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NASA Selects MIT-led TESS Project for 2018 Mission
Excerpted from an MIT News office story | MIT News
This spring NASA selected MIT’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) project, co-led by EAPS professor of planetary science and resident exoplanet expert Sara Seager, for a planned launch in 2018. TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering four hundred times as much sky as previous missions. Expected to identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, a special focus will be on planets comparable in size to the Earth.
TESS relies upon a number of innovations developed by the MIT team over the past seven years. In particular the TESS team was able to devise a special new ‘Goldilocks’ orbit for the spacecraft — one which is not too close, and not too far, from both the Earth and the moon. As a result, every two weeks TESS approaches close enough to the Earth for high data-downlink rates, while remaining above the planet’s harmful radiation belts. This special orbit will remain stable for decades, keeping TESS’s sensitive cameras in a dependable temperature range.
With TESS, it will be possible to study the masses, sizes, densities, orbits, and atmospheres of a large cohort of small planets, including a sample of rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars. TESS will provide prime targets for further characterization by the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as other large ground-based and space-based telescopes of the future.
The Secret Lives of Researchers: Head in the Clouds
Excerpted from a story by Sarvesh Garimella | EAPS
How clouds behave in Earth’s climate system remains one of the largest sources of uncertainty in climate science today. EAPS graduate student Sarvesh Garimella uses laboratory studies and models to look at how aerosol particles interact with water vapor in the atmosphere to form different types of clouds.
Considered in isolation, atmospheric aerosols tend to have a net cooling effect on the climate system since they reflect and scatter incoming solar radiation, preventing it from reaching the planet’s surface. However, when these particles interact with water they form clouds, which can either cool or warm the Earth since they can reflect light back to space as well as prevent heat from escaping the Earth.
Such aerosols are extremely abundant in Earth’s atmosphere where they are responsible for significant cloud seeding. In addition, mineral dust often contains biological or anthropogenic materials, which can drastically alter cloud-seeding ability.
Using cloud chambers to study droplet or ice crystal formation in the presence of aerosol particles, Garimella is able to compare the cloud-seeding properties of different types of atmospheric particles. In this way he is probing how mineral dust aerosols — those blown from arid regions — affect the ability of clouds to form, enabling him to make deductions about possible broader climatic impact.
A Fiery Conclusion
Excerpted from a story by Jennifer Chu | MIT News
More than 200 million years ago, a massive extinction decimated over 75 percent of marine and terrestrial species, marking the end of the Triassic period and the onset of the Jurassic.
This devastating event cleared the way for dinosaurs to dominate the Earth for the next 135 million years, taking over ecological niches formerly occupied by other marine and terrestrial species.
While it’s not entirely clear what caused the end-Triassic extinction, most scientists agree on a likely scenario: Over a relatively short period of time, massive volcanic eruptions from a large region known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province spewed forth huge amounts of lava and gas, including carbon dioxide, sulfur, and methane.
This sudden release of gases into the atmosphere is understood to have created intense global warming and acidification of the oceans that ultimately killed off thousands of plant and animal species.
Now under the leadership of Professor Sam Bowring, EAPS’ Isotope Geochemistry and Geochronology Lab, which specializes in high precision dating of geologic events, together with researchers from Columbia University and elsewhere, have been able to determine that these eruptions and the extinctions are indeed coincident, providing strong evidence that volcanic activity did indeed trigger the end-Triassic extinction.
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