Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Star With SEVEN Earth-like Planets

An international team of astronomers today announced that they have found a faint cool star that is surrounded by a system of seven planets, each of which resemble the Earth in size. Three of the planets orbits in what we call the "habitable zone" where water can be liquid and temperatures might be right for life.
The star, located about 40 light years away, is so faint and cool, it doesn't have a name like bright stars do. It's referred to by the name of the telescope that discovered it and given a number (TRAPPIST 1). Each of the planets is then given a letter from b to h. (See the diagram above.)
Note that the planets are all very close to their dim star, taking from 1.5 days to about 20 days to orbit it. (By comparison, the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury, takes 88 days to orbit.) Planets e, f, and g are the ones where the combination of a cool little star and close-by planet work out to make the temperatures potentially reasonable for life. This star enters the record books as the one with the largest number of Earth-like planets, and the largest number of candidate planets in the habitable zone.
Astronomers caution that the kind of star these planets live around (called an "ultra-cool red dwarf") tends to have a lot of "activity" on its surface when they are young. Great flares of energy and particles are given off in this kind of activity, which might flood the nearby planets with high-energy radiation. That might not be so healthy for the formation of life there until the star settles down to a more stable adult existence.
On the other hand, such low-mass stars (this one contains only 8% of the "stuff" our Sun has) tend to live much much longer than a star like the Sun, so there may eventually be a much longer opportunity for the planets to evolve their surfaces and atmospheres and give birth to life.
Another complication for planets so very close to their star is that their motion probably resembles that of our Moon in a crucial way. The Moon (and these planets) take the same time to orbit as to spin, which means they keep the same face toward the object they go around. So one side of each planet always faces their star and the other side is always in darkness. There is no day and night cycle on these worlds -- you either live on the star-facing side and have perpetual day or you live on the other side and have perpetual night. Only a significant atmosphere might make such a world more bearable and astronomers are using a variety of telescopes to probe whether these planets are surrounded by an air layer and how much and what kind of air they have.
Just to put the discovery in context, astronomers now know over 3,000 planets orbiting other stars, ranging from balls of gas and liquid much bigger than Jupiter, down to rocky balls smaller than Venus. Experts now estimate that perhaps half of the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy may possess planets, and many stars will have more than one planet, just like TRAPPIST 1 and the Sun do. The universe seems rich with planets of all kinds, making it more likely than ever that we are not the only form of semi-intelligent life in the cosmos.

Below is a little poster NASA created to show how the other planets in this system would look from the surface of one of them.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why Should I Believe a Word of This?

        In June of 2016, the students at my college asked me to be the Commencement Speaker. I was honored and touched, and talked about skeptical thinking and living a fact-based life. The newsletter "Skeptical Briefs" has just published a one-page version of my talk and I've put it up on the web, in case anyone might like to read it: 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A New Photo of the Death-Star Moon

Just in time to anticipate the success of the Star Wars film "Rogue One", NASA released a new photo of Mimas, the moon of Saturn's that resembles the "Death Star."
Mimas, an icy world about 250 miles in diameter, has a giant crater on it which is 86 miles across. That's a single impact feature that is one third the diameter of the world that it’s on!!  Astronomers speculate that if the chunk that hit Mimas, exploded, and dug out that crater had been a little bit bigger it might well have shattered that moon.  Then Saturn might have had another ring system around it.
The crater has been named “Herschel” after the astronomer (and musician) who discovered Mimas.  In its center is a mountain that towers almost as high as Mount Everest on Earth.  It’s that central peak that helps our mind’s eye see Mimas’ resemblance to the evil superweapon in the Star Wars series.
The photo was taken in October by the Cassini mission, which has been exploring Saturn, its rings, and its moons since July 2004.  Its spectacular images find their way into every course I teach and every tourist tour of the solar system I guide in my public lectures.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Photo of the Earth and Moon from Mars!

   NASA has just released a remarkable image of the Earth and the Moon as seen from a spacecraft orbiting Mars. Our planet and Mars were 127 million miles apart when the photo was taken.
   The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been orbiting Mars since 2006, collecting very detailed close-up images and data about the surface of the red planet. In this case it was used to capture a photo of Earth and Moon with both bodies in the same frame. The image was taken at a time when the Moon was behind Earth as seen from Mars, so it shows the Earth-facing side of our natural satellite.
   Even at Mars' distance, the image of the Earth reveals continents. Australia is the reddish-brown feature in the center. Seeing ourselves as a tiny disk of light in the blackness of space can help remind us that we share a fragile and beautiful planet in our journey through space.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

My Mars Science Fiction Story Now Free on the Web

As some of you know, I have begun writing science fiction stories (based on ideas from astronomy) in recent years and two of them have now been published.
The first story (“The Cave in Arsia Mons”) was published in a small-press anthology of Mars stories entitled “Building Red: Mission Mars,” and deals with a surprising discovery made in a cave on the side of one of the giant volcanoes on the red planet.
The publisher has now given me permission to put the story on-line free and it can be found at:
If you click on the blue “download” button just above and to the right of the title, you get a PDF file with the story and a bit about the actual discovery of martian caves.
My second story (“Supernova Rhythm”) is just being published in an anthology entitled “Science Fiction by Scientists,” edited by astronomer Mike Brotherton, and published by Springer. It concerns an advanced civilization out there that can play music using exploding stars: or…/…/3319411012
When I retire from teaching at Foothill College in June 2017, I am looking forward to spending more time writing science fiction stories like this.  For my listing of a wide range of science fiction stories with good astronomy, see: 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Hidden Baby Galaxy in our Cosmic Neighborhood

An international team of astronomers, led by researchers at Japan’s Tohoku University, has just reported finding the faintest satellite galaxy ever seen orbiting our home galaxy, the Milky Way.  All stars are born in great islands or groupings of stars called galaxies.

Big galaxies like the Milky Way are surrounded by smaller “baby galaxies” (or satellite galaxies), some of which collide with it over cosmic times.  About 50 such galaxies are currently known to orbit our Milky Way – with the two “Magellanic Clouds” (discovered by Ferdinand Magellan’s crew) being the most famous of them.

Because many of the smallest galaxies are very faint, they are hard for us to make out.  Remember, we are inside the Milky Way, and so (as we try to look outwards) we always have to observe through the stars and star clusters of our own galaxy.  The faint baby galaxies can be hard to tell apart from clusters or groups of stars in the Milky Way itself. (This is why it’s hard to get a good photo of the Milky Way; we are inside it and so it’s like trying to take a selfie from inside your kidney.  The view is not so clear.)

Still, using the giant Subaru telescope (whose mirror is more than 24 feet wide), the team was able to find the faintest baby galaxy ever found, which is being called Virgo I (since we see it in the constellation of Virgo.)  At an estimated distance of 280,000 lightyears from us, Virgo I was much fainter than earlier surveys for our neighbor galaxies were able to reveal.

The whole Virgo I “dwarf galaxy” is only about 248 lightyears wide.  Compare that to the 100,000 lightyear diameter of the Milky Way! The Magellanic Clouds are estimated to be 7,000 and 14,000 light across.  So you can see that Virgo I really is just a baby. See the tiny smudge it makes on our accompanying image.

But if one such baby galaxy has escaped our notice until now, chances are many others like it may also be out there.  Some of our theories predict that major galaxies like the Milky Way should be surrounded by many more dwarf galaxies that we have seen so far.  Virgo I leads astronomers to think that more may be out there -- just waiting for bigger telescopes and more observations before they are discovered.