January 20, 2010

Basic Guide To Star Adoption

If you've been following the saga of humanity's search for Earth-like worlds but you've always felt like an outsider in that effort, then here's your chance to become part of that endeavor. Yes, Science need the support of Citizens. In fact, Citizen involvement is the Holy Grail of Exoplanet Science.

So here's how you can contribute to science financially. There is a project called "Pale Blue Dot" that encourages donors to pick one of 100,000 stars in Kepler's field of view that show promise for hosting planets.

For $10 you can adopt one of these stars and plant your personal flag in that star on Google Sky. As Kepler makes new discoveries, you will get email updates about your star and its potential planets. Now, the fun part is that if you've chosen the right star, you'll be named in history as the adopter of the star with the FIRST known Earth-sized or Earth-like planet! Then imagine if that planet is introspected later on by the James Webb Telescope and actually hosts extra-terrestrial life! Isn't it great to be the proud parent of aliens?!

Now with that kind of title, money should not be an issue. But if you are curious about where the money goes, here is the gist. The money raised will go to the Kepler Astroseismic Science Consortium, an international group of researchers who study the seismology of stars. The group cannot get NASA funding to support its research because the agency can't fund foreign organisations.

You may think that Astroseismology may have nothing to do with planet-hunting, but knowing more about stars leads to more knowledge about the planets they hold. Kepler is in fact officially contributing to the field of Asteroseismology. Scientists can use pulsations to measure the radius of the star, giving NASA a way to determine the size of the planet. Pulsations can also help determine the stars' ages, which can help give an idea of how planetary systems form over time. The researchers may even be able to detect non-transiting planets that the main Kepler team would miss, if the planet is massive enough to make the star wobble towards and away from Earth.

So whether you hit the bullseye or not, it's all worth it. You can rest assured that you have been a generous contributor to Scientific Research and the advancement of human knowledge.

Personally, the Pale Blue Dot project appealed to me because it allows me to contribute to Science in a fun way. And the method of fund-raising is noble and is very unlike the possessive stance where you "buy" stars and delude yourself that you own them. But being able to brag to your friends that you adopted a whole world of aliens and civilizations is kinda crazy fun!

So now that I've brought the sparkle in your eyes and convinced you to be part of Science (and soon to be part of history)--lets do it! You need to go to the Pale Blue Dot project and adopt star(s). But which among these tens of thousands of stars are most likely to be the first one to be discovered that hosts the first Earth-like planet known in history?

Here's where i can help you choose your best bet. I've gathered several facts that would give you the best chance of adopting that lucky star. But don't tell your friends about this yet. They will beat you to that star! First here are some of the relevant facts:

1) Prior to launch high-resolution spectroscopy is performed to identify and eliminate the giant stars in the FOV.
2) There are gaps in the middle. This is like the blind spot(s) of Kepler.
3) Objects near the edges of the CCDs may be of marginal quality and may be off the edge of the CCD.
4) Differential velocity abberation causes the FOV (Field of View) to expand and contract by about 6 arcsec on an annual basis as the spacecraft orbits the Sun. This means that an object near the edge of the FOV will move by about 3/4 of a pixel.
5) The CCD data channel changes with the season and the exact pixel location will move slightly.
6) M dwarfs (Cool stars of spectral type M or red dwarf stars) have great chances of having Earth-like worlds. In fact, Gliese 581 and Gliese 876 is a red dwarf.

So given those facts, I can tell you that you should:

1) Choose the ones that are somewhere in the middle of a CCD. Do not choose the stars outside or at the edges of the CCDs. The rectangles in the photo denote the borders of the CCDs.
2) Choose small or medium stars and not the giant ones
3) Choose the reddish or orange stars. They are probably M stars, most likely to be discovered first that hosts planets in the habitable zone. There are still plenty of available stars that are small and has a reddish tint, as seen in the snapshot above.
4) Choose isolated stars, those which has no close neighbors. We don't know yet whether two stars very close together are true binary systems. (There's a lesser chance of planets forming in binary systems compared to isolated stars of the same type)

The list above is just a basic guide to improve your chances of guessing which star would be discovered first that hosts the first known earth-sized world. For the detail-oriented, there are more complex methods to improve your chances. But for the capable ones, I simply recommend the simplest way to snag that star accurately--by employing statistics. Simply adopt ALL those stars and you're guaranteed! But there's no challenge in that, so it's just better to make playful bets with your friends as to which star would win the honors. Of course a disclaimer is that if CoRoT, HARPS, Mearth and other planet-hunting teams beat Kepler to the punch, you would lose the *first* "Alien-Parent" title. But then again, that's another game (perhaps seriously played by the planet-hunters themselves). We could limit our game to the stars in Kepler's view for now.

Many earth-like planets may in fact orbit stars other than Red Dwarfs, but we want to target the *first* ones to be announced. The Habitable Zone around smaller and dimmer stars are closer to their suns. Their earth-mass planets will have tighter orbits and shorter orbital periods. Thus, observed transits of potential habitable worlds in these stars would occur more often than the 365 days it takes for our earth to go around the sun, relatively speaking.

A couple or more of transits is enough for Kepler to detect the presence of that planet, hence a little over a year and a half from now, the Kepler team might announce the discovery of that Earth-sized planet that orbits around the star you've chosen! So you better hurry. Adopt that star now to be the proud parent of Extra-Terrestrials!