Exomoons?

If you have seen the movie Avatar (if you are reading this blog I will assume that you have), then you know the mythical planet of Pandora seems to be orbiting a large gas giant planet.

Although the orbit doesn’t make a whole lot of scientific sense, the model is sound.  Exomoons, by definition, orbit an exoplanet.  However, just like the movie and perhaps our own Solar system, some of these moons may be capable of sustaining life where their parent planet cannot.

Saturn’s moon Titan is believed to be able to sustain life since we have found oceans of water underneath the frozen surface.

So the prospect of an exomoon harboring life is also plausible.

But how do you find an exomoon orbiting around an exoplanet parsecs away?  Teams of scientists are currently working one methods to detect exomoons using the science developed hunting for exoplanets and data already gathered from Kepler.

So perhaps Pandora does exist, but I wouldn’t hold by breath of finding unobtainium anywhere in the Universe.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +

Norman

More Watery Worlds Found.

Researchers spectrographically analyzed data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to find five more exoplanets.

The fiveplanets (WASP-17b, HD209458b, WASP-12b, WASP-19b and XO-1b) are called “hot Jupiter” planets, both for their size and temperature.

Credit: S. Redfield/T. Jones/McDonald Obs.

Most of these “hot” planets have orbits that are far closer to their suns than Mercury orbits our Sun.

So why don’t the just burn up?  Nobody know for sure yet.  There are a lot of theories, but until there is more data collected, I will just assume that because they are gas giants, there isn’t anything really hard to burn away and the gravitation tug between the sun and the massive planet keeps it in tack.  It will be interesting to find out (of course there isn’t going to be one answer for all situations).

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +

Norman

The 9 Lives of Kepler.

Like the fabled phoenix, the Kepler spacecraft may be rising from the ashes.

nasalogo

Previously, Kepler was going to be re-purposed for near Earth object and asteroid research.  However, NASA has proposed an extended mission, called “K2,” that would have Kepler return to its exoplanet hunt by scanning large areas, focusing on smaller stars. Kepler would use light curves to detect exoplanets that orbit in front of their stars, creating a slight dip in star brightness. This dip is known as a “transit” and thousands of candidate alien worlds have been discovered by Kepler’s sensitive optics.

According to Mike Wall over at SPACE.com, the K2 mission would look out across the Earth’s orbital plane, studying up to six regions in space. Each region will be observed for at least 40 days (with the hope of extending that time to 80 days). Each new region would consist of 10,000 to 20,000 stellar targets.

Kepler_mission

Considering that this new mission could cover 10 times more area than the original mission could mean that Kepler could still make more outstanding findings.  With already thousands of candidates already needing to be confirmed and reviewed, it could take many more years before all the current data is understood.

Keep on burning brightly Kepler.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +

Norman

Cloudy With A Chance Of Science For Kepler-7b

The data collected from the Kepler spacecraft is still producing spectacular results even after the spacecraft can no longer function in its exo-planet hunt.

 

One of the first five exo-planets discovered was Kepler-7b.  Which was confirmed in a rather short 33.5 day period after it was declared a candidate.

 

Now, thanks to the data Kepler collected a team from the University of Bern, we have maps of the clouds swirling around a planet around a star over 2,000 light years away in the constellation Lyra.

 

So why Kepler-7b?  It orbits its host star every five days at a distance of approximately 0.06 AU (closer than Mercury).  But it is one unusual property of Kepler-7b, that caught the eye of exo-climatologists.  Kepler-7b reflects about 50% of the visible light hitting its atmosphere.

Using Kepler data, the team measured the amount of reflected starlight for the entire orbit of Kepler-7b around its star to produce a “phase curve”.  This is similar to how the shapes of asteroids are determined using light curves.  The phase curve as transformed into a crude map (with only east-west information) of the reflectivity on Kepler-7b. The results implied the existence of clouds.  There was sufficient data to even determine the size of particles in the clouds.

Of course, not everyone sees a silver lining concerning these clouds.  Kevin Heng a team member involved in all three studies regarding the clouds around exo-planets said:  “Clouds are a nuisance, because they hinder us from performing a unique interpretation of an exoplanet atmosphere.”

Of course, since he is really interested in finding signs of life on these exo-planets, I can understand his frustration.  I feel the same way when I am trying to observe the night sky and clouds come rolling in to block my view.  So all Kevin really needs to do is invent a cloud filter that can see through the obstructions.  I’d buy one!

P.S. While doing research for this post, I came across an amazing resource for those of you interested in exo-planes.  You can find all the information known about all the exo-planets discovered so far at the Open Exoplanet Catalogue.  They even have animated orbital plots of the stars and the planets that orbit them.  Also exoplanet apps for the tablet of your choice.  Very nicely done.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +

Norman

Smaller IS Better.

At least when you are talking about habitable planets.

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that the nearest planet in a habitable zone probably lies within fifteen light-years of Earth. This announcement was made after  analyzing recent data from the recently crippled Kepler Mission.

Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets and what they are made of.  As seems to be typical with the human race, scientists are really trying to find Earth-sized planets residing in habitable zones around their stars.  The hope being that we can find ourselves somewhere else in the Universe.

Scientists also believe that these planets are the only types of planets that can harbor life.  I am skeptical of this reasoning as we have found life unlike ours on our own planet, let alone have any idea of what is capable elsewhere in the Universe.

But, following current convention, Kepler has identified a host of exoplanets with orbits that are capable of producing surface temperatures that allow water to remain liquid, which scientists have deemed a prerequisite for the development of life.

It turns out that there are about 12 times as many small stars (M-dwarfs about 1/2 the size of our sun) with surface temperatures less than about 4000K.

Hunting for Earth-sized planets around M-dwarfs, therefore, is now particularly interesting to researchers.  Not too long ago, it was believed that the possibilities of habitable planets around M-Dwarfs was small due to the cooler star temperature and the potential that any planet would be tidally lock to the star (like the way the Moon is tidally locked and always facing Earth).  Additionally, small stars tend to flare more which could have deleterious effects on any closely orbiting planet.

New research, however, suggests that suitable habitable regions might develop on a planet anyway. Since there are a lot more small stars, and  it is easier to find and study their planets scientists have begun to concentrate their efforts there.

So far using Kepler data, scientist have  identify 64 dwarf stars and 95 candidate planets.  Just from this data, the statistical probability is that there should be one Earth-sized planet on every 6th star.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +

Norman

Down, but not out?

By now you have heard the Kepler space telescope is in trouble.  It may have to cease operations soon.

 

There won’t be any repair mission because a) we no longer have any operational shuttles and b) and even if we did, Kepler is about 40 million miles (64 million kilometers) from Earth in a Heliocentric orbit (i.e. it orbits the Sun, not the Earth).

So, what went wrong.  Kepler needs to be pointed with extreme accuracy to point its 1.5 meter mirror.  To do that, there are four reaction wheels that make up a sort of gyroscope keeping Kepler pointed to the exact same spot in space.

One of the four reaction wheels was overheating, so in January of this year NASA shut the whole thing down for ten days to try and cool the reaction wheels off.  It didn’t work.  Kepler could continue with three reaction wheels (redundancy, redundancy, redundancy).  However, it now appears that a second reaction wheel is now failing.

All is not lost however.  Kepler is currently on an extended mission.  The original end date for the project was over a year ago.  NASA agreed to fund the project until 2016, if the equipment lasted that long.  Kepler was launched in 2009 in search of Earth-like planets. So far, it has confirmed 132 planets and spotted more than 2,700 potential ones.  It will take scientists years to figure out all the data.

Considering the very small area of the Milky Way that Kepler was looking at, and the advances made in exoplanet discovery.  I think Kepler was a rousing success.  Too bad it can’t go on.

“I wouldn’t call Kepler down and out yet,” said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and Hubble repairman who is NASA’s associate administrator for space science, at a news conference.

Well, hopefully he is right and more planets are discovered.  Kepler II anyone? NASA? NASA?

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +

Norman