Pandora Mission Would Expand NASA’s Capabilities in Probing Alien Worlds
Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/ NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

In the quest for habitable planets beyond our own, NASA is studying a mission concept called Pandora, which could eventually help decode the atmospheric mysteries of distant worlds in our galaxy.

One of four low-cost astrophysics missions selected for further concept development under NASA’s new Pioneers program, Pandora would study approximately 20 stars and exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system – to provide precise measurements of exoplanetary atmospheres.

This mission would seek to determine atmospheric compositions by observing planets and their host stars simultaneously in visible and infrared light over long periods. Most notably, Pandora would examine how variations in a host star’s light impacts exoplanet measurements.

This remains a substantial problem in identifying the atmospheric makeup of planets orbiting stars covered in starspots, which can cause brightness variations as a star rotates.

Pandora is a small satellite mission known as a SmallSat, one of three such orbital missions receiving the green light from NASA to move into the next phase of development in the Pioneers program.

SmallSats are low-cost spaceflight missions that enable the agency to advance scientific exploration and increase access to space. Pandora would operate in Sun-synchronous low-Earth orbit, which always keeps the Sun directly behind the satellite. This orbit minimizes light changes on the satellite and allows Pandora to obtain data over extended periods. Of the SmallSat concepts selected for further study, Pandora is the only one focused on exoplanets.

“Exoplanetary science is moving from an era of planet discovery to an era of atmospheric characterization,” said Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the principal investigator for Pandora. “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.”

Source/Further Reading: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center