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Carnival of Space #108 June 23, 2009

Posted by CosmicThespian in Carnival of Space.
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Just in time for the Summer Solstice, the 108th edition of the Carnival of Space is up and running at Starts With A Bang.  Take a peek and see what’s hot in space news this week!

I should really get back to writing my own articles some time soon…

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Carnival of Space #107 June 14, 2009

Posted by CosmicThespian in Carnival of Space.
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For all newcomers, welcome to innumerable worlds.  Be sure to kick up your feet and stay a while!

Grad school commitments and that pesky “real life” have kept me from updating the blog as often as I’d like, so instead I’m just going to shamelessly swipe articles from everyone else’s blogs.  Welcome to the 107th Carnival of Space!

Let’s start with a couple of articles near and dear to the mission of this blog.  Centauri Dreams presents an update on the intensive search for planets around our stellar neighbors, the Alpha Centauri system, with some musings on a backup plan for the Earth.

Sick of hearing about extrasolar planets?  How about extragalactic ones instead?  Universe Today reports on the first possible detection of a planet orbiting a star in the Andromeda Galaxy – over 2 million light years away!  I’ll forgive them this once for scooping me.

Looking a little closer to home, Ian at the AstroBlog takes us on a tour of the currently outbursting Comet C/2008 Q3 Garrad’s scenic journey across the sky as it passes globular clusters and distant galaxies.

The Meridiani Journal reports on an interview with Phoenix Co-Investigator Chris McKay which discusses a tantalizing hypothesis for why we have yet to find organic material on Mars.

For those of you who have been hiding under a moon rock the past several months, 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing!  In honor of this occasion, both collectSPACE and Cumbrian Sky treat us to a sneak peek of a new book by Andrew Chaikin called “Voices from the Moon: Apollo Astrononauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences”.  Included in the previews are some fantastic images which put a very human touch on these missions: a view of Neil Armstrong’s face while standing on the Moon.  I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the conspiracy theorists declare this as more “proof” that the landings were faked…

Additionally, Ken Murphy has his work cut out for him organizing a special event at the Frontier of Flight Museum in Dallas commemorating this historic anniversary.  His article at Out of the Cradle details the enticing list of speakers, activities, and exhibits in the works.  If you find yourself in the Dallas area, be sure to check it out!

Space Disco uses the recent news that Betelguese appears to have shrunken by 15% over the past 15 years to shows us what happens when the media sees the word “mystery” in an innocent press release and concocts visions of impending fiery doom.

Next Big Future describes a prototype of a potential alternative to a space elevator: “…a series of modules constructed from Kevlar-polyethylene composite tubes made rigid by inflating them with a lightweight gas such as helium.”

Thomas Barnett over at Esquire presents a strategy for involving private enterprise with a much needed face lift for  U.S. space exploration.

Irene Klotz at Free Space muses on what she has learned regarding excellence while reporting on 100 shuttle missions.

A Babe in the Universe offers some details on the current status of the Orion spacecraft tasked with returning us to the Moon.

Ever wonder what astronomers and investment bankers have in common?  Dr. Martin Elvis at the Chandra Blog discusses how both use numbers as tools to describe what they do.

The Bad Astronomer takes us on an eloquently narrated journey through the core of the tenuous wisps of a planetary nebula to some distant galaxies peeking out from behind!

It goes without saying that Einstein’s formulation of his Theory of General Relativity fundamentally changed how we view the Universe.  Starts with a Bang takes us on a wonderfully illustrated tour of how Newton was overthrown and the 0.011 degrees per century that started it all.

The One Minute Astronomer goes for a stroll down memory lane by reflecting (pun mildly intended) on five stellar (pun definitely intended) telescopes that revolutionized amateur astronomy.

Looking for some good science reading or want to get a jump start on Christmas shopping for the science enthusiast in your life?  astropixie offers an accessible list of suggested books that cover everything from basic skepticism to black holes!

And finally, is the answer to Enrico Fermi’s famous question regarding the absence of extraterrestrial visitors one of sustainability in the face of limited resources?  21st Century Waves thinks otherwise in this critique of a recently published paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

6/14 edit to add:

Looks like a few slipped through the cracks.  I’m sure this is no way correlated with my writing this post at the two in the morning….

David Portree at Robot Explorers describes a plan laid out by a multidisciplinary panel of scientists in the early 60’s for the delivery of a robotic space probe to the Earth-Moon Lagrangian points for in-depth study of our Sun.

Also from David, a post at Beyond Apollo takes us on a what-might-have-been tour of an ambitious plan for a 50-man space station laid out in the early 70’s by then NASA Administrator Thomas Paine.

Steve Nerlich at Cheap Astronomy gives us a peak under the hood of the GPS satellites and all the astronomy needed to make them tick.  Turns out having your car figure out how to get to that hot new bar in town involves orbital dynamics, some relativity (both flavors), tidal drag, melting glaciers, and the very cooly named US Airforce Space Command.

Happy reading and clear skies!

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First planet found via astrometry! June 1, 2009

Posted by CosmicThespian in Discoveries, News, Planet Gallery.
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A team of astronomers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced last week that they are the first group to find an exoplanet using the astrometric wobble method!

As I discussed in one of my first blog articles, planets gravitationally tug on their host stars as they orbit around them.  Astronomers have long known that if they wanted to find distant planets, they would need to first find stars that appeared to wobble on the celestial sphere.  Unfortunately, these wobbles are impossibly small and up until now no team has ever been able to measure them.  The wobbles we have been detecting have been found via doppler shifts in the light from these planet hosting stars.

Drs. Steven Pravdo and Stuart Shaklan have broken through that barrier!  For the past 12 years, they have been experimenting with an instrument specifically designed to directly detect the slight wobble of distant stars on the Palomar Hale Telescope.  Over those twelve years, they’ve only had access to the telescope a few times each year.  But it appears all of their efforts have finally paid off!

The planet is a big one: six times more massive than Jupiter!  It orbits a very tiny star, VB 10, roughly 20 light years away in the constellation Aquila.  The size of its orbit is similar to Mercury’s, but because its sun is so very faint, the planet receives about as much light from its sun as Jupiter does from our own.

Schematic of the VB 10 system compared to our own.

Schematic of the VB 10 system compared to our own. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The diminutive size of the star coupled with the mass of the planet are, no doubt, what led to a successful discovery.  If you recall from my original article on detecting wobbles, the name of the game here is the location of the center of mass of the system.  A high mass planet orbiting a low mass star will move the system’s barycenter further from the center of the star thus leading to a larger wobble of the distant sun.  Despite this advantage, the wobble is still incredibly tiny: the span of the wobble is no larger than the width of a human hair seen at over a mile-and-a-half away!

VB 10 is particularly tiny and for a time was the smallest star known.  It is a type of star known as a ‘red dwarf’.  It weighs in at just one-twelfth the mass of our Sun and isn’t much bigger than Jupiter!  In fact, despite the significant difference in mass between VB 10 and its new-found planet, the two would actually be roughly the same size!

This is an exciting new chapter in the unfolding saga of exoplanet discovery and is an important reminder of the potential of astrometric surveys.  Future space missions will take advantage of this technique to find Earth-like planets by the dozen in the next decade or so.  This journey of 1000 miles has taken its first step!

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