Tiny ASTERIA Satellite Spots Exoplanet In Transit, A First For CubeSat Technology

The mini-spacecraft known as CubeSats are capable of many wondrous things, just like the MarCO twin satellites, the first-ever to leave Earth’s orbit and set out on a journey toward Mars, have recently proven. One other soldier in the brave CubeSat army has now reached another type of milestone, becoming the first to measure the transit of an exoplanet, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge announced in a news release.

The tiny satellite is dubbed ASTERIA, short for Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics, and was developed by MIT together with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

ASTERIA was tracking the movement of an exoplanet known as 55 Cancri e, a super-Earth twice as big as our planet and 8.6 times more massive. This exoplanet is part of a four-planet system that orbits a sun-like star called 55 Cancri A, located some 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cancer, The Inquisitr previously reported.

Discovered 14 years ago, this super-Earth is also super-hot, heating to blistering surface temperatures of nearly 4,900 degrees Fahrenheit (2,700 degrees Celsius), and circles its host star once every 2.8 days.

During one of these trips around 55 Cancri A, the exoplanet was spotted by the briefcase-size ASTERIA satellite, which detected a tiny dip in the star’s brightness — measured at about a 0.04 percent decrease in luminosity — when 55 Cancri e passed in front of its parent star, reports MIT.

This method of searching the sky for planets is known as the transit method, and has never been measured by a CubeSat before.

“This finding shows that miniature satellites, like ASTERIA, are capable of making of sensitive detections of exoplanets via the transit method,” state MIT officials.

The ground-breaking results of the ASTERIA mission were presented at the Small Satellite Conference, hosted last week in Logan, Utah.

Just like other CubeSats that came before it, ASTERIA is a piece of demonstration technology which in this case has managed to prove that mini-satellites are able to perform high-precision photometry. This, in turn, allows astronomers “to study stellar activity, transiting exoplanets, and other astrophysical phenomena,” notes MIT.

Among the key technologies that the CubeSat was designed to demonstrate were the very stable pointing and thermal control that allow these tiny satellites to make “extremely precise measurements” of a star’s luminosity.

“ASTERIA’s success demonstrates that CubeSats can perform big science in a small package,” explained MIT. “This finding has earned ASTERIA the honor of ‘Mission of the Year,’ which was awarded at the SmallSat conference” and which is given every year to the CubeSat mission that demonstrates “a significant improvement in the capability of small satellites.”

Going further, the mission will keep on monitoring a pair of bright stars in the vicinity of 55 Cancri A in an effort to locate undiscovered exoplanets.

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