December 31, 2009

Exoplanetary Year-end Summary

It has been a terrific year for Exoplanetology. First things first: Numbers. At the year's end the total known exoplanets is 415. At the beginning of 2009 it was only around 331. So for the past year there were around 84 new exoplanets discovered--overshooting my forecast about the Future of Exoplanetology which I posted at the beginning of 2009.
Of course, the launch of Kepler last March makes 2009 even more special for planetary science.

The Meme
Well, I'm happy to say that Exoplanetology is now in history. Yes, the Brussels Journal dubbed Exoplanetology as an important new branch of planetary Science. Also several articles from the coolest magazines has mentioned Exoplanetology in their articles--Wired and SEED magazine to name a few. Wired Magazine even created a special tag for it. Another thing is that Exoplanetology is making it's way into ArXiv.org, being mentioned in some important papers. Michel Mayor even said that the future of Exoplanetology is bright!

Culture
In the movies, there's no doubt that Avatar has all aspects of Exoplanetology written all over it. Upon which we can add District 9 as a surprise hit, which hinted at the Prawns' homeworld with seven moons. Another surprise was Pandorum, the scifi thriller that mentioned mankind's detection of another habitable world and the trouble we might encounter on a perilous journey to an exoplanet.

Exoplanets
All exoplanet discoveries are important. But the notable ones that captured much of the public's attention early this year were CoRoT-7 b the first known exoplanet with a density similar to that of Earth – even if the planetary surface seems less Earth-like with scorching temperatures. Then Michel Mayor's discoveries in the Gliese 581 planetary system. Gliese 581 e is still the least massive among all exoplanets to date--at twice the mass of earth and rocky, it is also perceived to date as among the most similar to earth from among the zoo of giant exoplanets.

My personal favorite is actually WASP-17 b because it teaches about the Rossiter-McLaughlin Effect on how to determine the exoplanet's direction of orbit.

GJ 1214 b was discovered using MEarth, a project headed by David Charbonneau--that uses commercially available cameras and amateur grade telescopes controlled robotically. Very cool indeed, as it serves as an inspiration for amateur exoplanet enthusiasts with entry-level toolkits.

Some new important things learned for 2009 were the relationship of exoplanets to the Lithium content of their parent stars. Thus this provides the astronomers with a new, cost-effective way to search for planetary systems: by checking the amount of lithium present in a star astronomers can decide which stars are worthy of further significant observing efforts.
The introduction of the Habitability Index was nice as it somewhat upgrades the Drake Equation, which is quite outdated judging from the new findings in planetary science.

There are definitely a lot of other noteworthy things that I failed to mention in this post. There's simply too many of them. But if you need more atomic details for the exoplanetary things that happened in the past year of 2009, please check this interactive timeline.

Thus, we close 2009 with a Bang! Many thanks to all who supported this blog in any way, by simply reading my posts, or via links, tweets, mentions, and so on. You are much appreciated. You truly inspire me. As the steward of this site, I hope to continue to share to others that inspiration.

Happy New Year, Earthlings!!!

December 25, 2009

Billions of Births

Merry Christmas to all! This post on a festive day serves to greet you and to celebrate Life throughout the far reaches of space. The photo says it best. From the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), recent star births within the Orion Nebula, makes way for proplyds or Protoplanetary Discs--signalling the birth of planets..and with it, the potential for life.

Links:
APOD December 22, 2009

December 22, 2009

A Closer Look at Pandora

Pardon my ignorance. I didn't realize that there was already an elaborate world-building investment involved with Pandora, the lush setting of the movie Avatar. After I posted my review of that movie, I was alerted (via a comment) regarding a book that gave some relevant details about the physical characteristics of the world of Pandora.
As it turns out, Pandora is a moon orbiting a gas giant called Polyphemus. What surprised me is that Polyphemus belongs to the Alpha Centauri trinary system. The largest star, Alpha Centauri A (or ACA, as they call it) serves as the main sun of Pandora. The third companion Alpha Centauri C, as it is written in that book, is a red dwarf. Obviously, it is not accurate with regards to the real Alpha Centauri system which is a binary system. A third star called Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun is believed to be gravitationally linked to the Alpha Centauri system.
The floating mountains which i found quite odd, had some explanations on why it floats. The Hallelujah Mountains, as it is called, are laced with "Unobtainium" a high-temperature superconducting element that is levitated by powerful magnetic fields generated by Pandora's swirling molten core.
I do find the name of that fictitious substance funny, and for a perfect reason: Unobtainium may never be obtained, because it will never occur in nature, well at least in the earth-like temperature of Pandora. Atoms would never align uniformly to make a perfect superconductor specially with Pandora's climate. And not even the frigid icy moon like Titan or Europa would produce anything close to superconductors.
More details can be found in that book regarding the Geology, Atmosphere and Chemistry of Pandora, and still more from around the web.
Of course, nothing would sway me from simply enjoying the movie's impressive special effects. I would simply stop my mind from analysing and just admire the view. I would watch it again in 3D and immerse myself in a world of imagination, the way it's supposed to be.

December 20, 2009

Avatar. I See You.

Avatar has a lot of heart and soul. This movie will make you cycle through the full range of human emotions. It will surprise you, delight you, it will make you laugh and cry and go mad.

The poignant storyline has successfully appealed to our deepest essence as a sentient being, as a tribe and as a civilization. Indeed, it has allowed us to see ourselves within a simple story, with that familiar pattern of discovery, conquest, colonization and exploitation which has occurred countless times on the islands of our planet since humanity began--and that which will probably occur in the outer reaches of space, on fertile new worlds yet to be known.

I am delighted by the rich set of planetary values, environmental virtues, spiritual awareness, and respect for life that is taught within a simple tale set on Pandora--an exomoon orbiting a gas giant in a distant exoplanetary system.

Pandora is home to a variety of life that includes the Na'vi, the dominant species. One can see that painstaking detail was crafted into Pandora and all its local inhabitants. In terms of the Art and Science of that world, the Aesthetics is a pure win. How about the Science? Did the filmmakers consult a planetary scientist or an astrobiologist during their brainstorming sessions? To begin with, i see it proper that the atmosphere on Pandora is toxic to humans--thus the need for the Avatar on a Xenosociological mission to learn more about the Na'vi culture. In reality, an atmosphere that is inhospitable to us would likely be the case even for "earth-like" worlds that we may discover in the future.

Although I admire the breathtaking sceneries on Pandora, what distracted me was the concept of the floating mountains which in my opinion, is quite odd with respect to the geological or chemical properties of Pandora. I don't think it's possible with the known laws of physics in that setting. Correct me if i'm wrong but making rocks levitate has something to do only with powerful magnets and ultracool superconductors.

As for the lifeforms on Pandora, i like them enough to want to see more variety. Only a handful were depicted when there should have been more (even as extras) within the ecosystem as rich as a jungle depicted in the film. I quite didn't notice any insect-like creatures which, based on my bias--should be one of the most numerous type of animals on any inhabited planet. Also, the extra pair of legs on their "horses" don't offer any advantage so i tend to question the evolutionary idea behind it. The animals look like plastic at times but it's all trivial, so that's alright, the design team made up by sporting a lot of Bioluminescence--of which i'm a big fan, in their flora and fauna.

Convergent Evolution may allow cat-like humanoid creatures such as the Na'vi. So I dont mind having thundercat creatures on exomoons. And yes, i know it's a cliche but I am happy about the references to an emergent organism--that of the trees linked to each other to make a global consciousness.

The last one of my observations is about the concept of the Avatar itself. The Na'vi avatar is a fully functioning biological creature with a brain capable of cognitive abilities. It would be possible for it to attain its own set of consciousness. What if it starts to dream in it's sleep? Many existential or ethical questions then arises if the avatar wakes up unlinked to Jake. Perhaps the sequel would answer that!

These blue avatars are way advanced compared to the robotic probes that we currently use to explore other planets. Yes, Spirit, Opportunity and even New Horizons are our Avatars, believe it or not. And the longstanding problem is the lagtime of the signal throttling back and forth the controller and the probe. Perhaps taming Quantum Entanglement is only possible with a scifi movie such as this. One can only hope. A real-time quantum link would indeed open up tremendous possibilities for space exploration.

Avatar's impact is strong. To me, the personal inspiration it gives is simple yet direct: With one chance at Life, what do you do with your body--your one and only Avatar?

On a global scale, I see this film as a major achievement because it opens up the idea of distant worlds to the general population at a perfect moment when science is on a hot trail of planetary discoveries, and at the fringes of discovering the first truly earth-like world. The recent discoveries of super-earths punctuated by a waterworld called GJ 1214 b somehow collaborated to launch this immersive film. The timing is all so perfect.

James Cameron's film has lived up to my expectations when I wrote about it nine months ago. And yes, the film-makers did actually consider habitable exomoons! Avatar is truly an epic Exoplanetology film. Do not leave Earth without watching this movie.

December 14, 2009

The Geminid Exoplanets

At the end of my vacation I boarded a plane in the Philippines on December 13, flew for almost 20 hours, and landed in New York--still on December 13. Talk about a long day! It's also the day when i saw the most meteors of my life on a single night!

During the trip while the plane was over the Pacific ocean, with an altitude of 37,000 ft, and headed towards the direction of the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands--I saw a delightful series of meteor streaks from my window seat. They were the Geminids!

Here's how i was able to see the spectacular sight: during the flight, while it was relatively dark inside the plane and most of the passengers were sleeping, I draped a blanket over the window and over the back of my head, creating a mini-tent using my arms and hands.

I had to eliminate any glare from inside the plane and keep it as dark as possible by the window.
Yes, i must've looked weird if anyone noticed what i was doing. But as i saw the Geminid meteors--one long streak every minute--they brought a smile to my face and I didn't care what anyone would think.

I've never really had a chance before to enjoy meteor showers, so this experience was a blast. Having missed the Leonids and the Perseids due to cloudy nights, i couldn't bear to miss this one. And i truly enjoyed it.

Because as everyone knows, part of my inspiration to write anything about annual meteor showers is my custom to compile known exoplanets within the proximity of the radiant. So i had to see the Geminids for myself if I was going to write about the last meteor shower of the year.

Although this post was long overdue (I meant to write this before i took my vacation) i'm glad to write it now in a delightful mood. Because as i got home--still December 13--i looked up in the Jersey skies and there they were--the Geminids once again!

So what exactly are the Geminids?

Geminids are pieces of debris from a strange object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. It is, basically, the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini.

There are only three known Geminid exoplanets so far. And all three of them are gas giants. Now if you've been staring at the direction of the Gemini constellation, you won't miss Castor and Pollux. Two bright stars of Gemini, the twins.
Pollux is the 17th brightest in the sky. But did you know that orbiting this orange star is a gas giant exoplanet? The other gemini exoplanet is orbiting a 5th magnitude orange star HD 59686. The third geminid exoplanet is orbiting a 6th magnitude star HD 50554, quite faint for the unaided eyes but still good for an exogazing challenge.

And so, during your meteorwatch make sure that you talk about these exoplanets to your friends as you wait for the next streak of meteor in the Gemini sky.

May you continue to enjoy the night sky wherever you may be. Clear skies!


Links:
Geminid Exoplanets on Freebase
Geminid Exoplanets KMZ file
The Geminids 2009

November 12, 2009

The Leonid Exoplanets

In November 1833, Astronomers noticed an unusual number of meteors that seemed to emanate from the Leo constellation. It has come to be called The Leonids, a meteor shower with an amazing display of light caused by dust and debris from a comet. This comet, named "Tempel-Tuttle" visits the inner solar system every 33 years and leaves a stream of dusty debris in its wake. When the Earth crosses that stream of dust, the particles gets swept in the upper atmosphere and burn up as dazzling streaks of light.

Come November 17, 2009--we will be given a treat to see this grand display under the predawn sky. The Leonids will be a major show this year, specially that the Earth will pass through a pair of streams laid down by Comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1466 and 1533 AD. The double crossing could yield as many as 300 Leonids per hour. Another great thing is that Mars happens to be along the radiant of the the Leonids, so it would appear that meteors are emanating from Mars!

Because I often think of exoplanets when gazing at the starry night sky, exogazing has been part of my activity. Thus it has become customary for me to chart known exoplanets within the field of view of meteor showers.

Below is a compilation of The Leonid Exoplanets that will keep me busy while waiting for the meteorite streaks to pour--which would be around 30 per hour in my area in Northern America and 300 streaks per hour in Asia.

To date, there are 9 stars that host a total of 10 exoplanets within the Leo constellation (but they will grow in large numbers soon). One of them hosts 2 of the planets listed below. Unfortunately, most of these stars can not be seen with the naked eye, especially in light-polluted areas--as they are fainter than magnitude 7 (visual magnitude listed below). You can use binoculars but of course, you better put it down when the Leonid streaks come pouring in. Meteor showers are best viewed with the naked eyes.

UPDATE! The only Leonid Exoplanet in my list that can be seen with the naked eye is Gamma Leonis 1 b, which orbits one of the brightest stars in the Leo Constellation! Gamma Leonis 1 b, orbiting around Algeiba--was confirmed just a few days ago! Yes! This exoplanet wanted to join the Leonid Exogazing event this year! This exoplanet actually pushed the total number of known exoplanets to 404!

The star chart I generated from Google Sky would give you an idea where they are so you can approximately point at them in the sky while telling your friends and family about these other Worlds.

Here's the KMZ file and the Leonid Exoplanets listed at Freebase if you want more details on the exoplanets themselves.
Don't forget to set the alarm to wake up very early and enjoy the Leonid show with your friends and family. It will be a memorable event I am pretty sure!

*HD 89484 b (Gamma 1 Leonis b) 2.1
HD 99492 b 7.57
HD 81040 b 7.72
Gliese 436 b 10.68
BD-20 2457 b 9.75
BD-20 2457 c 9.75
HD 100777 b 8.42
HD 88133 b 8.01
HD 89307 b 7.06
HD 99109 b 9.1

More Links:

About Leonids
From NASA
From Physorg
Viewing Tips

November 4, 2009

Life is a Pattern

"Life is a pattern." He whispered in an epiphany of realization as he gazed at the patchwork of visualizations displayed on the walls of his control room. Inside the room was an amazing view of a menagerie of extrasolar planets, exomoons and hypothetical microbes and extremophiles that may thrive on the planetary environments. This was a facility doing research on Planetary Science and Astrobiology.

The control room tapped a powerful cloud computing grid with a database that tracked thousands of extrasolar systems. Parameters for the simulations are updated by planet-hunting teams from around the world. Information such as planetary mass, type of planet, distance from the host star, orbital period, chemical make-up, atmospheric density and so on, were fed into a powerful AI software running in the cloud. It's aim was to virtually "find" exolife even before it was discovered in the real world. It was the largest open collaboration of Astronomers, Astrobiologists and Astrophysicists ever set up, and backed up by the leading Computer Scientists.

Throughout the years of manning the control room, Dalro Villaramas has garnered some insight to come up with a solution that might revolutionize the way to search other forms of life. The secret, he thought was to view life in a new way. He was certain that his idea would expand the methods to detect life into other platforms beyond the water-based or carbon-based forms that we know of. He rubbed his hands together excitedly as he decided that he was going to start writing an ArXiv paper. He was going to tell the whole world about it.

Suddenly, he was startled by his manager who barged into the room as he spoke hurriedly, "Dalro, there's a new planet that was detected. Its nothing that's ever been found in history..."

"Hey that's great! But...why do you look so...grim? Are you ok?"

It was odd, very different than the usual when he informs him of new exoplanet discoveries. Instead of the bright sparkle in his eyes, it was glazed. He proceeded, "...please run a simulation of how it would affect the planets in our solar system...earth..."

"What?! Did we just find a new planet in our solar system?"

"Yes...and, no. The planet is now within our solar system but it came from somewhere else. As we speak, a rogue planet--a Planemo is barreling its way toward our Sun. Amateur Astronomers just detected it after it entered our heliosphere and showed signs of its presence. The parameters are being fed into the grid in real-time. Start the process now and feed the results back to the global network. Please hurry, we don't have much time..."

Dalro hammered on the keyboards and directed all computing resources to this job. In a few minutes, the walls were filled with a view as if from a spaceship's cockpit looking down at the solar system. The 'hypervelocity' Planemo was travelling so fast, way too fast.

For the next few minutes, the simulation showed what would happen--most of the planets would be disturbed from their orbits. The massive planemo would miss Pluto but disturb the Kuiper belt scattering thousands of rocks. It would graze close to Neptune, and hemmorhage Uranus, and distort the rings of Saturn. As it wobbles Jupiter, several moons would be yanked out. Then he gasped as he saw the spheriod rock dig deeper in the solar system. Earth and it's moon would be flung from orbit in a slingshot effect--out into interstellar space.

The alarm sounded in the background. The commotion was now starting to stir other countries around the world. The earth was shaking.

Dalro was now alone in the room. He stood watching the simulated view of the Earth as it made its way out into the cold, dark empty space. The simulation stopped.

He closed his eyes. Images of all his loved ones flashing in his mind, fading with images of Earth--frozen in mid-chaos.

"Life is a pattern..." he whispered as he started to shiver. The temperature was dropping too fast. Darkness fell. Then silence.

November 2, 2009

A Roller Coaster Ride with Kepler


It was a carefree feeling glancing at the beautiful sunset while speeding and spinning through the towering steel structures. There were few people at Six Flags on their last night of the season so the lines were quick for the roller coaster rides. As night came, I hopped on to Nitro. And as our coaster positioned itself on the steep incline, I was amused that it was directly aimed at the Moon. The view was amazing. As I gazed around further at the clear night sky, I immediately recognized Cygnus. And of course, I couldn't help but think of the Kepler telescope staring at that same patch of sky. And for a couple of minutes as we slowly inched our way up, I was exogazing.

When Kepler was launched on March earlier this year, I was very happy. It was the telescope that could find earth's twin and probably help mankind answer one of our deepest questions.

A few days after Kepler's launch, I became worried about some silly things. For one, I thought that they launched Kepler but forgot to remove the "lens cap". Its a kind of joke that you can laugh about, but which might have been a nightmare if the protective cover didn't pop out at all. Then Kepler went through a some troubles, such as going into safe mode.

Then, everything seemed to work fine for the next few months as Kepler succesfully confirmed some data for a known exoplanet. I was very happy. Kepler was showing a lot of promise.

Until one day, entropy caught up with it.

Noise.

Last week, news came out that the Kepler had some "noisy" electronics that was affecting the data. And the fix for the software probably wouldn't come until 2011, delaying the chance to find Earth-sized planets. I was sad once more.

Suddenly, I was headed down. Our coaster crossed the peak and started barreling down at top speed. It was exhilarating. And in no time at all I was on my way up again for a 360 degree loop.


You see, Just this morning i heard that Kepler is actually doing well according to William Borucki, the project leader. He said that the news concerning Kepler's woes were inaccurate. If there's anyone who'd probably have emotional ups and down in the ongoing saga of the mission, then it must be this soft-spoken man and the Kepler team. But i have to admit that I am being taken on a ride. But it's all good. I can see that the story of man's quest to discover other worlds is filled with many ups and downs--with some twists and turns along the way.

Comparing the ongoing planet-hunt saga to a roller coaster ride may not be too far-fetched. Moreso that the best loop is yet to come. Yes, the quest for other worlds is a wild ride. I simply raise my arms up and scream.

November 1, 2009

EVE's Planetary Interaction

As a follow-up to my previous post about EVE's exoplanetary upgrades to their Dominion expansion, here's what i found out:

By December 2009, the graphical upgrade will affect all 50,000 planets and several hundred thousand moons inside EVE. Each of them are unique with procedurally-generated textures and colors. Clouds move!

Gamers will have more Planetary Interaction. That means more engagement closer to the planets in low orbit. Players will get treats such as owning planets, managing and developing and manufacturing stuff on planets, and controlling the lives of people in the planets. Many of my questions from my previous post were answered. And from the looks of it, EVE's planetary upgrade is definitely impressive.

Of course, "procedurally generated" textures means that there's plenty of physics, math and planetary science in it. It's also fantastic to know that there's 50,000 planets inside a virtual game! And several hundred thousand moons just blows me away. All this is definitely a win. More power to EVE Online!

All the photos below are from the EVE Fanfest 2009













The topic on Planets starts at 23 minutes through the clip below.

October 31, 2009

EVE goes Exoplanetary

EVE Online, one of my favorite Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) has just made an important update. They added more details to the exoplanets in their universe.

The last time I've played EVE was almost 4 years ago during the months when I was unemployed. It was one of the virtual worlds I explored, attempting to earn income and hoping it would support my expenses in the real world. Of course, you can't make real money with EVE but it was an awesome experience just simply playing the coolest game ever. I miss my garage setup which I considered as my cockpit. I explored interstellar space through several monitors which I imagined as windows to another universe, a metaverse so to speak.

In EVE there are jump-gates that your ship needs to go through in order to reach a target destination via a series of warp jumps. These gates are somewhat bigger than those in Stargate Universe. Often, these jump-gates are near Extrasolar Systems, and the view is splendid. But then, I was virtually confined to my cockpit. The best I could do was to admire the view of planets and suns from afar because I cannot land on any planet and walk on it's surface. To that effect, I was simultaneously running several instances of Second Life and Entropia Universe on several other CPU/monitors--to give me the feel of being on the surface of another planet.

Today, Eve players still cannot land on any extrasolar planet "in-world". And with the recent upgrade concerning the details of the planets, I can only wonder how much Science they put into the Dominion update. Did they incorporate parameters for gas giants, super-earths, waterworlds or earth-like planets? Did they include exomoons? How did they incorporate the planetary details in the gameplay? Can the players mine the planets? How do the planets fit in the new storyline? These questions only draws me closer to sign up and set up my rig once again to find out.

As I reflect on my virtual-immersion days I realize that my past experience with virtual worlds was a valuable part of my journey to fully appreciate our natural world--our real universe. And though in the back of my mind the Ontological question remains whether any universe--virtual or otherwise--is real or not, the adventure to learn more about the wonders of our Cosmos remains steadfast.

Because exoplanets remain unseen, they provide ample ground for the mind to play between the real and the imaginary, or the wonderful and the mysterious. Exoplanets are a natural bridge between Science and the Arts.

Eve online's potential as a great teaching tool for Science is enormous. It's also a good source of inspiration for space travel, specially for this generation trapped in an age where human space exploration is not yet a reality.

But in my mind's eye, I can see that day when the first Exoplaneteer will brave the Cosmos, the first Exonaut who will visit Worlds I've never seen or imagined.



Links:
EVE's planetary graphics kicked up yet another notch for Dominion expansion
Eve's New Look at it's Planets
More Clips

October 23, 2009

An Exoplanet By Any Other Name

I came across an ArXiv post today calling for the noble attempt to name all exoplanets using the traditional Greek/Roman system. I commend the effort but unfortunately it would fail for some reasons.
One flaw lies with the system itself. Even all characters in the Greek/Roman mythology will not suffice. There's not enough of them to match all the exoplanets--which will probably number up to thousands in the next few decades.
Another thing is that the state of affairs in human politics involved in naming things is out of whack. We can't even agree what a planet is. So i understand why IAU does not want to jump in on it.
So if you'll allow me, I'd like to suggest a fun way to name exoplanets.
Let me start by saying that I have trouble remembering names, and that I love mnemonics. Thus it only leads me to one simple idea and one simple system to go about naming exoplanets.
I think that the host stars should be given more memorable nicknames. Then the names of the exoplanets they hold will follow from that.
For example, instead of HD80606, lets call it "Bogog". Then we'll have "Bogogbee" for its exoplanet.
HD156411 b will then be called "Isgaiibee", HD16141 b will be "Igiaibee". HD190360 b will be "Ipoegobee". And it's sibling will be "Ipoegocee".
If you look closely, you'll notice a very complex multi-dimensional pattern in how I name it. I'll let you figure that out, all you geniuses!
I know that using my system makes the exoplanets sound all weird but hey, it's fun! It makes me laugh just reading those numbers.

Links:
List of Proposed Exoplanet Names

October 20, 2009

The Holy Grail in Exoplanet Science

A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a great evening of exoplanets, music, cocktail and science at the SciCafe Event which launched with a topic about Exoplanets and the Search for Life in the Universe.

Ben Oppenheimer's lecture and presentation was stylish and unique. A 3D map of the known exoplanets around our stellar neighborhood was shown in multiple widescreens scattered across the museum space. He gave some background on adaptive optics, coronal shields (coronagraphy) and spectography. He showed animation clips across the different wavelengths of light seen from a star: the resulting animation is a function not of time but of color. He also gave a hint that soon he will release some new findings they gained using their technique.

The whole aura during the event was simply hip and cool. Just imagine sipping red wine inside the American Museum of Natural History (Rose Center) with some ambient music while being immersed in planetary stuff. Of course, seeing some twitter friends, @leebillings and @bnroberts at the event was nice. And did I mention that I wore my nerdy Kepler shirt and a beautiful woman commented on it? "Nice shirt!" she said, nodding in approval.

After the lecture, during the Q & A portion I kept raising my hand for the last question but I wasn't picked. But I was glad that Ben picked someone else who asked an excellent question, "What is the Holy Grail in Exoplanet Science?"

And I appreciated the answer I heard: For Ben Oppenheimer, the Holy Grail in Exoplanet Science is simply being part of it. He says that the Holy Grail is not making the best exoplanet discovery and being in the news and in the papers. The Holy Grail is simply being part of the collective efforts of a myriad of people that revolves around the Science of Exoplanets. Ultimately, he says, Exoplanet Science will be done by society as a whole. Now that's the Holy Grail of Exoplanet Science. Amen!

October 19, 2009

The 400 Mark

Something remarkable happened today.

We have just reached the 400th mark of total known exoplanets on the same year that we are celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Astronomy. It was only 400 years ago when Galileo started to point the telescope at the heavens. And look how far we have gone since then! It's a welcome note that the biggest catch of new extrasolar planets occurs on the International Year of Astronomy 2009.
More so that hidden beneath the numbers is something even more remarkable--the exponential rate of acceleration of new exoplanet discoveries. You see, it's not that a new exoplanet is being discovered for every year since 400 years ago. It's that there has been an upward trend in exoplanet count within the 15 years since the announcement of the first exoplanet in 1995.

As every futurist knows, it's the exponential rate that must noted. Exponential thinking is something that must be understood by the populace to get a better grip of what is to come. The power and capabilites of telescopes also follows an upward curve comparable to Moore's Law. In this same year a few months ago, the Kepler Mission was launched, ensuring another surge of exoplanet discoveries within 2 to 3 years from now and beyond. And shortly after then, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be launched to bring us even more exoplanets.

So what lies beyond the 400 mark?

We will find earth-like planets soon, habitable in many regards. Perhaps we may even find habitable exomoons as well. I have a gut feeling that all these will culminate on the discovery of exolife on a planet a few light years away. Then we would have answered one of man's greatest questions.

To live in such an era of profound discoveries is exhilarating. There may never come a period as wonderful as the coming era. Mark my words.

Biggest Dump of New Exoplanets

In what could be the biggest dump of new exoplanet discoveries ever announced in one day, today marks the announcement of 30+ new exoplanet discoveries. Plus some new Brown Dwarfs to go along with it.
As of writing, we now have 403 total known exoplanets!

And here's what even more remarkable: We have just reached the 400th mark of total known exoplanets on the same year that we are celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Astronomy. Isn't it amazing?!

Though my list is not complete, here are some of the new exoplanet discoveries:
HIP5158 b
HD103197 b
GJ 433 b
GJ 667C b
HIP 12961 b
GJ 676A b

New Exoplanets that belong to Multiple Planet Systems:
HD215497 b, c
HD125612 b, c, d
BD-082823 b, c
HD103197 b, c

New Brown Dwarfs:
HIP103019 b
HD103197 b

*HD125612 b was previously known, so it's re-announcement can be considered as a verification.
There is so much to look into that i will leave it at this for now. You may head to the Exoplanet Encyclopedia (http://www.exoplanet.eu) to get more details on the new exoplanets.

One thing to note are the Brown Dwarf discoveries, one of which has been decided into being considered as an exoplanet (HD 85390 b) within the last few hours. We all know that some low mass Brown Dwarfs lie occupy the same mass range as those of large gas giant planets.
Some even consider Brown Dwarfs as "failed stars". A few years ago there have been some debate as to whether some low-mass Brown Dwarfs be considered as planets or stars. As more and more of them are discovered, i expect a mild resurgence of this healthy debate in the exoplanet communities.
But for now, I'd just like to smile. It's just great to start a monday with this kind of news.

October 11, 2009

Pandorum: Bad News for Extrasolar Spacefarers

The good news: We've found another habitable planet. And we're on our way there.

The bad news: Pandorum.

Pandorum outlines some horrifying things that could happen to spacefaring humans during a trip to another habitable exoplanet. A psychological sickness called "Pandorum" is just one of the many problems that humans may encounter along the way...plus some flesh-eating mutants.

Inside the colony spaceship called Elysium is where most of the action happens: the psychological thriller, battle with mutant creatures, gore, suspense, terror, and mystery.

Mystery is a key part of the movie. Pandorum must be treated as a puzzle to appreciate it. Thus it may not appeal to those who think linearly.

The Elysium spaceship is a kind of mystery in itself. I wondered about how the human colony of tens of thousands would grow their food to support such a large number of people on such a long journey. It is, however not a problem for the "other" passengers on the ship: The humans are their food! The designer of the colony ship seem not a big fan of windows, for a big reason: windows would've obliterated the punchline of the movie. You have to see it to solve the mystery. :)

I have to give credit to Pandorum for being the first scifi thriller movie that deals with the plot that has all the hallmarks of Exoplanetology: Mankind detects a habitable world, successfully sends a probe there, receives back the probe's signal that confirms the presence of life, then Humanity sends the first colony to explore that exoplanet.

Furthermore, the creators of this movie were able to fuse a spine-tingling story around that plot in an excellent manner. Thus it makes Pandorum my favorite scifi thriller movie.


October 7, 2009

SETI+Exoplanetology on TED

Those glaring eyes peered deep into my soul. Jill Tarter speaks and produces an inspiring piece at TED. Please take a moment to watch the entirety of this wonderful talk. It is special.



With Subtitle:

October 4, 2009

Exoplanetology on TED Talks

I love TED Talks. A few months ago, I wished that someone do a talk on Exoplanets. And here's a dream come true! Please welcome Garik Israelian talk about stars, exoplanets and how spectroscopy could reveal alien life.

September 22, 2009

Exoplanetology and Methuselarity

On Immortality and Reaching Other Worlds
I know, i know. I've been been reading too much Science Fiction lately. Unfortunately, I can't help it. Because the world itself is treading hauntingly close into the realm of sci-fi. For example, just a few days ago I've come across the concept called "Methuselarity".
Methuselarity is the point where we achieve the "Longevity Escape Velocity" (LEV) in the rate of progress of our anti-aging efforts. Longevity and Life-expectancy increases each year as new anti-aging treatments improve. The rate of progress of these technology and therapies will improve exponentially. And similar to the curve that leads to the Singularity, a point may be reached where a person can be constantly treated by life-extension technologies and regenerative medicine. Thus, this person can live longer than Methuselah himself. And, barring fatal accidents--this person can actually live forever. This "immortal" would be similar to the genetic experiments called the "Kildren" in the anime The Sky Crawlers who never grow old.
And it's amazing to think that if Methuselarity does indeed occur, a human being alive or born today might actually get the chance to set foot on an Exoplanet. That scenario, although far-fetched in all respects--may be considered as another culmination of human Space Exploration, especially that mankind must leave earth sooner or later.
The technology that will bring about Methuselarity will also be vital for humans in traversing interstellar space. A debatable issue is whether that person can still be called "human" after being treated with all sorts of radical life-extension technologies. Although "Posthuman" may be a better term, it may not capture the essence of what it means to be human anymore when the technology finally reveals itself.
The technology for anti-aging therapies and life-extension can be carried on "Exodus" ships that will leave the earth to populate other habitable worlds. And mind you, the arrival of Methuselarity would make it a must for Humanity to move off-world from Earth. Why? Because over-population would make Earth a living hell for Methuselarians. A crammed world would drive every "immortal" being on any planet mad. Call it Cabin Fever on a planetary scale.
The idea of a mass exodus of humanity from earth in search of other worlds has already been told in many science fiction novels. Some that i've encountered recently are "The Saga of Seven Suns" and the conceptual book "Exodyssey".
Although the plot of these stories does not mention the ramifications of the Methuselarity that I outlined above, perhaps a story on this Exoplanetology-Methuselarity connection will probably be written by a sci-fi novelist soon. And mind you, when a sci-fi story gets itself written, some aspects of it becomes a reality...in due time.
Owing to his out-of-this world ideas, some critics said that "Aubrey de Grey is effectively a science fiction writer", not knowing that it would turn out to be a compliment. But the Methuselarity is no sci-fi to him. He is directly involved in making it come into fruition via the SENS Foundation that he steers.
Perhaps the seeds for immortality are being planted. Will it's fruit take us to the stars and into other worlds?

September 12, 2009

Poetic Planetary Exploration: The Swamps of Sleethe

Today, I indulged the child in me by exploring other Worlds with child-like eyes through poetry. With bite-sized Exo-poems from Jack Prelutsky, The Swamps of Sleethe is a literary exploration of exoplanetary proportions. It is nicely complemented by the illustrations of Jimmy Pickering.
The moment I saw this book, I knew instantly that I had to show it to my kids, and review it. The blurb confirms that this is an enjoyable take on Exoplanets:
"Imagine that you're...travelling to unexplored planets far beyond our solar system...Travel to these far-flung worlds at your own risk!"
Of course, my 9-year-old loved it!
Indeed, wonder and terror is nicely woven by imagination within this book, plus an added fun to go with the play of words. The Swamps of Sleethe has an anagram game where the readers can decipher the word that describes the property of the planet in each poem. Take peek at these anagrams and see what you can come up with: Driffig, Fesstor, Gub, Skreber, Ogdofod, Sarbro, Theentor, Thade, Ning-fa-dee. They're actually cute names for exoplanets!

My favorite poem from the compilation is The Beholder in the Silence which I interpret to be about a Planemo--a sunless planet wandering the cosmos. Here's an excerpt:

Beholder in the Silence
On a planet gray and airless,
at the universe's rim,
Where the night is everlasting,
And the stars are ever dim...

The Beholder in the Silence,
With its one unblinking eye,
Stares into the boundless cosmos
Far beyond its sunless sky.


I also like the fact that the local inhabitants of the planets in the poems are given due attention. For example:

The Demon Birds of Lonithor
They soar above their planet
On perennial patrol-
To feast on otherworlders
Is their all-consuming goal.


And yes, believe it or not, the most poetic description of Extremophiles can be found on this book! The excerpt below suits well to inspire our young future astrobiologists!

The Swamps of Sleethe
On sweltering Sleethe, in swamps aseethe,
Malignant beings thrive,
Abhorrent things that need not breathe,
And yet are quite alive.


We are witnessing the arrival of the plurality of worlds, heralded by accelerating discoveries of weird planets way beyond our imagination. This book nicely introduces to young readers what is truly happening in our midst: bizarre new exoplanets are continually being found by planet-hunters that can only be described via imaginative prose and poetry, as how they can be magnificently rendered in The Swamps of Sleethe.

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September 3, 2009

Epsilon Aurigae and Exoplanets in Auriga Constellation

AurigaI've never really seen a star go dim. Stars may twinkle, but to actually notice a star become less brighter than previous observations over a period of weeks and months is worth an experience.
Determining the apparent magnitude of stars is an observational skill worth acquiring in Astronomy. Very useful for observing Variable Stars, Cepheids, and Eclipsing Binaries.
Observing one of these eclipsing binaries called Epsilon Aurigae was the first time i ever tried seriously estimating the magnitude of stars. My experience with it was variably less than stellar (pun intended). I had to cheat by first knowing the magnitudes of other stars around it and comparing them to each other. And there is one rule that i keep repeating to myself: The brighter the star, the lower the value of its magnitude. It's well worth mentioning again because it's quite confusing. Thus it helps to remember the magnitude of a few stars near the target to set the scale. I started with Capella, the brightest star of the Auriga Constellation which has a magnitude of 0.91, while the three "kids" around it range from 3.0 to 3.88. Epsilon Aurigae (Eps Aur) is the strangest of these kids, and one that lures me into it's mystery.
The strange thing about Eps Aur is that it brightens a bit midway through it's eclipse. Some say that its eclipsing companion is a cloud that has a hole in the middle which causes the strange phenomenon. This theory is but one among many and none of them is satisfactory at this point.
Thus, the appeal of helping to solve this mystery is energized by the fact that you can join a horde of Citizen Astronomers in the effort. The folks at CitizenSky.org makes this campaign possible. And they are doing a wonderful job.Citizen Sky
The experience i went through to submit my observations were very smooth. I admire how they accomplished the whole setup of tying in data with AAVSO to seamlessly provide me with an ID, present friendly forms to register and input my data, and then show me the graph--marked where my submission appears among the data crowd. Instant feedback!
I wanted to relate my enthusiasm with exoplanets to the mystery of Epsilon Aurigae by charting the known exoplanets within it's constellation. The result is a KMZ file for google sky, and a list at Freebase. As you can see, there is no known exoplanets nearby Eps Aur at this time. It would have been cool to compare it's magnitude with an exoplanet-host star within the same binocular field of view. I currently use my 15x50 Image-Stabilized Binoculars to compare Eta, Zeta and Epsilon's magnitudes since they all fit nicely within it's 4.5 degree FOV. I've pretty much "photographically" etched their view in my mind. And it would be exciting indeed to see the mysterious Epsilon star go dim in the coming months.
Whether exoplanets are involved or not, this is a very exciting thing to be part of. The mystery awaits!

Auriga Exoplanets:
HD 43691 b
WASP-12 b
HAT-P-9 b
HD 49674 b
HD 45350 b
HD 40979 b

Links:
CitizenSky.org
AAVSO
Epsilon Auriga

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August 20, 2009

District 9: Prawns from a Planet with Seven Moons

prawnThe young little prawn is endearing. The scene where he was curiously studying about his home planet is my favorite. Learning that they come from an exoplanet with se7en moons make me a happy camper, too. I would love to hang out with that cute little prawn and learn more about their planet which I speculate is earth-like in many respects. The temperature, atmosphere, terrain and gravity of their home world must be quite similar to Earth's, otherwise the prawns would not survive here if their planetary characteristics were any different.
District 9 is like a comic book, more enjoyable when viewed as such. Many loopholes in the plot are over-ruled by great cinematography. I'm only nagged by a single question of why the humans treated the aliens unintelligently. One would have naturally dealt with these prawns in a civilized way, as one would treat any visitor. Nevertheless, the movie gives homage to the directing prowess of Neill Blomkamp.
The movie will prove to be a great discussion for Xenosociology, the study of Alien Cultures and their social behaviours. It gets steamy when they interact with Humans in a complex setting (apartheid) where the dark elements of the human psyche is displayed. The aliens themselves are reduced to high-tech scavenger bugs.
It makes one think whether an Advanced Technological Civilization would make a race "civilized" at all. However, the drama that ensues manages to reveal the virtues common to both species.
District 9 is a neat little package that gives the freedom to draw one's own metaphors from. It is a great Sci-Fi movie that will reverberate in our culture for quite a while.

August 18, 2009

The Big Dipper and Exoplanets

Big Dipper ExoplanetsAs of today, August 2009 the total number of known exoplanets stands at 373. Almost every month or every week, there are new exoplanets being discovered.
Pretty soon, exoplanet discoveries will be a regular occurrence that it becomes an ordinary thing. After all, exoplanets may be as "common as table salt", and they are numerous as grains of sand on the beach.

And then people might begin to lose the wonder of it all.

Amidst the accelarating rate of discoveries, I hope that we never lose that sensawunda. That is why it is important to know the exoplanets in the skies. We must be able to point at the stars and say to someone, "Look! Right there is another world!"

What better way to start with the exoplanets in the most-recognized pattern in the night sky--The Big Dipper. The Plough or the Big Dipper is an asterism that is a part of the constellation called Ursa Major. As you stare at the Big Dipper, you may actually be gazing at exoplanets as well. Light that passed through the horizon of another world may actually reach your eyes. Feeble as they may be, the photons of light from other stars carries information about the planets they harbor. Light is the medium by which scientists examine the atmosphere of other worlds. Of course they use instruments that are a millions of times more sensitive than our eyes. And these photometric instruments gather starlight far more efficient than our retinas.

Within the field of view of that big scoop in the sky, there are currently ten eleven exoplanets (as of 03/09/2010) discovered so far. Well, none of these "Big Dipper Exoplanets" orbit the stars of the actual Big Dipper shape, but they belong to the stars within the Ursa Major constellation. We simply use the Big Dipper as a guide.

Among the noteworthy ones of these "Big Dipper Exoplanets" are 47 Ursae Majoris b, the first exoplanet to be discovered within Ursa Major in 1996. It was followed by it's sibling 47 Ursae Majoris c in 2001. Their parent star with a magnitude is 5.1 is visible with the naked eye. Then there's HD 80606 b, a superjovian planet with the most highly-eccentric orbit known so far. HAT-P-3 b is the easiest to find as it lies near Alkaid, the tip of the Big Dipper's handle. HD 118203 b lies close to it near the first joint of the handle.

The rest of them is scattered away from the plough. More information can be accessed with a link via the list below. A KMZ file is also provided for use via Google Sky. And a data set view is set up in Freebase such that any new exoplanet entered with a constellation value of Ursa Major will be automatically included in that data view.

Although at this time the list is tiny, we can expect this list to grow in the coming years. Perhaps the Big Dipper may become so full of exoplanets that it wouldn't be big enough to contain them all.

August 15, 2009

How To Know an Exoplanet's Orbit

The Rossiter–McLaughlin effectOne can never get enough of oddballs. A new exoplanet named WASP-17 b was found orbiting the wrong way relative to the direction of it's star's rotation. It is on a retrograde orbit.
Typically a star's spin, as well as the orbital motion of all it's planets go in the same direction of the swirls of the primeval gas and clouds from which they formed. This is the case with our own solar system--but not so with WASP-17, which is the first star system known with a planet orbiting in an odd way.
The story says that a violent collision with another massive rock sent the WASP-17's planet flying off in the other direction.
But how did the Astronomers find out about the direction of WASP-17b's orbit in the first place? A transit light curve alone does not tell whether an exoplanet passes across it's star from left to right or vise-versa.
It turns out that the WASP Team needed help from the planet hunters at the Geneva Observatory, who specialize in Radial Velocity (RV) measurements.
Here's the low-down on how Radial Velocity was used for WASP-17b which was primarilly a transiting exoplanet, "astronomers can identify the direction of a planet's orbit because of slight discrepancies in the radial velocity data when a planet transits a star. Because a star is rotating, one side of it is moving towards (or away) from Earth faster than the other side. During a transit, the planet covers first one side of the star and then the other, causing a slight but measurable shift in the radial velocity readings. If during the transit the star first appears to be moving relatively slowly towards the Earth, but then faster as the transit progresses, then the planet is orbiting in the same direction as the star's rotation. But if the reverse is the case – as it is for WASP-17 – then the planet is in a retrograde orbit."
That description is actually the The Rossiter–McLaughlin effect, and it was also mentioned to me by the twitter hive mind. I think The Rossiter–McLaughlin effect is the key part in understanding how to find out an exoplanet's direction of orbit. It's a phenomenon that weaves together the elements of the Doppler Shift, the star's wobble and Photometry.
It seemed counter-intuitive for me at first, knowing that the Transit Method used to find WASP-17 b is primarily used for detecting exoplanets from star systems whose orbital plane is edge-on with our view. While Radial Velocity (RV) I thought was used only for non-transiting exoplanets--whose orbital plane is not edge-on with our line of sight.
But now i realized that the planet-hunting methods can be used in tandem as "Planet-hunting Mash-ups" to make novel discoveries, as what happened with WASP-17b.
It's truly great to know that now we can find out the direction of an exoplanet's orbit, no matter how odd it is.

August 13, 2009

The Perseid Exoplanets

Perseid ExoplanetsFor yesterday's post, I painstakingly scoured the web for the known exoplanets that belong to the Perseus Constellation. Perhaps I should coin the term "Perseid Exoplanets" (in relation to the Perseid Meteors) for easy reference during the annual Perseid meteor-watching and exogazing activity.
And so with this post I gladly introduce the Perseid Exoplanets, along with some useful resources.
First is a printable image showing the location of the Perseid Exoplanets, along with the approximate location of the Perseid Meteors' radiant. Next is the KMZ file for Google Sky which i used to generate the image.
Then here's a view of their data on Freebase. Whenever someone enters data of any new exoplanet discovery within the Perseus field it will automatically be added to this list on Freebase.
Finally, below is a copy-paste friendly list of their locations in the sky via RA and Declination.
HD 17092 b 02:46:22,49:39:11
HD 23596 b 03:48:00.3739,40:31:50.287
HD 16175 b 02:37:01.9110,42:03:45.479
WASP-11b/HAT-P-10b 03:09:28.55,30:40:24.9

So what are you waiting for?! Print out these resources and go out there and start Meteorwatching and Exogazing!
Clear skies!

August 12, 2009

Meteor-watching and Exogazing

Perseid MeteorMid-summer August marks the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. And it is an amazing sight to see meteors streaking across the starry night sky. Meteor-watching is a very exciting activity especially if you are seeing "shooting stars" at the rate of ~20 per hour. But did you know that there is another cool activity you can do while waiting for the next streak of meteor across the same patch of sky?
That activity is called Exogazing. It is the process of locating particular stars which is orbited by known exoplanets discovered by planet-hunters.
Did you know that in the field of view around the radiant of the Perseid Meteors, there are several stars that have known exoplanets orbiting around them? In fact, in the constellation Perseus, we currently have 4 exoplanets namely HD 17092 b, HD 23596 b, HD 16175 b and WASP-11b/HAT-P-10b. There may be more, and here's several among the surrounding areas, namely within the constellations Cassiopeia (HD 17156 b, HD 7924 b), Camelopardalis (HD 33564 b), Auriga (HD 49674 b) and Triangulum (HD 13189 b). Some meteors streaks, which seems to emanate from the radiant will actually pass across these constellations in your field of view (FOV). Check out this nice simulation of the Perseid Meteor Shower at Shadow and Substance.
So it'll be fun that while you are watching for meteors in the surrounding area of the Perseus Constellation, you can actually try to pinpoint stars with discovered exoplanets and then tell your friends that those stars have planets around them.
Be warned though, that the stars of these exoplanets are quite faint and you probably need binoculars to exogaze at some of them. It may limit your view but if one happens to streak across your FOV, the sight would be fantastic if you follow the meteor with wide-field binoculars.
With the "Perseid Exoplanets" mentioned in this post, you can make your own list, perhaps add some more from the constellations Taurus or Andromeda. Then choose which ones are the brightest and suitable targets to begin with.
Good luck with Meteor-watching, and have fun Exogazing. May you have clear skies!

August 6, 2009

Yay! Kepler Works!

light curveEven though twitter was mostly down for the important announcement of the Kepler Mission, it did not dampen the excitement surrounding the update.
Kepler Works!
To prove it, the Kepler team produced a lightcurve of a previously known exoplanet, HAT-P-7 b, and found that Kepler's findings agree with previous observations of that planet. Oh, but there is so much more!
A cleaner light curve means that Kepler's data has less noise than those gathered by ground-based telescopes, which means more precision, and thus proves that Kepler is truly capable of detecting earth-sized worlds.
Most of all, Kepler's precision allowed the team to detect the atmosphere of a known gas giant planet. Based on the light curve, the trailing small dip corresponds to the occultation of HAT-P-7b--the part where the planet "hides" behind it's star. Taking this in consideration with the actual transit curve (the first major dip), the depth of the occultation and the shape and amplitude of the light curve show the planet has an atmosphere with a day-side temperature of about 4,310 degrees Fahrenheit. The occultation time compared to the main transit time also shows that the planet has a circular orbit.
All these bonus information is simply amazing! Not only does Kepler work, it works beautifully! Therefore, the Kepler Mission Team deserves a great commendation! And I'll drink to that! Yay! Kepler Works!

Links: Kepler Press Release

August 3, 2009

A Star for All Ages

VB 10In May of 2009, the discovery of a giant jupiter-like planet named VB 10b made headlines as the first planet discovered via the method called Astrometry. It is mentioned, but not given much emphasis that the the host star of VB 10b is the smallest star ever to be found harboring a planet. However, beneath this headline is an even more remarkable fact: VB 10 will outlive most stars in the universe.
Stars that small are very stingy with their energy production, they burn fuel ever so slowly. This is a striking contrast with the supergiant star Betelgeuse that used up most of it's fuel so quickly in a short time that it's now about to go nova.
Aside from being a long-lasting star in itself, VB 10b will actually use it's companion planet as an energy source in the future when VB10b tightens it's orbit and moves closer to it's sun. Yes, VB 10b is literally a "spare gas tank" for it's parent star. Greg Laughlin says, "The planet's gas will be a shot of fresh hydrogen to VB10 and should give it enough fuel to burn another 100 billion years -- basically forever."
And when we say forever, in this context it means close to the end of the universe, perhaps the last age of the cosmos where entropy has almost taken over, long after most other objects have faded into darkness.

August 2, 2009

Under The Frozen Sky

Herzog's FilmThe past week, I've been watching bits of Werner Hertzog's documentary called "Adventure at the End of the World".
In the segment "Under The Frozen Sky" of this rare film, it shows what it looks like below the frozen ice of Antartica.
Beneath the ice and under the "frozen sky" is an other-worldly landscape home to uncanny creatures that thrive within it's extreme cold. It's a place where the "clouds" are bubbles of air trapped underneath a bluish ceiling, sliding like mercury along the contours of the ice.
My growing desire to glimpse other worlds and lifeforms mesmerizes me whenever I learn about new wonders of Earth. Antartica is a wonderful place. But at one point the film mentioned that the challenge of human adventure and our thirst for the unknown seems to have ended in this cold desolate part of our planet.Jellyfish
"On a Cultural Level, it meant the end of adventure" when the last unknown spots of the earth was exposed and "Human adventure...lost it's meaning", the narrator says.
I felt a certain sense of bleakness at this thought.
However, when Herzog mentioned that Antartica "comes closest to what a future space settlement would look like", I sprang with renewed enthusiasm. And this enthusiasm was fed further by the timely arrival of Apex Magazine in my mailbox yesterday. Upon which my attention was immediately caught by Jeff Carlson's novelette curiously entitled "The Frozen Sky".
It was set in the sixth moon of Jupiter, Europa.Apex Magazine
And when i began reading it, I couldn't stop. The narrative blended so well with the science behind a world yet to be explored. It gripped me, a world with a crust of thick ice, possibly riddled with exotic alien lifeforms hidden underneath. Suddenly, the scenes from "Under The Frozen Sky" played back in mind.EuropaThe Frozen Sky is an example of the kind of science fiction that I want to read in the coming era of exoplanet discoveries. Soon I hope to read stories where the exoplanetary world used as a setting is given as much personality as the characters themselves. And I would like the science behind the story to be imaginatively elegant, so as to be almost theoretical.
Narratives have that amazing quality to educate and to inspire. And it would be great to start a cycle of ideas flowing between new exoplanet discoveries and science fiction. Imagine all the new inspiration it would bring for space travel, for human adventure, and desire for discovering new wonders.

August 1, 2009

The Sonneteer Ponders Habitable Exoplanets

SonneteerI recently had a very pleasant surprise when a Sonneteer accepted a 'sonnet dare' that i posted to her via twitter. I was curious as to how Kate Sherrod the poet behind the typewriter at SupperTime Sonnets--would render the sociological impact of exoplanet discoveries.
And sure enough, I got a wonderful sonnet entitled "In Which I ponder Habitable Planets".
This sonnet expresses the most poetic question ever for planetary science:
"Is earth unique as an abode for life like ours?"
But the best is yet to come. I was not aware that Kate would actually read the sonnet herself! And what a soothing voice I heard when i listened to her KateofMind podcast!
Kudos to Kate for a nice sonnet-rendition of the idea that some folks would still not believe it even if Kepler discovers far-away earth-like worlds. After all, she says--there are still naysayers of the moon landing even after the LRO recently snapped photos of Apollo 11.
Thus, whether Kepler finds Habitable Planets or not, we can still enjoy the sonnet as I did!

In Which I Ponder Habitable Exoplanets

In March the Kepler probe began to seek
The subtle signs of planets far in space
That circle other stars. Is Earth unique
As an abode for life like ours? This place
Which some believe's created just for us
Might not be all that special, all that rare.
But then I ponder on Copernicus,
Who laid the Ptolemaic theory bare
And proved to all the Earth goes round the sun.
It took hundreds of years before some folk
Accepted this, unbanned his book and one
Suspects that out there still, like some great joke
Are people who'll insist his work's all lies
And exoplanets naught but fireflies.

July 25, 2009

Space Alone

A great story! 'Space Alone' is a great tale for future explorers of exoplanets (exoplorers), and for those who search for life in space.

July 23, 2009

Farthest, Nearest...and any exoplanet in between

ExoplanetOn twitter, someone asked me a question how far away the most distant confirmed exoplanet is. The answer is quite tricky. Rapid developments in exoplanet discovery renders the answer outdated within a few months or few years. Therefore, my answer will involve *how* to obtain the answer from the web so that the answer will have a longer "shelf-life" and stay as close to accurate as possible. Hopefully, this post will also benefit those who want answers to related questions--such as what the closest exoplanet is, and so on.
Start by going to The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia and sort the catalog via distance (by clicking the distance column).
The answer yields the topnotch most distant exoplanets to date OGLE-05-390L b, MOA-2007-BLG-400-L b at around 6,500 & 6,000 parsecs. This is roughly around ~21,190 & ~19,500 light-years away respectively.
But remember, independent exoplanet researchers from different countries may publish papers with different values. And you may stumble upon outdated information. The exoplanet SWEEPS-10 is still listed at 22,000 light-years away. So a little bit of research is definitely needed to answer questions in the nascent field of Exoplanetology.
Now if you want to be adventurous and ask a "mashup" question such as "What is the closest Super-earth?" then I recommend playing with the list of exoplanets on Exoplanetology at Freebase.
In that interface, you can add columns and refine the view to obtain details you've never seen before. More details will be reserved for another blogpost about Freebase, but the main thing to note is that answering your questions means getting involved with it in some way.
In a new field of Science, you most often need to input reliable data in order to obtain reliable answers. You can start by getting an account at Freebase and start inputting reliable data from reliable sources.
In this day and age where Citizen Science is proliferating, your interest is very precious. You are encouraged to contribute and learn. That makes you part of the revolution in Science.