January 31, 2009

Simulation & Visualization of Exoplanet HD 80606 b

HD 80606 bSimulation reared its head again. This enigmatic photo was rendered from data of an exoplanet known as HD 80606 b. This planet circles a star 200 light years from Earth, is four times the mass of Jupiter, and has the most eccentric orbit of any known planet. It spends most of its 111.4-day orbit at distances that would place it between Venus and Earth in our own solar system, while the closest part of its orbit brings it within 0.03 astronomical units of its star (one astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the Sun).
I enjoy the fact that the exoplanet was imaged from data taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. It is an amazing piece of visualization. We will see more of Simulation, Visualization and Imaging as data comes pouring in from planet-hunting telescopes.


January 29, 2009

Another Earth

Could we be unique in the universe or is there another planet similar to earth somewhere in the cosmos? Is it possible that Alpha Centauri, our nearest star, is home to another earth-like planet? Earth sized planets have been hard to find, but indirect methods are coming on line to give scientists a good survey of how many such bodies may be in the universe. How rare would it be to find life on another earth-like planet?

For more info, please visit http://www.history.com/universe

January 21, 2009

MOA-192 b still at 3.3 Earth Masses

Bummer. There was an error.
The flood of news reporting that the mass of exoplanet MOA-2007-BLG-192L b (MOA-192 b) was revised to 1.5 or 1.4 Earth masses was an error.
Officially, the correct mass of MOA-192 b is still 3.3 Earth masses, and NOT 1.5 Earth masses as reported in the news yesterday.
Lest I myself err in that regard, I am posting the exact message today from David Bennett who wrote to the exoplanet mailing list I am subscribed to.

"The New Scientist and perhaps other media outlets are reporting that the mass of MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb has been revised down to 1.5 Earth masses, but these reports are in error. The reporter has been confused by a report of one of my colleagues regarding a revision in the mass estimate that would be possible if the host star was confirmed to be a ~0.09 solar mass M-dwarf instead of a brown dwarf. The correct mass estimate remains 3.3 (+4.9 / - 1.8) Earth masses. This is currently the lowest mass estimate for an exoplanet except for PSR 1257+12 b, but the error bars have large overlap with a number of other planets detected by both radial velocities and microlensing." - David Bennett, for the MOA, OGLE, and PLANET collaborations

Thus, MOA-2007-BLG-192L b remains as a Super-earth. And Earth-like Worlds remain elusive. But with the launch of Kepler this coming March 2009, true Earth-like worlds will even come closer to being discovered.
I can hardly wait.

January 20, 2009

The Role of Computer Simulations in Exoplanetology

Computer SimulationA few posts ago, I have predicted about the huge potential of utilizing computer simulations to help in the theoretical aspects of Exoplanetology.
This latest software in data visualization is a welcome news in the field: It makes analysis and visualization of huge data sets possible without the aid of a supercomputer. It's algorithm slices up data into more manageable chunks, then stitches it back together on the fly, so that the data can be manipulated in three dimensions, all on a computer with the power and capacity of a high-end laptop.
I think it will help amateurs to jump in on any data intensive field of research that deals with huge data sets, and make visualizations. I can't wait to download this software and run my own simulations of planet-formations.
I will keep a close watch as it will be released as open source sometime in March.

Now here's the surprise:

A few days after reading about that software and drooling over it in my sleep, some news came about a computer simulation that solved how massive stars form. A three-dimensional computer simulation was used to model the collapse of a giant interstellar gas cloud to form a massive star. Now I do not know what software they used to pull off such a feat. Did they get an early edition of the software I was raving about? It's all shrouded in secrecy.
Whatever the case, the role of computer simulations will be a very important factor in Exoplanet Research in the coming years. And with Open Source Software, it will indeed be very interesting for amateurs and enthusiasts in the field.

January 15, 2009

Mars as an exoplanet

MarsI know, i know. Mars is not an exoplanet. So I better keep away because this blog is only about exoplanets. But the prospect of life on Mars is irresistible to not think about, lest write about. So let's pretend the Mars is an exoplanet for now so I have a valid reason to write about it.
What do i think about the methane on Mars? Is it geological in nature, or biological? At this point, it can go either way. I could end this post with a 50/50 to play it safe. But that would be boring.
So i'll share what's on my mind: I have a 60% hunch that the methane is caused by microbes. 40% chance it is caused by geochemical means.
Let me give 2 clues why i think so.
First, Mars has no magnetic field. It may have little movement going on within it's interior by way of lava. That is why there are no active volcanos on Mars.
Second, there are microbes known to man that can thrive in temperatures as frigid as Mars. If "psychrotolerant" doesn't ring a bell, feel free to visit this discovery made by NASA scientists themselves way back in 2005. I think the Marsian organisms responsible for the methane are similar to Carnobacterium pleistocenium, an extremophile that can survive a frozen state.
The "seasonal" detection of methane may be due to the thawing of these hardy creatures. And you know what happens when microbes wake up during the warmer Martian summers - they eat, and fart (there goes your methane). Then they sleep again when the Martian winter sets in.
It will take years to send probes and dig up the site, or do some methane isotope-testing to settle the score. Until then, one thing i can suggest is to measure the seasonal methane emissions at exact intervals and see if they increase over time. If the level of seasonal methane increases every Martian year, then that could mean the population of microbes are increasing. Now that further increases the probability that the methane is indeed caused by, well...microbes.
If I'm wrong, well just remember: I was pretending that Mars was an exoplanet. Now if there are tons of Mars-like exoplanets out there, my scenario must be right in at least one of them!

January 9, 2009

The Goldilocks Zone

Goldilocks ZoneI got a pleasant surprise just now when I happened to just check out this twitter ego thing called twitemperature. For a moment, I thought that some kind of Artificial Intelligence was running in it's backend to generate such a fitting remark for Exoplanetology:

"You're not too hot. You're not too cold. You're the Goldilocks of Twitter."

What's funny is that I happened to be thinking about The Goldilocks Zone just a few days ago.
If Earth were a little closer to the sun it might be like hot choking Venus; a little farther, like cold arid Mars. Somehow, though, we ended up in just the right place with just the right ingredients for life to flourish. We are in "The Goldilocks Zone."
The big prize in Exoplanetology is to spot a rocky planet that lies in this Goldilocks Zone, where the temperature is not so hot that water evaporates, nor so cold that it is perpetually frozen, but "just right", enabling water to exist in liquid form.
The 'Holy Grail' for today's planet-hunters is to find an Earth-like planet that also has water in its atmosphere.
In the search for life, it turns out that we are Goldilocks.

January 6, 2009

Exoplanet data: A landscape to be filled and mined

Exoplanet DataThis post is about the data aspect behind the study of exoplanets.
I learned the other day that Kepler was one of the first advocates of freely sharing scientific data. In the spirit of astronomy and open source, I would like to call on the organizations behind planet-hunting telescopes and the soon-to-be-launched new generation telescopes to eventually share the data to enable amateurs to help in the discovery of new exoplanets. (winks at NASA)
Perhaps we can revolutionize amateursourcing and take it to new levels. "Amateur" comes from latin word amatore which means "lover" or "lover of". You'll be amazed at the power of love!
On another vein, I would like to invite enthusiasts to contribute to exoplanet data on Freebase - an open database of structured information.
When information is structured, you can systematically query and extract useful information far more easily and quickly. With Freebase, you can ask questions like "Which exoplanets are habitable that are older than earth?" or "Which exoplanets discovered via Gravitational Microlensing lie within the Habitable Zone (HZ)?". You can then get answers fairly easily using their query language (MQL). This ability to tap into structured data could provide us with unprecedented insights into the study of Exoplanets.
The only problem right now is that we don't have enough data yet in there to extract useful correlations. And that is why you are needed. Once you jump in and contribute data, you'll have so much fun learning, too.
"I learn as I contribute" is the mantra I have discovered in my experience with Freebase. Alternately, it's also true the other way around: I contribute what I learn.
Here's a tip for any enthusiast, researcher and student of exoplanets: Open Freebase in a window pointed at the exoplanetology base or exoplanet table. Then start with a question. Don't worry if it sounds silly. A question will get you going. Say, "Which terrestrial exoplanet is closest to Earth?" Then try playing with the filters and views. The advanced filter has been the most fun for me, coupled with edting the views.
This exercise will enable you to begin seeing the missing pieces of data that are needed to answer your question(s).
You may then have to go to noteworthy sites like the The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia to get the bits of data that you need. Some other sources of data can be found in this list of catalogs for cross-referencing.
Then try entering these gems of data into Freebase.
Soon enough, you'll find out that having the capability to query structured multi-dimensional data makes Freebase a wonderful tool for Science2.0. But first we need the data and the volunteers to make it happen! :)
Come on, join the fun, and show the love!

January 1, 2009

The Future of Exoplanetology

They say the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Here is how the future will be invented as seen from the lens of Exoplanetology. The list below can be treated as a roadmap for those involved. It can also be considered as a hopeful glimpse of what is to come.

1) Deluge of Exoplanets - between 60 to 80 new exoplanets within 2009 will be discovered. Last year's forecast of 60+ new exoplanets for 2008 came true. Yet again, there is no reason why this year's planet-hunt won't be as exciting as last year.
2) New Eyes - The development of new generation telescopes (both space-based and land-based) will continue from this year onwards to bring unprecedented new discoveries. See this list of telescopes to see astronomy's new arsenal, which includes Kepler, Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF), James Webb Telescope, Spitzer Telescope, New Worlds Mission, and Space Interferometry Mission (SIM). Although direct imaging technique will continue to make waves in the news, transit method will continue to pile up new exoplanet discoveries. The power of a new set of eyes will set the stage for amazing things that is to come.
3) New Brains - data gathered by some new generation telescopes will gradually be opened up for public consumption starting in 2010 or 2011. Number-crunchers, algorithms and software will sift through terabytes and petabytes of collected data to discover new planets by way of numbers, statistics, and computation. Candidates for "habitables", exoplanets that lie inside the habitable zone (HZ), will be filtered from massive amounts of data, helping telescopes identify good interesting targets.
More powerful but cheaper computers, with dual core or multiple core set up in parallel, will enable more detailed simulations of planet-formations and alien solar systems, providing better insights for exoplanet science.
4) Amateur Boom - Amateur exoplanetology will explode. Projects similar to Systemic, SETI@home (or their mashup) will enable amateurs to contribute to science. Crowdsourcing, baby! Or call it Amateursourcing!
Cheaper and more powerful telescopes, and affordable CCDs for differential photometry will enable amateur astronomers to discover new exoplanets, a la do-it-yourself (DIY) exoplanet-hunting. This will take off, possibly going mainstream in amateur astronomy sometime in 2010 or 2011 onwards.
5) Signs of life - More signs of life beginning in 2010-ish. More organic clues detected in atmosphere of exoplanets. Strong evidence will continue to mount, pointing to the ever-growing possibility of extra-terrestrial life.
6) Superdupers - More Super-Earth detections will become more common starting in 2011 or 2014. "Habitables" or "Habs" will pour in. Water-worlds will flood the news.
7) Exotics - Exomoon detection capability takes off in 2012 to 2014. New exotic discoveries will also start to pour in. Classifying celestial objects becomes even more challenging for astronomers. Imagine earth-sized exomoons with their own moons! What will you call them? Exomoonoids?
8) Earth Galore - More and more Habs and earth-like planets in habitable zones between 2015 to 2020 will pour in. Advances in technology and planet-hunting methods will enable us to resolve exoplanets the size of earth and smaller. There will then be more than a thousand total exoplanets in the list. Direct-imaging methods will be in greater demand as ever.
9) Shockwave - Mankind will be thrown in a theological and religious turmoil. A period of adjustments in worldviews will occur as mankind tries to make sense of their being amidst the impending discovery of another earth with life.
Spiritual individuals have no problems with it whatsoever. But Religions will start to revise old beliefs and begin re-interpreting scriptures to prepare for the ramifications of the discovery of...
10) Life - Scientific confirmation of exo-life happens between 2020 to 2030-ish. Astrobiologists will finally confirm that life exists on another planet of another star. It may not be in an earth-like exoplanet at all, perhaps not even in a planet, and may not even be life-like. It is something so incredible that no one has ever predicted.