The Kavli Institute Celebrates its Tenth Anniversary
When NASA was established in 1958, it sparked exciting new directions for space exploration and research at MIT. Bruno Rossi’s Cosmic Ray Group proposed an exploratory satellite to measure the interplanetary plasma and to hunt for highenergy cosmic gamma rays. Members of the Aero-Astro Department proposed studies to support manned space flight. Inertial navigation and guidance were under development in the Instrumentation Laboratory, and experiments in space communications, radio, and radar astronomy were underway at Lincoln Laboratory and the Research Laboratory of Electronics.
By 1961, leaders at MIT and NASA recognized the need for a focused space research program, and in the spring of 1963, the MIT Center for Space Research (CSR) was proposed to NASA and approved soon after. The CSR’s earliest efforts were made in the fields of gamma-ray astronomy, X-ray astronomy, interplanetary plasma, humans in space, and radio wave propagation in space. Over the years, the CSR expanded to include ground, balloon, and space-based optical and far-infrared astronomy, radio, gravitational waves, and theoretical studies – allowing the CSR to evolve into a true center of astrophysics.
By 2004, a major endowment grant from the Kavli Foundation transformed the CSR into the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI). MKI now houses several relatively independent laboratories carrying out spacerelated research and development, including the Laboratory for Space Engineering, the CCD Laboratory, the Space Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the MIT LIGO Laboratory. MKI also provides support for the Chandra X-ray Center, NASA’s flagship mission for X-ray astronomy, operated jointly by MIT and Harvard.
Now, on the tenth anniversary of the transformation from center to institute, MKI is poised to expand its successful research program yet further. In April 2013, NASA selected MKI’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to launch in 2017. Not long ago, the study of planets outside our solar system was a purely theoretical field. No one had actually observed an exoplanet with certainty until two radio astronomers detected two planets circling a pulsar in 1992. The next discovery wasn’t made until 3 years later, when two more scientists found another planet circling 51 Pegasi. The pace of discovery was slow in the beginning, but not anymore; to date, nearly 1,500 exoplanets have been observed, including the discovery of 715 new planets announced by NASA’s Kepler mission just last February. TESS aims to keep accelerating the pace of exoplanet discovery.
TESS was one of the two proposals that was green-lighted for NASA funding (the other, the NICER [Neutron Star Interior Composition ExploreR], includes an MIT group as well). TESS will be unusual among major NASA missions in that it is university-led. Both TESS and the MIT NICER group will be led by MKI Senior Research Scientist George Ricker ’66 (VIII), Ph.D. ’71 (VIII). The team includes other MKI faculty members: Joshua Winn ’94 (VIII), S.M. ’94 (VIII), Ph.D. ’01 (VIII D), Associate Professor of Physics, and Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics and a 2013 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient for her work in exoplanet research.
TESS will work on the same principle as the Kepler telescope, which searches for planets as they pass in front of their host star. These “transiting” planets cause a small but detectable dip in the star’s brightness. Kepler is trained on a small, fixed field in the sky inhabited by 150,000 stars, most of which are faint. Nevertheless, Kepler surprised scientists by revealing a galaxy abundantly populated by exoplanets.
TESS is therefore designed to take a very different strategy: wide-field cameras will survey the whole sky to find planets transiting very bright stars that are easier to study in detail. TESS will gather data about the mass, size, density, and orbit of many small planets. Part of the mission will be to look for planets that resemble Earth in several key respects: small rocky worlds with surface temperatures allowing for liquid water. TESS will find these so-called “potentially habitable” planets around stars that are smaller and less luminous than Earth’s sun which will make them easier to study than actual twins of the solar system.
TESS will also be used to identify promising targets for future studies using instruments that can detect the spectrum of starlight absorbed by a planet’s atmosphere, such as those aboard the James Webb Space Telescope. Spectrum analysis is the next phase in exoplanet research. These studies are very exciting because they will be able tell us the composition of a planet’s atmosphere and whether or not the atmosphere is hospitable to life like that on Earth.
“NASA’s Explorer Program gives us a wonderful opportunity to carry out forefront space science with a relatively small university-based group and on a time scale well-matched to the rapidly evolving field of extrasolar planets,” said Jackie Hewitt Ph.D. ’86 (VIII), MIT Professor of Physics and Director of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “At MIT, TESS has the involvement of faculty and research staff of the Kavli Institute, the Department of Physics, and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, so we will be actively engaging students in this exciting work.”