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, being mentioned in some important papers. Michel Mayor even said that the future of Exoplanetology is bright!

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.

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.

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!

Geminid Exoplanets on Freebase
Geminid Exoplanets KMZ file
The Geminids 2009