Planet Hunters: How Telescopes are Discovering New Worlds


Exoplanet-hunting missions have generated a lot of buzz, and future missions are under development to take discovery to the next step. 


High above the surf and tan beaches of Hawaii lies one of the Pacific’s highest mountains: Mauna Kea. Capped at 13,796 feet, it’s the perfect perch for scientists to study the sky for everything from space junk to undiscovered planets.


The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), pictured here, is the largest infrared telescope in the Northern Hemisphere and is located atop Maunakea, Hawaii. Photo courtesy of UKIRT

“We’re showing that there’s still so much to discover about our galaxy,” said Rick Kendrick, a scientist at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California. “We must keep exploring, because while these planets haven’t proven habitable, one day we might find one that is.”

Kendrick and his colleagues operate the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) atop Mauna Kea along with the University of Arizona and the University of Hawaii under a NASA contract. Together this team of space experts sifts through piles of data to reveal more about our galaxy.

Scientists use UKIRT for a variety of investigations, sometimes examining orbiting space debris to keep satellites safe, but other times they look farther way, into the blackness of space, to see what’s out there.

Recently, UKIRTS data aided in the discovery of three Earth-sized planets orbiting a star about 40 light years from Earth.

“Using ground-based telescopes complements the space-based instruments to add even more observing power to tough missions,” Kendrick said. “In the past two years, we’ve used it for thousands of observations, helping scientists around the world push discovery to new levels.”

"Using ground-based telescopes complements the space-based instruments to add even more observing power to tough missions." 


Spitzer Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

UKIRT is just one project that looks for exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. To date, NASA has confirmed more than 3,200 planets outside our sun’s gravity, with thousands more under investigation.

With such a wealth of possibilities, scientists need powerful tools to explore.

One of the most important space telescopes of our time, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, has also been used to find exoplanets. It was the first to directly detect light of planets outside our solar system. Its infrared sensors study image wavelengths around stars and can isolate planetary information.

Not only can Spitzer detect planets, it can glean precise information about temperature, climate – all helping scientists decide if these worlds could sustain life.

“Weather maps of distant gas giants, remote volcanic rocky planets and solar systems near the core of the Milky Way galaxy are just some of the secrets revealed by Spitzer,” said Mark Effertz, Lockheed Martin’s project manager for Spitzer. “With every new observation, scientists continue to refine their understanding of planetary system evolution which in turn helps us piece together the history of our own solar system. By looking so far away, we are actually learning about us.”

Through continuous innovation, scientists and engineers have tripled Spitzer’s mission lifetime while refining all of its capabilities. 


Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

NASA’s exoplanet-hunting missions have generated a lot of buzz, and future missions are under development to take discovery to the next step.

The next generation of deep space analysis is the James Webb Space Telescope, which will study the history of our universe. Our Advanced Technology Center built the telescope’s primary optical instrument, the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), to study the faintest stars.

The most ancient light in the universe—about 13.4 billion years old—can reveal how solar systems were created, and NIRCam will capture the faintest glimpses of our distant past.

NIRCam is currently in testing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, readying for launch in 2018.

“We can learn a lot from both optical and infrared telescopes, but now that we’re looking deeper into our past, infrared instruments will reveal what the eye cannot detect,” said Alison Nordt, Lockheed Martin program manager for NIRCam. “In some cases the light is so old that it requires very sensitive instruments to detect.”

Back on its mountain above the clouds, UKIRT continues to look up at new targets for future missions.

“For every world we discover, there’s many more right behind it,” Kendrick said.