WOW, isn’t really a word, it’s more like a thoughtfilled sound, in this case it’s the one I made looking back over this past month of astronomical discoveries. From a diamond encrusted jewel to a new earth sized planet a stones throw from our own blue planet.
News from skywatchers has boomed out through September and October this year, with clever astronomers and planetary scientists pushing the boundaries of computer climate modelling, forecasting weather, climatic change and glacial movements on Mars that just might have valid predictors for climate change on Earth.
A new planet, the closest yet outside our solar system and just an astronomical stone’s throw away at four light years,and according to scientists, seriously raising the chances of finding a habitable planet in Earth’s neighbourhood. Researchers say the new planet is too close to its sun to support any known forms of life, with a surface temperature estimated at 1,200 degrees Celsius.
Previous studies suggest that when one planet is discovered orbiting a sun, there are usually others in the same system. The new Earth-sized planet, announced in science journal Nature by Stephane Udry and Xavier Dumusque at the Geneva Observatory, orbits one of the suns in Alpha Centauri, only 40 trillion kilometres away, visible to the naked eye – though we’d suggest you wear clothes while backyard stargazing – The planet was discovered using the HARPS instrument on a telescope at the ESO’s – European Southern Observatory – La Silla site in Chile. ::::
In what can only be described as smile inducing, an international collaboration of amateur and professional astronomers has discovered a planet whose skies are lit up by four suns – the first known case of such a phenomenon. The planet, located about 5,000 light years from Earth, has been dubbed PH1 in honour of Planet Hunters, a program led by Yale University in the United States, which enlists volunteers to look for signs of new planets.
Who said pop stars are inane?! At around the same time as Rihanna released her latest single – Diamonds in the Sky – astronomers looked up and discovered an überdiamond in the sky. Orbiting a star that is visible to the naked eye, astronomers have discovered a planet twice the size of our own made largely out of diamond. The rocky planet, called 55 Cancri e, orbits a sun-like star in the constellation of Cancer and is moving so fast that a year there lasts a mere 18 hours. Discovered by a US-Franco research team, its radius is twice that of Earth’s but it is much more dense with a mass eight times greater. It is also incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 1,648 degrees Celsius.
Deborah Zabarenko from our favourite news wire, Reuters has reported that researchers from the Planetary Science Institute have modelled weather forecasts, climatic changes and glacial movements on Mars that might have valid predictors for climate change on Earth, according to a team of US and French astronomers. The researchers say the computer programs accurately predicted Martian glaciers and other features on Earth’s planetary neighbour. The team’s findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society‘s planetary sciences division in Reno, Nevada ::::
Closer to Home
Astronomers have found a new planet, the closest yet outside our solar system and just an astronomical stone’s throw away at four light years, raising the chances of finding a habitable planet in Earth’s neighbourhood. Researchers say the new planet is too close to its sun to support known forms of life, with a surface temperature estimated at 1,200 degrees Celsius. Research history suggests that when one planet is discovered orbiting a sun, there are usually others in the same system.
The new Earth-sized planet, announced in science journal Nature by Stephane Udry and Xavier Dumusque at the Geneva Observatory, orbits one of the suns in Alpha Centauri, roughly 40 trillion kilometres away.
“It’s a landmark discovery because it’s very low mass and it’s our closest neighbour,” Mr Udry said. “Its orbit is very close to its star and it must be much too hot for life as we know it, but it may well be just one planet in a system of several.”
Commenting on the find, University of California astronomer Greg Laughlin said: “This is our backyard, so to find out that planet formation occurred there is just extraordinary.”
Since the discovery of the first exoplanets – those outside our solar system – in the early 1990s, more than 800 have been found but this one is the closest to Earth.
Calm your soul though, getting there is extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future. Mr Laughlin estimates it would take about 40,000 years to travel to the new planet with current propulsion technology.
It was detected using the HARPS instrument on a telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla site in Chile. The device is able to pick up tiny changes in the colour of the light coming from a host star as it wobbles under the gravitational influence of orbiting planets.
The gravitational effect in this case is minute, causing it to move back and forth by no more than 51 centimetres per second. Alpha Centauri is a three-star system consisting of two stars similar to our sun and a faint red star called Proxima Centauri.
Astronomers have speculated about planets orbiting these suns since the 19th century, but small planets like this are hard to find and instruments have only recently become sensitive enough to detect them.
“Our observations extended over more than four years using the HARPS instrument,” Mr Dumusque said. The researchers said they will make their data available to other astronomers to test their findings, but in the meantime some remain sceptical. “Actually, I still have my doubts,” German astronomer Artie Hatzes said. He said the wobble detected in the star could be caused by a series of other factors, including sun spots, so the data need to be tested by other researchers. “These activity variations have to be filtered from the data before one can extract the signal due to the possible planet,” he said. “It could well be that someone else analysing the same data may come up with a different conclusion. That is why I am not 100 per cent certain.”
However, Mr Dumusque is confident. “We have considered in this analysis all the known possible explanations, including instrumental noise and stellar origin,” he said. “In the end, the planetary solution is the most likely one.”
Super Bright Idea
An international team of amateur and professional astronomers has discovered a planet whose skies are lit up by four suns – the first known case of such a phenomenon. The planet, located about 5,000 light years from Earth, has been dubbed PH1 in honour of Planet Hunters, a program led by Yale University in the United States, which enlists volunteers to look for signs of new planets.
PH1 is orbiting two suns, and in turn is orbited by a second distant pair of stars. Only six planets are known to orbit two stars, researchers say, and none of those are orbited by other distant stars.
“Circumbinary planets are the extremes of planet formation,” said Yale’s Meg Schwamb, lead author of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Nevada. “The discovery of these systems is forcing us to go back to the drawing board to understand how such planets can assemble and evolve in these dynamically challenging environments.”
US citizen scientists and Planet Hunters participants Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano were the first to identify PH1. Their observations were then confirmed by a team of US and British researchers working in Hawaii.
PH1 is a gas giant with a radius about 6.2 times that of Earth, making it slightly larger than Neptune. It orbits a pair of eclipsing stars that are 1.5 and 0.41 times the mass of the Sun roughly every 138 days. The two other stars are orbiting the planetary system at a distance that is roughly 1,000 times the distance between Earth and the Sun.
The Planethunters website was created in 2010 to encourage amateur astronomers to identify planets outside our solar system, using data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope.
Kepler – shot into space in 2009 – is NASA’s first mission in search of Earth-like planets orbiting stars similar to our Sun. Last week scientists reported the discovery of a “diamond planet” twice the size of Earth and orbiting a sun-like star. Up to one-third of the planet’s mass and much of its surface is believed to consist of diamonds, implying that distant rocky planets can no longer be assumed to have the same features as Earth.
Diamonds in the Sky
Who said pop stars are inane?! At around the same time as Rihanna released her latest single - Diamonds in the Sky - astronomers looked up and discovered an überdiamond in the sky. Orbiting a star that is visible to the naked eye, astronomers have discovered a planet twice the size of our own made largely out of diamond.
The rocky planet, called 55 Cancri e, orbits a sun-like star in the constellation of Cancer and is moving so fast that a year there lasts a mere 18 hours. Discovered by a US-Franco research team, its radius is twice that of Earth's but it is much more dense with a mass eight times greater.
It is also incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 1,648 degrees Celsius.
"The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite," said Yale researcher Nikku Madhusudhan, whose findings are due to be published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The study - with Olivier Mousis at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulose, France - estimates that at least one-third of the planet's mass, the equivalent of about three Earth masses, could be diamond. Diamond planets have been spotted before but this is the first time one has been seen orbiting a sun-like star and studied in such detail.
"This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth," Mr Madhusudhan said.
He said the discovery of the carbon-rich planet meant distant rocky planets could no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres or biologies similar to Earth.
David Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton University, said it was relatively simple to work out the basic structure and history of a star once you know its mass and age. "Planets are much more complex," he said. "This 'diamond-rich super-Earth' is likely just one example of the rich sets of discoveries that await us as we begin to explore planets around nearby stars."
55 Cancri e is about 40 light years from Earth.
Martian Weather Forecasting
Our favourite stargazing journo, Deborah Zabarenko from Reuters, has penned a piece that might just floor the climate change sceptics!? It seems that researchers have managed to accurately forecast conditions on Mars - via computer modelling - that are valid predictors of climate change on Earth, according to a team of US and French astronomers.
They say the computer programs accurately predicted Martian glaciers and other features on Earth's planetary neighbour.
"Some public figures imply that modelling of global climate change on Earth is 'junk science,' but if climate models can explain features observed on other planets, then the models must have at least some validity," says lead researcher William Hartmann of the Planetary Science Institute.
The team's findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's planetary sciences division in Reno, Nevada.
Some climate change sceptics dismiss human-spurred global warming as a hoax. Others accept that Earth's climate is changing, but discount a human cause or maintain the science is inconclusive.
The science of climate change prediction is dependent in part on complex computer models that take into account multiple factors that influence Earth's climate, including the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Many such models have forecast the globally averaged temperature will rise by 2°C this century if greenhouse emissions continue at current levels.
Recent global temperature increases support these predictions. On Monday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that September 2012 was tied for the warmest month on Earth in the modern record, and was the 331st consecutive month above the 20th century average.
Modelling Martian Snows
Hartmann, a senior scientist at the non-profit Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, says he and his team confirmed the computer models' effectiveness by using them to forecast conditions on Mars. New satellite observations of glaciers, ice flows and other features on the red planet showed that the models' predictions corresponded with what was on the Martian surface, says Hartmann.
One key difference between Earth and Mars is their tilt, he says. Earth's axis is fixed, with very small variations, at 23.5 degrees, held steady by the gravitational pull of our Moon. This tilt is responsible for changing seasons as Earth moves through the year, alternately tipping its northern and southern hemispheres toward the sun.
Mars lacks a big moon to stabilise its tilt, and its rotational axis can vary as much as 70 degrees toward the Sun. When that happens, polar ice evaporates and puts moisture into the Martian atmosphere, which dumps snow, ice and ultimately glaciers in Mars' mid-latitudes. The last time this happened, astronomers say, was between 5 million and 20 million years ago.
Factoring in the planet's varying tilt, topography, atmosphere and other information, the climate models forecast specific regions for massive snowfalls, and the remnants of those snowfalls are right there, says Hartmann. So are ice flows and other features, viewed by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
"We do have a lot of public figures, in our country particularly, saying that the global climate modelling studies have very little value," Hartmann told the Reuters' reporter. "If the global climate modelling people can run these models on Mars and we actually see things that come out of the model on another planet, then the climate modelling people must be doing something right."
source: planet hunters blog