Some sad news from NASA: the immensely successful Kepler Mission in danger. The space-based planet hunting telescope has suffered another malfunction with one of its reaction wheels. The craft had four of these wheels to begin with, and they are responsible for keeping the spacecraft correctly oriented. It lost one of the wheels last year, but can still survive with three. Now that another wheel has stopped functioning, it will be nearly impossible for engineers to keep Kepler correctly pointed at the small patch of sky it’s been staring at since the mission began. NASA engineers think they can devise a way to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to coarsely aim it in the right direction, but since the process of analyzing Kepler’s observations is so painstaking and tedious, coarse alignments may not be accurate enough to keep the mission running normally. NASA engineers also haven’t given up on getting the wheel working again, so we’ll have to wait and see how this pans out. Even if Kepler dies, the mission has already been a huge success and there are several other new planet hunting missions in the works. For more on this story check out the always-reliable Bad Astronomy.
It’s been way too long since I last posted anything science-related. Photographing weddings, playing in two bands, and working a day job has eaten up all of my spare time lately! But I’ve found enough time to bring you some exciting updates and cool videos today.
Above is a comparison of the 5 newly confirmed exoplanets in the Kepler-62 system. The Kepler mission also confirmed an exoplanet around another star, Kepler-69, but that one isn’t nearly as interesting as the Kepler-62 system. Specifically, Kepler-62e and 62f are very exciting because they are officially the smallest potentially habitable exoplanets discovered to date! 62e and 62f are about 1.6 and 1.4 times the size of Earth, respectively. Based on our best computer models for planetary formation and evolution, scientists estimate that 62e is probably cloudy and quite warm, while 62f is probably covered in water and quite cooler, possibly even covered in ice. But different atmospheric conditions could change that significantly… there’s no way (yet) to know for sure. For more on this exciting discovery check out Universe Today and Bad Astronomy.
In related news: Building on the awesome success of the Kepler mission, NASA has announced its next exoplanet-hunting mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Scheduled for launch in 2017, this new space-based telescope will look for exoplanets in the same way the Kepler mission has been, but it will use four wide-angle telescopes to look at a much broader part of the sky.
Now for the video goods. These are both very cool short segments from Canadian astronaut and current ISS commander Chris Hadfield.
This one is a mesmerizing demonstration of how water behaves in a zero-gravity environment by wringing out a wet washcloth:
And this one is Chris talking about possibly the coolest aspect of being in the ISS- taking breathtaking photographs of Earth from the ISS’s cupola:
October 17, 2012
Very exciting news in the world of planet hunting! Our nearest star (that’s not our own sun) Alpha Centauri has an Earth-mass planet orbiting it! The planet is 1.13 times the mass of Earth, but only takes 3.24 days to orbit the star. That short orbital period means it’s VERY close to its parent star Alpha Centauri B, and probably has a surface covered in hot molten lava- not a pleasant place. The Alpha Centauri system is famous because it’s so close to us and has been included in many sci fi movies and stories. It’s a triple-star system only 4.3 light years away, and if it does turn out to have a habitable planet, it would no doubt be the destination of our first interstellar travels, if and when we ever develop the technology for it. This planet was found using the radial velocity method, which observes the faint wobble that an orbiting planet exerts on its parent star. Apparently this wobble was so faint and hard to detect that its discovery is somewhat of a milestone in the art of planet hunting. Scientists also think that this discovery increases the chance that we will find a habitable world in the Alpha Centauri system. For more info check out Bad Astronomy or New Scientist.
It’s been a while since we had any juicy exoplanet news. That changed yesterday as a new breakthrough was announced in exoplanet science. For the first time astronomers have confirmed multiple planets orbiting a binary star. The star is about 5,000 light years away and what really makes this discovery interesting is that one of the two planets orbits in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on its surface. The catch is- the planet is a gas giant, similar to Jupiter and Saturn, but more the size of Uranus. However, planets like that almost always have many moons, some of which could have an atmosphere and even support life, just like the Forest Moon of Endor, home of the Ewoks in Star Wars. Pretty exciting stuff! Read more about it at NewScientist.
In other news, if you’re anywhere in the southeast and looking for some nerdy fun this Labor Day, look no further than Rocket Fest at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. This event just popped onto my radar today via Bad Astronomy, and low & behold Dr. Plait himself will be one of the guest speakers! It should be no secret that I’m a big fan of him and and his blog. This is a fundraiser open to anyone, any age, and the proceeds go to the scholarship fund for Space Camp, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation. Honestly what excites me the most about it (besides seeing Phil Plait speak) is the fact that you can get a signed print of that AWESOME poster for a mere $20 donation. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be there, but I had to mention it because it’s all sorts of awesome!
June 21, 2012
I’ve written a lot about exoplanets, planet-hunting missions such as Kepler, and various other topics related to the search for other worlds in the universe. Never have I seen any one image that could really sum up my feelings about it. But that time has come, and the brilliant Randall Munroe who does the well-known nerdy web comic xkcd is the man who did it. I can’t really say any more- just look and read for yourself. Be sure to click through to enlarge it enough to read the small text.
Some fantastic news from NASA today: The astoundingly successful and productive Kepler Mission has been extended through 2016! This is a huge relief for space nerds like me who eagerly watch science news blogs for the next big news item from missions such as Kepler. As you may know, Kepler is a space telescope which looks for planets in other star systems. Most specifically, the mission is looking for earth-like planets in other star systems. The mission has already racked up over 1,000 potential planets, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will find and confirm the first true earth-twin in these next 4 years. There was a lot of concern over the future of the mission due to recent NASA budget cuts- many thought the mission might not get funding to extend it even till 2014, so getting funding till 2016 was actually a pleasant surprise. The funding will, however, be up for review again in 2014. Still, this is a huge relief because Kepler has already seen what could be earth-twins, we just have to wait for a second transit to occur to confirm the initial observation. Since these are truly earth-like planets, it takes them roughly one earth year to orbit their parent star. The major worry was the mission would be ended before a second transit could be observed to confirm the planets’ existence. Thankfully we no longer have to worry about that, and it’s only a matter of time before the holy grail of planet-hunting is found.
December 21, 2011
The Kepler team at NASA announced yet another exciting discovery yesterday: the first confirmed earth-size alien planets, Kepler 20f and 20e. The mission has found other exoplanets that pretty close to earth-size, but these two are by far the closest yet. What really befuddled me about this announcement was that that in addition to those two smaller, rocky worlds, there are three bigger gas-giant or super-earths in this system as well. No only that, but all five of these exoplanets’ orbits would fit inside our own Mercury’s orbit around our sun! That’s a lot of planets crammed into a tiny area! Of course that also means that these planets are scorching hot- far too hot to be habitable. But, it’s very reassuring to confirm that Kepler can positively identify alien planets that are earth-size and even tad bit smaller (Kepler 20e is about 87% the size of earth). As usual, Dr. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has a very good explanation of the whole thing. And I’ll also point you toward this article on space.com about the likelihood of us finding a true earth-twin within the coming year.
And now I will simply tell you to go take a look at this amazing set of volcano photographs and have a a few eyegasms. You’re welcome.