On Wednesday NASA made headlines by announcing that researchers had detected seven exoplanets orbiting a dim dwarf star.  These exoplanets are determined, based on measurements, to be approximately Earth-sized solid planets and three happen to fall in the “Goldilocks Zone” where water could exist in liquid form; not too hot, not too cold.  Lots of people started speculating that in a few years we’ll find out if one of those planets harbors life.  However that is just plain crazy-talk.  The importance of this discover is that complex exoplanet systems do exist; the Solar System is not an exception, and that life is also not an exception.

The TRAPPIST-1 system

The TRAPPIST-1 system contains a total of seven planets, all around the size of Earth. Three of them — TRAPPIST-1e, f and g — dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone.” [NASA/JPL]

0.60m Ritchey-Chrétien Reflector [TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South / ESO]

0.60m Ritchey-Chrétien Reflector [TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South / ESO]

The TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South made the discovery back in May 2016 of three exoplanets around the small star.  But it was with the help of larger telescopes and the space-based Spitzer telescope that the count increased to seven and their orbits could be confirmed.  What I find interesting is the initial discover was done by a relatively “small” 0.60m telescope.  OK not your typical backyard astronomy gear, but scale that down by 1/3 and you have equivalent optics for about $3000.  Add a mount and CCD and for $10,000 you could probably have your very own exoplanet hunter!

Back to the crazy-talk of finding life in this exoplanet system… Anyone who has studied the history and formation of the Solar System knows that there have been a series of unlikely events that have led to where we are today.  Starting with the Sun, probably a 3rd generation star, where heavy elements like Calcium and Iron necessary for life as we know it were produced by previous stars and supernovas that used to exist in this spot of the galaxy we now occupy.  All elements beyond Hydrogen are produced by stars, either through fusion or when they dramatically explode as supernovas.  The atoms making up the air, the trees, the oceans, ourselves were not created in our Solar System during its formation.  The Sun is currently only generating Helium and Lithium out of Hydrogen through the wonders of fusion.  All the heavier atoms within us were created by previous stars that no longer exist.  Hence for solid Earth-like exoplanets to exists there needs to have been one to two previous generation of stars in the region.

An alien race observing our Solar System would surely first spot Jupiter.  One could almost say that it characterizes our home in this part of the galaxy.  With its strong gravity this gas giant plays the vital role of neighborhood vacuum cleaner.  It is either mopping up or launching away asteroids and comets that would otherwise impact Earth, bringing relative calm to the inner Solar System.  If Earth was constantly bombarded by solar objects, there is no way that life could suitably evolve from slimy unicellular organisms.  It took 3 billion years for multi-cellular organisms to show up once life appeared on Earth.  If cataclysmic comet and asteroid impacts are a frequent occurrences, then there is little chance that complex organisms would come to be.

Looking at another element, TRAPPIST-1 is described as an ultra-cool dwarf star just shy of 40 light years from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  If we forget that it’s a fraction of our Sun’s size and brightness (hence heat generation), it is relatively young at 1 billion years old.  So while there may be three planets that could be habitable, life may not have even begun yet.  Our own Sun is 4.3 billion years old, and the animals we see around us have only been around for the last 14-16 million years.  So what could be in a 1 billion year old planetary system? Assuming all the ingredients are there for life to exist, you probably only have bacterial soup.

Now, my article was getting long, and I wanted to cover many more subjects, too many for a single article.  Hence I’ve decided to break them out into the EXOPLANET SERIES and will publish them over time.


Processing RAW Cassini Spacecraft Images

Did you know that you can get access to the latest RAW images from the Cassini spacecraft directly from the NASA and JPL website?  Not only will you have first look at some stunning images of Saturn, the rings and the Moons like this one below from January 16th.  Click the image below for more information from NASA/JPL on that specific photo.

Daphnis making waves - Cassini spacecraft Jan. 16, 2017 - JPL/NASA

Daphnis making waves – Cassini spacecraft Jan. 16, 2017 – JPL/NASA

But you can also download raw images to try your luck at processing.  For this exercise I selected these series of pictures of the strangely perfect hexagonal-shaped storm on Saturn’s north pole.

Downloaded raw image set

Downloaded raw image set

These are images taken with different filters by the wide field camera, and I noted in an Excel file some information on each image, most importantly which filter was used.  Both the narrow and wide CCD on Cassini operate with two filter wheels, hence each image will always list two filters.  For those surprised at the rather “small” 1 mega-pixel camera, keep in mind the spacecraft was launched nearly 20 years ago, and development started in the 1980s.

There is a very detailed document on how to use, calibrate and process the images found at the following link.  But for what I wanted (quick processing) I only needed to find out which filters were the closest to an RGB setup.

Cassini ISS Broadband Filters

Cassini ISS Broadband Filters

Luckily this is well documented, and found them with the BL1, RED and GRN filters.

The image below is a quick addition of those 3 respective images assigned to red, green and blue channels.  The resulting image would be somewhat near the real colours, but I did not take any time to calibrate, hence they are probably a little off…

Saturn with normal RGB assignment (close to real colours)
Saturn with normal RGB assignment (close to real colours)

I also decided to try something that would provide a little more contrast and dive a little into the atmosphere and went with a IR-Red-Blue for RGB assignment by using a one of the narrow-band filters.

Cassini ISS Narrow Band Filters

Cassini ISS Narrow Band Filters

Saturn with IR, Red and Blue for RGB assignment

Saturn with IR, Red and Blue for RGB assignment

Both images above have not be calibrated, stretch or adjusted other than combine the raw images from Cassini.

The NASA/JPL site even has a section for amateurs to submit their photos and host a gallery to see what others have done.

Cassini NASA/JPL site
Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) Data User Guide

JunoCam – Revealing Jupiter from New Angles

JunoCam onboard the Juno spacecraft is providing us with some great pictures of the Jupiter cloud top, but from the rarely seen polar angle.  Pretty much all spacecrafts that have visited Jupiter did so with a fly by along the equatorial plane, which is also the same plane we observe Jupiter here on Earth.  However with the Juno spacecraft, we now have a chance to enter into a polar orbit and take pictures of the polar regions.

Part of the reason behind JunoCam is to get the amateur astronomer community participating in selecting what parts of Jupiter the camera should be snapping pictures, and of processing the raw images.  The image below was captured by JunoCam during Juno’s 3rd swing around Jupiter at a distance of about 37,000km.  The south polar region is on the left.

Jupiter - December 11, 2016 JunoCam - Juno Spacecraft

NASA, JPL-Caltech, SwRI, MSSS; Processing: Damian Peach

The above was the PeriJove3 encounter (3rd pass), and voting on the next PeriJove4 will take place between January 19th and 23rd 2017.  This is where the community can propose and vote for Points of Interest to photograph with JunoCam during the rather quick (2 hours) close pass with Juno.  You can even submit images of Jupiter taken with your equipment to help plan the Points of Interest.

Ref: JunoMission

NASA Juno Mission Trailer: JOI


Space-thriller themed mission trailer

Secrets lie deep within Jupiter, shrouded in the solar system’s strongest magnetic field and most lethal radiation belts. On July 4, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will plunge into uncharted territory, entering orbit around the gas giant and passing closer than any spacecraft before. Juno will see Jupiter for what it really is, but first it must pass the trial of orbit insertion. For more information: http://www.nasa.gov/juno and http://missionjuno.swri.edu

ExoMars March 14th Lift Off, The Sign of a Earth-Mars Close Approach?

In the early in the morning of March 14th, 2016, a joint EASA-Roscosmos mission blasted off from Kazakhstan on top of a Proton launch vehicle.  The space vehicle will take 7 months traveling through space before arriving to Mars around October 19th.  The mission is actually composed of two vehicles, which will separate 3 days prior to the Mars arrival: Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, the later entering the martian atmosphere and landing on the surface.

ExoMars 2016 Launch campaign

ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

I wondered if the launch signaled an upcoming Earth-Mars close approach.  A space program wanting to reach Mars on a budget would select a launch date at a time when both planets are at their closest to reduce the fuel required, and time spent traveling through space.  Sure enough, the next Earth-Mars close approach is May 30, 2016, a few days after opposition of May 22nd.  An upcoming great opportunity to turn the telescope to Mars and hopefully capture some of the planet’s features.  Mars’ angular size varies from as little as 3.5″ to an easy observing 25.1″ which is quite dramatic.

Earth-Mars close approach happen roughly every 26 months, and often coincide to Mars missions launches.  The following list from NASA of recent Mars mission launches show a lovely two year interval.

2001:      Mars Odyssey
2003:      Mars Exploration Rovers
2005:      Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
2007:      Mars Phoenix Lander
2009:      (skipped opportunity)
2011:      Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover
2013:      MAVEN

The last one in 2013 was in November, hence a Mars 2016, 28 months later falls within that window of opportunity.  The ExoMars program actually has two space vehicles.  The next one is planned for… you guessed it 26 months later: May 2018 launch.


The Sun in Like You’ve Never Seen Before


A few weeks ago NASA released a video in stunning 4K quality showcasing some of the sharpest and most detailed views of the Sun at different wavelengths. These images were captured by NASA’S Solar Dynamic Observatory launched in space in 2010.

As stated in the introduction,  each minute of video takes 10hrs in the hands of specialists to process. Not too bad considering that I’ve sometimes spent hours to produce a single image.

Reference :NASA

Jupiter in 4k Ultra HD


NASA has just released a video rendered in 4K Ultra HD of Jupiter from images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Learn more about this video: http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/goddard/hubble-s-planetary-portrait-captures-new-changes-in-jupiter-s-great-red-spot