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Endeavour launched through a low deck of clouds Monday morning. Credit: NASA

As I’m sure you know, Space Shuttle Endeavour launched Monday morning, and is now docked with the International Space Station. I want to point out one very special part of this mission that could change mankind’s understanding of the universe forever- the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This device is the brainchild of Nobel Prize winner Professor Samuel Ting. It cost about $2 billion to build, but the knowledge gained from it will be well worth the money. The device will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS and will run its experiments for the rest of the duration of the ISS (currently the ISS is to be funded and run through 2025). Basically, this amazing piece of equipment has a ring of immensely powerful magnets that will bend the path of any nearby cosmic rays so that they pass through a very sensitive detector. The velocity of these cosmic rays out in space is many orders of magnitude greater than anything we can create in a collider here on Earth (the Large Hadron Collider, for example). These rays do hit the Earth’s atmosphere, but most of them are scattered, deflected, or broken up by the ozone layer. That’s why this space-based experiment is so important. The main things Ting will be looking for are evidence of antimatter, dark matter/dark energy, strangelets, and other aspects of cosmic radiation that could affect future missions involving manned spaceflight. For a good breakdown of each of these scientific objectives, visit the AMS’s official website. The wikipedia page and this space.com article are also pretty good.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked much about exoplanets- one of my favorite areas of science and astronomy. I’m happy to report that our old friend Gliese 581 has yet another surprise: one of its well-confirmed planets may actually have liquid water on its surface, which means the temperature range would generally be suitable for human life. For a few years now we’ve known about several planets orbiting this red dwarf star that sits about 20 light-years away from us. The latest exoplanet discovery associated with this system (Gliese 581g) is being hotly contested, so it may not even exist at all, but the one we’re now talking about is certain to exist. It could be a while before we can definitively say whether or not this exoplanet (Gliese 581d) actually has liquid water on its surface, but a new set of computer models/simulations has shown that if the atmosphere of this rocky super-earth is dense enough, it would be stable and keep the temperature range suitable for liquid water, and possibly even life. This all hinges on an assumption that this world has a thick atmosphere full of CO2, so scientists aren’t really certain about the climate. But, based on what is known about planet formation and the makeup of Gliese 581d, a thick CO2 atmosphere is very likely to exist. This is certainly not the “holy grail of planet-hunting” a.k.a. an earth-twin because the planet is about twice the size of Earth/has about 7 times the mass, is tidally locked (meaning the same side always faces its star), and has an atmosphere of mostly CO2. Indeed, if life exists at all on this world, it would be vastly different from what’s found on Earth, but this news is very exciting nonetheless.

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Credit: Lynette Cook/NSF

 

Planet hunting is a delicate and tedious science. A very strong emphasis is placed on multiple teams of astronomers being able to replicate the results of the first team to announce any kind of discovery. If another team is unable to replicate the findings of the first, it casts a serious shadow of doubt on the validity of the initial findings. That’s exactly what is happening with the Gliese 581g exoplanet that was announced just last week. Sadly, a team that works directly with the HARPS detector on the 3.6m telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile has been unable to confirm the existence of Gliese 581f or g. They have access to more data than the team who initially announced the discovery, and they can’t find a clear enough signal in the background “noise” of the observations to confirm this planet. As more teams run computer models and look at observations from other telescopes with radial velocity planet-finding instruments, maybe we’ll get a clearer picture of whether these two planets actually exist. (Via Universe Today via Dynamics of Cats blog)

Don’t worry though, the Kepler mission will undoubtedly start popping out earth-twin discoveries in another year or so, mark my word.

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.

Today is the annual free cone day at Ben & Jerry’s. From what I’ve heard, they’ve gotten the issue of long-line-management down to a science, and it shouldn’t take as long as you think it will to get through. Good luck! I honestly don’t know if I’ll do it or not…

The Protomen won last night’s Road to Bonnaroo 8 off 8th. They join The Features, who won the first installment of this 3-part series. The final one happens Mon. May 18th.

The 2009 Lollapalooza official lineup has been announced. Headliners are: Depeche Mode, Tool, the Killers, Jane’s Addition, Beastie Boys, and Kings of Leon. It takes place August 7-9 in Grant Park, as always.

Diplo and Switch have a new Jamiacan dancehall-inspired project called Major Lazer. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect when you mention those two and dancehall in the same sentence. Stereogum has 2 free mp3’s.

The new Zooey Deschanel film 5oo Days of Summer screened at the Nashville Film Festival this past weekend. Not exactly sure of the Nashville connection to this film, but Nashvillest has a nice guest blog review by Winston Hearn.

A documentary film on renowned inventor and thinker Ray Kurzweil has been made. It’s called Transcendent Man. According to my NetFlix, a release date has not been announced, but it’s in the Tribeca Film Festival. Kurzweil theorizes that humanity will reach a technological singularity in the next 30 years, and that the only way for us to survive is to learn how to become literal cyborgs- meld our minds with computers. Here’s the trailer.

Space.com reports that the lightest exoplanet thus far has been discovered in the famous Gliese 581 system. This latest planet is called Gliese 581 E and is the 5th planet found in this system. It’s only 1.9 times the mass of earth, but unfortunately it’s VERY close to its host star, orbiting it in a mere 3.15 days. That means it’s way too hot to support life. The only planet (that we’ve discovered) in this particular star’s habitable zone is Gliese 581 D, but it’s 7 times the mass of Earth, and though it’s thought to have a rocky core, it’s probably completely covered by a vast deep ocean. In other words, it’s a waterworld. So that would preclude any land-based life forms, but there certainly could be life in those oceans!

Finally, the Onion reports that NASA has officially embarked on the biggest, most epic delay in history. Indeed.

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