The world’s first commercial astronomical mission, Twinkle, is gaining traction among exoplanet explorers as it takes steps to launch in 2024 with funding to start building a satellite early next year.
In 2014, when postdoc astronomy at University College London (UCL) Marcell Tesseny first came up with the idea of developing the world’s first commercial astronomical mission, he knew he would have to overcome a lot of resistance. For decades, government-funded space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been responsible for costly 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, private exoplanet observer Twinkle is supported by more than 10 universities around the world, has received ESA funding and will soon be built by European aerospace giant Airbus.
Connected: Exoplanets: worlds beyond our solar system
For Tesseña, exoplanets were love at first sight. But when he decided to pursue this interest during his doctoral dissertation. in astronomy at the University of California, he found that the study of strange worlds orbiting distant stars was clouded by obstacles. NASA Kepler Space Telescope Then he often appeared in the news, discovering hundreds of new exoplanets, but there was no convenient tool that would allow you to learn more about them.
Frustrated by the lack of progress in this area, and also disappointed when ESA turned down a proposal from UCL for a new exoplanet mission in 2014, Tessegni approached his leaders Jonathan Tennyson and Giovanna Tinneti with the idea of performing space missions differently – like in business.
“My PhD was on understanding the technical requirements for satellites to be able to comprehensively observe the atmosphere of exoplanets so that we can begin to build a real understanding of what these planets are made of,” Tesseñi told Space. com. “There were only a few measurements taken at that time. Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescopebut there were all sorts of limitations in the data because these satellites were not built to observe exoplanets. “
The Hubble problem
Both the Hubble veteran and Spitzer, who retired in January 2020, were conceived before the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992. It was only through clever technical tricks that astronomers were able to tune the signal returning from these spaceships to gather some information about these distant objects. planet, Tessenyi added.
However, the picture gleaned from these meager datasets was spectacular: giant gas spheres with temperatures in excess of 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius) (have since been called hot jupiters), planets made of diamond, but also Terrestrial planets in which there can be life. However, the information was not only scarce, but also incomplete, giving only the shortest idea of the nature of these mysterious worlds and leaving many questions open.
“Hubble can perform spectroscopic measurements that separate light into different colors when it looks at distant targets,” Tesseni said. “This tells us something about the different types of chemical compounds in exoplanet atmospheres. But Hubble can only do this for a limited range of wavelengths, so there is always uncertainty. We don’t know for sure what we are looking at. … “
Scientific progress was hampered not only by data gaps, but also by the fact that the growing community of exoplanets had to compete for time on Hubble (and Spitzer too) with scientists studying all sorts of other astronomical phenomena. However, Tesseni said the scientific community was initially reluctant to accept the idea of Twinkle, the world’s first privately funded astronomical mission based on the desire for the rapid development and low cost of a new space.
New model for astronomy
“The technical and scientific aspects of this project were relatively simple,” Tessegni said. “The more difficult component was skepticism coming from many different people in the community because it was a completely new model.”
Tessensky decided to create a company called Blue sky in space with himself as CEO and his former executives Tennyson and Tinneti on the board as chairman and chief scientist. The startup intended to raise funding from private sponsors to sell scientific data in the same way as Spacex sells trips to the space station or Planet sells images of the Earth.
British small satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) got on board early and helped validate the mission’s design. Gradually, the skepticism of scientists began to dissipate.
“Over the years, we have spoken at various conferences and lectured to hundreds of scientists,” Richard Archer, Blue Skies Space’s partner in charge of developing partnerships, told Space.com. “Often we see scientists from other fields, such as solar system science, who are interested in the possibilities of our mission. They are interested in joining the project and helping us shape the mission. “
Blue Skies Space signed its 10th client last year, which Tessegni says is a milestone, and plans to start metal welding in the first quarter of 2022.
Approximately 10% of the cost of an average space agency mission, £ 770. According to Tesseni, Twinkle, with its 20-inch (50 centimeter) telescope (350 kg), will be able to perform spectroscopic measurements of exoplanets with the same precision as the 31-year-old giant Hubble. But the company already envisions a future beyond Twinkle.
“We’re a commercial data service provider,” Tessegni said. “Universities can buy subscriptions to our satellites and access datasets that they would not otherwise be able to get. We will strive to recoup the cost of the satellite and, if we are successful, use the proceeds from the sale of satellite data to get started. co-financing the second generation of satellites to deliver a whole series of satellites in the long term.
Cheops, Plato, Ariel (and others)
The appetite for Twinkle data has not been affected by the many new and upcoming exoplanet missions announced in recent years, Tesseni said. Inexpensive mission of ESA CheopsFor example, orbiting at an altitude of 430 miles (700 kilometers) like Twinkle, only the basic characteristics of exoplanets, such as their density and size, can be measured.
The more PlatoExpected to launch two years after Twinkle, in 2026, it will mainly search for rocky planets in habitable zones around large stars. Only ArielExpected to launch no earlier than 2029, it will focus on the atmospheres of exoplanets such as Twinkle. James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch later this year, will also contribute to the study of exoplanets.
“Twinkle and Ariel will be able to answer more difficult questions,” Tesseni said. “Is there water in the atmosphere of exoplanets? Is there carbon monoxide? With this we can begin population studies, we can carry out comparative planetary science between our solar system and the exciting planets that have been discovered beyond it. “
In fact, Giovanna Tinneti, Tessegni’s former chief and Blue Skies Space’s chief scientist, is also the principal investigator for Ariel’s mission.
“Ariel is a much larger and more expensive satellite that will be placed in a more optimal orbit,” Tessenyi said.
Ariel’s mission will indeed benefit from Twinkle doing an initial analysis of promising stars, which can then be used to help Ariel focus on the most interesting targets.
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