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What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets?  Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible.  The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun.  It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy).  Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement.  These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us!  The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky!  It is a pretty compelling picture!  Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.

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I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years.  Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).

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Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics).  However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.

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Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp).  Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh!  I know where I want to escape to next February!

venussymbolThe astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender.  With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess.  Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).

venus-goddess-of-loveConsidering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women).  Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted.  Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…

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Eridanus is a large constellation which has been known since ancient times.   The constellation begins in the north (near Orion’s left foot) then winds south across the sky before snaking west towards Cetus the sea monster.  The river of stars which makes up Erdanus then doubles back east and eventually ends far to the south at the border with Hydrus, the water snake.  Because of its antiquity, there is some dispute as to where the name Eridanus came from:  second-century Greek astronomers believed the name indicated the sacred (mythical) river which Phaeton plummeted into after his unhappy attempt to drive the chariot of the sun.   Other etymologists, however, think that the name originated in ancient Mesopotamia where “the star of Eridu” was sacred to the primeval god Enki, lord of the abzu, a mythical abyss filled with all the fresh water in the world.  Eridu was the first known city of Earth, so the name may go back to the origin of civilization.

Enki in his watery home, the Abzu

Enki in his watery home, the Abzu

Whatever the origins of the name are, the constellation is the site of one of the strangest and most controversial objects in the heavens.  In 2007, astronomers using radio telescopes to survey the universe were astonished to discover nothing.  More specifically they discovered an immense and disconcerting amount of nothing—an enormous void in space time more than a billion light-years in diameter.  The Eridanus supervoid lies between six to 10 billion light-years away and its existence seems to be at odds with current cosmological models.

The Eridanus Supervoid (from an article by Bert Stevens)

The Eridanus Supervoid (from an article by Bert Stevens)

Cosmologists have several schools of thought concerning how the supervoid came into being and what its real nature is.  Because I am having trouble understanding any of these crazy theories, I have provided a rudimentary metaphor for each in blue (which would probably offend cosmologists, if they were reading my blog).

1)      Supporters of the standard model Big Bang theory say the region is colder because of dark energy, a hypothetical form of energy believed to permeate all of space.  If it exists, dark energy uniformly fills otherwise empty space yet interacts with none of the known forces in the universe (save gravity). The void is not empty but is filled with dark energy–which we do not yet understand: just like an empty room would seem empty to the Babylonians (despite being filled with air to us).

2)      A contrary theory proposes that the known universe orbits a supermassive black hole (in the same fashion that galaxies spiral around central black holes). This explanation would explain the “accelerating/expanding” universe as a sort of illusion: objects on the edge of the universe would be orbiting at a greater velocity than objects close to the black hole—a phenomenon which would affect their red shift relative to us.  Of course anything that got too close to the black hole in the void would be swallowed to an unknown doom into a black hole with the mass of another universe.  The universe is like an old vinyl record being spun around by a black hole in the center which is enormous beyond comprehension.  The expansion of the universe is an illusion caused by our limited perspective in such a scenario.   

3)      Laura Mersini-Houghton, a cosmologist who theorizes about the multiverse, believes that the supervoid is the imprint of another universe beyond our own.  Quantum entanglement has allowed us to see a shadow of this parallel universe in the form of the great empty spot located in Eridanus.  ??? Um, there are other universes out there which interact with our own in unknown ways which cause big holes (or maybe windows).

4)      Conservative astronomers speculate that the empty spot is an anomaly of the cosmic texture of the early universe.  Phase transition after the big bang resulted in heterogeneous distribution of matter. The universe is like a loaf of bread—sometimes it just has big holes in it because of the way it came into being.  

5)      The radiometric finding method by which the void was discovered is flawed.  The area only seems anomalously “cold” (in terms of EM emissions) because of a relatively hot ring of emissions surrounding it. The void doesn’t exist.  It was a mistake in observation.

6)      Something else entirely which we don’t yet comprehend and haven’t even imagined. Something else entirely which we don’t yet comprehend and haven’t even imagined.

I’ll be honest here.  Since I don’t have a radio telescope array or a degree in theoretical physics, these ideas are pretty hard to assay.  They are also wildly divergent.  I am therefore going to evaluate them aesthetically/emotionally (i.e. uselessly) in the following manner.  The first idea has the support of the astrophysics community, but is unsatisfactory until we have a more-than-theoretical understanding of dark energy (which could be forthcoming because of our discovery of the Higgs Bosun).  The second idea seems like it could be tested with mathematical modeling and astronomical observation (which so far seem to indicate there is no giant black hole in the middle of everything).  The third idea seems insane—and yet I have always intuitively felt that there are universes beyond this one (I’m sorry to be so guilty of such magical/hopeful thinking).  The fourth and fifth ideas seem quite plausible because they are boring (although why is the universe leavened like bread? Or why does it contain large relatively hot rings?).  The sixth idea is always applicable to everything.

Horses and Birds (M. C. Escher, 1949, wood engraving)

Horses and Birds (M. C. Escher, 1949, wood engraving)

Of course all this speculation may all be moot:  a more recent survey of the southern sky from a radio telescope in Australia suggests that there might be a much larger 3.5 billion light-year-wide void in the known universe.  That would certainly steer us back toward more conservative models of the universe, while at the same time leaving us with yet more questions.

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth.  The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific.  On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin.  Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years.  Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.

The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers.  On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.

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The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering.   When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth.  The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in).  No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.

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The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth.  In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions.  To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere.  These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics.  The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:

The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe).   Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe.  Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands.  If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.

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The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack.  The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).

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George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate.  At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career).  In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun.  He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.

Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes.  His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions.  Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).

Yerkes 40 inch Refracting Scope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Yerkes 40 inch Refracting Scope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena.  In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope.  This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding.   Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar.  Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision.  The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.

 The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California

The 100 inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, California

Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting.  Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.

The Mt. Wilson 60-inch design is a bent-Cassegrain reflector with a 60-inch diameter primary mirror

The Mt. Wilson 60-inch design is a bent-Cassegrain reflector with a 60-inch diameter primary mirror

Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes.  He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology.  Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).

The 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale Telescope (f/3.3)

The 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale Telescope (f/3.3)

Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life.  His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe.  However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems.  He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch.  Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression.  Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation.  He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life.  Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery.  Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together.  Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.

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Mind-blowing diagram comparing Vancouver to a Neutron Star (by Christian Joore)

Most items in the heavens are inconceivably large.  The sun, a fairly ordinary star has a diameter of 1,391,000 kilometers (864,327 miles).  Even a tiny planetoid like the moon has a diameter of 3,474 km (2,159 miles).  However a few noteworthy items in the heavens are so small that we can think of them in human terms—like neutron stars, which are the size of a town or small city with a diameter of only 20 or 30 kilometers (about ten to 15 miles  miles).   But even though they are the size of a small asteroid or Manhattan Island, neutron stars are hardly inconsequential.  These dinky stars can have more mass than the entire glorious sun (which itself is 332,946 times more massive than the Earth and everything on it).  A 1.27 cubic centimeter block of such material (approximately the size of a half an inch sugar cube) would weigh approximately the same as all of the human inhabitants of Earth (give or take).

Neutron stars are left-over fragments of supernovae explosions.  When a star 4 to 8 times more massive than our sun burns through all available fuel, its outer layers blow apart in a supernova which spreads glittering matter across great swaths of space.  The dense remaining portion of the stellar core undergoes a titanic battle between electron degeneracy pressure and gravity.  If the fragment has more than 1.44 stellar masses, gravity wins and the electrons and protons of its constituent matter are crushed into super dense neutrons.  Such explosions are tremendously dynamic and bright.  In 1054 AD, Sung dynasty astronomers recorded such an explosion which outshone the moon.  Contemporary astronomers have determined that the 1054 AD supernova created the Crab Nebula, an oval shaped mass of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, neon, sulfur, and iron.

The Crab Nebula (which measures 11 light years across and lies 6,500 light-years from Earth) NASA/CXC/SAO/F. Seward

In the center of the Crab Nebula is a spinning neutron star which is emitting jets of particles at a tremendous velocity from its magnetic poles. These jets produce very powerful beams of electromagnetic radiation (which varies in intensity and wavelength according to elaborate nuclear & stellar physics, much of which is not yet understood).  The forces which create neutron stars often leave the stars spinning and pulsing with energy in such a way that they become pulsars.  These pulsars are useful for studying gravity, general relativity, and the behavior of matter at nuclear densities (albeit indirectly).  They also make accurate time measurement devices and useful beacons.  It is strange to think that stars so prominent for vast distances and so useful to astronomers actually have such minimal volume.

A Detailed x-ray image of the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula (Chandra)

Sirius, located in the constellation Canis Majoris

The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius.  Only 8.6 million light years from Earth, Sirius A is 25 times more luminous than the sun.  Because of its brightness, the star was well known in ancient times—it was named Sopdet in Ancient Egypt and it was the basis of the Egyptian calendar.  After a 70-day absence from the skies Sirius (or Sopdet) first became visible just before sunrise near the Summer solstice—just prior to the annual Nile floods.   Greek and Roman astronomers philosophized and speculated about Sirius, (which they called “the dog star” because of its closeness to the constellation Canis Majoris).  Arabs knew the star as Aschere “the leader”.  Polynesians used it as a principle focus of their astonishing oceanic navigation.  Over countless millennia, Sirius has worked its way deep into human consciousness as one of the immutable landmarks of the night sky.

Hieroglyph of Sirius/Sopdet

So imagine the shock when it was discovered that Sirius is not alone.  The bright star we know is actually Sirius A, a star with twice the mass of the sun. In 1844 the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel hypothesized a tiny companion for Sirius based on the irregular proper motion of Sirius.  Then, in 1862, as the American Civil war was being fought an American astronomer in Chicago first observed the tiny companion, Sirius B (thereafter affectionately known as “the Pup”). Sirius B has nearly the same mass as the sun (.98 solar mass) but it is only 12,000 kilometers (7,500 mi) in diameter—nearly the same distance around as Earth.

An Artist's Conception of Sirius A and Sirius B

Today Sirius B is the closest white dwarf star to planet Earth.  However it has not always been so, Sirius B began its life as a luminous blue B-type main sequence star with a mass five times that of the sun. About 124 million years ago—as the dinosaurs grazed on the first magnolias—Sirius B fused its way through the hydrogen and helium in its mass.  As Sirius B began to fuse together larger elements like oxygen and carbon it expanded into a red giant star with a diameter 10 to 100 times that of the sun. Then Sirius B ran out of nuclear fuel.  Without the heat generated by nuclear fusion to support it, the star underwent gravitational collapse and shrank into a hyper dense white dwarf star.  These tiny stars are extremely dense and hot when they are formed, but since they generate no new energy their heat and radiance gradually radiate away over billions of years until the stars are completely black and dead.

Not this sort of "White Dwarf"--Curse you Google Image Search!

Although Sirius B is largely composed of a carbon-oxygen mixture, its core is overlaid by an envelope of lighter elements. Hydrogen, being lightest, forms the outermost layer (which is why the little star currently appears uniformly white).

Bust of Sir William Herschel

Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick William Herschel. who was born on November 15th 1738! Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Herschel’s scientific and musical accomplishments and we have also explored his convictions concerning extraterrestrial life, but have what have we done lately to commemorate the long deceased astronomer and his contributions to human knowledge?

…other than photoshop this cake (sorry Seth)….

 That’s why we’re observing the great man’s birthday by listing a few of Herschel’s additional accomplishments (which didn’t fit in the prior, overlong post) and by making some brief comments concerning multi-disciplinary polymaths–who are rapidly disappearing in a world of myopic specialists.  Perhaps this will in some way suffice to memorialize this personal hero.

Although Sir William is principally known as an astronomer, he regarded himself as a well-rounded man of science and studied many other disciplines both in and out of the sciences.  Indeed one of his more remarkable discoveries–that non-visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation exist–is really a physics discovery rather than an astronomy discovery (although the disciplines are allied).  However Sir William also worked in the natural sciences, and is credited with an important biological discovery.  Prior to his time, coral was regarded as a plant.  Sir William got out his microscope and made some direct observations of coral cells. He concluded that since coral cells had the same thin membranes as animal cells, the organism was an animal.  Such is of course the case and today’s aquarium docents patiently explain to first-graders that corals and siphonophorae are actually creatures (although they, cnidarians, lack central nervous systems and can’t even enjoy basic sensations, much less book-of-the-month).   Sir William was an ideal renaissance man whose intellect and creativity allowed him insights into many different fields–which segues us to contemplating the scientific community of the present.

A microscope photograph of mushroom coral (by James Nicholson)

Contrary to what we might expect, today Sir William would probably find no place in the professional sciences (astronomy, physics, biology, or otherwise).  For in the sciences, as in other realms of academia, the gownless are vehemently cast out.  Someone who spent so much time practicing oboe and composing symphonies would never be able to get through the mountain of information necessary for an unfortunately named BS degree (to say nothing about attaining the doctorate so necessary to research and publish).  

Of course it’s admirable that we train our scientists at such immense length in specialized accredited schools.  And it’s also necessary! Any freshman scientist has his head swimming with a gigantic amount of information because science itself has grown.  Each branch of science is broader and wider and deeper (and other dimensions that non-scientists have no names for) every year.  Only people who have tremendous self-discipline and an advanced knowledge of where they want to go in life (no to mention substantial smarts) can travel such a path, and even these paragons can only choose one path each. 

Men like Herschel traveled the frontiers of science the way that men like Jim Bowie traveled the frontiers.  They are legends who opened up new realms–but we might not have any place for either one today (or more likely they would both be anonymous consultants battling the Washington beltway to their midlevel office jobs).  

"What the hell kind of simile was that?"

I mention all of this because I love and revere science but, despite trying to keep up, I am increasingly baffled. Scientists express their dismay at the laughable opinions of the layperson, but science stands in danger of becoming a mystery cult assessable only to the ridiculously highly educated.  I don’t have any solutions or suggestions about this.  Unlike some fields of endeavor I could name, science is not complicated because of politics or insidious Wall Street insiders.  It’s complicated because it’s complicated.  Only continuous studying and striving can allow scientists to push back the boundaries of human understanding (even as the rest of us connive to sell insurance and plastic junk to each other). That seemingly precludes brilliant crossovers. Strange visionary outsiders like Herschel no longer contribute their insights and talents, which is a great pity.  

Pictured: Science

I’m sorry I strayed into personal opinion there.  Perhaps some actual scientists can set me straight concerning interdisciplinary methodology within their fields.  In the mean time have some birthday cake and join me in waiting for the next polymath to give us a brilliant discovery which opens up the universe to the rest of us.

Herschel's Reflecting Telescope at Slough

Today scientists announced the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581 g which lies 20.3 light years away from Earth in the planetary system of the red dwarf star Gliese 581 (a star with one third the mass of our sun).   The planet has three times the mass of Earth and is almost certainly tidally locked to its star (in the same fashion that the moon always presents the same face to earth).  It revolves much more closely around its dim little star than our planet does around our sun: the yearly orbit of Gliese 581 g is just 37 of our earth days.  With four known planets, the star Gliese 581 had already featured the largest known planetary system outside of our own (before two more worlds were added to the system in today’s announcement). When exoplanet Gliese 581 d was discovered in 2007, it was regarded as the most earthlike exoplanet and scientists speculated about its potential for harboring life (though Gliese 581 d is now regarded as too cold to have liquid water).  Oh, the discovery of Gliese 581 f was also announced today–but nobody cares since it is located far outside what scientists regard as the habitable zone.

The Red Dwarf Gliese 581 in the Night Sky.

The planet was discovered by the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey headed up by Dr. Steven Vogt.  The team has taken to calling it “Zarmina” after Steven Vogt’s wife, which I think this is a very beautiful name for a world.  I’m also moved by the fact that Dr. Vogt’s first impulse would be to name the world after his spouse (and I also like the fact that she has a Pashtun name).  Unfortunately we’ll probably get stuck with something less euphonious—probably “Gliese 581 g”.  I guess our astronomical naming conventions confer mixed blessings—I’m still happy we don’t call Uranus “Georgium Sidus” like Sir William Herschel desired.

Speaking of Herschel and planetary discovery, I was pleased to see that Vogt continued Sir William’s glorious tradition of exuberant speculation about extraterrestrial life. At this morning’s press conference, Vogt boldly asserted that “my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent.”  He then spoke about the possibilities of polar bear like life-forms living on the planet’s cold night side, thermophilic life-forms on the hot half, and temperate life forms living on the twilight ring dividing the two extremes.

Tell us more about the nocturnal space yetis!

As with most science news, the planet’s discovery hasn’t produced a huge splash in the media (the discovery of the most earthlike planet so far known was greatly overshadowed by Tony Curtis’ death).  The few short mainstream news article to mention this discovery were striking to me for their comments sections.  Although many people leaving comments were filled with wonder and curiosity, a distressing number seemed very ignorant of basic scientific principles (or basic principles of anything).  A shocking number of commenters wanted to send all Republicans to Gliese 581g (an equal number wished to send all Democrats instead).  What happened in or national discourse that a citizen’s first reaction to hearing about a new planet is to banish his political foes there?  When did the United States become Renaissance Florence? Other people demanded that we not exploit the newly discovered planet’s resources but instead concentrate on solving our problems here on earth (20.3 light years might seem like a tiny number but it converts to 1.92048727 × 1017 meters).  We probably have better sources of bauxite and blood diamonds! In a similar vein, quite a few folks demanded that we stop studying the heavens altogether and provide them with cushy jobs, new sofas, and tv dinners.  In short, the comments made me sad and frustrated.

Gliesian scientists have reluctantly concluded that Earth is only inhabited by internet trolls and primitive one-party life forms.

Corot and Kepler, the two big missions for spotting earthlike worlds (from the French and NASA respectively), are only just beginning to yield discoveries, so I expect we will be hearing about a lot of earth-like worlds.  Let’s hope humankind grows technologically, socially, and politically as the new planets are tabulated!

[Also, rest in Peace Tony Curtis, I loved you in “The Great Race” when I was 6.]

Three days ago, on August 1st, 2010, a great mass of plasma was ejected from the sun.  The cloud of protons and electrons reached earth last night where it collided with the planet’s magnetic field to produce a series of spectacular aurora lights.  Because of the strength of the coronal flare, the dancing streamers of red and green fire were visible across much of the temperate part of earth and not just near the poles.  A second coronal mass ejection is due to arrive tonight.  These are the first big coronal flares which have headed towards earth for quite a while so, unless you are a jaded Inuit or world-weary arctic explorer, you should keep an eye towards the nearest pole.

An animation of Aurora Australis sweeping over the South Pole.

The sun is entering an active portion of its eleven/twelve year sunspot activity.  The peak year is projected to be in 2013.  Solar activity was mild throughout the twentieth century, but our star has not always been so quiescent.  At 11:18 AM on September 1st, 1859, a British astronomer, Richard Carrington, was observing a projection of the sun on a yellow glass and illustrating the sunspots he saw.  Suddenly, in the midst of a great boiling mass of spots, two kidney shaped points of light formed and grew intensely bright.  Here, halfway down the page,  is Carrington’s hilariously Victorian description of the event taken from NASA’s website.

Carrington was the first to directly witness a coronal mass ejection, when the sun’s opposing magnetic fields rip great hunks of plasma into space. After traveling 93 million miles, the particles from the 1859 ejection created spectacular aurora lights visible as far south as the Caribbean.  Blood colored light shone across the night skies of the world. The solar storm played havoc with telegraph wires and the telecommunication system of the day was rendered completely unusable.  Parts of the system burst into flame.  Keep in mind this was 1859 so telecommunications consisted of ponies, men with semaphores, and a handful of telegraph wires.  If a storm of such magnitude struck today, it would fry our communication satellites like chicken livers and do horrible, horrible unspeakable things to our electric and fiber optics grids. From beryllium deposits in polar ice cores we know that solar storms of the magnitude of 1859 are rare.  They usually occur once every five centuries or so.  However the sun is famously unpredictable.

A 2002 Solar Flare

These days we do not have an Englishman sitting in a study looking at a bright circle on a straw-colored sheet (or maybe we do, but he is unimportant and rather silly). Humankind now has a fleet of spacecraft which continuously monitor the sun (perhaps you might take a moment to reflect on how remarkable that sentence is).  Here is movie taken by the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) of a coronal mass ejection which occurred in 2001.  The sun is behind the opaque dot in the middle. Notice how the exotic radiation from the flare’s peak addles the craft’s movie making ability.

TRACE is a mission of the Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research, and part of the NASA Small Explorer program

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