December 30, 2010

Exobiology, Astrobiology and Exoplanets


So I tried Google's Ngram viewer on Exobiology, Astrobiology and Exoplanet, and came up with the chart shown above. As an added perk, I overlayed the yearly count of exoplanet discoveries on the graph.

As you can see, the term Exobiology was more popular than Astrobiology back then. And the word "Exoplanet" never occurred in any books prior to the 80's. But it all changed when the first confirmed exoplanet was announced in 1992. It was then that the trend of the exoplanet began, and propelled a sudden surge of interest in Astrobiology.

As new exoplanet discoveries continued to pile up, so did the field of Astrobiology continue to grow, evident in the increasing usage of the term in published books. By 1997, a few years after the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, the word astrobiology overtook exobiology.

Suddenly, Astrobiology was hip. It became increasingly more popular overnight, as if riding on the wave of exoplanets.

But what happened with the word Exobiology? Why didn't it pick up as much as Astrobiology did? It's a curious historical note, and the answer could be anyone's guess. And I'll give it a try.

The term Exobiology was coined by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist named Joshua Lederberg. I do not know exactly when the word Astrobiology was adopted to replace Exobiology but all we know is that it specifically means the "study of life beyond the Earth". But since there's no known life beyond the Earth (yet!), people said it's a field with no subject matter. That may well be a plausible reason why the term didn't catch on, no matter how cool the prefix "exo" is.

And since the term Astrobiology already picked up the momentum, it also locked on as the bastion to the science of "Life elsewhere in the universe"--a phrase that makes it seem a wider field than by just saying "Life outside earth".

Now here are questions to entice the next generation. Will exobiology make a comeback? Do you think the word exoplanet will skyrocket in the next decade? And what about...ahem...Exoplanetology?

Only time will tell.

December 29, 2010

Exogasm

I woke up one day wondering what kind of "gasm" I would describe for that ecstatic feeling about exoplanets. I toyed around with "exogasm". And I liked the fun suggestions from the twitters. But never did I realize that on that same day (December 1) my mind would be blown by a kind of cerebral experience brought about by the prospect of new worlds. Lots of them!

Several "foreplay" news items came into view through my twitter stream. First was that news of the first time a super-earth's atmosphere was ever examined.

But nothing would prepare me for a gasm that is truly mind-blowing: The number of stars in universe were more numerous than previously thought--so much more that the total number of stars in the universe is likely three times bigger than realized!

The tidbits below says it all in one word: Exogasm!

"There are about 20 times more red dwarfs in elliptical galaxies than in the Milky Way. In addition to boosting the total number of stars in the universe, the discovery also increases the number of planets orbiting those stars, which in turn elevates the number of planets that might harbor life."

"There are possibly trillions of Earths orbiting these stars."

Links:
Latest Star Census Increases Number of Exoplanets
Atmosphere Around Super-earth analysed for the first time

December 22, 2010

Exoplanet is the new Planet

I try to stay away from the debate about Pluto. My issue is not about Pluto. It's about the Planet. One can mock Pluto a thousand times over, and the best (or worst) it could do is annoy people. Sometimes it does get to me, so i have to remind myself that I am more concerned about the concept of the planet, and the idea it represents, and the ideal it imparts to the human psyche.

Let me begin by saying that I think I am falling in love with planets. I don’t know how, but during the course of following the saga of exoplanets it must have been inevitable (after all, the ‘exoplanet’ bears the name of ‘planet’).

With new discoveries that pour in almost daily about planets in other star systems, Exoplanets are a constant source of amazement. They continue to remind me that I can never know enough, that this fascinating universe is an endless source of wonder.

But...something keeps getting in the way. Something mind-numbing creeps in when I read something about what a ‘planet’ is defined to be. It has bothered me so much that I had to use “worlds” as an alternative keyword to hook me back in wonder about these spherical objects in space.

Why? What happened with the term “planet”? What happened with the magical and mythical concept that the Greeks once started with, saying that these mysterious points of light are ‘wanderers’?

The problem began when mankind started to *define* the Planet. We relentlessly squished the concept of a planet with words so that it could fit within our tiny skulls.

I looked into the two sides of the debate, learning as much as I can to understand, but the mandated definition of the Planet really does not appeal to me. In the spirit of freethinking, I humbly decline to subscribe in the 'official' definition of the planet.

Why? What have humans done to the concept of the planet?

There is nothing inherently wrong with classifying things, and certainly nothing wrong with identifying the boundaries in order to characterize objects, but I think we had the wrong attitude when we made up the criteria for planets.

And that is the sad thing about it. Instead of trying to widen the concept of the Planet, we tried to limit it. The kind of thinking that is promoted by the current definition of the planet is a divisive mode of mentality. You see, in our world, much strife is borne out of a discriminating mindset--a way of thinking that focuses on the differences and not on the similarites.

"The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think." ~Gregory Bateson

Today, dwarf planets are not considered planets at all, despite calling them 'dwarf planets'. Is it a matter of linguistic fallacy that makes it all nonsensical? (Dwarf galaxies are galaxies, and dwarf stars are stars, but dwarf planets are not planets?)

Or is it just the mode of thinking? Why deny dwarf planets of being planets? Such judgement mirrors a way of thinking that is alienating and divisive.

It is certainly valid if you consider dwarf planets as a subset or variation of the wide scope of planets. This alternative method of classification exemplifies a way of thinking that respects differences and yet aims to see things as One.

You can choose a mindset that seeks to see all kinds of planets in a wholistic fashion, and delight in their diversity. Or you could choose a discriminating mentality, segregating a class of planet-worlds that don’t fit in your limited notion based on one star system alone--yours.

The Pluto debate is a clash of mentalities. And it has marred the concept of the planet. I hope that the next generation never inherits the discriminating mentality that is present in that conflict.

I rest my case in the lessons that exoplanets are teaching us. They continue to challenge our pre-defined notions of what a planet truly is. They continue to be a source of wonder, in the same way that the Ancient Greeks felt about their ‘wanderers’. In our modern era, only the Exoplanet can conjure that feeling of mystery and discovery ascribed to such mysterious objects.

For me, Exoplanet is the new Planet.

I wish we never end up defining the Exoplanet in the same way we did for the Planet, for I wish to keep the concept of the Exoplanet with awesomeness and wonder.

December 14, 2010

Exoplanetary Bow Shocks

Exoplanetary Bow Shock
We've heard of stellar bow shocks before. But I bet no one has heard of bow shocks of planets just yet! Exoplanetary Bow Shocks would be an amazing sight to see. I am surprised by the lack of pictures that I can find on the web on how it would look like. So I made one of my own.

Now here's an unusual trivia about exoplanetary bow shocks which caught my attention: Exoplanetary Bow Shocks can also appear from behind the planet! Astrophysicists call them "behind-shocks".

Another case, is when the shock trails the planet. In the “behind-shock” case, the planet orbits the star beyond the Keplerian co-rotation radius, so that the coronal plasma lags behind the planetary motion. In order to develop a behind-shock, the planet must be in a prograde orbit.

Now, of course I wanted to imagine how a bow shock would look like when viewed from the surface of the planet. A question brewed in my mind: Would an exoplanetary bow shock look like the Aurora? Yes. But you would not be around long enough to see much of it, for the bow shocks described in the paper are stellar plasma emanating from the star that interacts with the magnetic fields of both the planet and star itself. Imagine yourself being burnt to a crisp while watching a beautiful 'Aurora' show.

The planetary magnetic field is believed to be responsible for shielding the planet against the erosion of the planetary atmosphere by the host star’s wind or the impact of energetic cosmic particles. Such effects could harm creation and development of life in the planet.
Furthermore, the presence of a planetary magnetic field may induce star-planet interactions, e.g., through reconnection between stellar and planetary magnetic field lines.

But of course, planets farther away from the star would have a more gentler bow shock, and a milder shower of stellar material. I would assume different kinds of beauty and variety that one would see if one were to look up from the surface of an exoplanet with a faint bow shock. And it hit me! We have those here on earth! We know them as Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis!

And that whole visual imagining is the whole reason why the arxiv paper inspired me to write a story, entitled “Worlds Hopper”. The ArXiV paper is rich with information. It contains lists and data tables of exoplanets which may possibly have bow shocks. Some of them are WASP-12b, OGLE-TR-56b, WASP-19b, SWEEPS-11,WASP-4b,WASP-18b, CoRoT-7b, CoRoT-14b, HAT-P-7b, OGLE-TR-132b, CoRoT-1b, TrES-3, and WASP-5b.

Well, these bow shocked exoplanets are quite a handful, eh? Go check out the paper and tell me what you think.

Links:
Prospects for Detection of Exoplanet Magnetic Fields Through Bow-Shock Observations During Transits
Transit Variability in Bow Shock-Hosting Exoplanets (PDF)
Short Story: Worlds Hopper

December 2, 2010

Other Platforms of Life

Mono Lake, where the arsenic-loving GFAJ-1 was found.
Life as we know it appears to have a common base. All of us, from the smallest amoeba, to the largest whale, share the same platform of life: Carbon.

And we think that life can only occur in one way, in one place and at one time in the history of the earth.

Today, all that is about to change.

NASA scientists have found a bacteria whose biochemical make-up is quite different from the carbon-based life that we know of.

A bacteria called GFAJ-1 has been found in Mono Lake that eats arsenic, and also incorporates arsenic in its DNA as replacement for phosphorus--one of the usual set of components of "CHNOPS" (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur) that form the basis of all life on earth.

I’ve always believed that our form of life is the only possible configuration. And now there is direct scientific evidence that it is possible for life to occur in other platforms.

This finding is mindblowing. It gives a preview of a "shadow biosphere" that could exist on our planet, and may strengthen the idea that life may be rampant elsewhere in the universe. All the more that this fascinating discovery was announced a day after astronomers revealed that the number of stars is 3 times more numerous than previously known--which means that there are gazillions more of exoplanets exist!

If we just found a hint of “shadow life” on our very own planet, then one can imagine the richness of life originating on other conditions and other chemicals on other planets.

Links:
Arsenic-eating microbe may redefine chemistry of life
Arsenic-Eating Bacteria Opens New Possibilities

The Exoplanet Generation

Image credit: ESO
I asked my seven-year-old daughter, "What do you call a planet outside our solar sys..." I didn't even finish my question when she excitedly exclaimed, "EXOPLANET!!!"

I laughed. She smiled. And then I realized: I am talking to a child of the "Exoplanet Generation", the young ones that were born from 1992 and onwards. It's the year when the first discovered exoplanet (orbiting a pulsar called PSR B1257+12) was announced. From then onwards, the accelerating rate of discovery defined the pulse of the Exoplanet Generation.

These "ExoGen" kids will grow up in a world very different from our own. When I was seven, i had no idea about other worlds. But the children of the exoplanet generation will bask in the weekly or daily news about the new exoplanet discoveries. They will wake up hearing new discoveries about how other lifeforms in platforms other than carbon may be able to thrive, or how life is possible on planets and moons outside our solar system.

Perhaps, in their lifetime they will witness the discovery of exolife, or be the ones to make the discovery itself, of life on other worlds!

And so, ExoGen kids...Welcome to brave New Worlds!

November 29, 2010

Exogazing 51 Pegasi b

It's been a while since the last time I spotted stars with known exoplanets. So, I decided to sneak out last night, grabbing my binoculars and hurrying out to my back yard, droid in my pocket running the latest version of the Sky Map app.

The target: 51 Pegasi b (51 Peg b), around a faint star (magnitude 5.5) located just a little to the side of the line connecting Markab and Scheat, two of the four major stars making up the “Great Square” of Pegasus.

It was relatively easy spotting 51 Peg, thanks to the two guide stars--Sadalbari and Sadalpheretz--all three of them fit nicely within a 4.5 Deg FOV of my binoculars.

The circle denotes what I see through my binoculars with a  4.5 degree FOV 
When I tried to verify what I saw through my binoculars by consulting my starmap, I grabbed a quarter coin to draw a circle to denote my binocular’s FOV. To my surprise, the coin's circle fits nicely with the FOV of my binoculars!

The quarter coin matches my binocular's FOV of the night sky!

Discovering that a quarter coin is approximately 4.5 degrees on my starmap which closely matches what I see of the night sky through my binoculars, would allow me to exogaze a little bit faster next time. Yay!

November 24, 2010

Giordano Bruno, Imaginative Logic, and the Plurality of Worlds

I am gripped by a certain sense of nostalgia every time I read old books. There's something about those archaic sentences, or the fonts, which I imagine being printed by old, rusty movable types. Even more so, is that I am intrigued by the authors’ way of thinking in those early days when Science and Astronomy were in its infancy.

Thus, in the inquiry about other Worlds, what were the thinker's methods of thought in the olden days when there was no internet? How far can their ideas go when all they had were just the pure sight of Nature to power their brains?

Yesterday, I came across this book "Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science", in which the author reevaluates Bruno's contribution to the scientific revolution. We all heard about that the guy before, that pesky hooded friar who got burned at the stake for his heretical views.

Now let’s take a peek at how Bruno came up with his Philosophy and way of thinking. In one instance, Bruno “wishes to prove that opaque bodies lying between the eye and luminous bodies can easily disappear from the field of vision: a point which he illustrates by holding a matchstick between his eyes and a lighted candle."

Albeit primitive, Bruno noted the same difficulty involved in exoplanet-hunting; that it's like trying to find a firefly across the backdrop of a searchlight, as modern-day astronomers would often say. Had Bruno written that the distant star's light would be dimmed in a measurable way by an orbiting planet passing across the viewer's line of sight, he would have hinted at one of the most successful methods in Exoplanet-hunting, the Transit Method.

In his time, such an insight is not bad. Apparently, Bruno used "Imaginative Logic" (in contrast to rational logic) as his thinking method to come up with his ideas, which were considered quite radical at that time. Nevertheless, Bruno stumbled onto something bigger, an idea so true and powerful that he was willing to give up his life for it.

Today with more than five hundred known worlds on other stars, we are basking in that idea now.

The Plurality of Worlds "...constitutes the essential premise for the new cosmology of Bruno, whose universe is filled with infinite worlds, most of which are invisible to the naked eye."


"In space there are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours. For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies that may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human earth."
~ Giordano Bruno, 1584


"All philosophy is based on two things only: curiosity and poor eyesight; if you had better eyesight you could see perfectly well whether or not these stars are solar systems, and if you were less curious you wouldn't care about knowing, which amounts to the same thing. the trouble is, we want to know more than what we can see."
~ Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations on the Plurality of the Worlds, 1686

Links:
Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science

November 20, 2010

Exoplanet 500

I wrote this post to mark a milestone in Exoplanet Science. There are now over five hundred known exoplanets in our database.

It may not be such a big deal. Five Hundred is not much. Not until one considers the fact that gazillions of planets wander the galaxy. It means that cataloguing worlds is an infinite pursuit. Such task tickles the potential of the whole human race, and the human mind.

We have "Indy 500", and we have "Fortune 500", now why not have "Exoplanet 500"?

Yes, "Five Hundred" is fun to utter. And as I sing it out loud, I reflect upon the accomplishments of the Astronomers whose dedication continue to expand our view of the Cosmos.

Amazing how far we've gone as a curious species.

Now's a good time to pause and appreciate the contributions of the rest of the Scientists, Philosophers, Artists, Thinkers and Dreamers--not only those that are currently in our midst, but especially those who have gone before us. They are the Giants upon whose shoulders we are standing on to get a better view of our wondrous universe, enabling us to glimpse New Worlds.

"For I would walk 500 miles, and i will walk 500 more..."
~ The Proclaimers, I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)

Tadalala! Tadalala...tadalalalalalaa...


Links:
Exoplanet Encyclopaedia

November 18, 2010

Intergalactic Planetary...Planetary Intergalactic...Another Dimension...Another Dimension...

I don't really listen much to rap music, but today I suddenly found this song playin' inside my head.

"Intergalactic Planetary...Planetary Intergalactic...Another Dimension...Another Dimension..."

So what's with the rapping and a-tapping, you ask? Well, we've just found a planet that's "Intergalactic". And rightly so. Because this planet named "HIP 13044 b" actually originated from another galaxy which was eventually swallowed up by our own Milky Way galaxy. Yes, it moved from one galaxy to another. And that makes it truly Intergalactic!

Yeah, yeah so what does the "another dimension...another dimension" got to do with it? Well, on this same day after the exogalactic exoplanet was announced, news came out of the possible proof of extra dimensions via the bending of light by black holes. Yup, another dimension...another dimension...

Now do you understand why the Beastie Boys are screaming in my head? "Intergalactic Planetary...Planetary Intergalactic...Another Dimension...Another Dimension..."

Links:
Planet from Another Galaxy Discovered (ESO)
Extragalactic Planet by PhysOrg
Extragalactic Exoplanet via SciAm
Proof of Another Dimension?

November 4, 2010

My First Foray into Data Visualization with Exoplanets

Einstein said, "If I can't picture it, I can't understand it." This statement proved itself to be true on my first foray into Data Visualization. And let me add that it was absolutely a fun experience being able to play around with all the data using the excellent tool provided by "Many Eyes" which was instrumental in helping to reveal insights that lay hidden within those rows and columns of numbers. And of course, it wouldn't be possible at all without the data! So I am thankful for the folks at exoplanets.org for providing the dataset.

Now I realized that, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Yes, Einstein also said that. And I think that is the final part of Data Visualization (which i presume overlaps with Data Journalism in some way, too). It was fun generating the visualizations, and analyzing them to find insights was challenging--but it is not complete without the ultimate goal of communicating what I have discovered.

Sure, the pictures speak for themselves (in more than a thousand words), but there is an added benefit in formulating a simple statement to convey the insight: it makes you learn the concept even more. Finally, being able to share that understanding completes the joy.

Let me warn you that I am not a scientist, so please bear with me as i briefly explain my own original findings from these pictures (and please correct me if i'm wrong). Also let me iterate that I'm not a designer or an artist, so the graphics presented in this post are no match compared to the aesthetics of David McCandless (Visual Miscellaneum), and the analytical prowess of Edward Tufte (Envisioning Information).

The conclusion(s) I've drawn from the visuals pretty much explains it concisely. The additional notes are supplementary.



Fig. 1: Visual Magnitude vs Discovery Method (used to find the exoplanet)
Conclusion: The magnitude or brightness of host stars whose planets were discovered via Transit Method are generally dimmer than those stars whose planets were discovered via Radial Velocity (RV) Method. Here's another proof.
Analysis:
Transit Method works best on dimmer stars because it does not drown out its own planets in its glare as much as a bright star would. Radial Velocity (RV) method works best on brighter stars for better spectographic analysis.

Fig. 1: Visual Magnitude vs Discovery Method

Notes:The label delineating the two methods are not noticeable so i need to point out that the left section are those host stars with planets were discovered via RV method. The smaller section on the right with a noticeably darker shade are those stars with transiting planets.
The dimmer tint for high values of Visual Magnitude (V) fits well with the fact that stars with a higher value of magnitude (V) are actually dimmer than those with a lower value.
[Link to the interactive version at Many Eyes]


Fig. 2: Discovery Method vs. Exoplanet Names
Conclusion: Exoplanets discovered via RV method have more "generic" sounding names than those discovered via transit method.
Analysis:
Here's a nice tip on how to quickly guess whether an exoplanet was discovered via RV or transit method: If it's generic-sounding, or if it bears the host star's name (like "HD blah-blah")--then chances are, it’s discovered via Radial Velocity!

Fig. 2: Discovery Method vs. Exoplanet Names
Notes: Exoplanet names are commonly derived from the host star name plus the alphabetical index of the planet by order of its discovery date. Often, the instrument used to discover it are then used in lieu of the star name (for example: Kepler-4 b, or CoRoT-7b)

[Link to the interactive version at Many Eyes]



These are only some of the visualizations I came up with while playing with the exoplanet dataset for around an hour or so. There are definitely many more correlations you can uncover via the other methods at Many Eyes or other tools. Make sure you also play around with the data and let other people know about the insights you come up with. Head over to Many Eyes and use the same data I uploaded to generate your own visualizations.

Disclaimer:
1) These graphs and visualizations are what we can statistically glean from, given the current data provided. The trends I pointed out in this post will change in the next few years. For example: When Kepler starts to announce their discoveries, the number of exoplanets discovered via Transit Method will suddenly skyrocket and overtake the total number of exoplanets discovered via Radial Velocity (RV). (It will be interesting how to visualize that trend when we add the function of time.)
2) Also, these visualizations does not take into account those exoplanets discovered by a mash-up of two or more methods (such as those exoplanets discovered by using Transit method in tandem with RV).

Links:
Many Eyes
Dataset from Exoplanets.org

October 31, 2010

How to get Offworld

Everybody’s heard of Gliese 581g. It is claimed to be the first rocky exoplanet ever discovered that is within the Habitable Zone. I wont bore you with details. But let us explore the effects of that discovery upon the populace. What are the reactions of the public? It seems that more people became more aware about the idea of interstellar space travel. And within some high-profile organizations, prospects on how to move off-world were speculated upon. DARPA and NASA even planned a Hundred-Year Starship program to explore other star systems.

"The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NASA Ames Research Center have teamed together to take the first step in the next era of space exploration—a journey between the stars." ~DARPA

Yes, we are seeing seeds of action being generated by exoplanet discoveries. The impact of exoplanet discoveries upon humanity is that now we are beginning to think “Offworld”. We are beginning to plan missions to explore worlds not only the within our Solar System but somewhere beyond the light of other Suns.

The allure of sending humans to outer space is stronger than ever. But is it actually feasible? This fragile flesh and blood could be too brave for its own good. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (so to speak).

Even a trip to Mars may be a one-way mission for us puny earth-based creatures. But if we are really serious to set up a “human” colony on another planet, then we should send a couple--to begin with. They should be willing to make love on Mars and bear children on that planet. I’m curious how that "natural" way of adapting a human’s genetics to a particular planet would pan out. I’m pretty sure martian gravity, among other things, would have a profound effect on a local Mars-born baby (you might be thinking about height now). It all seems like science fiction at first glance. But wait till you hear about the prospect of modifying humanity's genetics to adapt to outer space, as NASA's Worden speculated upon.

But that brings me to the question: once you modify a human being, would he be still “human”? If we genetically-modified humans so much as to survive interstellar or interplanetary travel, would that scenario give birth to the “post-human” being?

"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."
~ John Wooden


Thinking about such things has led me to write a speculative story on how we could send an essence of humanity to extrasolar worlds. Not of flesh and blood nor bones--but of heart and soul, and the enduring human spirit of exploration. That story is called Boltzmann's Brain.

Links:
DARPA’s Starship (PDF)
NASA/DARPA Hundred Year Starship (PopSci)

October 22, 2010

Exoplanets and Open Data

Something exciting is brewing behind the scenes between Exoplanets and Open Data. The developer of the excellent Exoplanet App (for iPhone) has started a repository on GitHub for Exoplanet datasets, called The Open Exoplanet Catalogue. The great thing is that this repository is a mix of automated and community-driven movement in terms of keeping up with the fast-paced incoming stream of raw exoplanet data. It opens up an open massive data set (OMDS) for the exoplanet community to tinker with.

The automated part, which interests me a lot--is a python script that pulls in the latest updates from our exoplanet pointman named Jean Schneider from the great Exoplanet Encyclopedia.

Here’s how I can briefly describe the process: Jean Schneider gets new exoplanet information, updates his database. The python “bot” script grabs Jean's newly-updated exoplanet data and re-generates new exoplanet XML files, then puts them to github. You may download and peek at that bot script from here. And most importantly, you can grab the latest exoplanet dataset in all it's XML glory--ready to be consumed by any app or software you can dream of.

For the community-driven part of the setup, anyone can contribute scripts. An example would be for someone to write a derivative of the python script to churn out exoplanet files into JSON format, instead of XML.

It is still on the early stages so at this point "some branches of this repository are updated automatically...and the master branch is updated manually for now, to ensure consistency."

This repository is everything I’ve ever wished for. And I am thankful for it. This would be very useful for the renewed field of Data Visualization, and Data Journalism. This system will truly benefit the community of Open Data Journalists and Researchers within the exoplanet community. On a side note, for all the Android Developers out there: Here’s all the latest data, now please build the Exoplanet App for Android! And for those who can code, please contribute to this endeavor!

"The purpose of the Internet will be to catch the alien mind. It will be coded by human fingers, but it will be truly alien."
~Terence Mckenna

Links:
Python Bot Script
The Open Exoplanet Catalogue at GitHub

October 21, 2010

Kepler Confirms an Exoplanet (BOKS-1 b)

Prior to the launch of Kepler, ground-based telescopes discovered 3 candidate transiting exoplanets in the field of view of Kepler. But Kepler took a better look and actually verified that one of them is a true exoplanet, named BOKS-1 b (KID-9595827) - a jupiter-sized exoplanet orbiting a G-type star.

In the process of verifying the three candidates, Kepler in turn, discovered that the other two are not exoplanets, but actually Eclipsing Binaries.

The investigators tell the story here. In their own words:

“Three transiting exoplanet candidate stars were discovered in a ground-based photometric survey prior to the launch of NASA’s Kepler mission...All three stars are faint by radial velocity follow-up standard, so we have examined these candidates with regard to eliminating false positives and providing high confidence exoplanet selection.”

“Using the Kepler light curves...we find that two of our candidates are binary stars. The third candidate (BOKS-1) is a...G8V star hosting a newly discovered exoplanet...”

This is what’s so great about Science. Different telescopes could actually check on one another’s results, and verify each other's findings. And so for Kepler, it’s job is not only to discover new planets, but to also verify and confirm true exoplanets.

Links:
Direct PDF: http://xxx.lanl.gov/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1010/1010.4106v1.pdf

October 15, 2010

Remembering Carl Sagan

Nick Sagan autographed my issue
of Shrapnel!
Last weekend, I made sure I attended the NY Comic Con panel where Nick Sagan and Michio Kaku discussed about Science and Science Fiction. And I wasn't disappointed.

It was truly an amazing panel where Michio Kaku spoke eloquently on far-reaching ideas, and where Nick Sagan discussed the wonderful cycle between Science and SciFi.

Nick, who is Carl Sagan's son writes SciFi novels and comicbooks, which is a wonderful thing for me (as a newbie scifi fan) especially that his father inspired many, including me--to be enthusiastic about Science.

In that regard, I urge those who were inspired by Carl Sagan to write an essay in honor of his upcoming birthday.


Links:
Carl Sagan Day Essay Contest
When Worlds Collide: Shrapnel and Sagan
My NYComicCon Pics

September 24, 2010

A Tale for the Transit Method

I’ve always been fascinated when planet-hunters describe the difficulty they face regarding the detection of exoplanets. They often refer to the analogy of trying to find a firefly against the backdrop of a huge bright searchlight. As if that's not hard enough, so I had a crazy “what if” moment, as i imagined other factors that could screw up their data. What if a fly actually walked across the field of view (FOV) of a CCD/telescope? Would it mimic the transit of an exoplanet across the face of a star when doing photometry?

I went on to find out by asking several astronomers about it. The ones i caught were displaying their awesome telescopes at Battery Park during the World Science Festival in New York. [Incidentally, that was also the same night when the James Webb Space Telescope was being showcased--a full-size replica was on display].

So when I asked real astronomers what the effect would be, if a fly (or any insect, for that matter) walked across the mirror of a telescope with a CCD during a photometry session--they all agreed that the fly would actually cause a dip in the captured brightness of the star!

Honestly, I don’t think so. And I am not yet convinced that the “fly effect” would occur when a housefly transits a star by way of strolling across the surface of the telescope mirror. I have no CCD at hand (and no volunteer fly as well), so I have no way to find out for sure. But my gendanken experiment ended up as a short story entitled The Fly and the Planet-hunter.

So, I dedicate that story to all the astronomers in the world (grumpy or not), and to all the flies, bugs and mosquitos who make astronomers’ lives astronomically difficult. No, its not that astronomers are grumpy, nor that planet-hunters are mean old men. Astronomers are actually very nice people, and eager to share their passion for astronomy. Sidewalk astronomers would even let you peer through their telescopes--but just don't touch the eyepiece because that will freak them out.

But the real work of astronomers are really tedious and requires a lot of maddening patience. Reflecting upon that, I had the urge to cheer up these dedicated folks, specially the amateur planet-hunters who go through challenging and dangerous situations (bear, anyone?) just to find exoplanets.

So I hope you'll enjoy the story. Perhaps it's a tale you can tell your grandkids as you show them the stars and how to find exoplanets, oh ye grumpy ol' man! :)


Short Story: The Fly and the Planet-hunter

September 16, 2010

Into the Armor [ Review of Halo: Reach ]

So, I finally stepped into the armor, and into the world of Halo. Yes, I've started playing videogames and Halo:Reach was the first one I loaded into the console, overtaking Mass-Effect2 which I plan to play next.

As I look back into the first few hours of my gameplay experience, I appreciated the fact that the narrative behind Reach is given much weight--that its not just all about shooting aliens. Well, maybe perhaps--as it’s what you’re gonna do most of the time to finish the rest of the game. But, the great thing is that the sense of teamwork is emphasized, “..no lone wolf this time,” as I heard in the dialogue. So i’m itching to play multiplayer mode someday.

Being a noob, I started with the solo campaign. But I felt reassured that I have teammates that will cover me as I fumbled with the controls during a heated battle with The Covenant (aliens). It was quite easy to imagine that the soldiers fighting beside me are not just characters programmed with algorithmic AI behaviours, but each of them has a story to tell. We are the Noble team, and I play the part of the newcomer--a replacement to their previous colleague. And as i donned that Spartan helmet, it wasn’t long before i started to internalize the character of Noble Six, running around, shooting aliens, intently listening to my teammates, tracking and staying close to them as much as I can.

That was the great part. But here comes the bad. And it’s sad because i have to write it about such a great game. And I have to say it because this blog is focused on things Exoplanetary.

Walking around Planet Reach did not make me feel like I was on another planet at all. It was so earth-like. I felt disappointed because the quality of the graphics is stunning but it failed to immerse me in another world.

At times, I often had to gaze up at the sky to see the gorgeous ringed planet just to "remind" myself that i am on an exoplanet, and that i'm there on a noble mission. But the moment i resume and see the familiar trees, the usual grass, the same old rock formations and typical mountains-- I am suddenly just pulled back to Earth!

Am I asking too much? All I wanted was just a little bit of the taste of “otherworldliness”. What could be missing? Well, perhaps some weird flora would be a good start. Maybe some kind of orchid here and there would have done the trick. Or maybe some trees with some unique growth patterns or odd textures.

How about the animals? Well, what were the ostriches doing on planet Reach?! Or were those turkeys and livestock by human colonists there? I just shot them in frustration. I even saw a falcon. Or was it an osprey, oh my. I wish there were alien animals there that did not remind me about what we have here on Earth.

People are clamoring for the discovery of an earth-like planet. And there's media frenzy on every chance to delight the public with sensational news about earth-like worlds. Yet here i am, begging for an alien world from a videogame! From a videogame for Pete’s sake!

Stepping into the armor was fluid and natural. But stepping onto the exoplanet called Reach was not. I wish the makers of Halo had a little bit more creativity in terms of the planetary aspect. Or perhaps they should have hired some Astrobiologist to decorate that Planet.

Now that Microsoft is taking over of the franchise, I hope the next one will be much more awesome. I wish Halo to be Kinect-enabled to bring more immersion into gameplay. And I hope this review will be seen as a constructive criticism to the Halo franchise, or to any game that would be so much better if it immersed players into other worlds.

Yes, immersion is what i seek. And the reason why i started playing games is because i want to visit other worlds, and be immersed in them.

So now, for me to finish Halo: Reach, i must imagine a bit harder that the setting of Halo Reach is on an exoplanet. And if my mind gets tired of going against the grain, then i’ll just make an excuse that Planet Reach is simply the most Earth-like exoplanet I have ever seen.

September 10, 2010

Sentient Probes

Frankly, I am tired of us anthropomorphizing our space probes and imbuing them with personalities that aren't true.

It is time we do it for real.

We need probes that can make choices without human intervention. We need probes with actual personalities. We need not just Artificial Intelligence. We need Artificial Minds loaded on Sentient Probes.

Just imagine if the New Horizons probe, or Voyager--actually tweeted it’s own thoughts!

The trip to other worlds is such a boring affair for anyone, or any thing, such as a lifeless probe loaded with computers that merely process decisions and commands from humans sitting at the control center.

If we are ever going to send probes to other planets, let us give them minds of their own. Let’s give them more autonomy and a soul to squeeze. I am all for sentient probes.

But there is one crucial caveat: minds are restless.

Loading a sentient mind onto a probe that would traverse interstellar space for hundreds, even thousands of years is like torturing a virtual soul. Therefore, we need some way to keep them occupied. We need to load them up with lots of toys, playgrounds and what-have-you’s. Perhaps provide a companion with an opposing personality to keep them company. It would also serve to balance their collective behaviour. Kind of like left-brain/right-brain metaphor. It seems that virtual worlds are the most economical way to do it with regards to energy consumption on a long trip.

These probe-minds have to be active and humming and must be given an incentive to continue their mission. They must also be able to continually learn. And if their mission is to find life, what better incentive than to actually keep their life as an incentive.

It seems cruel, i know. That’s why I must elaborate upon that idea via a short story entitled "Life Begets Life" that I wrote for #FridayFlash. Of course, it has a tiny bit of exoplanet science so i can mention it on this blog.

And to make it exciting, I’ve put in some speculation regarding the presence of life on a tidally-locked planet, which is often orbiting relatively close to it’s host star. My guess is, life could be jump-started on the boundary where the roasted part of the planet meets the cold dark regions. I believe that Life is at the edge of Chaos and Order.

September 2, 2010

Musings on the Implications of Synthetic Life on Astrobiology

A year before Craig Venter announced the successful creation of the first synthetic lifeform, i asked him what insights it could bring to the science of Astrobiology. I asked what it would mean if synthetic lifeforms gave off different biosignatures and how that would be beneficial to those curious about life on other worlds.

I don’t think i got a concrete answer from Craig Venter at that time, and even after that, I’ve never really read any writeup about the tremendous impact synthetic life will bring to Astrobiology. That was then during the Crossroads conference, way back in May 2009 where Dimitar Sasselov was present as well.

I simply headed home that night with a glimpse of the ground-breaking event that lay ahead.

A year later came Venter's announcement of the first ever synthetic lifeform. Now Fast forward to July 2010, Sasselov suddenly mentions Synthetic Life in his controversial TED talk. But everyone was simply distracted by the controversy and confusion introduced by Dimitar when he used the word "earth-like" rather than "earth-sized". Perhaps many missed another big picture--which is the link between Synthetic Biology and Astrobiology and the impact it would bring to our culture and future.

Now imagine this scenario:

Consider a planet, and know it’s properties, such as surface gravity, atmospheric composition, pressure and chemical characteristics, temperature, and so on. Then create a model of that environment, or a subset of it--called a “hab bubble”. Virtually design an extremophile microbe that would survive within that bubble. Simulate the microbe and it's habitable bubble in a "virtual world". Send that simulator on-board a probe, continuously adjusting the parameters as the probe travels toward an exoplanet. Feed the simulator with updated data as new findings are discovered along the way. Upon reaching the destination, manufacture the microbe using local resources or chemicals on that planet, "build and live off the land". Then unleash the lifeform by setting it loose on the surface of the exoplanet.

This simple scenario became the inspiration for a short story, my first #fridayflash or #FlashFiction entitled “The Biosynthe”.

Links:
The Biosynthe (Short Story)
Craig Venter's Synthetic Lifeform
Dimitar Sasselov's TED Talk

August 30, 2010

Wake up! It's an Amazing Time to be Alive!

Finally, xkcd did exoplanets! And a good one at that! I've been waiting for this webcomic and now it has finally come!

And it resonates. Tracking the surge in exoplanet discoveries has naturally led me to look into interstellar space travel as well, which is somewhat inevitable for anyone enthusiastic about exoplanets and what they would mean for mankind, and to our culture and future.

Wake up! Wake up! You live in an amazing time! Hit the snooze button once and then head for the stars!



"Knowledge...is advancing as irresistibly, as majestically, as remorselessly as the ocean moves in upon the shore."
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Links:
Onwards to Exoplanets: http://exoplanetology.blogspot.com/2010/06/onwards-to-exoplanets.html

August 22, 2010

Double Planet and the Planetary Archetype

Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to see things in a whole new way. Throughout our lives we see our planet from a single vantage point--from its surface.

Then something deep within us is awakened when we see our own little home from a different viewpoint.

Take a look at the latest snapshot of our home planet--the  loopback address--from another set of eyes called MESSENGER, gazing back at the Earth from within the orbit of Venus. Looking like a double star, some people simply called those two bright lights as a "Double Planet", seemingly unwary of the ongoing debate about what a planet really means.

For the few, the words just naturally comes out upon seeing Earth and it's moon in a different light. When viewed from way out there, the scene tells the mind that the smaller piece of sphere is a member of the archetypal “Planet”.

But most people delve into the technical side of thinking, getting into the nitty-gritty details of defining "planet" based on one humdrum star system alone--ours.

We’ve recently heard that the moon has been called as a "Satellite Planet". But what makes a "planet" a planet? Do we really need to see things from another viewpoint before we can call other objects as planets?

Perhaps.

My opinion is that many objects in our solar system are planets. Yes, I mean those round dwarf planets that many folks refuse to consider planets, despite calling them "Dwarf Planets".

Through the years, as I tracked the new discoveries in exoplanets, i've realized that the current definition of a planet--that definition which was voted upon--is rigidly based on our solar system alone.

Indeed, there are many exoplanets that would not be planets at all if we applied our heliocentric definition of “planet” unto them. For example, there are exoplanets with highly elliptical orbits that do not lie within the plane of their system. And then there are those that share the same orbital zone with other planets via resonant orbits, and others with retrograde orbits, and so on, ad inifintum, ad weirdum.

With all the weird new discoveries of other planetary systems that challenge our limited notions of a planet, I am led to conclude that the greatest factor of what a planet is boils down to the simple quality of being round. In scientific terms, its the hydrostatic equilibrium, the balance between gravity and pressure that molds lumps of matter into a spherical shape.

To me, that property of roundedness is the Archetype that makes an astronomical body (that orbits a star) a true planet. Round is simple, round is sublime.

Often, when I look at the moon, I see a planet. And it’s good to see it that way from a different vantage point as well. And when this satellite planet is seen together with the Earth, what we're truly seeing is a double planet.

Links:
MESSENGER: A snapshot of home http://www.planetary.org/blog/article/00002626
A 'Double Planet Seen from Mercury http://news.discovery.com/space/a-double-planet-seen-from-mercury.html

August 19, 2010

Possible Data Mining Age in the Future of Exoplanet Science

Exoplanets. Distant worlds light-years away, yet they continue to move ever closer to humanity’s psyche, enticing us to declare them worthy of serious research.

The study of exoplanets is of such enormous intellectual importance and it helps us understand our place in the universe,” said Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society.

The search for exoplanets is one of the most exciting subjects in all of astronomy,” the Astronomy Decadal Survey committee expressed their enthusiasm in a report entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Thus, a program was recommended “to explore the diversity and properties of planetary systems around other stars, and to prepare for the long-term goal of discovering and investigating nearby, habitable planets." The survey proposed The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a $1.6 billion dollar telescope that would provide us with more exoplanet data. The report states that “in addition to determining just the planetary statistics, a critical element of the committee’s exoplanet strategy is to continue to build the inventory of planetary systems around specific nearby stars.

Now look closer at those words. “Inventory”, “census” and “statistics” of planetary systems. Clearly, the current focus is to continue to “gather” more and more data. We just turned into proverbial planet hunter-gatherers!

Kiddding aside, the excitement to gather more exoplanets in our database is great. But then I feel that something is missing, and that something must be done in addition to it all.

I feel that the future prospect of “processing” must also be planned in parallel with the construction of these telescopes.

We are continously building instruments to gather more and more exoplanet data but we are not preparing the infrastructure to handle the imminent data explosion in Exoplanetary Science.

I anticipate a bottleneck when all these planet-hunting telescopes finally get deployed and the copious amounts of data comes flooding in. On what basis am i saying this? Well, take this for example: Dozens of Earth-mass planets could already be within the database of the Kepler Team right now even as we sit waiting for their announcement. That is why i think that not just one earth-sized planets would be announced at one time, but several of them. It’s just that the Kepler scientists are extra careful about their greatest discovery ever in humanity's history. They are simply making sure that their discoveries are solid before they reveal it to the whole world.

But perhaps it’s understandable to withhold data about historical “firsts” because so much is at stake for the Scientists making the announcement.

The raw data will eventually be shared to the public for Citizen Scientists to gobble up. But I can't help but think that in some way, it’s a mini-bottleneck. And looking ahead, there is no infrastructure for outside help to “harvest” planets from the raw data the will eventually pour in. So far so good, only pure Scientists can harvest the goods.

In my previous post, I asked these questions: How will Scientists keep up with petabytes of raw data? How will web technology keep up? How will the internet enable Citizens to contribute to science for the love of it? What needs to be done?

Looking around at the changing face of Science that results from the enabling power of web technology, we see the important contributions of a swarm of minds working together for Scientific goals.

Take a look at GalaxyZoo, FoldIt, StarDust@Home, Rosetta@Home, Einstein@Home and SETI@Home. These are awesome computational engines that tap the human potential in analyzing massive amounts of data, to produce novel scientific discoveries. Despite the public excitement in the field of exoplanets, I'm surprised that there is no program like them that are focused on exoplanetary science. I have reason to think that in some way, the same idea of "distributed processing" can be applied to the deluge of exoplanet data that will arrive in the coming decades.

"We're at the dawn of a new era, in which computation between humans and machines is being mixed," says Michael Kearns--a computer scientist dealing with the concept of distributed thinking.

So how can we apply the power of distributed thinking in Exoplanetary Science? Who must jump-start the GalaxyZoo for Exoplanets? Should NASA or ESA do it? Should ExoPAG work on it? Universities? Or should the private sector do it? Should someone write a grant proposal? Or perhaps open a kickstarter project for it?

It’s been said that we are currently in the Golden Age of planetary discovery. But if we don’t begin to create some way to collectively "process" the huge amount of data gathered by planet-hunting telescopes, a “bottleneck era” might follow. It will be an era in which we are virtually “aware” that planets lie hidden within massive amounts of data stored somewhere in hard drives locked away at some facility. And like the exoplanet that was re-discovered within the Hubble archives, it would take years to mine these planets from out of the digital ones and zeros and be announced as a belated exoplanet discovery.

I am guessing that that such an era may likely occur if we don't build a system to process the data in a collective fashion. But then we would refuse to call it a bottleneck era. We would simply name it a much better-sounding term, The Data Mining Age of Exoplanetary Science.


Links:
New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12951
$1.6 billion telescope would seek out alien planets: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38692359/ns/technology_and_science-space/
Dark Energy and Exoplanets Top List of Astronomy Priorities: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/08/nrc-space-report/
Citizen science, People power:
http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100804/full/466685a.html

August 14, 2010

The Exoplanet Seeker and Mendeley

I recently built a tunnel to a new source of information about exoplanets. This new source is an outfit called Mendeley, in which i tapped their API to bring in lists of Scientific papers about exoplanets and present them inside The Exoplanet Seeker's pages.

There’s still a lot to be improved in The Exoplanet Seeker, especially in terms of getting the right names of exoplanets. Often, a simple blank space causes null results (HAT-P-7b vs. HAT-P-7 b) from the datasources. So, i would continue to improve it as time goes by. For now, the most notable upgrade is the addition of Mendeley among the data sources, and the creation of a faster launcher page for The Exoplanet Seeker. It now has a new home, so please update your bookmarks.

I heard about Mendeley in the past, but i felt it was too “sciencey” and inaccessible for a laymen like me. All that changed when I heard about their open API. So i immediately coded up something to test what they had to offer. And it did not disappoint.

In as much as new exoplanet discoveries are starting to change the landscape of Humanity’s Thought (to be punctuated by the revelation of earth-like planets) the evolution of the web is also changing the landscape of Science. What Mendeley has done with their Open API is great for the proliferation of Scientific study via the internet for both professional scientists, researchers and lay-people.

What i am anticipating is the imminent data explosion in Planetary Science brought about by the accelerating discovery of new exoplanets. How will Scientists keep up with petabytes of raw data? How will web technology keep up? How will the internet enable Citizens to contribute to science for the love of it?

Clearly, we are living at a time like no other. Right now i can only say two words that keep me excited about the changing landscape of the relationship between Science and Technology: Fascination and Wonder!

Links:
Pipe Dream: http://exoplanetology.blogspot.com/2010/01/data-pipe-dream.html
Space Matters: http://exoplanetology.blogspot.com/2008/06/space-matters.html
The Exoplanet Seeker Home: http://bit.ly/ExoplanetSeeker

July 29, 2010

Exoplanet Seeker and Wolfram|Alpha

Just a little geekery and heads-up for those who are so inclined. I've just managed to hack up a link to Wolfram|Alpha's data set from my crazy ol' Exoplanet Seeker thingie.

But wait! There’s something else goin' on here: since The Exoplanet Seeker’s auto-suggest feature is powered by Freebase, I’ve actually married Freebase and Wolfram|Alpha together! Although in a primitive way, I’ve proven that it is indeed possible to make them work together. (Hopefully, this gives out a message to both companies about a dream of mine--which is that Freebase and Wolfram|Alpha work together for the good of the interwebs.)

Now enough with the bragging and pipedreams. Let’s get down to business and to the revelation of the secret on how it was all done.

First, let me tell you about Wolfram|Alpha’s cool new feature: W|A Widgets! So I built an exoplanet widget (shown below) using W|A’s widget builder, and piped in the exoplanet name into the URL of the exoplanet info widget. That’s was all there is to it!

But by no means is it perfect. There are lots of data holes. Freebase is not complete with all the exoplanet names, thus it can only suggest what it “knows”. And even if Freebase “knows” an exoplanet name, Wolfram|Alpha often doesn’t know it yet (W|A is slower in terms of updating exoplanet data). And so, selecting the “Wolfram|Alpha” on the dropdown and then clicking “seek” will yield a “not valid input” on the popup window. Of course, all this will improve soon enough. And I appreciate Mr. Wolfram putting up a page specific to Exoplanets.

The field of exoplanet science is progressing so rapidly that there will come a time when a need for exoplanet informatics is needed, if an Open Citizen Science on exoplanet research is ever set up to deal with the data aspect of exoplanets. For now, i hope this serves as a quick reference for exoplanet enthusiasts out there.

By the way, there are cool astronomy widgets in W|A’s gallery. Two of which are shown below. Do check them out! And of course, you must build your own widget!












Links:
Astronomy Category in Wolfram|Alpha Widgets Directory
Wolfram|Alpha Exoplanet Page

July 22, 2010

An Inspiring Visit on Solar Sailing

Having joined the Planetary Society this year, I thought I’d want to see some of these planetary folks in person. So I decided to visit the International Symposium on Solar Sailing 2010 (ISSS 2010) on that particular day when the Planetary Society would be there as well.

The trek to New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn seemed quick. I was reading Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams to maximize what little time I had, focusing my attention on the book, instead of gazing at the pretty woman seated across the aisle of my subway train ride.

I was late as usual, but was fortunate to see the last part of a lecture that was pretty amazing. I was shocked to see so few people attending the event. (To think that the online ticketing said it was fully booked--which nearly discouraged me from going). But I’m glad I still came to visit the event.

There were kids intently listening to the panel. And no doubt there were folks that were “young at heart” and very enthusiastic about space travel and exploration.

Then there was Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” whom Louis Friedman now introduced as the “Planetary Guy”. Bill Nye moderated the event with gusto, making the event livelier. His enthusiasm is really needed to inspire more people about planetary things.

During the the Q&A portion, I wasn’t picked to ask a question. But as the event ended, I was glad Bill Nye asked the same idea I was meaning to ask, “Will Solar Sailing take us to other Star Systems?” He then handed the mic to Louis who said it is quite a challenge pushing solar sails across interstellar space where the sunlight would become so feeble as the probe gets farther away from the sun. The current idea would be to push it using a highly-focused powerful laser (with information in it, too). Then he said that it would be another 100 to 200 years before we can truly send a solar sail probe to other stars.

Suddenly, with arms flailing--as if trying to swipe away the somewhat discouraging aspect of hearing a “hundred years”--Bill Nye ended the gathering with encouraging remarks about how incredible Solar Sailing truly is.

On my way out, I saw another truly inspirational scene. There were books on display directly in front of the exit doors, and I saw an elderly woman excitedly buying a couple of Gregory Matloff's and Les Johnson’s books (one was “Living off the Land in Space”). She was the same woman whom I overheard a bit earlier speaking to one of the panelists, "Thank you so much. This event is wonderful! There should be more publicity to these kinds of stuff!"

As I headed home, I continued to read Centauri Dreams ardently that I missed my stop. At the back of my mind I was thinking about that old lady. Her enthusiasm is fresh and vigorous. I am inspired. It’s never too late, nor anyone too old, to be enthusiastic about anything at all, even about dreams that will outlive us.

To me, that is the kind of human spirit that will take us to the stars.

July 16, 2010

On Google, Metaweb and Freebase

"We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."
~ Marshall McLuhan

I thought i'd give you a heads-up on some developments behind the "informatics" of exoplanetology, at least about the tool or platform that I've been using for the past few years.
You may have heard about Freebase, the open database where I add bits of information about exoplanets. Freebase is also the engine behind the auto-suggest feature of The Exoplanet Seeker.
Well, some googly eyes from Google have noticed Freebase and decided to buy it. Metaweb, the outfit behind Freebase is now officially part of Google.
As you know, Exoplanetology has been on Freebase for more than 3 years now. I've enjoyed adding all those bits of data into Freebase, but sometimes I worry that all that time I spend inputting data into Freebase might go down the drain if Metaweb fails to sustain itself. But I kept at it anyways, because its fun contributing what I learn (and learning as I contribute). So now, that worry is alleviated by the fact that Google's vision about the Semantic Web aligns closely with Metaweb's. What makes me happy is that Google and Metaweb will continue to maintain Freebase as a free and open database for the world. Well, that deserves a big "Yay!"

June 30, 2010

Onwards to Exoplanets

On a good session of stargazing, my typical cycle of moods gets its round. The elation of a beautiful star-filled night-sky is often the first emotion I get. Then comes the melancholy of a starry void--that sinking feeling of insignificance is inevitable. But it is followed by that sense of wonder that lifts me up, upon realizing the joy of being alive in the moment to ponder all these things. Then thankfulness and gratefulness often ends my exogazing session.
Curiously, there has been a new addition to these "mood swings". Lately, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to land on a planet of another star. Thus, I began to delve on topics about space travel. What started as an interest in exoplanets expanded to interstellar travel as well.
Often, the thought of going to the stars seems like science fiction. But the steady stream of news about probes reaching unknown places more otherworldy than imagination could conjure, always brings me to a point that landing a probe on an exoplanet might be possible. To this regard, The Planetary Society is stewarding precursor missions that may one day lead to sending humans to other planets. I’m well aware that it will not be during my lifetime, but yes I believe it is possible in due time.
My recent interest in the prospect of humans travelling to extrasolar planets has been fueled by Centauri Dreams whose well-informed articles by Paul Gilster always bring inspiration. As everyone knows, Centauri Dreams coordinates with the Tau Zero Foundation whose main goal is to send humans to the stars. Tau Zero collaborated with the British Interplanetary Society on Project Icarus, the successor to Project Daedalus.
To sail to the stars will be a step by step endeavor by Humanity. As what the purveyors of Project Daedalus envisioned--the successor missions will be stewarded by the next generation, and so on.
Little by little, we'll get there someday. Onwards to other worlds, onwards to exoplanets!

June 24, 2010

Exoplanetary Singularities

A courtier presented the Persian king with a beautiful, hand-made chessboard. The king asked what he would like in return for his gift and the courtier surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four grains on the third etc. The king readily agreed and asked for the rice to be brought. All went well at first, but the requirement for 2 to the power of [n − 1] grains on the nth square demanded over a million grains on the 21st square, more than a million million (aka trillion) on the 41st and there simply was not enough rice in the whole world for the final squares.”

For over three years now since I started following the developments in the subject of exoplanets, I've been saying that the rate of discovery of exoplanets is progressing exponentially. In 2008, around 60 exoplanet discoveries were made. in 2009, we saw over 85 new planets. Suddenly, with Kepler’s impending release of over 700 new exoplanet candidates, it is apparent that we are currently at the event horizon of planetary discoveries.

The Singularity is near. But the fact is that there’s many of them, Singularities. And two of them are close at hand in the field of Exoplanetology.
The first singularity in planetary science is the discovery of the first earth-like world. The next is the detection of life on exoworlds. Perhaps the third is the actual discovery of extraterrestrial life. And the march goes on. But what happens after you enter these Singularities? No one really knows for sure. They are great upheavals in humanity’s history that heralds new ways of thinking. Keep your mind open, and your eyes wide open. Brace yourselves for brave new worlds.

June 19, 2010

When Worlds Collide: Shrapnel and Sagan

It’s not very often that i find myself in the middle of two worlds, but seeing them "collide" right before my very eyes is something worth telling. I’ll attempt to explain how my latest discovery is also a kind of "merging" of two genres, in some way.
Let me begin by saying that reading the latest “Shrapnel: Hubris” has been a great treat. It’s a follow up to “Aristeia Rising“ from Radical Comics, makers of Hotwire and a host of other fantastic graphic novels.
My problem with having a great comicbook on my hands is that I instantly devour the inner pages as soon as I get hold of it, perhaps due to my personal time constraints or sheer excitement. I seldom take note of the name of the writer behind it. Yes, it is a sin. And my confession follows.

In this case, I happened to glance upon the author Nick Sagan as I briefly admired the cover art (by Stephan Martiniere) and proceeded to hurriedly flip through the pages. In between pages, I mused to myself: Sagan is familiar but to see it on this kind of publication seemed strange. Perhaps they just have the same last name by coincidence? Could he be related to Carl?
“Nahh...can’t be.” I murmured, holding off my curiousity for a while as I read on.
Only after pausing halfway into it, and getting the chance to google “Nick Sagan +Shrapnel” did I learn that he is indeed the son of Carl Sagan!

Yes, I should be ashamed. I finished the first Shrapnel (Aristeia Rising) and never knew anything about the authors. Today, I change all that. And promise to take note of the authors from now on.
Carl Sagan wrote Science stuff. I brought one of his books, “Cosmos” halfway across the world to be the first book on my shelf in another country. Now, having recently discovered an appreciation for this medium of Graphic Novels, I honestly did not expect Carl Sagan's son to work in the comic book industry (and with Radical Publishing for that matter). I would expect Nick Sagan to work at NASA. But No. And Yes, Carl Sagan’s son writes comic books!

Surfing further, I just found out that when Nick was a young boy, his voice was recorded and included in the Voyager Golden Record. He said “Hello from the children of planet Earth.” Today, he writes SciFi novels and other cool stuff as well.

It’s definitely a great sight to see Cosmos and Shrapnel together on my bookshelf. Two fields, two cultures, two men, two generations, two worlds, two mediums, colliding, and then merging into one.

June 15, 2010

On Kepler Data and Beyond

It's almost a dream come true. For so many months, I've been wishing to take a look at actual Kepler data, and I often tweeted how Citizen Science could help analyze exoplanet data. And now that moment is close at hand!
For starters, when you look into this arXiv paper you'll see some data on 306 of the 706 exoplanet candidates.
Also, an important tidbit is that the paper lists 5 multi-planetary transiting systems. If any one among them is confirmed, then it will be the first case of a transiting multi-planet system known.
I was patiently monitoring the MAST website where the promised new data set can be downloaded from, but it didn't come as of yet. In my boredom, I just downloaded the FITS file of Kepler-4, hoping to practice with it before handling the exciting new data.
When I finally got hold of the FITS files via FTP from the MAST website, my initial reaction was: "So now I have the data! But What Next?!"
It was a sudden realization: Yes it is very good that the exoplanet data is being shared to the public, but now we need tutorials on how to analyze those data. Suddenly, I am now wishing that Scientists and Astronomers would post how-to's and tutorials on how to analyze FITS data to find planets! And I am hopeful, that day will come!
For now, I scrambled my way in the dark on finding the right software to be able to view and edit FITS files. Once I found the excellent "FV", I played with the data set and it felt nice seeing regular dips in the curve. So I am thankful for all the people responsible for giving us this chance to see actual scientific data.
Looking at all this, I realized that we are now at a threshold moment where ordinary people can do Science. This is definitely the beginning of a new era of Scientific Discovery. And I say, it's amazing! I can't wait to see what's beyond!!!

Links:
Abstract: http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/1006.2799 
PDF (Direct Link) http://lanl.arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1006/1006.2799.pdf

June 11, 2010

ExoComets

Behold! Thy ExoComet Cometh!
Just a day after I posted an entry about Comet McNaught and showed how "otherworldy" it seems to me, along comes an article that says that maybe 90% of comets lurking in the outer parts of our solar system are from other planetary systems!
I'm tempted to call them "exoComets" even if they're already part of our solar system, because some famous comets such as Halley, Hale-Bopp and McNaught might have originated from around other stars!
Wait! How did that happen? The nearest star is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light-years away. Surely it would take thousands of years for an interstellar comet to travel to our solar system!
Well, here's the reason why some of these comets may be "exo": Stars often form in clusters. And perhaps a long long time ago, our Sun may have shared comets with her stellar "sisters" who may have been quite nearer at that time. When you think about it, our Oort cloud which is estimated to have around 400 billion comets, is spread so far and wide past Pluto that its already a quarter of the distance to Proxima Centauri (but some estimates say that the spherical Oort cloud extends up to 3 light-years from our sun!).
Computer simulations reveal that perhaps the green Comet McNaught featured in my previous post may have had a long history that ties it with other stars in the distant past.
Hey, you never know, these pretty comets might be messengers from Alpha Centauri!

Source:
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/science.1187535