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A major milestone has been achieved by the Kepler Spacecraft- the smallest exoplanet found thus far. Kepler-10b is a small, dense, rocky world only 1.4 times the size of earth. It’s not earth-like, but it is earth-sized. This planet orbits its parent star very close- even closer than Mercury is to our sun, and it’s tidally-locked- meaning the same side always faces its star. It’s so hot that most of its surface is probably molten, and the star’s point-blank radiation would have long since “blown” away any atmosphere it might’ve had, so there’s no way it could support life. Still, this is a major milestone simply because it’s such a small planet. Detecting planets using the transit method is very difficult to begin with and the smaller they are, the harder they are to see. I’ve said this many times before, but it is literally only a matter of time, possibly only months, until Kepler uncovers a true earth-twin. That will create a fundamental shift in the mindset of the entire astronomy community from “are we alone?” toward the direction of “what are they like?”

(Via Universe Today, Bad Astronomy, and NASA)

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It’s been a while since I posted much of anything science-related. Honestly I’ve been veeerrrry busy. Fucking slammed is a good way to put it. But here are some important bits of news/etc… to come out of the science world recently.

  • First off, there’s been rampant speculation on some news blogs in the last day or so regarding an upcoming NASA press conference (scheduled for tomorrow afternoon) that will “affect the search for extraterrestrial life.” Of course many are taking that to mean that NASA has found aliens. That almost certainly NOT the case, and I must direct you to the ever-reliable ambassador of reality, Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, for much more reasonable speculation on what NASA will be announcing tomorrow. Also, as always, Universe Today is on top it as well. The announcement will probably involve the discovery of a new way or process by which life could exist on Saturn’s moon Titan. So chill out, and don’t believe the sensationalist news sites that are claiming NASA has discovered aliens.
  • The Large Hadron Collider has been busy slamming lead ions together for the past month or so. They had been in a “recess” of sorts since their last set of collisions involving single protons. Now they’re slamming much heavier lead nuclei together in an effort to recreate the conditions that physicists think existed just milliseconds after the Big Bang. (On an atom-size scale, of course.) They got what they were looking for, though it was a bit surprising. The leading theory was that a superheated blob called a quark-muon plasma existed, and that it acted much like a gas. However, this experiment showed that the quark-muon plasma actually behaved more like a perfect liquid with no viscosity. This collision was the most energetic heavy ion collision ever achieved on earth, 13 times more powerful than the previous record set by the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Brookhaven, NY, but it’s only about half of the LHC’s full capacity. Who knows what we’ll find when the LHC ramps up to full capacity over the next few years. (Via NewScientist)
  • We have now officially discovered over 500 exoplanets in our galaxy. Sort of. The news was announced, but there is really no way to put a “500” label on one particular planet. The problem is that the line between “confirmed” and “unconfirmed candidate” is a bit unclear, and many times in the past previously “confirmed” planets have been retracted as new, more accurate data has been gathered to prove they were in fact something else that’s not a planet. But the number is sufficiently past 500, so we can officially be happy that just 20 years after the discovery of the first exoplanet, we’re now past the 500-mark. With NASA’s Kepler spacecraft on the hunt, and already having produced over 700 exoplanet candidates, that number will soon start to rise very quickly. I’d say the next exoplanet milestone we’ll be celebrating is 1,000, along with the discovery of a true earth-twin. (Via Universe Today)

Image via Wikipedia

Our old friend Gliese 581 just keeps getting more and more interesting. Astronomers have discovered yet another VERY interesting planet orbiting this star. The star itself is a red dwarf- much smaller and cooler than our own sun, which mean it’s habitable zone is much closer than that of our sun. This new planet is only about 3 times the mass of earth, and it is within the star’s habitable zone!

Clearly this is exciting, but it’s still not a true “earth-twin” because we have no way to determine if the planet even has an atmosphere. It was discovered the same way all 5 other planets in this system have been discovered- the radial velocity, or “wobble” method in which astronomers measure the planet’s tug on the star as it orbits. I’m assuming the planet does not line on the plane of our line of sight to the star, otherwise we’d have transit observations to go along with these RV observations. Also, because it is so close (it orbits in only about 37 days) it’s probably tidally locked. This means the planet rotates at the same rate it orbits the star, resulting the same face of the planet always facing the star, exactly how or own moon always faces us with same side. Thus, one side of the planet would be much hotter than the other, and this is big mitigating factor in the likelihood of the planet harboring life.

The big deal here is simply that there is a somewhat earth-like planet orbiting a star right at our galactic doorstep. The Gliese 581 system is only about 20 light years away. Statistically, if earth-like planets were rare in our galaxy, the chances of one being so close to us would be VERY VERY low. So having one at our doorstep means that earth-like planets must be pretty common in our galaxy, VERY common, in fact. I have a strong feeling that as more data from the Kepler mission comes in, they’re going to start popping up everywhere, and that’s exciting.

I could go on and on, but what I’ve presented thus far is a condensed version of the Bad Astronomy post that just went up, so head over there to get the full details. As always Phil does a great job presenting the facts in laymen’s terms.

No aliens on Titan

June 9, 2010

Actual image of surface of Titan taken by the Huygens probe which landed on Titan in 2005.

Lately the media has been buzzing about the possibility of methane-based life on Saturn’s moon Titan. As usual, when scientists include the words “interesting,” “odd,” “life,” “extraterrestrial,” and “discovery” in the same press release, the media starts creating misleading headlines that make people think we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life. Chill out, folks, that’s not the case here. Basically what they found is that, in the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan’s surface, there is much less acetylene than expected, based on other measurements taken by the Cassini probe, currently orbiting Saturn. They also found via a computer simulation modeling the atmospheric conditions on Titan (not direct measurement) that there is also much less hydrogen at the surface than there should be. These are intriguing results, and deserve much further study, but methane-based life on Titan is just one of many possible explanations, the rest of which are non-biological. Good articles explaining this further can be found at Universe Today and Bad Astronomy, but the best explanation comes from Chris McKay at the NASA Ames Research Center. He’s one of the astrobiologists working with the Cassini mission, and states the facts very clearly (at least if you’re vaguely familiar with biology and/or organic chemistry. For a little bit more “laymen’s terms” explanation, I recommend reading either the Universe Today or Bad Astronomy articles.

Back with some science

December 30, 2009

The holidays obviously consumed my life to the point that I haven’t posted in over a week. Sorry ’bout that. I also haven’t shared any good sciencey tidbits in a while, so here you go:

I recently saw James Cameron’s latest epic Avatar. I won’t get too involved with reviewing the film as I’m no film critic by any means, but I will say this- it’s beautiful. The animation is astounding and most notably, the landscape is gorgeous. The dialogue and storyline is utterly pathetic. It’s basically the same story as Last of the Mohicans, Fern Gully, or Dances With Wolves, only this time it’s injected into a sci-fi mold. That being said, I always can enjoy that story to some degree no matter how many times it gets retold and rehashed. What is pretty cool about the movie is the science behind it. There will always be a big gap between “movie physics” and reality, but the over-arching idea of a habitable moon similar to Earth orbiting a gas giant similar to our own Jupiter in different star system is entirely plausible. The fact that the moon’s atmosphere is toxic to humans makes it slightly more realistic, along with the reduced gravity resulting in the native animal life being mostly large compared to that of Earth. Space.com has more on the science of Avatar’s Pandora.

Image via Universe Today

I’ve mentioned on here before that NASA and the European Space Agency have teamed up for the next decade or so of Mars exploration. The exact timeline and details of that effort are now beginning to come into focus, thanks to the recent discovery of a constantly replenished quantity of methane in Mars’ atmosphere The first step will be a new orbiting observatory launched in 2016 that is specifically equipped to further explore the possible sources of this methane, and map out exactly where it’s the strongest. Also on this first mission will be small lander designed to test the parachute/thruster landing system that will be used on the future missions involving the “real” landers/rovers. Those rover/lander missions will be launched in 2018, and will be specifically designed to search for signs of life. Recent developments in the theories about the possible source of the methane have started to lean more towards microbial life, probably living under the surface. That’s very exciting. More on this at Universe Today.

What kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t have some sort of “year-in-review” post? Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to come up with anything myself, but here are a couple of 2009 recap posts from other science blogs that you might find interesting:

Live Science: 9 stories we love, and hated, in 2009.

Space.com: The 9 top spaceflight stories of 2009.

Some of probably already know this, but I’m currently in the process of moving. Megan and I are renting a small house near Germantown, and though the house will be awesome once we get settled in, the timing really sucked. I can’t think of a worse possible time to be moving than during the holidays. So posting here will probably be limited until next week.

Remember that meteorite from Mars that caused a huge stir back in 1996 when NASA announced that it thought it had found remnants of fossilized bacteria in it? If you don’t, just know that this meteorite, named the “Alan Hills meteorite,” had what we initially thought was a fossilized remnant of ancient Martian bacteria. But then some other scientists came forth with an equally plausible hypothesis for a non-microbial origin of the microscopic formation. So ever since then, the scientific community has been at odds, with one camp saying “Yes, it’s an ancient Martian microbe! There really was life on Mars!” and another camp saying “Nope. That formation wasn’t biological in origin.” But new technology has shed some light on the subject that wasn’t possible back then. Researchers at the Johnson Space Center have used more sophisticated High Resolution Electron Microscopy than was available in 1996 to study the meteorite, and their findings contradict the nay-sayers. So, if no new nay-saying hypotheses come out, then we can be pretty damn certain that microbial life once existed on Mars. AND it may even still exist there, under the surface! (Via Universe Today)

Kottke.org is one of longest-running blogs in existence, and it’s almost always full of random awesomeness. In this case, it’s all about the H1N1 vaccine, and how it and other vaccines are made. I had no idea it took soooo many chicken eggs. Do yourself a favor and read all about it.

Now here’s yet another hilarious comic from xkcd:

As you can see from this video, NASA is joining in on the fight against junk science and stupidity in general by putting some of their scientists into the public eye to debunk the 2012 doomsday B.S. This is the manager of their Near Earth Object tracking office. I’d say he’s a pretty good one to talk about doomsday scenarios, since his office is responsible for tracking asteroids and any other objects that might slam into our pale blue dot and kill us all. DON’T BELIEVE THE SCAREMONGERS! THERE IS NO REAL, CREDIBLE SCIENCE BEHIND ANY OF THE 2012 DOOMSDAY MYTHS! (Via Universe Today)

In other science news, apparently the Vatican is officially acknowledging the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. They recently had a week-long study/discussion involving over 30 scientists and religious experts to develop an official stance/policy/statement about the subject. This is kind of surprising, because we all know that most sects of Christianity don’t always agree with science/reality. Good job, Pope. (Via Physorg)

The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) has been working with the Library of Congress for the past couple of years to create a huge online resource for photography info. They just launched it, and I can’t even begin to describe how awesome dpBestflow is. Find some downtime, and go check it out if you’re at all interested in photography. They’ve compiled loads of industry knowledge, standards, and general information, and it’s all in one place, for free. Basically, it’s everything you could possibly want to know about the profession of digital photography, all in one place. (Via Photo Business & News Forum)

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