Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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 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.

Kepler is awesome

Kepler Launch - image credit: NASA

If the Orbiter Access Arm at JSC’s Rocket Park can be said to hold the dreams of my childhood, the Kepler Spacecraft must be the dreams of my teenage years set aloft.

I was a real sci-fi addict in high school (okay, also Tolkien). I consumed Arthur C. Clarke books as well as the Ender series and the first few Ringworld novels (A World Out of Time is another great Larry Niven offering). My simple childhood dreams of piloting a Space Shuttle in Earth orbit evolved into grander imaginings of interstellar travel, multi-generation ships, and humanity’s destiny in the stars. All of these sci-fi driven dreams, in order to become reality, are built on one simple but elusive premise: habitable planets other than Earth. This is of course where Kepler comes in.

Kepler is what every sci-fi geek beginning with Clarke 70 years ago, or maybe even Wells before him, secretly wished for. Kepler is our gateway between the worlds of fiction and science.

I wanted to highlight Kepler because of the slew, or even deluge, of new planet candidates that continues to come from the Kepler team. About a month ago the blogosphere was in a frenzy over the announcement of Kepler-22b (which is notable enough to have it’s own Wikipedia page but not a better name), claimed to be the first small planet discovered in the habitable zone of another star. Then in late December the Kepler team announced confirmation of small planets around Kepler 20. Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are just about the size of Earth (although they are not in the habitable zone). Just a few years ago I was dreaming  of the day we might hear of this kind of discovery.

NASA's PlanetQuest counter

Now there are so many planets out there that NASA has a dedicated counter over at the PlanetQuest website. Consider that only 20 years ago in 1992 we discovered the first planets around another star. There are so many planets that i have an iPhone app to keep track of them all. It would probably be a full-time job if someone tried to give them all normal names.

Even more exciting than talking about all the worlds we have already discovered is looking ahead at what Kepler should find this year. Kepler works by looking at planets transiting in front of the light of their star. Confirmation of new planets takes 3 transits to build high confidence that it’s a real planet. If we want to find Earth-like planet around Sun-like stars, that means waiting 3 years. Kepler was launched in March of 2009. See where I’m going with this?

They say never to make predictions about scientific progress, but I’m fairly confident that 2012 will be an unbelievable year in exoplanet science. We are going to start confirming planets that in all likelihood have life thriving on the surface, and that could very well look a lot like the planets from our favorite sci-fi stories. If you’ve been sitting around wondering where’s all the cool stuff those scientists have been working on, well welcome to the future. They’ve been busy finding the thousands of planets that your great-great-great grandchildren may colonize.

Stay tuned.

Plot of known exoplanets - via Scientific American

Friday Links

This week’s links are picture heavy, but first up is an awesome astronomical event you don’t want to miss this weekend…

Lunar Eclipse tomorrow!

Chances are you can see at least some of it. Phil Plait helps you plan your viewing party.

Speaking of eclipses, check out the one you missed last week.

Down to Earth

Night sky over Croatia

A huge iceberg that’s been at sea for over 10 years

Stunning panorama of the Canberra tracking station – can you see them talking to Curiosity?

Andrew Symes of Canadian Astronomy writes about attending the MSL launch tweetup – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 not up yet

Around the Solar System

cassini gets another great shot of Saturn rings and moons

Mars rover Opportunity finds gypsum, proof of water on Mars

New Horizons probe now the closest spacecraft to Pluto

In Orbit

NASA announces official launch date for first SpaceX berthing mission to ISS

Things aren’t looking any better for Phobos-Grunt. ESA and RSA can’t seem to decide whether or not to stop trying to contact her

Just because its cool

F-35 and the Blue Angles C-130

Sats Del Sol

Over at the Planetary Society Blog Emily Lakdawalla writes about recently attending a meeting with the American Geophysical Union on space weather. Go check it out for a great collection of videos showing a single coronal mass ejection from 4 different solar observing satellites.

The thing that surprised me, was the graphic showing just how many active solar observing satellites are currently in space.

Image Credit: NASA

Quite a few of these I had never heard of. Phil Plait describes the importance of understanding the Sun better than I can:

The danger to Earth from [coronal mass ejections] is real, if rare. A powerful one can generate strong electric currents in conductors (like power lines) on the Earth’s surface, which can cause widespread blackouts. They can also damage satellites in orbits or be a radiation danger to astronauts. In general, though, our magnetic field protects us on the ground, preventing us from suffering any direct danger. And, as a bonus, we can get beautiful displays of aurorae out of them. While they’re a concern for us as an electricity-using and space-faring race, we can protect ourselves from their danger while simultaneously reveling in their power and majesty.

So it’s good that funding has been granted to replace the aging ACE satellite with DSCVR (funding was requested by the president for the 2012 budget and Emily heard at the meeting that funding is secured). A program like ACE costs a few hundred million dollars for the life of the program but can go a long way to warning us back on Earth about events before they get here. Being able to send important telecommunications satellites to safe mode or warn the ISS crew is well worth the investment, in my opinion.

Friday Links

It’s Friday! Wearing ugly Aloha shirts to work and going to happy hour at 3 are all things to look forward to today. But before you check out for the weekend, why not feed your head some space knowledge? Here’s my rundown of some of my favorite space-related items around the internet this week.

Mars Science Laboratory

Of course this past week has been dominated by the successful start to Curiosity’s trek to Mars. Only 8 months until landing day!

Around the Solar System

  • Emily Lakdawalla has a great roundup of all the planetary missions operating around the solar system
  • At Saturn, Cassini is starting a new orbit on Dec. 3. Get all the juicy details from the CICLOPS page. I’m excited for the Dione and Titan conjunction
  • If you just want pictures from Saturn with no fluff, check out Titan to tide you over
  • Emily Lakdawalla’s hard work has paid off. Check out her awesome scale poster of the solar system!

Image Credit: Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society

Down to Earth

  • Interesting article at CollectSpace about NASA artifact auctions. What do you think, should these things all be at museums?
  •  A collection of photos of the Moon and Venus together last week (the one with the big palm tree is my favorite)

Out There

Kepler discovers small planet 1.6 times the diameter of Earth and about 10 times the mass, demonstrating superb resolution techniques. Awesome! We are inching closer to finding those Earth analogues all over the galaxy.

Mars is a Harsh Mistress

Yesterday, November 21, the window for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe to leave Earth on a sample return mission to Mars officially closed with the spacecraft still in Earth orbit. Phobos-Grunt was, in my mind, one of the flagship missions of the decade (along with Juno, MSL, and New Horizons). It will be a long time now until we see a major sample-return mission of that scale. Fortunately, some creative-minded people are thinking up ways to get Phobos-Grunt to other destinations. Those ideas are of course based on the assumption that the spacecraft will ever be recovered at all.

As a member of the Planetary Society I was particularly excited about the LIFE project. For LIFE the destination is not important and some near-earth-object could do just as well. So I hope very much that the engineers over in Russia keep trying as long as funding is available to salvage the mission they worked so hard to launch.

Interestingly, there is talk today, via Universe Today, that Phobos-Grunt still has a window to go to Mars on a one-way trip for another few weeks. This probably implies that they would use up much of their return fuel to send Phobos-Grunt on a faster trajectory, making up for the delayed departure. This poses an interesting cost-benefit analysis for the mission managers, if by some providence the spacecraft is recovered before the one-way-trip departure window closes.

The mission objectives of Phobos-Grunt were largely based on the sample return architecture that took a lot of time and money to incorporate. If you send the mission to Mars without planning to return, you are forsaking all of that hard work. It would have been a much cheaper mission if it had not been designed with sample return in mind. So then what do you do? Do you save the Mars destination and deliver China’s Yinghou-1 orbiter to Martian orbit or do you save the mission objectives and find some enticing NEO to sample?

These are the types of tough decisions mission managers in our business often have to make, because most things don’t go as planned. Similar arguments over mission priorities happen in the ISS program all the time, although often without quite so much on the line.

Speaking of a lot on the line, the Mars Science Laboratory will be launching this Saturday, November 26. Hopefully MSL will head off to Mars without a hitch. I’d hate to have to revise this graphic with two more Mars mission failures.

via Gizmodo


Space in Motion

When you think of astronomy you probably have mental images of magnificent spiral galaxies or timeless wonders like Hubble views of the Deep Field or Pillars of Creation. Whatever your favorite astrophoto might be, chances are your mental image is of a static universe raining starlight into some mountaintop observatory from light years away.

Until the Space Age the Aristotelian idea of the “crystal spheres” of the cosmos was still an accurate analogy to how the night sky looks to the average person, even though we knew better. The only noticeably dynamic thing in the sky is the moon. Otherwise it feels like all of the action is happening down here on Earth, while the cosmos is still.

Fortunately, we not only live in the Space Age, we live in the digital age. Take a few images from a probe in orbit around Mars, stitch them together as an animation on the internet, and suddenly Mars is a living world.

Animations like the moving sands of Mars are a common part of the space news cycle these days. Here are some of my favorites.

GK Persei expanding nova

Jupiter rotates

Opportunity rover timelapse

Dust devil on Mars

Mutual events in the Saturn system

Changing seasons at Saturn

Phobos transits Jupiter

Timelapse of stellar jets