Partners weigh in on the magnitude and opportunity with the critical Landolt Mission


George Mason University will be the home of the $19.5 million recently approved Landolt NASA Space Mission that will put an artificial “star” in orbit around the Earth. George Mason faculty and students will work together with the NASA and NIST and nine other organizations for a first-of-its-kind project for a university in the Washington, D.C., area.

With mission control based at George Mason on its Fairfax Campus, the team also includes Blue Canyon Technologies; California Institute of Technology; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Mississippi State University; Montreal Planetarium and iREx/University of Montreal; the University of Florida; the University of Hawaiʻi; the University of Minnesota, Duluth; and the University of Victoria.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) scientists S. Deustua, J. Rice, and B. Alberding will apply their expertise to the calibration of Landolt-emitted light. This will be critical, as precise calibration enables astronomers to better answer pressing questions like: “Are there other Earths? What is the history of the universe?"

"Major new telescopes—like NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory—intend to measure the expansion history of the universe using the brightnesses of supernovae. However, errors in brightness calibration across wavelengths could lead to incorrect measurements. Landolt will solve this problem by providing telescopes with light of known brightness," said Greg Aldering of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Physics Division, who will serve on the Landolt science team to ensure that it is designed and performs as needed for precision cosmology measurements.

Once the Landolt satellite is in orbit, Aldering and his team plan to observe the calibrated light from Landolt with ground-based instruments, including the SuperNova Integral Field Spectrograph (SNIFS) in Hawaii, built in part by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, equipped with a 3.2 billion pixel camera built by DOE.

“Being a part of this space mission along with brilliant experts by contributing to target selection and data analysis is an exciting prospect,” said Canada’s Jonathan Gagné, scientific advisor at the Planétarium | Montréal Space for Life, adjunct professor at Université de Montréal, and member of the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iRex). “The impact that the Landolt mission will have in different areas of astrophysics, notably in exoplanet characterization and in measuring the accelerating expansion of the universe, will be particularly important,” Gagné explained.

"The measurements by Landolt will enable tremendous progress for a wide range of ground-based astronomical observations,” said Daniel Huber, associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻiʻs Institute for Astronomy. The University of Hawaiʻi will provide access to the UH88 telescope located atop of Maunakea, Hawaiʻi, one of the ground stations that will observe Landolt during its mission. Maunakea is one of the best sites for ground-based astronomy in the world. 

“The University of Victoria is excited to be an institutional collaborator on the NASA Landolt mission. We will leverage what we've learned from the CSA-funded, UVic-led ORCASat CubeSat satellite mission and are greatly looking forward to contributing to the success of this new mission,” said Justin Albert, professor of physics and astronomy at University of Victoria.

“This project is tackling a truly fundamental problem in astronomy in a very novel way,” said Dan Stevens, PhD, an assistant professor of Astronomy at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “By creating an "artificial star,” measuring its brightness in the lab, and launching it into space, our team will then be able to take lab-calibrated measurements of real stars' actual, absolute brightnesses. This level of accuracy wasn’t possible before, and it will allow us to overcome decades-long sources of uncertainty in how well we measure the fundamental properties of stars and the planets they host.”

“Landolt is an exciting opportunity to enable absolute calibration in astronomy at an unprecedented level,” said David Ciardi, Chief Scientist for NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) at Caltech/IPAC. “For as long as people have looked up at the night sky, a fundamental question has always been: ‘What is the true brightness of that star?’ Landolt has the opportunity to change astronomy for the relatively minimal cost of a NASA Astrophysics Pioneer program,” Ciardi explained.

NExScI, responsible for the Landolt data archiving and contributing to the ground support through Palomar Observatory suggests, “Even with today’s modern instruments, true brightness calibration has only been good to a few percent, and Landolt will enable an improvement by more than a factor of 10. Understanding the true brightness of stars allows to understand the stars better—and, perhaps more importantly, understand the planets that orbit the stars better.