Archive for the ‘Event Horizon by Bellatrix’ Category

Kepler to Launch Soon

Friday, January 9th, 2009 by Bellatrix

The Kepler Spacecraft is one step closer to launch. The Kepler spacecraft is set to launch in March of 2009, and its now packed up and ready to ship off to Cape Canaveral.

The launch of the Kepler Spacecraft will be an exciting one for planet hunters. It is named for the Dutch astronomer/mathematician Johannes Kepler who back in the 1500s derived some very important empirical laws describing planetary orbits. This spacecraft will be the most advanced piece of technology in the ever-growing arsenal used to detect exosolar planets. Kepler will monitor more than 100,000 stars simultaneously for signatures of planets of all sizes and orbital distances including earth sized planets. It will have the ability to detect rocky planets like Earth and ones that are located in the habitable zone of a star. For those unaware, the habitable zone is the area surrounding a star where the temperature i.e. distance from the star is such that life is possible. So in our solar system the habitable zone is more or less where Earth is and out to Mar’s orbit. So Kepler is not only expected to be the first to measure a Earth sized planet around a similar star but hopefully it should be able to tell us if they are rare or common, and thus whether possible life is rare or common.

Kepler is currently at the Ball Aerospace & Technology Corporation in Colorado, ready to leave for Florida. It hasp assed all its environmental tests and its pre-ship review. It will be launched atop a Delta 2 rocket and sent into an earth trailing solar orbit. It will be a solar orbit as opposed to the usual earth orbit so that earth will not obstruct its view of the stars since it will need considerably long exposure time to see such small planets. The telescope will be pointed at Cygnus, which is outside the elliptic of the solar system, which will prevent sunlight from obstructing the view of outside stars. Looking at Cygnus will also keep objects form the Kuiper Belt and asteroid belt from obstructing the starlight. The telescope will have a 1.4-meter mirror on it, the largest of any space based telescopes yet.

So with any hope the mission will launch as scheduled on March 5th. It has already been delayed several times due to budget issues (it was originally scheduled to launch in 2006 and is costing an estimated $467 million dollars). NASA other original mission to hopefully find earth-sized planets, the Terrestrial Planet Finder, was cancelled due to budget issues. But I think that this is one area in astronomy right now that has the most public support, so the most chance to receive funding. The general public may not be so concerned with something like WMAP (a spacecraft used to study the cosmic microwave background radiation) but the general public knows about finding other planets, about finding life outside of here; that is something easy to understand and still very exciting. So hopefully if Kepler is successful it will not only renew some lost passion for astronomy by the general public but also generate funding for future projects.

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International Year of Astronomy

Monday, January 5th, 2009 by Bellatrix

Now that 2009 has begun its important for all to know that 2009 has been declared the international year of astronomy. It is the 400th anniversary of when Galileo Galilee first turned his telescopes to the heavens, opening a whole new world of scientific discovery. It is an important time to remind and education the public about the world of astronomy, with astronomy budgets tightening getting the public involved is crucial to keeping support alive and well.

The history surrounding Galileo is quite fascinating and worth looking into for any science or history enthusiast. He was truly one of the first real scientists, pioneering what we know as the modern scientific method. Galileo lived an interesting life teaching mainly in Pisa Italy (where he did the famous experiment of dropping objects of different weights off the leaning tower) and then spending the majority of his life in Florence. In Florence he spent his time educating the ruling family of the time, the Medici. He did not invent the telescope as many think, as it was first invented for use as a naval navigation tool. He was the first to use it for astronomical purposes. With his telescope he discovered the moons of Jupiter and documented sunspots, the phases of Venus, and made detailed drawings of the surface of the moon. For anyone interested a terrific read on the subject is the book ‘Galileo’s Daughter’ by Dava Sobel. It is a good biography not just of his professional but also personal life and includes real transcripts of letters between him and his daughter; it gives a good view of life in Italy at the time.

Back in 2009, many events will be happening throughout the year to commiserate this occasion. For a full list check out the official website at www.astronomy2009.org. The kick off will officially be in Paris on January 15 and 16 featuring keynote speeches from Nobel laureates and video feeds from scientists all over the world. The solar physics group will be having a yearlong campaign in over 30 countries at 150 different venues. ‘The Cosmic Diary’ is a website being launched in January focusing on the daily lives of astronomers with over 50 astronomers from 35 countries participating with blogs, articles, video, and more. Another event is the ‘100 Hours of Astronomy’ taking place on April 2-5. It will feature live web casts, public viewings, and other outreach events. One interesting feature going on the month of January is the project ‘Dark Skies Awareness’, where the International Year of Astronomy organization is trying to rise awareness about light pollution and they’ve called on the public to count the number of stars that are visible in areas with differing light pollution and you can then compare with there data on the number of stars when there is no light pollution and the results are quite surprising.

I personally encourage anyone reading to get involved. There are many ways for the public to get involved in astronomy. You can head out to your local planetarium and see what they have going on. Or go to a public viewing night held by your local university or observatory. I know some university’s go out into the community and do things like Universe in the Park viewing nights, or if you have children you can sign up their class or troop to have astronomy students come do a presentation. If you already have a telescope just take it out and make sure it gets some use, and if you know how try hooking up your camera to it and enter an astronomy picture contest. Astronomy is a fascinating subject, but in difficult financial times its important to keep the public enthused involved and educated, hopefully with some of these large scale events going on people will get reminded just how fun and amazing it can be to look up to the heavens as Galileo did so many years ago.

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Carbon Dioxide Found on New World

Monday, December 15th, 2008 by Bellatrix

It’s no new thing to find a planet these days since we’ve detected hundreds of extrasolar planets by now. Now being able to determine the chemicals present on other planets, now that’s pretty new and exciting. Now for the first time carbon dioxide has been detected on a planet outside of our solar system.

The planet is called HD 189733b and lies about 63 light years from us. It’s a large planet, about the size of Jupiter with a very short rotation period of only 2.2 days. Astronomers have been observing the planet for a while now using both the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope. Last year they discovered water vapor and then some time later methane. But this is the first time an organic compound such as this has been found on another world. Now this planet is too hot to support life, but chemicals like this one are by products of life processes thus when we are able to start detecting earth sized planets this may be an indirect way of discovering other life forms.

It is exciting not just knowing that these other planets are there but we’re actually able to say something about them. Using the Hubble Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) to study the infrared light emitted by the planet. Gases in the planet’s atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of light from the planet’s hot glowing interior. The astronomers identified not only carbon dioxide, but also carbon monoxide. The molecules leave their own unique spectral fingerprint on the radiation from the planet that reaches Earth. This is the first time a near-infrared emission spectrum has been obtained for an exoplanet. With these detection techniques we can describe the conditions, chemistry, and atmospheric composition of other planets.

This planet was a good candidate for this type of study because of the orientation of the planet to Earth’s orbit. The planet’s orbit is facing us edge on, so when it moves around its star and the star eclipses it. So astronomers are bale to subtract out the light that is due only to the star and thus are left with the spectrum coming from the planet.

Once the new James Webb Space Telescope launches things will get even more exciting. Astronomers will be able to use this technique but with the much greater sensitivity of the new telescope hopefully it will be on terrestrial, or earth like planets. Until then astronomers will be using this technique to look at other exoplanets to see what other new things they can discover.

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Students Discover New and Different Planet

Monday, December 8th, 2008 by Bellatrix

Three undergraduate students from the Netherlands have made a new discovery in our universe without even trying. They discovered a new extrasolar planet, which is a great discovery itself, but to top it off they discovered it using a new technique and found it orbiting a special kind of star.

Students Meta de Hoon, Remco van der Burg, and Francis Vuijsje were given the assigned to develop search algorithms. They did so well on this project that they had time to test their search algorithm on real data. So they set to work investigating light fluctuations in thousands of stars in the so far unexplored OGLE database. The brightness of one of the stars was noticed to decrease by about 1% every two and a half days. The students were then allowed to use the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile to follow up and confirm that a planet was causing the fluctuations.

The planet was given the name OGLE2-TR-L9b, but the students like to call it ReMeFra-1 after their names. The planet is quite large, weighing in at about five times the mass of Jupiter. To make sure that it was a planet and not a small star o brown dwarf they used spectroscopy to look at the chemical make up of the orbiting body and confirmed it is not a star. The planet is orbiting very close to its star; it lies at only three percent of the Earth-Sun distance giving it an orbital period of only 2.5 days. This discovery is also special because of the type of star. The star, named OGLE-TR-L9 is now the hottest star found to have a planet orbiting it. The star itself also rotates very quickly, which would have made it hard to use the conventional method of planet detection to find this one.

So we can add another extrasolar planet to the growing list. With each new planet discovery we learn so much. We have now expanded the list of possible stars that could have planets, knowing that stars this hot and fast can have planets. This technique may prove quite useful in detecting planets around similar stars. And the part that I think is most exciting is that this was all done by undergraduate students. Undergraduates are usually lucky to get some research experience, maybe a have a paper published with their names below their professor’s, but these students did something extraordinary and they’re getting the credit. It shows that you don’t have to be a stuffy know it all professor who has been researching for many years to be able to contribute.

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