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Issue 1 - January 2011


  1. First Light: A Message from the Program Manager
  2. Dancing with the Stars: Who Gets Picked?
  3. Kepler Eyes 800 Objects of Interest
  4. ExEP Puts Aliens on the Road: Museum Media Collection
  5. Picture this: Sagan Fellow Sasha Joins the Hunt for Exos
  6. Sagan Fellow a Cosmic Disk Jockey
  7. Dollars Flow to Connect Kids to 'Other Earths'
  8. ExoToon: Curve Your Enthusiasm

1. First Light: A Message from the Program Manager

Photo of Michael Devirian
By Michael Devirian

Welcome to the first edition of an occasional Exoplanet Exploration Program Newsletter. It is our intent in this letter to provide easy access to current developments in the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) with short notes on topics of interest and links to web information for in-depth reading. We are sending this to a broad distribution. Please click the "unsubscribe" link at the end if you do not want to receive it. Forward it to colleagues who might not have it if they would like to receive it. We hope to help build a community to work together in common cause to explore this most fascinating of scientific and cultural topics. Read More...

2. Dancing with the Stars: Who Gets Picked?

Photo of Wes Traub
By Wes Traub

The uplifting science message from Astro2010 is that exoplanet science is earmarked for a major space mission in the 2020s, on the condition that the exoplanet community can agree on a single mission concept by about 2015.

We should take this message literally, and treat it seriously. I suggest that this task is our single most important activity before 2015. To help do this, the ExoPAG Executive Committee has been tasked by the Astrophysics Subcommittee, and has agreed to the task, to act as a forum for discussion and planning. The task is now ours as a community, because the ExoPAG itself is by definition the entire exoplanet community. The ExoPAG will begin planning how to respond to Astro2010 at its upcoming meeting, Saturday and Sunday, 8-9 January 2011, at the winter AAS in Seattle. Everyone in the exoplanet community with an opinion on how this activity should be structured should attend this ExoPAG meeting. Read More...

3. Kepler Eyes 800 Objects of Interest

Artist concept of spacecraft.

As of November 15th 2010 Kepler operations are proceeding smoothly and data is being collected on 140,000 target stars for quarter 7 of the mission. About 800 Kepler Objects of Interest (KOIs) have been identified as possible planetary candidates and are being actively followed up to determine their true nature. Seven new planets have been confirmed and published. With this number of planets and planetary candidates the Kepler results are now beginning to explore the frequency and distribution of planets down to sizes as small as 1.5 times the Earth. The current list of active KOIs includes planetary periods up to 200 days. Longer period KOIs are being added as new data accumulates, extending the time base of observations. A paper describing the 306 KOIs released to the public in June is now in press (Borucki, et al. 2010, Astrophysical Journal submitted). Data for all 800 KOIs will be available in February 2011, accompanied by a paper describing their statistical properties. Papers on several new individual planets are in work and are expected to appear in the next six months. Quarter 2 of the data on all Kepler targets will be released this coming February. Further information on Kepler science and mission status can be found at and links therein.

4. ExEP Puts Aliens on the Road: Museum Media Collection

Photo of people looking at the computer screen.

Over the years, ExEP has received frequent requests for kiosk or touch-screen versions of its popular online interactives from museums and science centers around the country, such as the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana and WonderWorks in Orlando. To meet this growing need, the PlanetQuest website is adding a Museum Media Center, with downloadable, kiosk-ready versions of the most popular multimedia pieces, such as Alien Safari and Interstellar Trip Planner Participating museums, science centers and planetaria will be required to report metrics on traffic and usage, and when possible, provide photos of EXEP content in action.

5. Picture this: Sagan Fellow Sasha Joins the Hunt for Exos

Photo of Sasha Hinkley

Sasha Hinkley (Caltech) is a 2009 Sagan Fellow working on the direct imaging of exoplanets. He sends us the following update on his research:

My research centers around obtaining direct images exoplanets in the vicinity of nearby stars, probing portions of exoplanetary solar systems out of reach to the radial velocity and transit methods. With many orders of magnitude in brightness between the planets and their host stars, coupled with very small separations on the sky, our challenge is primarily based on overcoming this contrast. Using careful starlight control on five to ten meter class telescopes with adaptive optics and a coronagraph to suppress the host star light, we are starting to obtain actual images of planets of a few Jupiter masses. Obtaining images of these objects orbiting their stars at tens to hundreds of times the earth-sun distance will allow us to complete our census of nearby exoplanetary systems and gain a more robust understanding of the true frequency of exoplanets. Even more, obtaining in an image of these objects will open the door to their direct spectroscopic study, gaining insight into their compositions and chemistries.

6. Sagan Fellow a Cosmic Disk Jockey

Photo of Stefan Kraus

Stefan Kraus (University of Michigan) is a 2009 Sagan Fellow, researching the effect of planets on protopanetary disk structure. He sends us the following report on his work:

The evolution of protoplanetary disks enters a critical phase once planetary bodies form and start to gravitationally interact with the disk material, causing dust-cleared gaps, disk warps, or co-rotating spiral density patterns. We aim to employ recent technological advancements in infrared interferometry to directly detect these planetary imprints on the disk structure. Interferometers combine the light from more than one telescope to synthesize the resolving power of a much larger aperture (up to 330m in the case of the CHARA array) and can obtain model-independent interferometric images. Some first results using this imaging approach were presented in our recent study on the high-mass young stellar object IRAS13481-6124 (Kraus et al. 2010, Nature 466, 339), where we used the VLT Interferometer detect a hot compact dust disk around this 20 solar mass YSO. In the course of upcoming projects, we aim to apply the same technique to image the protoplanetary disks around Herbig Ae/Be or T Tauri stars with milliarcsecond (sub-AU) resolution. To optimize the resolution and image fidelity, we will employ the CHARA array on Mt. Wilson and new 6-telescope beam combination and fringe tracking instrumentation, which has been developed by our group around John Monnier (Univ. of Michigan) and is currently under commissioning. Ultimately, these imaging techniques should reveal the signatures of planet formation, opening exciting new opportunities for the detection and characterization of extrasolar planets and providing important constraints on their migration properties.

For more information about the Sagan Fellowship Program, please see

7. Dollars Flow to Connect Kids to 'Other Earths'

Photo of Stefan Kraus

In partnership with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the University of California, the Exoplanet Exploration E/PO Program is developing a citizen-science portal to NASA’s habitable worlds initiatives. The portal invites the public and students to detect transiting exoplanets for themselves and to create a portrait of what these worlds might be like. The project will access the network of MicroObservatory online telescopes and will create a suite of engaging interactive learning tools that help participants move from a single pixel of light to a portrait of another world. The project has received a NASA EPOESS award for funding. For more information, contact Michael Greene at

8. ExoToon: Curve Your Enthusiasm

This Issue's Comic


NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program Office: Michael Devirian, Wesley Traub.
Editor: Carolyn Brinkworth, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute,
Cartoonist: Stephen Kane, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.
Written Contributions: Michael Devirian, JPL; Wesley Traub, JPL; Nick Gautier, JPL; Michael Greene, JPL; Sasha Hinkley, Caltech; Stefan Kraus, U. Michigan.
Design and Technical Support: Michael Greene, JPL; Randal Jackson, JPL; Joshua Rodriguez, JPL; Raytheon Web Solutions.
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The third meeting of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG-3) will be held Saturday and Sunday, January 8-9, 2011 in Seattle, WA. The venue for the meeting is the Washington State Convention Center.
AAS Winter Meeting - Jan. 9-13
Location: Seattle, WA
PLATO Science Conference - Feb. 24-25
Location: University of Technology Berlin (Germany)
2011B NASA Keck Proposal due date - March 17
41st Saas-Fee Advanced Course: From Planets to Life - April 3-9
Location: Villars sur Ollon, Switzerland
Signposts of Planets - April 12-14
Location: Goddard Space Flight Center
Exploring Strange New Worlds: From Giant Planets to Super Earths - May 1-6
Location: Flagstaff, AZ
Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop: Exploring Exoplanets with Microlensing - July 25-29
Location: Pasadena, CA


Aug. 24, 2010
Rich Exoplanet System Discovered
BBC News
Aug. 26, 2010
Kepler-9: A System of Multiple Planets Transiting a Sun-Like Star
NASA Release
Sep. 9, 2010
Alien Oceans Could be Detected by Telescopes
BBC News
Oct. 28, 2010
NASA Survey Suggests Earth-Sized Planets are Common
NASA Release
BBC News
Nov. 8, 2010
Is Anybody Out There?
Nov. 11, 2010
Hints on Dark Matter and a Wealth of Planets
New York Times
Nov. 18, 2010
'Alien' Planet Detected Circling Dying Star
Dec. 2, 2010
'Super-Earth' Atmosphere Measured
BBC News
Dec. 3, 2010
Newfound Planet Stirs Old Debate
Science News
Dec. 8, 2010
'Diamond exoplanet' Idea Boosted by Telescope Find
BBC News


Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP)
PlanetQuest - Public Outreach Website
NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI)