Thursday, June 19, 2008

Star Gazers Find Trio of Neighbor Earths

The Milky Way Map
In space, 42 light years is the amount of time and distance it would take to get to you neighbor's place here on Earth. Excited astronomers are being peeled off the ceiling of their observatories. Their super spyglasses yielded at least three Earth-like planets in nearby Pictor. There is even a planet that gets up close and personal with HD 40307 as it makes the rounds every 55 days as the nuclear solar heat from the star microwaves everything on it just like our solar system's Mercury. American envy abounds as extrasolar planets better known as exoplanets found by European star gazers beyond our ordinary solar system were 'the stars' at a conference in Nannes France by Swiss astronomer, Michel Maynor. As of this June, only 303 of them to date were identified, mostly because a few of them were the size of Jupiter aiding in their accidental discoveries. Size matters. A star's luminosity allows math stars to do some back of the napkin calculations to see where the HZ is in solar systems. Hence, the over the cheesy moon joy at finding fraternal triplet super earths and a rush to apply the Drake equation and check everybody's math skills.
European astronomers have found a trio of "super-Earths" closely circling a star that astronomers once figured had nothing orbiting it, demonstrating that planets keep popping up in unexpected places.

Monday's announcement is the first time three planets close to Earth's size were found orbiting a single star, said Swiss astronomer Didier Queloz. He was part of the Swiss-French team using the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory in the desert in Chile.

What excites scientists and causes the green monster amidst astronomers in other labs and observatories is any exoplanet that is in an HZ or Habitable Zone that could support terrestrial lifeforms flinging itself around a star is a major scientific find most would want their name on. In true professional fashion, the CHZ (circumstellar habitable zone or ecosphere) is sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Zone - not too hot, not too cold, just right to sustain a microbe or little green people. Earth is in our solar system's HZ and Mars is just a shade outside it, making it close enough to see if Earthlings can make it habitable simultaneously while colonizing the moon like ants using solar power. The new findings are much more up close and personal to their sun leading planet hunters to further explore for HZ's a bit further out from the gamma rays of the star beginning in 2009.

But the holy grail — an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of its star — awaits NASA's Kepler Mission. The Kepler spacecraft launches in February 2009, 400 years after Johannes Kepler published his first two laws of planetary motion in Astronomia Nova, the "New Astronomy" which first described planets orbiting on ellipses and at varying speed around the Sun. Ten years later, he published his third law which relates the period of the planet to its mean distance from the Sun. Kepler used his discoveries to predict solar transits of Mercury and Venus, but did not survive to observe them. Soon, NASA scientists will seek transits to discover Earth-size planets about distant stars. And, they named the mission in honor of Johannes Kepler.

The Kepler Mission is especially designed to discover small planets around Sun-like stars by observing transits. The Kepler Mission will observe more than 100,000 stars for at least 3.5 years, seeking evidence of other Earths. Lots of hot, close-in planets will be discovered in the first months of the mission. Finding Earth-size planets in Earth-like orbits requires patience because observations must be repeated to confirm discoveries. If an alien astronomer in a distant solar system were looking for us, Earthly transits would be seen once per year, and that good astronomer would require at least 3 transit observations to announce a discovery. The same is true for the Kepler scientists. Kepler's scientific prospectors should be announcing discoveries of Earth-size planets in habitable zones by 2011-2012. (photo NASA)
Exciting everybody's on the hunt for things quantum or supersized in the universe. Kepler's mission from NASA is to study planetary systems by collecting data on extensive star samples of up to 100,000 all at once inside our Milky Way. Out of the exhaustive search and measurement springs the hope of find ing something akin to our own earth.

NASA's mission is insired by and named for Johannes Kepler. No greaterpersonage than Stephen Hawking presents the material in this book, Harmonies of the World (On the Shoulders of Giants).

Happy 16th Birthday to my own very special star, Makayla!

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