Award-winning CubeSat becomes the first to detect an exoplanet
Having won the Small Satellite Mission of the Year award, the Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics (ASTERIA) satellite has put the icing on the cake by claiming the first exoplanet to be detected by a CubeSat. The miniature spacecraft, which is about the size of a briefcase, was able to accurately measure the transit light curve of the already known super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e as it passed in front of its parent star.
The announcement that ASTERIA has detected an exoplanet comes on the heels of its having won the Small Satellite Mission of the Year at last week's Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. ASTERIA is a joint project by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and MIT, and is funded by JPL's Phaeton Program as a way of training early-career engineers.
The award was for its primary mission in 2017 to demonstrate that a CubeSat had the mechanical and thermal stability to carry out exoplanet hunts on par with Kepler and other more conventional space telescopes. In early 2018, it showed a pointing stability of 0.5 arcseconds and a thermal stability of 0.01 degrees Celsius.
The detection of 55 Cancri e demonstrates that ASTERIA not only works as an engineering platform, but can also do proper exoplanet detection.
Located 41 light years away in the constellation of Cancer, 55 Cancri e is 7.8 times the mass of Earth and orbits its Sun-like star once every 17.7 hours, meaning that it's so close to its parent that its surface temperature is a balmy 2,709 K (2,436 °C; 4,417 °F) – hot enough to easily melt iron. To detect the planet, ASTERIA had to be able to measure a dip in the star's brightness of 0.04 percent.
MIT says the ASTERIA will continue to monitor tow bright, nearby stars as part of its extended mission in hopes of finding previously unknown exoplanets.