September 15, 2011

Tatooine. Pwn'd.

Today, the discovery of the first transiting circumbinary planet orbiting two stars have just been announced. Kepler-16 (AB) b or simply Kepler-16 b has been revealed.

Kepler-16 b is 216 light years away, and it orbits around two stars that are orange and red in color, both are smaller and "cooler" than our own sun. Kepler-16b orbits them far enough such that the two stars are being felt as one source of gravity. The planet is on a stable orbit, but the movement of the two stars orbiting each other makes the Habitable Zone dynamic and could vary the temperature of that zone by at least 30 degrees. This tells us to to look at the Habitable Zone not as a fixed "place" but as something dynamic. "The notion of habitable zones in a planetary system has got to change. It's a dynamic thing," says one of the scientists.

All this makes the Kepler-16 star system a wonderful laboratory that will definitely teach us more about Habitability in the future. And it will tells us the possibility of planets around other binary Star Systems like Alpha Centauri which is just 4.2 light years away.

So what is it like on that planet? Although some describe it as "Tatooine-like", Kepler-16b is actually a cold and frigid place. It's surface may actually be different than the depicted planet in Star Wars. It's a mix of gas and rock and the temperature on its surface is described as "kind of like a nippy day on Antartica" or "like a nippy day on Mars". It's just outside the Habitable Zone (but the Kepler team is looking for an exomoon around it which may turn out to be habitable). The dramatic thing is that no two sunsets on that planet are alike. Its two suns will cast shadows with hues of orange and red. Very dramatic, indeed. I think that's what makes it "Tatooine-like".

Truly, the discovery of Kepler-16b is a landmark not only in Exoplanet Science, but also in terms of Humanity's mode of imaginative thinking because it pushes the boundaries of what we once thought were not possible. It tells us to dream bigger possibilities!

Update: There have been other planets found in binary systems in the past, but Kepler-16b has been the clearest detection yet of a transiting planet orbiting a Circumbinary System. It's the first of a new class of planets (Circumbinary Planets) that will be revealed by Kepler in the coming weeks or months. [ Hint: 150 candidate circumbinary planet candidates in 750 Kepler eclipsing binaries! in the pipeline ]

Kepler-16 (Ab)
Additions to Exoplanets in Binary Star Systems

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

September 9, 2011

Worlds as Metaphor

It's been several months ago that I tweeted about how planetary or exoplanetary thinking is making its way into the human psyche. It became more apparent when a "planetary" model of organization surfaced in the design of User Interface (UI).

You know, we live in an age of data explosion. So much that you need an effective interface design to interact with data in a meaningful way. That's why this "planetary" design hit a sweet spot in organizing and representing your music collection. I remember Last.FM had some solar system visualization back then, but this working interface from Bloom rocks.

I felt compelled to write this post after I came across a more detailed exposition of how this "Worlds" interface was created. I am amazed how the representation of data about artists, albums and songs fits in place "naturally" with how nature has organized stars, planets, moons, and galaxies. It almost seems to say that music and nature are intertwined. And it is intertwined!

All this just proves that it is most elegant to use Worlds as Metaphor, not just in interfacing with machines and data, but in interacting with ideas!

Creating New Worlds
Worlds, Not Windows

September 6, 2011

Supernovae and Exoplanets: A Possible Connection?

Last week, I posted about a recent supernova in our sky called the SN 2011fe in the Big Dipper. The title of that post does not imply any connection at all between supernovae and exoplanets other than the fact that there's a couple of known planet-bearing stars which can be exogazed in the same patch of sky roughly 7 degrees in diameter.

In this post however, i'm going out on a limb to investigate a possible relationship between exoplanets and supernovae that is more direct than simply being in the same patch of sky. I'm hoping that this post would serve as a prompt and a question for astrophysicists because i'm really curious if what i'm thinking is true or not.

Today, I read from an article that some old stars (specifically White Dwarfs) may be held up by their rapid spins, and like ticking "time bombs"--the moment they slow down, they explode as supernovae. Immediately, I was reminded by an earlier finding that close-in exoplanets (commonly "Hot Jupiters") transfer angular momentum to their parent star which makes them spin faster.

Bringing these two research findings together, I therefore think that in some cases of these ticking "time-bombs" on the verge of collapse, the presence of a close-in planet can delay the parent star from going supernova. Can a planet ever affect a star in the context of a supernova?

However, the close-in exoplanet loses orbital energy and spirals inwards to its star. My wild imagination tells me that the hot jupiter will be consumed and all of its mass transferred to the parent star. Will the ill-fated exoplanet cause its star to become a supernova?
Maybe not. So let's avoid the mayhem and investigate first how to prevent a supernova with exoplanets, shall we?

Our Galaxy Might Hold Thousands of Ticking "Time Bombs"
Close-in Hot Jupiters Speed Up Rotation of Parent Star

Image Credits:
An artist's depiction of an early stage in the destruction of a "hot Jupiter" (a gas giant with a very close orbit) by its star. NASA/GSFC/Frank Reddy


September 2, 2011

A Supernova and Exoplanets

If you're planning to take a peek at the M101 supernova tonight, then have a look at the chart I made to help you spot it speedily. You may need binoculars to spot other objects of interest such as a couple of exoplanetary systems in the same patch of sky, namely HAT-P-3 and HD 118203. Their magnitudes are approximately 11 and 8 respectively, so it would be quite a challenge to spot them.

At the handle of the Big Dipper, Alkaid, Mizar and M101 makes a semi-equilateral triangle (length of 7° each side). This makes it so much easier to spot them all by star-hopping.

Do not miss this supernova of our generation, named SN 2011fe, a Type Ia supernova at the Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101). In the next few days, it might reach at least magnitude 10 at it's peak brightness around September 12. At its brightest, it may be quite visible using good binoculars, or small telescopes on excellent conditions of the night sky.

Other Links:
The Big Dipper and Exoplanets