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FINESSE mission to investigate atmospheres of hundreds of alien worlds

FINESSE spacecraft

Artist’s concept of the FINESSE spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

One of NASA’s proposed missions, known as the Fast INfrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer (FINESSE), could greatly improve our understanding of extrasolar worlds. If selected for development, the spacecraft will investigate at least 500 exoplanet atmospheres, providing detailed information about climate processes on distant alien planets.

FINESSE has been recently chosen by NASA for concept studies and evaluations. It is one of the agency’s six astrophysics Explorers Program proposals that could be selected by 2019 to proceed with construction and launch.

The mission’s main objective is to study the processes that govern planet formation and global climate. It will investigate the mechanisms that establish the atmospheric chemical composition of exoplanets as well as the processes involved in atmospheric evolution.

“FINESSE will spectroscopically observe the atmospheres of many hundreds of transiting exoplanets to measure their molecular abundances and thermal profiles,” Robert Zellem, FINESSE science team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Astrowatch.net.

In order to conduct the planned studies, FINESSE will use the transit method. It will measure how a planet’s atmosphere absorbs light from its host star as a function of wavelength. This will allow it to infer the molecules in the planet’s atmosphere.

“By doing this for hundreds of planets, FINESSE will determine how planets form and the crucial factors that establish planetary climate,” Zellem said.

These observations will require a proper imaging system. That is why the FINESSE spacecraft will be equipped with a telescope with a 75-centimeter (29.5-inch) primary mirror and a spectrometer that will observe planets in the visible and infrared wavelengths (from 0.5 to 5 microns).

According to Zellem, wide spectral coverage will enable FINESSE to measure the abundances of molecules such as water, methane, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide as well as look for the presence of clouds and hazes.

Data collected by the spacecraft are expected to provide important information that could improve our knowledge about various exoplanets, from rocky terrestrial planets to gas giants like Jupiter. FINESSE could help us discover what these alien worlds are like, determining what makes them they way they are, and allowing this knowledge to be applied in the broader planetary context, including the search for life outside of the Solar System.

If selected for the development, FINESSE is targeted for the launch around 2023. Zellem hopes that during its operational lifetime of two years it will carry out important observations of even more than 1,000 extrasolar worlds.

“FINESSE has the capability in its two-year mission to observe the atmospheres of over 1000 transiting exoplanets,” he concluded.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL

 

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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