The Search For Life, What’s the Point?

Another mission, another brave “search for life”…

Is it me, or does virtually every robotic foray into space have some ET-searching component attached? In the case of Mars exploration, every lander and rover’s prime directive is find life, evidence of past life, potential for life or the building blocks of life. Even the very first man-made artefact to land (crash) on the planet, the 1971 Soviet Mars 2 mission, was designed to find organic compounds and… any sign of life.

On writing an article yesterday (“Wasteful” Sample Storage Box Removed from Mars Science Laboratory), I started to think that we might just be trying a little too hard and spending too much money on this endeavour. Perhaps there’s another way for us to work out if we are, indeed, an interplanetary (possibly intergalactic?) oasis, or a component of a biological cosmic zoo…
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Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO

It would appear that yet another extrasolar planet has been directly observed!

Only last week, the Hubble Space Telescope released news that it had spotted an exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut. This is the first ever direct observation of an exoplanet in optical wavelengths. On the same day, joint observations by the ground-based (adaptive optics-powered) Keck II and Gemini infrared telescopes discovered a collection of three large alien worlds orbiting a star catalogued as HR 8799.

Today, a completely different observatory appears to have discovered yet another exoplanet orbiting the hot star Beta Pictoris (in the constellation of Pictor). European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers have directly imaged β Pictoris b, an alien planet orbiting 8 AU from its host star.

A phenomenal achievement considering β Pictoris is over 63 light years away…
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Alien Worlds: Extrasolar Planets Imaged for First Time

Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as
Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as “b” and “c” on the image above. “b” is the ~7 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting at about 70 AU, “c” is the ~10 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star at about 40 AU. Due to the brightness of the central star, it has been blocked and appears blank in this image to increase visibility of the planets (Gemini Observatory)

The day has finally come. We now have direct, infrared and optical observations of planets orbiting other stars. Yesterday, reports from two independent sources surfaced, one from the Gemini and Keck II observatories and the second from the Hubble Space Telescope. Brace yourself for an awe-inspiring display of planets orbiting two stars…

The Gemini/Keck observations were carried out using adaptive optics technology to correct in real-time for atmospheric turbulence. The stunning images of a multiple planetary star system were then constructed from infrared emissions (the image, top, was constructed by Keck II as a follow-up to to the Gemini observations). The system in question is centred around a star called HR 8799, approximately 130 light years from Earth and in the constellation of Pegasus. The entire press release can be found at the Gemini observatory site, where they give the discovery a full run-down.

On the same day, the Hubble Space Telescope team also released images of one extrasolar planet, only this time in optical wavelengths. Although the exoplanet in Hubble’s images is less obvious than the infrared Gemini/Keck II images, incredible detail has been attained, showing a ring of dust around the star Fomalhaut (located in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus). Fomalhaut is 25 light years away and the star’s daughter planet (Fomalhaut b) is only a little under 3 Jupiter masses.

Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)
Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter’s mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)

For more news on these discoveries, check out the Gemini/Keck II press release and the Hubble announcement. I’ll leave the ground-breaking announcement to the guys who have spent many years working to achieve this monumental goal.

Wow.

Sources: Gemini, ESA

Strangest Kuiper Belt Objects: The Top Five

From Pluto, looking at its icy moons in the Kuiper belt (NASA)

The Kuiper belt is strange. Most of this strangeness probably comes from the fact that we are only just beginning to uncover this mysterious region of the Solar System. Unlike the Oort Cloud which (possibly) lies beyond 3 × 1012 km away (over 20,000 AU, or a whopping 0.3 light years), we can actually observe the objects inside the Kuiper belt as, compared to the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper belt is on our interplanetary doorstep.

But that doesn’t mean it’s close. The Kuiper belt exists in a region of space 30–55 AU from the Sun; this is where Pluto lives (as Pluto itself is a “Kuiper belt object”, or KBO). As astronomical techniques become more advanced however, we are able to discover more KBOs in the zoo of icy-rocky bodies that live in this region.

Having just written about an oddball pair of “highly split” KBOs, I feel compelled to list my top five favourite KBOs. Here are my favourites, as some are really funny-lookin’ and others have some serious personal issues…
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Got It! Aftermath of Asteroid 2008 TC3 Impact Spotted

The long-lasting persistent train of the 2008 TC3 re-entry on October 7th (NASA)
The long-lasting persistent train of the 2008 TC3 re-entry on October 7th (NASA)

At long last, we have visual evidence of the 2008 TC3 impact over the remote Sudanese skies. Admittedly, it’s not a video of the dazzling fireball ploughing though the upper atmosphere, before detonating with the energy of a small nuclear weapon, but it is a great picture of the smoky remnant after the explosion.

A noctilucent cloud after the launch of a Delta rocket (Flickr)
A noctilucent cloud after the launch of a Delta rocket (Flickr)

The meteorite train seen in the image above has been sheared and twisted by high altitude winds, leaving the snake-like pattern suspended in the air. The tenuous debris reflects the dawn sunlight, in a not-so-dissimilar way to the noctilucent cloud produced after a rocket launch (pictured left).

For more on today’s uncovering of the October 7th image (above), check out my Universe Today article. For more information on the first ever predicted asteroid impact, check out my collection of articles on Astroengine.com (tag: “2008 TC3”).

Pinhole Camera Solargraphy

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, a single 6-month exposure solargraph (© Justin Quinnell)
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, a single 6-month exposure solargraph (© Justin Quinnell)

Armed with the most basic photography device and plenty of time, Justin Quinnell has captured some of the most unique and entrancing views of the Sun over my hometown of Bristol. When I first saw this image, the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge instantly jumped out at me. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but after getting engrossed in Justin’s website all about pinhole photography, I soon realised this was a six-month exposure, capturing the Sun’s motion from winter solstice (December 21st, 2007) to summer solstice (June 19th, 2008)…
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Meet Antipholus and Antipholus, a Very Odd Kuiper Belt Couple

2001 QW322 is a highly split Kuiper Belt pair, orbiting eachother at a distance of 125,000 km

The highly-split Kuiper Belt pair 2001 QW322 (CFEPS)

The Kuiper Belt is an eerie, mysterious and cold region of the Solar System. In it, there are billions of small pieces of rocks with lots of fancy names. As a general designation, all objects in the Kuiper belt are called “Kuiper-belt objects” (KBO’s for short). As the Kuiper belt is located in a region just beyond Neptune, they may also be known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNO’s). Inside the Kuiper belt, we have Pluto-like objects known as “Plutoids”, classical KBO’s called “Cubewanos” (the largest being the recently discovered Makemake) and a whole host of other objects such as icy objects soon to become the next generation of periodic comets.

We are only scraping the surface, finding only a small portion of KBOs. We know of a thousand, but astronomers believe there may be as many as 70,000 measuring over 100km in diameter, plus countless other smaller objects.

Therefore, it is not very surprising that some rather strange KBOs exist, and possibly the oddest one has just been observed. From the same team that discovered KBO 2008 KV42 — a piece of rock orbiting the wrong way in a one-way Solar System — a binary Kuiper belt object has been found with a huge orbit…
Continue reading “Meet Antipholus and Antipholus, a Very Odd Kuiper Belt Couple”

Rare Meteor Fireball Captured by Seven Canadian Cameras (Videos)

The slow-moving fireball lights up Canadian skies (SOMN)
The slow-moving fireball lights up Canadian skies (SOMN)

A stunning series of videos from seven all-sky cameras in the The University of Western’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network (SOMN) captured the same fireball generated by a meteor entering the atmosphere pre-dawn on the morning of September 15th. Whilst meteors aren’t uncommon (if you hang around outside for long enough you might see one or two “shooting stars” yourself), this fireball was very bright and had a surprisingly slow velocity. What’s more, astronomers think that the extraterrestrial object came from a typical Earth-crossing orbit, possibly indicating this was another small near-Earth asteroid. In fact, meteorite hunters believe that it may have slowed significantly when passing through the atmosphere, dropping fragments to the ground. A great catch by the Canadian team, let’s get searching!
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Asteroids (1) : Earth (2) – Welcome to the Interplanetary Shooting Gallery

Rocks are being thrown at us, but we haven’t noticed

Artist impression of an asteroid impact - don't worry, this doesn't happen very often... (Getty Images)
Artist impression of an asteroid impact - don't worry, this doesn't happen very often... (Getty Images)

On October 7th, a small asteroid called 2008 TC3 exploded in the skies above Sudan. On October 9th, a metre-wide asteroid named 2008 TS26 buzzed Earth’s atmosphere by only 7000 km. Then on the 21st (Tuesday) a slightly bigger piece of rock called 2008 US missed us by 25,000 km. It sounds like it’s getting dangerous out there, especially when considering the last recorded object (2004 FU162) to come screaming past the Earth (at 6500 km) happened in 2004.

But don’t be concerned. Small asteroids are being thrown at us all the time; asteroid hunters are just getting better at spotting them…
Continue reading “Asteroids (1) : Earth (2) – Welcome to the Interplanetary Shooting Gallery”

First Image of Asteroid TC3 Impact Fireball… From Space

2008 TC3 generates a huge fireball according to weather satellite Meteosat 8 (Zdenek Charvat, Czech Hydrometeorological Institute)
2008 TC3 generates a huge fireball according to weather satellite Meteosat 8 (Zdenek Charvat, Czech Hydrometeorological Institute)

There may not be any ground-based imagery of the 1.1-2.1 kT fireball after asteroid 2008 TC3 hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere above Sudan, but we now have the first satellite observation of the impact. 2008 TC3 (a.k.a. “Brian” as I lovingly named it in my previous post) hit at 02:43am (UTC) yesterday morning, three minutes before the predicted re-entry. This is a huge moment for asteroid hunters: 2008 TC3 is the first ever asteroid to be discovered and accurately forecast to hit our planet.

The above image was taken by the weather satellite Meteosat 8, as Jiri Borovicka of the Czech Academy of Sciences explains: “The explosion was visible in all 12 of the satellite’s spectral channels, covering wavelengths from 0.5 to 14 microns,” he said. “The satellite takes pictures every five minutes; the fireball appeared at 0245 UTC and had faded away by 0250 UTC.”

It’s great to finally see the explosion of the first ever predicted asteroid impact. I think we all feel a little safer now

Source: Space Weather