NASA creates first cloud map of exoplanet
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NASA creates first cloud map of exoplanet
NASA Creates First Cloud Map of Exoplanet
October 1, 2013
NASA Creates First Cloud Map of Exoplanet
This week, NASA released images of the first cloud map of any planet beyond our solar system. The planet, known as Kepler-7b, is one of more than 150 exoplanets discovered by the Kepler telescope, and lies about 1,000 light years away from Earth.
The news follows a study of the exoplanet, more than three years in the making, which utilized data from both the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. In its latest findings, published in this month?s Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers have produced a low-resolution map that depicts ?a remarkably stable climate? on Kepler-7b, according to Thomas Barclay from NASA?s Ames Research Center. Rather than frequently shifting cloud patterns, like those found on Earth, scientists believe the exoplanet has consistently clear skies in the east and high cloud coverage in the west.
Scientists first began looking into the planet?s climate after the Kepler telescope picked up an anomaly on the planet?s western hemisphere. Unable to determine whether the bright spot they were seeing was a heat spot on the planet or cloud coverage above it, they called in the Spitzer telescope to get an accurate reading of the planet?s atmosphere. Spitzer, capable of detecting infrared light, allowed NASA to get its first temperature readings of Kepler-7b, estimated to be between 1,500 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
That?s certainly hot?but not nearly as hot as NASA would have expected, given the planet?s close proximity to its own star, far closer than the Earth is to the Sun. With a heat spot ruled out, the team was able to confirm that the western half of the planet experiences nearly continuous cloud coverage; clouds which are reflecting back much more light that most other planets of a comparable size.
This isn?t the first peculiarity scientists have discovered about Kepler-7b. They had already determined that the planet is 1.5 times the size of Jupiter?but only has half that planet?s mass?leading NASA to dub Keplar-7b one of the ?puffiest? planets ever discovered. Its low mass allows the planet to whip around its star at a dizzying speed?a year on Keplar-7b lasts less than five days?and if the planet could be placed into a massive intergalactic bathtub, it would float.
The Keplar mission was launched in March 2009, and Kepler-7b was one of the first exoplanets it discovered. Since then, it has helped NASA identify more than 150 exoplanets, including one of the darkest planets yet discovered (Kepler-1b), as well as one of the smallest (Kepler-37b). In April of 2013, NASA announced the discovery of three Earth-like ?water worlds? in the Lyra constellation, more than 1,2000 light years away, that fall into the category of ?Goldilocks? planets, where conditions may be ?just right? to support life.
Just weeks later, however, a malfunction with the Kepler telescope?s reaction wheels, which help focus its fixed field of view towards planetary bodies, caused a cessation in the collection of scientific data. After a failed attempt at fixing the two wheels, NASA remains uncertain about the mission?s fate, which was due to last until 2016. The Spitzer telescope, crucial to the latest discovery about Kepler-7b, is itself operating at partial capacity. First launched in 2003 with a mission length of 2.5 years, it more than doubled that before its onboard liquid helium supply ran out in 2009, rendering all but its infrared technology no longer usable.
Astronomers Discover Lonely Orphan Planet That Doesn’t Orbit a Star
Astronomers Discover Lonely Orphan Planet That Doesn?t Orbit a Star
Astronomers have discovered a lonely planet that doesn?t orbit a star, according to a new report from the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The orphaned planet, known as PSO J318.5-22, is six times the mass of Jupiter and is located just 80 light-years from Earth. ?We have never before seen an object free-floating in space that that looks like this. It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone,? said the IfA?s Dr. Michael Liu in a press release, ?I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do.?
PSO J318.5-22 was discovered during a search for brown dwarfs, or failed stars. The orphaned planet?s heat signature stood out when observed by astronomers using the Pan-STARRS 1 wide-field survey telescope on Haleakala, Maui. During follow-up observations, the team determined that PSO J318.5-22 likely belongs to the Beta Pictoris moving group of stars that formed about 12 million years ago.
?Planets found by direct imaging are incredibly hard to study, since they are right next to their much brighter host stars. PSO J318.5-22 is not orbiting a star so it will be much easier for us to study. It is going to provide a wonderful view into the inner workings of gas-giant planets like Jupiter shortly after their birth,? said study co-author Dr. Niall Deacon of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
One in five Milky Way stars hosts potentially life-friendly Earths: study | Reuters
One in five Milky Way stars hosts potentially life-friendly Earths: study
One out of every five sun-like stars in the Milky Way galaxy has a planet about the size of Earth that is properly positioned for water, a key ingredient for life, a study released on Monday showed.
The analysis, based on three years of data collected by NASA's now-idled Kepler space telescope, indicates the galaxy is home to 10 billion potentially habitable worlds.
The number grows exponentially if the count also includes planets circling cooler red dwarf stars, the most common type of star in the galaxy.
"Planets seem to be the rule rather than exception," study leader Erik Petigura, an astronomy graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, said during a conference call with reporters on Monday.
Petigura wrote his own software program to analyze the space telescope's results and found 10 planets one- to two-times the diameter of Earth circling parent stars at the right distances for liquid surface water.
The telescope worked by finding slight dips in the amount of light coming from target stars in the constellation Cygnus.
Some light dips were due to orbiting planets passing in front of their parent stars, relative to Kepler's line of sight.
Extrapolating from 34 months of Kepler observations, Petigura and colleagues found that 22 percent of 50 billion sun-like stars in the galaxy should have planets roughly the size of Earth suitably positioned for water.
A positioning system problem sidelined Kepler in May. Scientists are developing alternative missions for the telescope. More than a year of data already collected by Kepler, which was launched in 2009, still has to be analyzed.
In another Kepler study, the telescope found 3,538 candidate planets, 647 of which are about the size of Earth, said astronomer Jason Rowe, with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
Of the 3,538 candidates, 104 are at the right distance from their parent stars for water, he said.
"When exoplanet hunting started, everyone expected solar systems to look just like ours," Rowe said. "But we're finding quite the opposite, that there's a wide variety of systems out there. If you can imagine it, the universe probably makes it."
The research was published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and presented on Monday at a Kepler science conference at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
If this math is right and if the same ratios can be applied to all the other galaxies in the universe, you would have to assume that there is an abundance of life out there.
New-found Earth-size Exoplanet Doomed – News Watch
New-found Earth-size Exoplanet Doomed
Astronomers announced this week that they have spotted a rocky Earth-size planet beyond our solar system, the smallest alien world accurately sized by observers to date. However, the super-hot planet is no second Earth, and according to theories, the distant world some 700 light-years away from Earth shouldn?t exist.
The planet, Kepler-78b, was first discovered by its namesake NASA space telescope. The planet is about 20 percent larger than the Earth, with a diameter of 9,200 miles, and it weighs almost twice as much.
Using the world?s largest ground-based telescopes, two independent research teams have now confirmed the planet?s mass and density by measuring ?wobbles? of its sun-like host star, seen as the exoplanet orbits around it. They report the confirmations in the journal Nature.
Unfortunately, Kepler-78b is not Earth 2.0, however, because it turns out that it circles its star at a scorching distance of one million miles. A year on this fast-paced little world lasts only 8.5 hours.
?It?s Earth-like in the sense that it?s about the same size and mass, but of course it?s extremely unlike the Earth in that it?s at least 2,000 degrees hotter,? says co-author Josh Winn, an astronomer at MIT.
?It?s a step along the way of studying truly Earth-like planets.?
The problem astronomers have with their finding is that according to what we understand about planet formation, this hot lava world couldn?t have formed so close to its star, nor could it have moved there.
?This planet is a complete mystery,? says study co-author David Latham, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. ?We don?t know how it formed or how it got to where it is today. What we do know is that it?s not going to last forever.?
Astronomers have a quandary on their hands. They don?t believe the planet could have formed in its current orbit because then Kepler-78b would have been inside the much larger, younger star. At the same time, it couldn?t have formed farther out and migrated inward, because it should have been drawn on a swirling kamikaze dive straight into the star.
?How it came to reside in its current 8.5-hour orbit is uncertain,? says planetary scientist Drake Deming of the University of Maryland in a commentary accompanying the studies. ?Among the more exotic possibilities is that it is the remnant core of a disrupted gas giant,? he writes.
Because it has the tightest orbit around a star ever seen, one thing researchers know for sure is that Kepler-78b?s days are numbered. The extreme gravitational pull from its star will draw it ever closer in, ripping the entire planet apart in about three billion years.
'Monster' cosmic blast zipped harmlessly by Earth | Science Headlines | Comcast
'Monster' cosmic blast zipped harmlessly by Earth
WASHINGTON (AP) ? Astronomers call it the monster. It was the biggest and brightest cosmic explosion ever witnessed. Had it been closer, Earth would have been toast.
Orbiting telescopes got the fireworks show of a lifetime last spring when they spotted what is known as a gamma ray burst in a far-off galaxy.
The only bigger display astronomers know of was the Big Bang ? and no one, of course, was around to witness that.
"This burst was a once-in-a-century cosmic event," NASA astrophysics chief Paul Hertz said at a news conference Thursday.
But because this blast was 3.7 billion light-years away, mankind was spared. In fact, no one on Earth could even see it with the naked eye.
A gamma ray burst happens when a massive star dies, collapses into a brand-new black hole, explodes in what's called a supernova and ejects energetic radiation. The radiation is as bright as can be as it travels across the universe at the speed of light.
A planet caught in one of these bursts would lose its atmosphere instantly and would be left a burnt cinder, astronomers say.
Scientists might be able to detect warning signs of an impending gamma ray burst. But if a burst were headed for Earth ? and the chances of that happening are close to zero, astronomers say ? there wouldn't be anything anybody could do about it.
NASA telescopes in orbit have been seeing bursts for more than two decades, spotting one every couple of days. But this one, witnessed on April 27, set records, according to four studies published Thursday in the journal Science.
It flooded NASA instruments with five times the energy of its nearest competitor, a 1999 blast, said University of Alabama at Huntsville astrophysicist Rob Preece, author of one of the studies.
It started with a star that had 20 to 30 times the mass of our sun but was only a couple of times wider, so it was incredibly dense. It exploded in a certain violent way.
In general, gamma ray bursts are "the most titanic explosions in the universe," and this one was so big that some of the telescope instruments hit their peak, Preece said. It was far stronger and lasted longer than previous ones.
"I call it the monster," Preece said. In fact, one of the other studies, not written by Preece, used the word "monster" in its title, unusual language for a scientific report.
One of the main reasons this was so bright was that relative to the thousands of other gamma ray bursts astronomers have seen, the monster was pretty close by cosmic standards. A light-year is almost 6 trillion miles.
Most of the bursts NASA telescopes have seen have been twice as distant as this one. Other explosions could be this big, but they are so much farther away, they don't seem so bright when they reach Earth, the studies' authors say.
Astronomers say it is incredibly unlikely that a gamma ray burst ? especially a big one like this ? could go off in our galaxy, near us. Harvard's Avi Loeb, who wasn't part of the studies, put the chances at less than 1 in 10 million.
Our galaxy doesn't have many of the type of star that lends itself to gamma ray bursts, said Charles Dermer, a co-author of the studies and an astrophysicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
"The chance of anything happening and being dangerous is virtually nil," Dermer said.
Also, because a burst is concentrated like a focused searchlight or a death beam, it has to be pointing at you to be seen and to be dangerous.
"Either it's pointed at us or it's not," Preece said. "If it's not, yay! Civilization survives and we see maybe a supernova. If it were pointed at us, then it matters very much how far away it is in our galaxy. If it's in our local arm, well, we had a good run."
Some theorize that a mass extinction on Earth 450 million years ago was caused by a gamma ray burst in a nearby part of our galaxy, but Dermer said that's unlikely.
We don't see gamma ray bursts from the surface of Earth because the atmosphere obscures them and because most of their light is the type we cannot see with our eyes. That's why NASA has satellites that look for them.
This burst was so bright telescopes on Earth saw a brief flash in the constellation Leo.
For scientists, this was a wow moment.
"These are really neat explosions," said Peter Michelson, a Stanford physicist who is the chief scientist for one of the instruments on a NASA gamma ray burst-spotting telescope. "If you like fireworks, you can't beat these. Other than the Big Bang itself, these are the biggest there are."
The burst "is part of the cycle of birth and life and death in the universe," Michelson said. "You and I are made of the stuff that came from a supernova."
Did comet ISON flame out on its trip around the sun?
Did comet ISON flame out on its trip around the sun?
Like Icarus, comet ISON appears to have flown too close to the sun and broken up in its corona.
Scientists had hoped that the comet from the farthest reaches of the solar system would be able to slingshot around the sun Thursday and emerge streaming a tail visible to the naked eye next month.
But after NASA telescopes tracked the comet plunging into the sun's corona, no evidence of it emerged on the other side. Scientists said they would continue to analyze imagery from the telescopes for signs of the comet or debris from it breaking up.
"At this point, I do suspect that the comet has broken up and died," says Karl Battams, a comet scientist for the Naval Research Laboratory, who joined a NASA and Google+ chat from Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. "Let's at least give it a couple of more hours before we start writing the obituary."
Even if the comet broke up, it offered a very rare opportunity to see how one of the oldest objects in the solar system interacted with the sun's magnetic field.
The comet originated in the Oort Cloud, a region halfway from the sun to the next closest star. Scientists say comet ISON would have been nudged by gravity from other stars into its 5-million-year plunge toward the sun.
Although scientists have tracked other comets from the Oort Cloud, Battams said this one was the first in recorded astronomy from so far away that passed so close to the sun, passing the sun at a distance of about 1 million miles.
"This is a spectacularly rare event," Battams said. "We have no idea when we're going to see something this amazing again."
The reason scientists study comets is to find out what they contain because they were born along with the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. When comets pass close enough to the sun, their ice melts away and dust gives off signals that describe its composition.
Even if comet ISON evaporated and broke apart near the sun, its behavior in the sun's magnetic field will help scientists understand more about both comets and the sun.
"This gives us an opportunity to see and study these magnetic fields in a way we normally couldn't do," said Alex Young, a solar physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Nature is giving us this unique opportunity to study these magnetic fields."
ISON (pronounced ICE-on) stands for International Scientific Optical Network. It was discovered in September 2012 by a pair of amateur astronomers in Russia.
Two NASA telescopes that tracked the comet's approach to the sun were called SOHO, for Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, and SDO, the Solar Dynamics Observatory.
SOHO has a metal coin that blocks out the sun's direct light, so that the corona of fountains of magnetic field can be seen splashing off the sun. Comet ISON was visible in SOHO's red-and-blue images as it approached the sun with a long tail.
But as it approached its closest point to the sun at 1:48 p.m. ET, the half-mile point of the comet faded and the tail thousands of miles across became fuzzier. That suggested it might have broken up.
"We're not really seeing the head of the comet," Phil Plait, an astronomer and author who writes for Slate's Bad Astronomy blog, said of a SOHO image taken at 12:24 p.m. "That to me looks like the nucleus broke up."
SDO, which showed the sun in ultraviolet light as a smoldering yellow marble, glimpsed comet ISON racing toward the sun. But as SDO shifted to watch the comet reappear on the other side, ISON never showed.
This was puzzling because Dean Pesnell, a solar physicist and project scientist for SDO, said even if the comet broke up, its remains should have been visible in the magnetic field for 45 minutes.
"I'd like to know what happened to our half-mile of material that was going around the sun," Pesnell said of the comet. "We should be able to see something."
Scientists said they would continue to review images from 11 telescopes worldwide that tracked the comet, to learn what became of it and learn more about the sun.
"I'm not very hopeful at this point," Plait said of comet ISON.
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