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NASA wants to use a tiny satellite to help investigate exoplanet atmospheres

Illustration of an exoplanet
Illustration of an exoplanet NASA

NASA is considering launching a small satellite called Pandora which could help investigate the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system. The idea is to use the satellite to look in both the visible and infrared wavelengths to understand the composition of planets’ atmospheres.

Many current exoplanet missions focus on discovering exoplanets or learning more details about them like their mass and distance from their star. The aim of the next generation of exoplanet missions is to learn more about the atmospheres of these planets, like what they are composed of.

“Exoplanetary science is moving from an era of planet discovery to an era of atmospheric characterization,” said Elisa Quintana, principal investigator for Pandora and an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. “Pandora is focused on trying to understand how stellar activity affects our measurements of exoplanet atmospheres, which will lay the groundwork for future exoplanet missions aiming to find planets with Earth-like atmospheres.”

This proposed mission is part of NASA’s Pioneers project to create low-cost missions for astrophysics. Small satellites, like the type proposed for Pandora, are relatively much cheaper to build and to launch than more complex instruments like the current planet-hunting satellite TESS or the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

“Pandora’s long-duration observations in visible and infrared light are unique and well-suited for SmallSats,” said Quintana. “We are excited that Pandora will play a crucial role in NASA’s quest for finding other worlds that could potentially be habitable.”

With thousands of exoplanets discovered in the last decade, learning about their atmospheres is key to identifying planets that could potentially host life.

“Pandora is the right mission at the right time because thousands of exoplanets have already been discovered, and we are aware of many that are amenable to atmospheric characterization that orbit small active stars,” said Jessie Dotson, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and the deputy principal investigator for Pandora. “The next frontier is to understand the atmospheres of these planets, and Pandora would play a key role in uncovering how stellar activity impacts our ability to characterize atmospheres. It would be a great complement to Webb’s mission.”

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