March 29, 2010

Exoplanetary Inspiration Through An Artist's Eye

Just a few moments ago, my wife showed me a book she picked from last saturday's trip at a huge Flea Market somewhere in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. The book which was printed in 1988 is entitled Devis Grebu, Through an Artist' Eye. It was a showcase of the Romanian-born painter, cartoonist and graphic artist Devis Grebu whose work was mostly on watercolor and color pencil. I thumbed through the pages, provoked to see some more of his whimsical and seemingly paradoxical illustrations at each turn of the page.

Then suddenly, many of his "otherworldly" paintings began to catch my attention. I realized that they actually have some context in relation to this exoplanetology blog I maintain! And so before I knew it, I was hurriedly writing up this post amidst all the chores I still had to do.

Way back in 1988, the folks probably had no idea that we would have more than 430 exoplanets by 2010. But it seemed that Devis Grebu had a hunch that the human race would be learning about other worlds. With that thought, I simply just had to write this up.

Around 10 of his works featured in the book had planetary connotations (happily mixed among provocative ones), and are quite inspirational to say the least. I show only a couple here that I found quite the most meaningful among the set that I deemed to be "exoplanetary". What really prompted me to write this post was the last page which showed the "green" and titled "The End of The Journey". The contemplative context written about the painting turned out to be quite inspiring to me, even though I don't play golf!

"Two legs firmly planted on the green. The club ready to tap the ball into the hole. But what hole? What ball? What green? Where is the game being played? And who is playing? A god, tired of his creation and opting for a final solution? Or some searcher looking for a new field of thought, an opening for a new start? In this big game called Anywhere Out of This World, each player must find his own way to end the match."

March 22, 2010

Brainwave 2010: Is Life Out There?

It was a beautiful day, and perhaps many were more interested in getting some sun as there were less people this time than the previous brainwave event I attended. This time it was rock musician Claire Evans of Yacht and Fred Adams author of The Five Ages of The Universe.
When the Director of the Event, Tim McHenry introduced the duo, i just learned that Claire Evans actually has a blog called Universe, and Tim started the event by showing the 60-sec animation created by Claire about the evolution of life. Then she began the conversation by introducing the Fermi Paradox.
The speculations that followed included the notion that Life is common, but intelligence is rare.
Claire is cognizant of the fact that we dont know enough just yet about the makeup of extra-terrestrial lifeforms, speculating--for example, about a "sentient cloud" and then wondering how to best detect them. However Fred says that we don't know anything better than using radio astronomy for SETI just yet, and so that is the method we currently use.
Claire likes the Hypothesis that some Advanced Technological Civilizations (ATC) know that we exist, but they dont want to touch us--in line with the "Prime Directive" in Star Trek, ATCs must not bother with developing civilizations.
As the duo continued to explore the solutions to the Fermi Paradox, they moved on to bleaker scenarios such as the inclination of Technological societies to destroy itself. Or various naturally occuring cosmic events such as Supernovae could explain why no civilization ever lives long enough to meet everyone else.
Fred mentions the idea that we're literally living in a supernova bubble--that supernovae have been a few parsecs away around our sun's neighborhood in the distant past.
Somehow this alerted Claire to mention speculations of how earth might die, such as getting yanked out of orbit by a passing celestial object. She says she might find the scene beautiful, how the atmosphere would snow down on earth, as the planet freezes the surface dwellers to death. She added that among the survivors would be the creatures around the deep underwater vents.
Fred adds how a watery planet would be in the cold outer part of a solar system. It will have a frozen outer shell, but internal heat would cause liquid water beneath.
And since Fred mentioned that the "Holy Grail" of SETI is the discovery of a technologically advanced civilization, Claire asks what would it mean if extra-terrestrial life were found.
Fred answers that its a gamechanger...but creationism wouldn't go away. Fred mentions though, a "lesser" Holy Grail, in the form of developing the ability to create synthetic life in the lab. Claire asks Fred "Do you believe in Technological Singularity?" since she herself finds it hard to believe. Fred answers by saying that ours is a young civilization and we might engineer our survival. Fred mentions the idea of moving the earth by a bit outwards (i think he meant gravity traction) via an asteroid. The gradual outward migration of Earth's orbit will hopefully match the swelling of the sun and move outwards to the expanding habitable zone to prolong life on this planet. Finally, among other feats of hypothetical Astroengineering, the Dyson sphere was mentioned, of course.
As the Q&A portion ensued, I happened to be picked to ask the third question. After a gentleman asked about Kepler and it's discoveries, Fred was optimistic that the Earth-like discovery will come very soon (if not this year). I followed up by asking what the impact of the discovery of an Earth-like planet will be to the human culture.
Fred answers that the impact of the discovery of an earth analog on human culture will be modest. Though, it will be on the front page of the New York Times, he adds. Claire says it takes much more than an earth-like planet to rouse the masses as people generally doesn't care much about these things. It will be the discovery of Life on these worlds that will have much impact on humanity.
Tim asks what scifi film exemplifies SETI best. Claire mentions "Contact". Fred, still in the technological frame of mind from answering a previous singularity question, says he likes "Bladerunner". Science fiction was briefly discussed among the audience, mentioning how scifi mirrors our hopes and anxieties in terms of a technological future.
Tim wraps up with a question on the future of our universe. Fred shows a few slides of new findings about our cosmic future, how the accelerating expansion of the cosmos will isolate galaxies, and result in "island universes", rendering all hopes of communicating with other galaxies impossible as light will never reach from one to the other.
The point of contact seems bleak in terms of gigayears ahead. And even now, the prospect of finding any extra-terrestrial signal may seem to be a hopeless endeavor if you take the negative stance.
The key I suppose, is to keep asking, and to keep searching. Perhaps there really is something incredible out there just waiting to be known.

March 10, 2010

Exogazing 55 Cancri

Springtime is around the corner and the familiar constellations hover over above us with a nice chill. This time I've chosen a faint star called 55 Cancri to exogaze upon.

To find 55 Cancri, start by locating Castor and Pollux. An imaginary line drawn from Castor to Pollux will point you to the middle part of Cancer. But extending that line from Pollux past Mars will lead you to M44, or the Beehive cluster of stars. Move up by little over 10 degrees up from that cluster and you'll see 55 Cancri.

At magnitude 5.95, binoculars would help a lot to spot 55 Cnc. What I recently learned is that Castor and Pollux is 4.5 degrees apart. I know this because they fit within my binocular's field of view (FOV) which is 4.5 degrees in diameter. Knowing this calibration has been a great help in star hopping with binoculars.

The illustrations show how it would look like if you use a binocular with 4.5 degrees FOV. If you don't use binoculars, just remember that your fist held at arm's length spans approximately 10 degrees in the sky.

There are many reasons that make 55 Cancri an interesting target for exogazing. It's an extrasolar system with the most planets to date--five known exoplanets orbiting around it. And its a binary star system 41 light-years away consisting of a yellow dwarf star and a smaller red dwarf star separated by over 1,000 AUs. Yes, it would seem unlikely that any planets would form around binary systems and yet here is 55 Cnc screaming with 5 exoplanets confirmed to be orbiting the primary star, 55 Cancri A (the yellow dwarf)!

When you finally spot the 55 Cancri system, revel in the fact that a pinpoint of light can denote entire worlds. Isn't it amazing? You see a starlight, and you can focus a thought to that point of light and the planets it foretells. That is the essence of Exogazing!

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
~ John Keats


55 Cancri from Deep Fly

March 8, 2010

Amateur Planet-Hunting via Web-based Observatories (WBO)

Because I live in a light-polluted area, the idea of renting remote telescopes to study or hunt exoplanets has been in my mind for almost 2 years. During that time, it was too expensive and the capabilities of those rental telescopes were not yet sufficient to hunt for exoplanets. But lately, the idea of renting telescopes for planet-hunting is slowly but surely moving closer to reality. The advancement of Web-Based Observatories (WBO) is an exciting event in the history of Astronomy, moreso for our case--in amateur planet-hunting.

There are many WBO's out there, but on this post I mention the exciting features of Global Rent-a-Scope (GRAS) which seems to me as the most appealing for amateur exoplanet hunters so far.

GRAS gives the option to write your own script and run it at a specific time in the future. This is perfect for training planet-hunters by generating their own light curves of known transiting exoplanets. Another great feature of GRAS that is potential for hunting exoplanets is their capability to do photometry via a software called Photometrica. Remember, the Kepler telescope uses the Photometry method!

And for the more advanced users, GRAS offers direct control on the CCD camera plus a host of other software and application such as MaximDL, The Sky, and FocusMax that let you directly control the telescope.

What's next? Perhaps adaptive optics might get incorporated into these amateur WBO's someday. And as CCD technology advances further, plus new technologies in astronomical instrumentations (like Astrophotonics) gets implemented onto larger but hopefully more affordable telescopes, then perhaps a hopeful exoplanet discovery via WBO is near the horizons!

Web-based Observatories (PDF Direct Link)
Global-Rent-a-Scope (GRAS)

March 5, 2010

SETI's Quest and His Master's Voice

A few weeks ago, by coincidence, some news came while I've been reading "His Master's Voice" by Stanislaw Lem. It turned out that the SETI Institute will open up its data to "Citizen Scientists" via SETIQuest. The data collected by the SETI Institute will be opened to the public for anyone to analyze.

It all made me curious about our reactions if a message from the stars were discovered hidden within the SETI archives. I cant help but think that some of the things that occured in Lem's novel might actually happen. The government might assemble a team of scientists to specifically study this message from the stars. Various experts such as Mathematicians, Astronomers, Astrophysicists, Astrobiologists might be gathered and isolated in a remote location to decipher the message. And of course, the military and other covert agencies will secretly be studying the data with a different purpose in mind. Now Stanislaw Lem writes in a way that makes it all seem like His Master's Voice (HMV) was a real story. It was so much fun to read, that it often made me chuckle.

During Stanislaw Lem's time, he saw a kind of Science that is marked by covert operations, and secret projects perpetrated by a government more concerned with warfare. But now we live in a wonderful time in history where the common folk can get involved in pure Scientific pursuit. The technological advances, and the opening up of massive data now allow anyone to donate their time, skills, and resources for noble purposes. This is the era of Citizen Science and it comes at a perfect time to support the aim of the SETI project as well.

Check out SETIQuest for ongoing developments in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence and make sure you join the effort. We might find another "voice" from way out there! And if it doesn't happen in our time, just remember that it is worth the effort to keep searching, exploring and learning. It's all part of the journey and adventure to find our place in this Cosmos.