Has Kepler Discovered a New Class of Celestial Object?

The strange objects orbiting the two stars could be mangled white dwarfs... but the jury is still out (NASA)

The first results from NASA’s Kepler exoplanet hunter are in and a perplexing early result has been announced. Yes, the space telescope is working fine, and no, it hasn’t spotted an alien homeworld (yet), but the Kepler team have uncovered something pretty cool.

Kepler may have discovered a new class of celestial object (possibly).

But before we start scratching our heads in confusion or popping the champagne corks in celebration, let’s try to work out what Kepler has observed.

Kepler is currently monitoring 100,000 stars in an effort to seek out extra-solar planets (or “exoplanets”) orbiting these stars. Although Kepler was only launched in March 2009 and early doubts about the observatory’s capabilities caused some low-level concern, Kepler appears to be functioning well and mission controllers are already reporting early results.

Five new exoplanet discoveries by Kepler were announced at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Washington D.C. on January 4th, and all seem to have very strange characteristics. Fortunately Discovery News blogger Ray Villard was on the scene at the AAS to hear what the Kepler team had to announce:

In sifting through the Kepler data taken so far, postdoctoral student Jason Rowe found a very curious light signature. When an object passed behind its central star, the light from the system dropped significantly. This means the object — called KOI 74b — must be glowing fiercely with its own light that was blocked out when the object was eclipsed.

Hold up, the light dimmed when the exoplanet passed behind its parent star? Something’s not right here. Kepler detects exoplanets when the worlds pass in front of their parent stars, thereby dimming the starlight, not vice versa!

Actually, this is exactly what’s happened. The “exoplanets” orbiting two otherwise ordinary stars appear to be brighter — and hotter — than their host stars. It’s as if the roles of the stars and the exoplanets have been reversed; the stars are dimming the exoplanetary light as the exoplanet passes behind the star.

Needless to say, there is currently no stellar model that predicts this kind of behavior from extra-solar planetary systems.

This means the object — called KOI 74b — must be glowing fiercely with its own light that was blocked out when the object was eclipsed […] It is seething at 70,000 degrees Fahrenheit while the parent star is 17,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The strange object can’t be a star because the transit data show that it is no bigger than Jupiter.Ray Villard, Discovery News.

One theory is that KOI 74b (and the other strange object, KOI 81b) could be a white dwarf star that migrated close to its stellar partner. Through binary interactions, the white dwarf was stripped of some of its mass, causing it to puff up and appear like a gas giant exoplanet. That would certainly go to some way of explaining why these two “exoplanets” are so hot.

Of course, the other option is that Kepler has made a groundbreaking discovery and identified a whole new class of celestial object… but I suspect there are other, more mundane reasons for these observations.

I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see until followup observations are made…

Source: Discovery News

Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?

DNA and amino acids. Not just a terrestrial thing?
DNA and amino acids. Not just a terrestrial thing? (©CG4TV)

This is probably one of the biggest questions that hang over science fiction story lines: Will extraterrestrials have any resemblance to Life As We Know It™? To be honest, to toy with the thought of anything other than carbon-based life is pure conjecture, just because there might be some other form of life (such as silicon-based creatures), doesn’t mean there is (doesn’t mean there isn’t, either). So, here we are with the only form of life we know and understand, carbon-based life that was somehow spawned via a crazy mix of amino acids and some astronomical or terrestrial event that sparked the formation of prokaryotes (a.k.a. the simplest single-celled speck of life) some 4 billion years ago.

So we have an understanding of what formed life on Earth, perhaps if we look for the traces of evidence that evolved into Life As We Know It™ we can gauge whether extraterrestrial life has-formed/is-forming/will-form elsewhere in the observable Universe. From simulations of Earth evolution, scientists have predicted that 10 types of amino acids should form with the planet. These 10 amino acids are found inside the proteins of all living things on Earth. The same 10 amino acids have been found inside meteorites. Therefore, we already have a connection with the amino acids we find here on Earth and amino acids found in chunks of rock from elsewhere in the Solar System.

Now, a group of Canadian researchers have found that the same 10 amino acids are readily available elsewhere in the cosmos. Does this mean the components for life are common, not only on Earth, in the Solar System, but also in the Milky Way (and beyond)? It looks like it
Continue reading “Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?”

Listening Out for the Magnetospheres of Habitable Exoplanets

Searching for Earth-like exoplanets (© Mark Garlick)
Searching for Earth-like exoplanets (© Mark Garlick*)

Is there a new way to hunt for habitable Earth-like exoplanets? According to a US Naval Research Laboratory researcher there is an obvious, yet ingenious, way of listening for these worlds. Like most Earth-like exoplanet searches, we are looking for characteristics of our own planet. So what do we need to survive on Earth? Obviously we need water and the correct mix of oxygen with other atmospheric gases, but what about the magnetic bubble we live in? The Earth’s magnetosphere protects us from the worst the Sun can throw at us, preventing the atmosphere from being eroded into space and deflecting life-hindering radiation.

Although we have yet to develop sensitive enough radio telescopes, it may be possible in the future to detect the radio waves generated as charged particles in stellar winds interact with Earth-like exoplanetary magnetospheres. If there’s a magnetosphere, there may be a protected atmosphere. If there’s an atmosphere, perhaps there’s life being nurtured below

*This image is copyright Mark A. Garlick and has been used with permission. Please do not use this image in any way whatsoever without first contacting the artist.
Continue reading “Listening Out for the Magnetospheres of Habitable Exoplanets”

A Short Message for Kepler, from Astroengine.com…

The Delta II ignition: Kepler begins its mission on Friday at 10:49pm EST (© United Launch Alliance)
The Delta II ignition: Kepler began its mission on Friday at 10:49pm EST (© United Launch Alliance)

In the 17th Century, Johannes Kepler defined the laws of planetary motion around our star. Now the Kepler space telescope will define the motion of alien worlds around distant stars. Go find us some exoplanets!

I saw this image on The Write Stuff blog at the Orlando Sentinel, and I had to share. It is the moment of ignition of the Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex-17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just before lift-off of NASA’s Kepler mission.

For more information and the original image (this one was slightly adjusted to remove compression artefacts), check out The Write Stuff »

Replacing Warheads With Telescopes

Left: The first ever rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Bumper 2 (based on the V-2 weapon design), was in July 1950. Right: The Kepler space telescope launches onboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, March 2009 (NASA)
Left: The first ever rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Bumper 2 (based on the V-2 weapon design), was in July 1950. Right: The Kepler space telescope launches onboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, March 2009 (NASA)

Kepler, the exoplanet-hunting space telescope, successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on top of a Delta II rocket at 10:49 pm EST. In a word: awesome. Unfortunately I missed lift off, but it was good to watch NASA TV as the flames from the first stage receded into the black. Obviously today’s event will come as a huge relief to NASA having lost the Orbital Carbon Observatory (OCO) last month when the Taurus XL upper stage fairing failed to separate, locking the satellite in a doomed sub-orbital trajectory, crashing into the Antarctic Ocean.

The highest any rocket had gone before: A 1947 US V-2 rocket, with nose cone camera, captures the limb of the Earth (NASA)
The highest any rocket had gone before: A 1947 US V-2 rocket, with nose cone camera, captures the limb of the Earth (NASA)

On checking out the NASA homepage, the headline news was obviously about Kepler, but underneath was a fascinating image (left). From the NASA Image of the Day, there’s a vintage piece of spaceflight history. Two images, one facing north, the other south, shows the first view from an altitude of over 100 miles (160 km). The pictures were taken by a camera in the nose cone of an experimental V-2 rocket launched by the US on March 7th, 1947. The V-2 technology, as used by Nazi Germany in World War II, had been captured after the war and developed by US scientists. In this case, the V-2 nose cone housed a camera, rather than an explosive warhead, to carry out the first high altitude atmospheric observations.

The camera returned a series of images to the Earth, and these striking panoramas were constructed, covering a million square miles of our planet’s surface. This was the first time a rocket had been used for rudimentary space science; before this time, rockets only had military applications.

62 years later, almost to the day, a Delta II carries one of the most ambitious NASA projects into orbit, to begin another peaceful application, not studying the atmosphere of our own planet, but to search for other Earths orbiting distant stars.

How far we’ve come

For more about Kepler’s launch and exciting mission, check out Anne Minard’s article on the Universe Today, “Success: Kepler Lifts Off to Look for Other Earths

Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier

The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (NASA/HST)
The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (D. Lafrenière et al., ApJ Letters)

What’s just as exciting as directly imaging an exoplanet in a new observing campaign? To discover an exoplanet in an old observing campaign.

Like so many significant astronomical discoveries, archival images of the cosmos provide a valuable tool to astronomers. On its most basic level, astronomers can compare new images with images taken by the same (or different) observatory months, years or decades ago. This method can lead to the discovery of planets, asteroids and comets (when comparing two pictures of the night sky, a celestial object appears to move relative to the background stars). However, a new technique to analyse archived Hubble data in the search for exoplanets, has just revealed one of three known exoplanets orbiting the star HR 8699. The image in question was captured in 1998, when astronomers thought HR 8799 was an exoplanet-less star
Continue reading “Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier”

Introducing the Exomoon, and Detecting them via Exoplanet Wobble

Can astronomers really detect exomoons?
Can astronomers really detect exomoons?

Exomoon: The natural satellite of an exoplanet.

Before today, I hadn’t heard anything about the possibility of looking for moons orbiting planets in other star systems. Sorry, exomoons orbiting exoplanets in other star systems. But a British astronomer has calculated that it is possible to not only detect exomoons, but it is possible to deduce their distance from the parent exoplanet and their mass.

All this is done by measuring the exoplanet’s “wobble”; a practice more commonly used in the pursuit of the exoplanets themselves. By detecting the wobble of distant stars, the gravitational pull of the exoplanet becomes obvious. The same can be done with exoplanets, possibly revealing the presence of Earth-like exomoons.

Of the 300+ exoplanets discovered, 30 are within the habitable zones of their stars. If these large gas giant exoplanets (usually several times the mass of Jupiter) have an exoplanet system of their own, these exomoons also fall within the habitable zone…

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

For the full article, check out Astronomers Now Looking For Exomoons Around Exoplanets on the Universe Today…

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…
Continue reading “Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO”

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