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French Space Program satellite COROT

French Space Program satellite COROT

During the last several years one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy has been data from two orbiting space observatories concerning planets which lie outside our solar system.   The NASA space telescope Kepler discovers such planets by simultaneously measuring the light from thousands of stars for the faint dimming that occurs when a planet passes between the star and Kepler.  The French satellite COROT (“COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits”) finds exoplanets by tracking the slight oscillations in distant stars caused by the gravitational tug of orbiting planets.  The subtlety and elegant precision of both methods is astounding.

Sadly such astonishing engineering seems to have been near the edge of our technological abilities.  Yesterday Kepler went into safe mode (a sort of automatic shut-down triggered by a crisis).  Apparently a reaction wheel (a flywheel used to orient the spacecraft in relation to the stars) failed and Kepler can no longer be aimed properly.  The orbital observatory initially had four reaction wheels—one of which was a spare– however the spare wheel failed in July of 2012 and at least three wheels are required to operate the satellite.  If NASA cannot somehow reactivate the flywheel, then the mission is over.

Kepler Space Observatory

Kepler Space Observatory

Likewise on November 2, COROT suffered from a computer failure which made it impossible to collect data from the satellite and its status remains uncertain.  Most likely it is offline forever.  So our ability to find huge numbers of exoplanets via space observatory has temporarily been halted.

Kepler was launched in 2009 for a four year mission, however the mission was recently extended until 2016 (since it took longer to collect and make sense of the data then initially planned).   At last count Kepler had discovered 132 planets and was monitoring more than 2,700 further candidate planet. As of November 2011, COROT had found 24 new worlds and was screening around 600 additional candidates for confirmation.  Additionally two years of Kepler data has been downloaded but not yet interpreted so post-mortem discoveries may lie ahead.

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

It is frustrating that the age of almost daily discovery of new worlds has come to a temporary end due to equipment failure, however a new generation of planet finding missions is already on the drawing board.  To quote The Guardian:

The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa’s successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.

RIP Kepler and COROT, you discovered so many planets and you will be missed, but your successors will be even greater.

26113942013_-planets

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.]

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