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!!!

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


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!


June 9, 2010

That ain't no Comet, It's a Green Lantern Ring!

As many poozers know, I am a fan of Green Lantern and that multi-alien group of intergalactic, exoplanetary police force called The Green Lantern Corps. So the moment I saw the photo of the Comet McNaught, a comics-style bubble popped up above my head with this text: "Hey! That looks like a Green Lantern ring zooming through our sector!"
Depictions of Green Lantern rings flying across interstellar space are only seen in comic books. But I believe that nothing else comes close to these pictures as to how lantern rings in flight might look like in our real world.
Sure, it is a comet, and that tail is made of gas and particles blown off by the solar wind from the comet's icy nucleus, and the green glow is actually caused by ionized atoms. Maybe "real" Green Lantern rings won't leave trails like that because it won't shave off ice, gas and dust. But if you leave some room for your child-like imagination, it will be an even more wonderful sight seeing that green glow of pure energy!
Now here's some trivia: This particular Comet McNaught is just one among many. In other words, there are many Comet McNaughts. Yes, just like the legend of Green Lantern rings, there's a whole bunch of Comet McNaughts. Well, perhaps not as many as lantern rings which could number up to thousands. But I can make a good guess (based on explanations from BadAstronomy) that the other McNaughts are colored green, too. Its probly even more exciting imagining some of them are yellow, blue or orange...
But if you wanted to see nature's depiction of a Green Lantern ring racing across the night sky, you might actually have a chance to see it in the next few days.
You never know, Comet McNaught might just be a Green Lantern ring in disguise, roaming our solar system looking for the next bearer! So always be ready. It might choose you!

It's Easy Being Green
Comet in the June Dawn

Photo Credits:
Comet McNaught by Anthony Ayiomamitis and Michael Jaeger

June 8, 2010

TRAPPIST, A New Exoplanet-Hunting Telescope

For the record, I'd like to post this info about TRAPPIST, the most recent entry to our slew of planet-hunting telescopes. TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is a new robotic telescope from ESO at La Silla Observatory, in Chile. It is devoted to the study and detection of exoplanets and it will also study comets orbiting around our Sun. That is a nice combination to deal with the theme in Astrobiology about the study of the origin of Life.
TRAPPIST is a 60-cm telescope being remotely-operated from a control room in Li├Ęge, Belgium, 12,000 km away.
As it's name suggests, TRAPPIST will use the transit method, which is the same method that Kepler uses to hunt for planets. From its official website, there is no mention whether it is equipped with Adaptive Optics to counteract the effects of the Earth's atmosphere. But from the excellent night sky in Chile--aside from adding more entries into our known exoplanets database--we hope TRAPPIST will be capable of detecting earth-like planets as well.

TRAPPIST Official Website

June 3, 2010

On IKAROS and Interplanetary/Interstellar Kites

I love kites. I have three stunt kites among others which I sometimes fly on summer weekends at the park near Liberty Science Center (overlooking New York City) where the constant breeze is best for kite-flying around the area. To this day, I am still amazed how the wind translates to flight.
As a child growing up in the Philippines, I often ran in the streets with a kite I made out of newspapers and "walis tingting". As I pulled on the string (which i stole from my grandmother's sewing kit), I wondered how high and how far my kites could go. I remember myself asking if they could go past the clouds, the blue sky, and out beyond the unknown expanse.
The answer came many years later, but its so much better than it could ever be.
On May 20, 2010, an interplanetary kite has been launched that will fly to another world. The IKAROS will go to Venus and beyond.
The IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is a solar sail mission powered solely by sunlight. A solar sail is pushed by the photons from the Sun. In other words, it uses sunlight to sail.
When a photon is reflected it exerts a small force on the surface reflecting it. The Sun generates a lot of photons, so if you have a large, lightweight, reflective surface, it will be pushed by the force of many photons being reflected off it. It is the reflected photons that creates the "pushing" effect.
The solar sail hitched a ride aboard an H-2A rocket from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center. That rocket carries the main mission of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Venus Climate Orbiter called Akatsuki.
IKAROS is the first of it's kind to ever be launched and I hope it will work because it's success will pave the way for future solar sail missions that may even extend past our Sun into other stars. Thus, I have whimsically labeled a future acronym for it's successor: Interplanetary Kite ARound Other Stars (IKAROS).
I am very excited about IKAROS so I watched it's launch on a live feed. Perhaps watching its launch was related to the fact that launching my jetstream kite from the ground is also my favorite part.
My kite is initially in a launch position, facing the wind, facing me, and pointing up. I wait for a suitable gust of wind to pass through my back and reach the kite. At the right moment, I pull both strings and step backwards, I can feel the strength of the wind as I watch the kite accelerate upwards. For me, it is the most exhilarating part of flying kites. I advise you to try it.
By the way, did I mention that "Exoplanetology" is actually riding the IKAROS? Yes, a few months back I actually filled up a form at The Planetary Society's website to send a message to be carried along with IKAROS. Unfortunately, it wasn't encoded in the certificate of participation that was provided, but my message was "Interplanetary Now, Exoplanetary Next".
I hope that this short message encourages others in the hope that one day, we will have a probe exploring another solar system, and most importantly--an extrasolar planet!

Light Sail: Solar Sail from Planetary Society
From Centauri Dreams: http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=12588