The world’s first commercial astronomy mission, Twinkle, is gaining traction among exoplanet researchers as it moves towards launch in 2024 with funding secured to begin construction of the satellite early in the year. next year.
In 2014, when Marcell Tessenyi, a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at University College London (UCL), came up with the idea of developing the world’s first commercial astronomy mission, he knew he would have to overcome a lot of resistance. For decades, government-funded space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) were in charge of expensive space telescope projects that took decades to develop and cost billions of dollars.
The model didn’t always work well for the scientific community, but that was all they knew. Seven years later, the private exoplanet Observer Twinkle is supported by more than 10 universities around the world, has received funding from ESA and will soon be built by European aerospace giant Airbus.
Related: Exoplanets: worlds beyond our solar system
For Tessenyi, exoplanets were love at first sight. But when he decided to pursue this interest during his doctorate. in astronomy at UCL, he discovered that the study of strange worlds orbiting distant stars was fraught with obstacles. NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope was in the news frequently at the time, discovering hundreds of new exoplanets, but there was no handy tool that would allow us to learn more about them.
Frustrated by the lack of progress on the ground, and also disappointed when in 2014 ESA turned down a UCL proposal for a new exoplanet mission, Tessenyi approached his supervisors Jonathan Tennyson and Giovanna Tinneti with an idea to do space missions differently – like a business.
“My PhD was aimed at understanding what the technical requirements are for satellites to globally observe the atmospheres of exoplanets so that we can begin to understand what these planets are made of,” Tessenyi told Space. com. “At that time, there were only a few measurements that were carried out by the The Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, but there were all kinds of limitations in the data because these satellites weren’t built to observe exoplanets. “
The problem with Hubble
The veteran Hubble and Spitzer, retired in January 2020, had been designed before the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1992. It was only through clever technical tricks that astronomers were able to modify the signal returning from these spacecraft to glean information about these distant planets, Tessenyi added.
Nonetheless, the picture emerging from these rare datasets was captivating: giant spheres of gas at over 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius) hot (since dubbed Hot Jupiters)planets made of diamond, but also Earth-like planets which could shelter life. However, in addition to being scarce, the information was also incomplete, providing only a brief glimpse into the nature of these mysterious worlds and leaving many questions open.
“Hubble can take spectroscopic measurements, which divide light into different colors, when it looks at distant targets,” Tessenyi said. “It tells us something about the different types of chemical compounds in the atmosphere of exoplanets. But Hubble can only do this for a limited range of wavelengths, so there is always some uncertainty. certainty what we are looking at. “
It’s not only the data gaps that have hampered scientific progress, but also the fact that the growing community of exoplanets has had to compete for time on Hubble (and Spitzer too) with scientists studying all kinds of others. astronomical phenomena. Still, Tessenyi said the scientific community was initially reluctant to embrace the idea of Twinkle, the world’s first privately funded astronomy mission based on the New Space philosophy of rapid, low-cost development.
A new model for astronomy
“The technical and scientific aspects of this project were relatively easy,” Tessenyi said. “The most difficult part was the skepticism that came from many different people in the community initially, because this was an entirely new model.”
Tessenyi decided to create a company called Blue Sky Space with himself as CEO and his former supervisors Tennyson and Tinneti on the board as chairman and chief scientist. The start-up has sought to attract funding from private donors in order to sell scientific data just like EspaceX sells trips to the space station or Planet sells Earth observation images.
UK small satellite maker Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) got involved early on and helped validate the mission design. Gradually, the skepticism of scientists began to fade.
“Over the years, we have spoken at various conferences and lectured to hundreds of scientists,” Richard Archer, head of partnership development at Blue Skies Space, told Space.com. “Frequently, we see scientists from other fields, such as solar system science, taking an interest in the capabilities of our mission. They are interested in joining the project and helping us shape the mission. “
Last year, Blue Skies Space signed its 10th customer, a milestone according to Tessenyi, and plans to start welding metal in the first quarter of 2022.
At about 10% of the cost of an average space agency mission, the 770 pounds. (350 kilograms) Twinkle with its 20-inch (50-centimeter) telescope will be able to make spectroscopic measurements of exoplanets as accurately as the 31-year-old giant Hubble, according to Tessenyi. But the company is already considering a future beyond Twinkle.
“We are a commercial provider of a data service,” Tessenyi said. “Universities can buy a subscription to our satellites and access datasets that they might not otherwise be able to get. co-finance the second generation of a satellite with the aim of delivering a whole series of satellites in the long term. “
Cheops, Plato, Ariel (and the others)
Twinkle’s appetite for data is, according to Tessenyi, unaffected by the multitude of new and upcoming exoplanet missions that have been heralded in recent years. ESA’s low-cost Khéops mission, for example, orbiting at an altitude of 430 miles (700 kilometers) just like Twinkle, can only measure basic characteristics of exoplanets such as their density and size.
The biggest Plato, which is slated to launch two years after Twinkle, in 2026, will primarily seek out rocky planets in habitable areas around large stars. Only Ariel, scheduled for launch no earlier than 2029, will focus on atmospheres of exoplanets, such as Twinkle. James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch later this year, will also contribute to the science of exoplanets.
“Twinkle and Ariel will be able to answer more complex questions,” Tessenyi said. “Is there water in the atmosphere of exoplanets? Is there carbon monoxide? With this we can start doing population studies, we can do comparative planetology between our solar system and the exciting planets that have been discovered outside. “
In fact, Giovanna Tinneti, the former supervisor of Tessenyi and chief scientist of Blue Skies Space, is also a principal investigator of the Ariel mission.
“Ariel is a much larger and more expensive satellite that will be located in a more optimal orbit,” Tessenyi said.
The Ariel mission will actually benefit Twinkle, performing an initial analysis of promising stars that could then be used to help Ariel focus on the more interesting targets.
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