Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this new video of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket concept, New Glenn.

If you like planetary science and are excited by the idea of future missions to Europa, you should read this detailed post at Ars Technica about how Congressman John Culbertson is working to make it happen.

SpaceX successfully conducted the static fire test for their next rocket launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A Falcon 9 carrying a commercial satellite will liftoff very early Tuesday morning, March 14th.

In Orbit

Only one orbital rocket launch since my last post. A European Space Agency Vega rocket launched the Earth-observing Sentinel-2B satellite from French Guiana on March 7th.

As usual, there are lots of good pictures from the crew on the ISS to share. Here’s a selection.

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839769655971627008

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839831200780988418

Around the Solar System

New data from the Dawn probe in orbit of Ceres indicates that the “bright spots” are much younger than the craters they inhabit. This is evidence of relatively recent cryovulcanism.

Check out these incredible images of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan. It has a unique shape no one has ever seen before.

This is a pretty cool series of images showing a global dust storm moving across Mars.

Weekly Links

It’s been a busy two weeks since my last news post. Among other things, my wife started her “space mission” (not a real space mission) and I won’t see her again for another 26 days. See my last post before this one for some details on what she is doing. I also travelled to Huntsville, Alabama for a work meeting at Marshall Spaceflight Center this week. Now that I am back home and it is just me and the dog, it’s time to figure out what’s been going on out there in the world of spaceflight during the second half of January.

Down to Earth

Probably the biggest news was the successful reflight of the New Shepard rocket by Blue Origin. The same booster that¬†flew suborbital and returned safely back in November was flown again on a similar mission profile on January 22nd. Here’s their shiny video:

SpaceX had some videos too, but not as shiny as exciting. First was this hover test of the new Dragon capsule:

Second was a parachute test:

In Orbit

There were 3 launches since the SpaceX Faclon 9 launch back on January 17th. First was an Indian PSLV rocket, launched on the 20th with one of their own navigation satellites. Second, a European Ariane 5 rocket launched on the 27nd with an Intelsat communications satellite. Lastly, a Proton rocket launched from Kazakhstan earlier today with an Eutelsat communications satellite.

Meanwhile in the category of fluff pieces, someone at Gizmodo has dubbed the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft the “cutest” cargo hauler to the space station.

Aboard the ISS, the Tims are really getting into the swing of things with their Earth photography. Along with Scott Kelly, the stream of pictures on Twitter from the three of them has been quite good, including some good shots of the snow covered East Coast last weekend. Here are some of my favorites.

Oh and this was a cool thing from Scott Kelly also:

Around the Solar System

Check out this incredible picture of a Martian sand dune from the Curiosity rover:

Namib dune, Mars

Out There

Unfortunately, there may not actually be a planet orbiting in the Alpha Centauri system… or at least, the previous research that hinted at one may be wrong (but who knows, there may be one there anyway).

Fortunately, there is good news to counteract the bad: new mathematical models indicate there may be a new large planet orbiting far beyond Pluto. Astronomers are busy turning on various search campaigns to see if they can find the theoretical world.

2015 Summary Link Dump

The last year was full of spacey goodness. Some things were expected – even long anticipated – like space probes Dawn and New Horizons arriving at their targets. Other things were a complete surprise, like the loss of SpaceX’s seventh commercial flight to ISS and the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. All-in-all, there was a lot to follow and talk about. Thus, I am putting together one or more “year in review” blog posts to give my perspective on what has happened and what’s to come. In the meantime, you can enjoy other people’s thoughts of 2015 in spaceflight through the links I have gathered below. Happy new year!

Wikipedia Stats

As usual, I love to lean on the “year in spaceflight” pages on Wikipedia. The folks that put these together do a thorough job. If we look at the 2015 in spaceflight page, we see that the human race is maintaining our high flight rate, with 82 successful orbital launches out of 87 attempts. These numbers have been steadily growing for years. Here is the last decade’s successful launches numbers, starting with 2005: 52, 62, 63, 66, 73, 70, 78, 72, 77, 88, 82. As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Links post, Russia had the most launches with 26 and their Soyuz rocket is by far the most dominant, at 17 launches. However, their two failures this year make it hard to call Soyuz both the most dominant and most reliable. China launches 19 of their Long March family of rockets with no failures.

Using the “list of spaceflight records” we can see some changes in the list for total time in space. Most notably, Gennady Padalka spent 167 days on ISS during Expedition 43/44, his 5th spaceflight, to put him at the top spot for most spaceflown human ever. He has spent 879 days of his life in space. Also notable is Anton Shkaplerov, who returned to Earth during Expedition 43 and is at the 32 spot, Oleg Kononenko, who returned during Expedition 45 and holds the 13 spot with 533 days, and Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov who are currently in space and hold the 7 and 31 spots respectively.

The other notable record that was broken this year is “longest single flight by a woman” (which is on the list of spaceflight records page), broken this year by Samantha Cristoforetti, partly because her crew got stuck on ISS a little bit longer after the loss of a Progress resupply flight in May.

Summary Posts

AmericaSpace

AmericaSpace, but on planetary science.

AmericaSpace’s compilation video of launches:

And here’s a series of four year in review posts from NASA Spaceflight:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Government Agency PR

NASA’s summary of 2015. With video below.

NASA’s top 15 images of Earth from ISS¬†(if you are a real photography or geography nut, you will want to click “read more” on each picture).

ESA year in pictures.

ESA highlights video.

Top Space Stories of 2015

Space.com’s list.

Phil Plait’s list.

Huffington Post.

US News and World Report.

Other Lists

Best pictures from the Curiosity rover.

Top science stories from NYT.

Top science stories from Science Magazine.

Google’s “a year in search” video.

Ars Technica top science images.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

As of Friday night, the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the ISS is still on the ground. But the issue that caused launch abort on Tuesday has been dealt with, and the SpaceX launch team is busy prepping for another attempt in just a few hours. Launch is scheduled for 4:47 AM Eastern, Saturday, January 10th. I will be getting up to watch mostly because of the crazy attempt to land the first stage on a barge… I mean autonomous drone ship.

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit just opened called¬†Outside the Spacecraft. The exhibit celebrates 50 years of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) which started with Russian Alexei Leonov’s first spacewalk in 1965.

In Orbit

Space Adventures has announced they have signed on another ISS “spaceflight participant” (or, tourist, if you prefer) – Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu. It is likely that he is the “backup” for Sarah Brightman, who will be flying to ISS later in 2015.

The week in images, from ESA.

Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s amazing Mars rover Opportunity finally summited Cape Tribulation this week, the highest point Opportunity will see during her mission. She is now over 400 feet above the vast plains that she drove across for years to reach Endeavour Crater. Here is the view.

Out There

2015 is 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still returning amazing astronomical results. The Hubble team knows how to celebrate right, and this week released two amazing images: first a new view of the Pillars of Creation and second an amazingly huge view of the Andromeda galaxy.

Because it’s cool

Randall Munroe of XKCD does some fun calculations about building a swimming pool on the moon.

I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.

This response, which injects a dose of realism, is even better:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Chinese rocket that launched on December 31st was only carrying a Chinese weather satellite – not super exciting. But check out these incredible images of the first stage of that rocket, which appears to have landed in the middle of a road in a rural Chinese town. I am glad that in the US we have more concern about where our spent rocket stages end up…

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to launch to ISS Tuesday is still stuck on the ground. A problem with a hydraulic actuator for the second stage’s Merlin 1D engine lead to a launch scrub. They will try again on Friday, January 9th. Here are some shots of the rocket on the pad.

In a pretty awesome outreach move, Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” hour on the website Reddit on Monday night (on the eve of their launch attempt). Here is the link to the whole thread, or you can read some highlights at Parabolic Arc.

The new SpaceX launch site at the extreme southern coast of Texas is likely going to seem more and more real throughout 2015. Just this week, SpaceX has begun posting job openings for the new location near Brownsville, Texas.

Richard Branson wrote a blog post about his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, and his continued resolve to move forward with Virgin Galactic. As always, Doug Messier has some excellent commentary and dissects Branson’s writing.

The US Government Accountability Office has denied Sierra Nevada’s protest regarding the awarding of the CCtCap contract for commercial crew flights to ISS. That means that NASA’s decision to fund only SpaceX and Boeing will stand.

In Orbit

The Atlantic¬†had an extensive feature article about the ISS titled “5,200 days in space: an exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, and the surprising reasons the mission is still worthwhile.” It is one of the most compelling stories¬†covering the ISS that I have ever read.

Surprisingly, at about the same time, Time ran a cover article about Scott Kelly, who will be launching in March for his one-year stay aboard the ISS. It is also a very good story that touches on the human side of life in space.

And of course, our friends in orbit continue to dazzle us on Twitter with views from orbit. Here is a sampling.

Around the Solar System

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting very close to the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour crater. It amazes me every time I read an update on Opportunity that the mission is still going and still so successful 11 years later! (Edit: and here is a more detailed MER update from the Planetary Society blog)

On the other side of the planet (Mars that is)¬†Curiosity has made some exciting discoveries. The rover has proven the existence of organics in the rocks of Gale crater and also that there is detectable concentrations of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The methane is important because, due to chemical reactions that must necessarily occur, the methane is transient – meaning something is producing it. A very detailed discussion of this new finding is at the Planetary Society blog. The research was also published in the journal Science.

Out There

The Kepler team announced yesterday that a number of newly confirmed planets (based on old Kepler data) brings the total exoplanets discovered by the space telescope to 1,000. 8 of these new worlds can reasonably be considered “Earth-sized” and even in their stars’ habitable zones. Because we don’t have details on their composition or atmosphere, we can’t actually know how likely it is that life could live on these planets. But, as Phil Plait writes, this is further confirmation that the universe is full of small planets. Eventually, we will find Earth’s twin.

Graphic from JPL-NASA

Because it’s cool

This creative short film titled “Shoot for the Moon”:

New footage from the Marianas Trench documents the deepest known fish. An alien world in its own way.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I am continually puzzled by large-scale aerospace projects using crowdfunding sites. In the latest installment, a company called Bristol Spaceplane (who have apparently been around at least since the Ansari X Prize days) is looking for 10,000 GBP (that’s about 15,500 USD) to build a remote controlled scale model of their spaceplane concept (via Parabolic Arc). How they intend to turn $15,000 of crowdfunding into a multi-billion dollar spaceplane project is not mentioned on their fundraising page.

SpaceX has picked up a Qatari telecommunications launch for 2016, adding to their already packed manifest. The Falcon 9 launch rate will be one of the big stories to follow in 2015. SpaceX is still on track for a January 6th launch to resupply the ISS.

In some continued minor fallout from the Virgin Galactic accident earlier this year, a company called Virool (I hadn’t heard of them) has changed up the prize in a previous contest: instead of winning a SpaceShipTwo ticket, the prize is now just a ride on a “vomit comet”¬†style airplane.

In Orbit

In a quick flurry of launches, the Russian space program lofted 3 successful missions to end 2014 on a very positive note last week. The launches were all unmanned and unrelated to the ISS program. First, on December 23rd, the first flight of the new Angara rocket put a “dummy payload” into geosynchronous orbit.

Next, on December 26th, a Soyuz rocket put the Resurs P2 Earth observing satellite into orbit.

Lastly, on December 28th, a Proton rocket launched a European communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This was the 4th successful Proton launch since the failure in May. Proton is notorious for failures (one failure a year since 2010), and is intended to be replaced by the new Angara rocket.

Up on the ISS, the crew celebrated Christmas last week by putting out cookies for Santa Claus and exchanging presents. Astronaut Terry Virts shared their celebration with a few pictures on Twitter.

Out There

A new study with the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a previously unknown “dwarf spheroidal” galaxy only 10 million light years from our galaxy. These types of small galaxies filled with older stars are expected to help astronomers improve models of star formation. The new galaxy is in our “Local Group” and is called KKs3. Hopefully someone at the IAU can come up with something more catchy.

Back in 2013, when Kepler’s second of four reaction wheels failed, it looked like the space telescopes science days were over. However, earlier this year the mission was relaunched as “K2”. The new mission uses the two remaining reaction wheels and solar wind pressure to keep the spacecraft pointed accurately enough to do science. The pointing is not as accurate as the original mission, but the first exoplanet discovery of the new mission proves that Kepler is not dead! Kepler found¬†HIP 116454b, which is a small planet 2.5 Earth diameters in size.

2013 in Review – Part I

Hello, and Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by while you are hopefully enjoying a New Year’s break with friends or family. Last year, my 2012 in Review post was a link style post of discoveries made, missions launched, and heroes lost throughout the year. Reading that post again, it doesn’t give a real feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of space, if you will. Therefore, in the spirit of New Year Resolutions, this year I resolve to spend some extra effort and write a more op-ed style summary of 2013. So read on to get my impression of the triumphs, losses, and curiosities of 2013 as I see them.

Part I – NASA’s present and future

I have never liked the phrase “mixed bag”, but that’s really what the world of spaceflight has been over the past 12 months, especially if you have a balanced interest, as I do, in Earth science, planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial development. Space exploration is dominated by NASA and its government-given budget. Therefore, it is hard to ignore the impact of the American government’s indecision and disagreement when it comes to NASA funding, and the impact that has on our industry as a whole. NASA continues to get a relatively flat budget, which stagnates growth. But you can’t begrudge the American government too much for this – most people agree that our federal government should do something about the deficit; all agencies are being asked to do with less. The story of 2013 isn’t that NASA is getting a flat budget, it is specifically how NASA has chosen to distribute that money.

NASA continues to generously fund the growth of commercial resupply missions to ISS as well as the development of a new exploration system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and the SLS rocket. When combined with the annual operating budget of ISS, this exploration funding amounted to around 44% in both 2013 and 2012. We can see the results of this spending in a very successful year for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (one successful ISS resupply flight each and 3 other combined test flights and no major failures) and the steady progress that the Orion capsule is making towards the first flight next fall. However, on the other side of the agency, Planetary Science has slid from 8.5% to 6.7% of the budget (here is my source¬†for budget numbers). This doesn’t sound like much, but the dollar amount is nearly $300 million less than the planetary science community is used to. What this led to in 2013 is the beginning of the budget squeeze; ¬†it looks as though the coming decade will have far less new planetary science missions than the American public has gotten used to from the golden ages of funding in the 1990s and 2000s. I know you probably like pictures, because I do too, so here’s a chart from the Planetary Society that can help put it into perspective.

NASA planetary science funding over time

As you can see, less money means fewer missions. The reason 2013 was full of great science results and pictures, despite budget woes, is because of the funding that launched so many great spacecraft over the past 10 years – MER rovers, Curosity rover, MESSENGER, Cassini, Juno, New Horizons, all of the Mars orbiters, Dawn, MAVEN, LADEE, LRO. All of these spacecraft were built and launched under an earlier year’s budgets. This highlights the core contradiction of where we found ourselves in 2013 in planetary science. Stunning pictures from Saturn and Mars come in daily from Opportunity, Curiosity, and Cassini, while planetary scientists are very concerned about the future. As NASA funding is funneled into the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2020 Mars rover (both missions I hope to see launched!), the American expertise when it comes to solar system exploration may, for a time, be funneled through the camera lenses of just a few spacecraft.

My intent is not to express an opinion about how much money NASA should get – or even what percentage should be given to planetary science versus other programs – but merely to paint a picture of the internal conflict (and conflict with the public perception of NASA) that started with the budget cuts in 2012 and will continue as long as NASA’s budget remains flat. Just look at this amazing view of Mount Sharp on Mars, from the Curiosity rover, a marvel of science and engineering…

The foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars

The Curiosity rover (and her older sometimes forgotten sister Opportunity) continues to inspire the enthusiast and layman alike. Budget or not, NASA has a mastery of robotic exploration, and demonstrated it in 2013 by continuing to operate missions successfully. NASA did lose two missions in 2013 – Kepler and Deep Impact/EPOXI – but both had technically fulfilled their primary missions.

While planetary science missions are usually the “best foot forward” for NASA, 2013 showed us that the public still loves our astronauts and finds manned spaceflight worthwhile. As I wrote last year, 2012 was the year that NASA’s astronaut office realized the importance and potential of online social media. The active ISS crews in 2013 took this to heart and turned Expeditions 34 and 35 during the first half of the year into an internet sensation, mainly due to the charismatic presence of Commander Chris Hadfield on Youtube and Twitter (here’s a Flickr stream of Hadfield’s mission).

Hadfield was special in that he combined the constant joy of being in space (which is not unique to him at all) with an open and emotional personality, a desire to share, and artistic talent. That last one locked in the “sensation” part. All impressive for someone who is first – professionally – a fighter pilot.

If NASA is crafty, it will take advantage of the enthusiasm for Hadfield and the ISS program before it has time to fade (which I hope it won’t!) and direct it into support for future programs like SLS and Orion and the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization mission. In case you missed it, the ARU is the plan to send a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid, capture that asteroid, and return it to Earth, all with human astronauts aboard. The ARU was announced by NASA leadership in the spring of 2013. As I wrote about in late April, the plan got somewhat less excitement from the public than was probably hoped.

The problem with ARU, and NASA’s current approach to manned spaceflight overall, is context and an end goal. When asked to explain the initiative this spring, NASA stated that the mission will integrate the best of our science and technology, while utlizing the new Orion and SLS systems, while at the same time keeping “…NASA on target to reach the President‚Äôs goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.” The question is, is NASA’s focus on planetary defense and asteroid deflection or is it just an excuse to test technology for going to Mars? NASA leadership is quoted as saying that Mars is a priority and that the¬†moon is not even being considered. Yet, no clear internal roadmap or guiding set of priorities outlines the timeline and rationale for future exploration missions. Instead it often feels to the public like NASA is searching for missions to justify new hardware, rather than the other way around.

It may very well be that NASA knows where it is going, but is simply in the necessary doldrums. Stuck in between manned launch vehicles (the dreaded “gap”) there is a lack of inspiration for the public. NASA may just need some results, some action, when it comes to these grand future plans, and the public will jump onboard. Orion’s first (unmanned) flight is less than a year away. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) will send Orion up to almost 4,000 miles to test out the heat shield on a blazing fast re-entry. Will this mission inspire and excite? It is possible. It could be that more results and less talk will cause the roadmap to also become more clear. For now, talk is cheap, and that is essentially NASA’s problem – lots of talk, and a cheap government.

Talk is also cheap in the continuously emerging private sector, and yet somehow they seem to inspire somewhat more excitement. I will explore the new private initiatives of 2013, and their impact on the spaceflight industry, in part II of my 2013 year in review.

Last Week’s Links

Okay, really late this week. No excuses. I can and will do better! I have a lot of posts that (I think) should be interesting in the hopper. Hopefully coming soon! For now here’s what’s been going on in space news. But, before we get into that, the really exciting news is that CERN found the Higgs!

Okay, I tricked you a bit with that link. Here’s a real article about it, and a good video about the discovery below.

Down to Earth

Sad news last weekend. NASA astronaut Alan Poindexter – commander of STS-131 – died in a jet ski accident. Clearly a great loss.

Here’s one of my ideas of paradise.

A beautiful shot of Venus and Jupiter at dawn. More early morning conjunctions can be enjoyed later this week.

The exhibit of Space Shuttle Enterprise in New York will officially open on July 19.

Last week was one year since the launch of STS-135, the last space shuttle mission. A plaque has been installed on the runway at KSC to commemorate “wheel stop” of the Space Shuttle Program.

Astronaut Stephen Robinson has left NASA.

Straying into the realm of politics, I think this essay on the current state of human spaceflight policy is worth a read.

Similarly, this contrary take on the “STEM crisis” in America is enlightening (via SciGuy).

On a more inspiring tract, Bill Nye tells us why we need our space (well, I find the video inspiring anyway).

Or, if you like, how about a 50th anniversary video for KSC?

In Orbit

The Houston Chronicle did a nice interview with Expedition 31 before they left ISS.

One of the last pictures of Expedition 31 last weekend before coming home.

Before undocking, Andre posted a nice tour of ISS. There is a bite-size 4 minute version and a monster 90 minute version.

Don Pettit shows us the emotional side of returning to Earth through poetry.

Looks like returning to Earth from ISS isn’t all glory. Multiple posts prove my point.

Around the Solar System

While everyone else was talking about how Curiosity will land on Mars in 30 days, Opportunity silently rolled passed 3000 Sols (Martian days) of her mission.

Out There

Jill Tarter may be retiring from her life of hunting aliens, but she’s not done promoting the idea of SETI. Here’s a good interview with her from the Washington Post.

 

Review: Books about Pluto

I’m not sure how it happened, but I woke up one day and half of my bookshelf was taken up by books about Pluto. Not that I’m complaining. Pluto is everyone’s favorite little ice ball to argue about. The cover of Neil deGrasse Tyson’ book The Pluto Files¬†has a quote from Jon Stewart “You gotta read this. It is the most exciting book about Pluto you will ever read in your life.” The jokes on you Stewart. There is more than just one book about Pluto out there and Tyson’s isn’t even the best.

My 3 favorite books about Pluto

Each of these books has a different focus and will probably appeal to different people. Tyson’s book is the perfect book to put on the shelf in the super market for the average American to read. The book takes you into the topic assuming you don’t know much about planetary science and guides you through the “is it a planet” controversy with pictures, poems, and quite a bit of science. My favorite part of the book is by far Tyson’s descriptions of the hate mail he received from school-aged children the country over. The Pluto Files is a fun read you can finish in an afternoon.

Next down in the pile is something I picked up in a store in Flagstaff, Arizona, just a stones throw from Mars Hill where Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh.¬†Pluto and Beyond¬†is much more a history book. It has quite a few less pictures than The Pluto Files… scary!¬†Author Ann Minard gives you a great historical context to view the discovery, and demotion, of planets through without all the hyperbole. She uses the controversy surrounding Pluto in the mid-naughts in order to tell us the history of Lowell Observatory as well as some of the history of how cosmology and planetary science evolved in the early 20th century. This book is definitely not for the casual space fan. Pluto and Beyond¬†is only about 160 pages but has a lot going on. I think this is a must read for anyone involved in astronomy or who considers themselves an astronomy buff, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people who don’t normally read books about space.

Lastly is How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. If you’re going to read any book about Pluto, read this one. Everyone knows Pluto got short shrift from the IAU in 2006, but most people don’t really¬†know what was going on in the scientific community that lead to the controversy. There’s no one better to tell the story than Mike Brown, who discovered more “dwarf planets” than he can name. Mike Brown is an astronomer in the tradition of Carl Sagan: smart, accomplished, but also charming and well spoken. Dr. Brown breaks the mold of scientist memoirs by exposing what can almost described as a “seedy underbelly” of his field – although that may be a bit harsh. I had no idea there was high-tech backstabbing and plagiarism going on in the world of astronomy. Astronomy isn’t exactly a field where you’re going to strike it rich or even win a Nobel Prize, so most astronomers do it for the love of science only. I suppose you can’t escape human nature.

HIKP is a page-turner because Dr. Brown makes you feel like a part of his research team. You want to find out if he finally discovers that “Planet X” he is looking for and what it will mean for science. The truth of what happened isn’t as exciting as discovering the 10th planet, but it is revealing about how science works. The truth is that this story is far from over. What Mike Brown did is something few scientists can do so single handedly. His research blew open the status quo and caused a whole field to reassess the entire taxonomy of their science. What is a planet? Should we even have a definition for a planet? How do we classify things if simply “planet” and “non-planet” aren’t good enough? These are questions we are still answering.

You can follow Mike Brown @plutokiller (hilarious, right?) and he regularly tweets from the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii or other observatoires while doing observing to find out what all of those TNO (Trans-Neptunian Objects) are really made of. I, for one, hope he writes a sequel. In the mean time, check out his blog at Mike Brown’s Planets.

You can get all three of these books on Amazon.com:

Pluto and Beyond

The Pluto Files

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

I suppose at this point, I might as well complete the collection and pick up the other books out there on Pluto. Better start a list.

As if on cue… more Kepler announcements

I had been wanting to write about Kepler since Kepler-22b was announced in early December. There was no rhyme or reason to why my post came out this morning, I just had time to write it, so I did. Not 12 hours after my post anticipating an awesome year of discovery, I heard about two new announcements based on Kepler data and another amazing exoplanet discovery unrelated to Kepler. I must be a prophet.

Truthfully, this was not an act of fate on the part of the universe. Rather, I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize that the AAS (American Astronomical Society) is meeting in Austin, Texas this week, so we can expect a more than usual number of announcements this week.

Anyway, first the Kepler goodies.

The confirmation of planets Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b were announced today via a published article in Nature (abstract). These planets are both “circum-binary” meaning they each orbit a pair of stars (like in my blog banner!). These are the second and third such systems after Kepler-16b that was only announced last September. With more than a single data point available, they were able to do a statistical analysis and have concluded that there are probably several million of these types of systems in our galaxy. In other words, 1% of all binary star systems have circum-binary planets.

These two new planets are awesome but they are not Earth-sized, so are of a bit less interest than the second announcement today.

So what’s the big deal? Well let me introduce to you KOI-961, which is a planetary system with 3 planets confirmed by Kepler, all of them the smallest exoplanets ever discovered. Yes, you read that right. Rather than explain it to you more, just check out this graphic.

Scale of recent small Kepler discoveries - via JPL

Mind blown yet? Mine pretty nearly is. Unfortunately, KOI-961 is a red dwarf, not a sun-like star, and none of these planets are in the habitable zone. In either case, this demonstrates that we have the technology to detect planets of Mars size and larger. Realize that we had no confirmed Earth-sized planets only a year ago. Actually, just over a month ago we had no confirmed Earth-sized planets. Wow! At this point, it’s only a matter of statistics until we find the first small rocky planet that is also in the habitable zone, that is also around a sun-like star, and that is also close enough to us that our forseeable descendants could travel there. Which brings us to the last awesome exoplanet announcement of the day.

An independent team called PLANET is using the technique of microlensing to detect exoplanets. The unique thing about this technique is that it does not depend upon the fact that the orbital planes of the planets are oriented “just so” like the transit technique that Kepler uses. It is also less biased towards larger planets. Therefore, when they saw 3 out of 40 of the lensing events they sampled showing signs of having planets, they were able to do a statistical analysis and conclude that there is probably at least one planet for every star in the Milky Way – 100 billion. Or as Carl Sagan would say, billions and billions…

Honestly, the statistics that led them to this conclusion is beyond me. Go read about it here, here and here for yourself (the last link from earthsky.org is the best). The point is, repeated different types of statistical analyses over the past few years continue to indicate that planets are everywhere.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this is going to be a good year for exoplanet science.