to the parent star its light is effectively blocked, allowing imaging with minimal interference. Conversely, the outer working angle, OWA , determines how far away from the star a planet can be seen. The IWA is particularly important for seeing and characterising planets in the habitable zone (HBZ) of sun-like stars. By necessity it will need to shrink as the HBZ shrinks, as with M dwarfs, which would obviously make direct imaging of any terrestrial planets discovered in the habitable zones of TESS discoveries very difficult. For bigger stars with wider HBZs obviously the IWA will be less of an issue.
So all of this effectively made a new direct imaging mission, WFIRST AFTA. Unfortunately the NRO mirror was not made for this sort of purpose. It is a Cassegrain design, a so-called “on axis” telescope with the focal plane in line with the primary mirror’s incoming light, with the secondary mirror reflecting its light back through a hole in the primary to whatever science analysis equipment is required. In WFIRST AFTA this would mainly be a spectrograph.
The coronagraph would have to be at the focal plane and along with the secondary mirror, would further obscure the light striking the primary. It would also need squeezing between the “spider’ wires that support the secondary mirror (these give the classic ‘Christmas tree star’ images we are all familiar with in common telescopes).
Two coronagraphs are under consideration that should achieve an image contrast ratio of 10 to the minus 9, which is good enough to view Jupiter-sized planets. Every effort is being made to improve on this and to get down to a level where terrestrial planets can be viewed. Difficult and expensive, but far from impossible. Obviously, WFIRST has quite easily the biggest mirror of the options under consideration by NASA and hence the greatest light intake and imaging range. It could also be possible to put the necessary equipment on board to allow it to use a starshade at a later date. The original WFIRST budget came in at $1.6 billion but that was before NASA came under increasing political pressure on the JWST’s (huge) overspend.
An independent review of cost suggested WFIRST would come in at over $2 billion. Understandably concerned about the potential for “mission creep”, seen with the JWST development, NASA put the WFIRST AFTA design on hold until the budgetary statement of 2017, with no new building commencing until JWST launched. So whatever is eventually picked, 2023 will be the earliest launch date. Same old story, but limited costs sometimes lead to innovation. In the meantime, NASA commissioned two “Probe” class alternative back up concepts to be considered in the “light” of the budgetary statement.
Exoplanet Telescope Alternatives
The first of these is EXO-C. This consists of a 1.5 m “off axis” telescope ( the primary mirror is angled so that the focal plane and secondary mirror are at the side of the telescope and don’t obscure the primary, thus increasing its light gathering ability). There are potential imaging issues with such scopes so they cost more to build. EXO-C has a coronagraph and a spectrograph away from the optical plane. The issue for this concept is which coronagraph to choose. There are many designs, tested over a decade or more with the current “high contrast imaging”( see above) level between 10e9 and 10e10. So EXo-C is relatively low risk and should at a push be able to even see some Earth or Super-Earth planets in the HBZs of some nearby stars, as well as lots of “Jupiters”.
The other Probe mission, even more exciting, is EXO-S. This involves combining a self propelled “on axis” 1.1m telescope with a “starshade”. The starshade is a flower-like (it even has petals) satellite — the choice of a flower shape rather than a round configuration reduces image-spoiling “Fresnel” diffraction from the starshade edges. The shade sits between the telescope and the star to be examined for planets. It casts a shadow in space within which the telescope propels itself to the correct distance for observation (several thousands of kms).
Like a coronagraph, the starshade cuts out the star’s light, but without the difficulty of squeezing an extra device into the telescope. The hard bit is that both telescope and shade need to have radio or laser communication to achieve EXACT positioning throughout the telescopic “stare” to be successful, requiring tight formation flying. The telescope carries propellant for between 3 and 5 years. With several days for moving into position, this is around 100 or so separate stop and stares. The shade concept means two devices instead of one although they can be squeezed into one conventional launch vehicle, to separate at a later point in the mission.
Image: The starshade concept in action. Credit: NASA/JPL.
The good news is that with a starshade the inner working angle is dependent on the telescope starshade distance rather than the telescope. The price of this is that the further apart the two are, the greater the precision placement required. The distances involved depend on the size of the starshade. For EXO-S’ 35 m starshade, this is in excess of thirty seven thousand kilometres. EXO-S, despite its small mirror size, will be able to view and spectrographically characterise terrestrial planets around suitable nearby stars and Jupiter-sized planets considerably further out.
Achieving Space Interferometry
“Formation flying” of telescopes is an entirely new concept that hasn’t been tried before, so potentially more risky, especially as its development is way behind that of coronagraph telescopes. If it works, though, it opens the gate to fantastic discovery in a much wider area than EXO-S. This is just the beginning. If you can get two spacecraft to fly in formation, why not 3 or 30 or even more? In the recent review I wrote for Centauri Dreams on heterodyne interferometers, I described how 30 or so large telescopes could be linked up to deliver the resolution of an telescope with an aperture equivalent to the largest gap between the unit scopes of the interferometer (a diluted aperture). The number of scopes increases light intake ( the brightness of the image) and “baselines” , the gap between constituent scopes in the array, delivering detail across the diluted aperture of the interferometer.
We’re in early days here, but this is heading in the direction of an interferometer in space with resolution orders of magnitude larger than any New Worlds telescope. A terrestrial planet finder yes, but more important, with a good spectrograph, a terrestrial planet characteriser interferometer. TPC-I. To actually “see” detail on an exoplanet would require hundreds of large space telescopes spread over hundreds of kilometers, so that’s one for Star Trek. Detailed atmospheric characterisation, however, is almost as good and not so far in the future if EXO-S gets the go ahead and the Planet Formation Imager evolves on the ground before migrating into space. All roads lead to space.
As an addendum, EXO-S has a yet to be described back-up that could best be seen as WFIRST AFTA-S. Here the starshade has the propulsive system, but the telescope is made from the NRO 2.4 m mirror, thus making the device potentially the most potent of the three designs. Having the drive system on the starshade, along with a radio connector to the telescope, is a concept even newer than the conventional EXO-S . But it is potentially feasible. We await a cost from the final reports the design concept groups need to submit.
In the meantime, various private ventures such as the BoldlyGo Institute run by Jon Morse, formerly of NASA, are hoping to fund and launch a 1.8 m off-axis telescope with BOTH an internal coronagraph AND a starshade. Sadly, the two methods have been found not to work in combination, but obviously a coronagraph telescope can look at stars while its starshade moves into position, increasing critical viewing time over a 3 year mission.
By way of comparison, coronagraphs can and have been used increasingly effectively on ground-based scopes such as Gemini South. It is believed that thanks to atmospheric interference the best contrast image achievable, even with one of the new ELTs being built, will be around 10 to the minus 9, so thanks to their huge light gathering capacity, they too might just discover terrestrial planets around nearby stars but probably not in the HBZ.
The future holds exciting developments. Tantalisingly close. In the meantime, it is important to keep up the momentum of development. The two Probe design groups recognise that their ideas, whilst capable of exciting science as well as just “proof of concept”, are a long way short of what could and should be done. The JWST for all its overspend will hopefully be a resounding success and act as a pathfinder for a large, 16 m plus New Worlds telescope that will start the exoplanet characterisation that will be completed by TPC-I. Collapsible, segmented telescopes will be shown to fit into and work from available launch vehicles, such as the upcoming Space Launch system (SLS), or one of the new Falcon Heavy rockets. New materials such as silicon carbide will reduce telescope costs. The lessons learned from JWST will make such concepts economically viable and deliver ground-shaking findings.
How ironic if would be if we discover other life in another star system before we find it in our own !