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Astronomers Identify an Exoplanet in the Process of Formation

Illustration of the young massive star HD100546 and its surrounding disk (P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Illustration of the young massive star HD100546 and its surrounding disk. Click here for more information. (P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Here at Lights In The Dark I typically keep the articles and information to exploration occurring within our Solar System. But there have been amazing advances in the discovery of worlds far beyond our own family of planets and this recent news is quite fascinating: astronomers have spotted what appears to be a large gaseous exoplanet in the process of formation around a star only 335 light-years away — literally one of our own cosmic neighbors! Not only is this serendipitous, but also provides insight to how the planets and moons in our own Solar System may have formed, 4.6 billion years ago.

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Earth-Sized Alien Planet Found Around the Stars Next Door

Artist’s impression of a planet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Our Sun is visible to the upper right. (ESO/L. Calçada)

These days it seems exoplanets are being discovered nearly every week, with “super-Earths”, “hot Jupiters” and “cold Neptunes” being identified (or at least announced as solid candidates) within star systems all around our neck of the galaxy. To top it all off, today the European Southern Observatory announced that an Earth-mass world has now been found orbiting Alpha Centauri B — quite literally the “star next door.”

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Kepler Finds a Real-Life Tatooine

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Kepler, NASA’s exoplanet hunter extraordinaire, has confirmed the existence of the first planet orbiting two suns, not unlike Luke’s homeworld Tatooine from the Star Wars films! Unlike Tatooine, however, the planet –named Kepler-16b – is a cold Saturn-sized gas giant unlikely to harbor life. Still, it showcases the variety of planetary systems to be discovered and is another step from science fiction to science fact! Read the rest of this entry

From the LITD Archives – VLT: A Space Opera

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Here’s an enchanting video by the European Southern Observatory highlighting the discoveries of their Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, high in the mountains of the Atacama Desert in Chile. The Atacama is the driest place on Earth, far from the light pollution of major cities, and thus provides the clearest, darkest skies allowing these massive telescopes to peer deep into the universe. The discoveries they have made have been nothing short of groundbreaking.

The skies over the ESO sites in Chile are so dark that on a clear moonless night it is possible to see your shadow cast by the light of the Milky Way alone.

The images are beautiful, the music – James Newton Howard’s score from Lady in the Water – is beautiful, even the telescopes themselves are beautiful, with their futuristic, spartan geometries and perfectly engineered forms. They look like another generation’s science fiction but they’re very much science fact, for this generation and hopefully many more to come.

Credit: ESO/Hubblecast

Also check out ESO’s recent video from their VISTA telescope, zooming into the Sculptor Galaxy…read more on Universe Today.

Originally posted on June 19, 2010.

Kepler’s Discovery: New Worlds for the Finding

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Today NASA held a press conference at 1pm EST to present the discovery of over 1,200 exoplanet candidates by the Kepler telescope, an orbiting space observatory that’s been watching a section of the sky near the constellation Cygnus for the past year and a half. (The spacecraft launched on March 6, 2009.) So far it has identified 1,253 planet candidates, 68 of which are Earth-sized – 54 of those within the habitable zone of their host stars. The most recent of these exoplanet systems is around a star labeled Kepler-11 2,000 light-years away, around which six planets have been identified – some close to the size of Earth, but not within its habitable zone. Still, a six-planet system is very exciting! For a good recap of the discovery watch the video above, it sums up the information delivered during today’s hour-long conference very nicely.

Needless to say this is a very exciting time for astronomy! Twelve years ago we didn’t even have confirmation of any planets outside our solar system. Before 2009 we only knew of a dozen or so. Now we have over 1,200…with more discovered every day. And this from searching a space only 1/400th of the area of the visible sky! Still, to quote Kepler principal investigator Bill Borucki, in order to find out if any of these planets may harbor life we will need “patience…and lots of money.” Let’s hope we can keep people excited about this, for science and for what it may mean about our place in the universe.

To watch the full press conference click here.

Video: NASA Ames Research Center

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Carnival of Space 172


Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends...


Wow. It’s been quite an exciting week in astronomy, with the passing of NASA’s much-needed budget proposal, the preparation of the shuttle Discovery for its final flight, China’s successful launch of its second lunar mission just this past Friday… and, of course, the monumental announcement of the discovery of a potentially Earthlike planet in another solar system! This is definitely a fascinating time for anyone interested in all things astro, and so I am honored to present this week’s installment of Universe Today’s Carnival of Space! Roll up, and enjoy the show!

(Click headlines for links to feature articles.)

October Projects

In a great opening show for this Carnival of Space, The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla takes us on a tour of the planets in her article What’s Up in the Solar System in October 2010. Exploration missions abound, from Deep Impact heading for a cometary rendezvous on November 4 to China’s Chang’E 2 robotic lunar orbiter launched last Friday and many more currently in play from NASA, ESA and JAXA. Be sure to check out the illustration by reader Olaf Frohn showing current and future exploration spacecraft in position around the solar system!

Special Delivery

The last fuel tank for Endeavor’s final STS-134 mission arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this past week. 154 feet long, the orange tank traveled 900 miles by barge from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans after restoration by Lockheed Martin. See photos of the supersized preparation and transportation process on collectSPACE’s photo gallery.

What’s Your Type?

Ok, so we haven’t encountered any alien civilizations…yet. Whether we ever do or not depends upon a lot of factors, but one thing is for certain: any alien race will most likely be on a different level of advancement than ours. Chris Dann describes the Kardashev scale of measuring the advancement of a potential civilization on Weirdwarp (spoiler: um…we don’t score very high.)


Chandra image of a black hole in the Andromeda galaxy


A Woman’s World

Software Development Manager for the Chandra X-ray Observatory’s data system group, Janet DePonte Evans discusses her beginnings in the field of computer science and astronomy and how her career has evolved over the years, culminating in her current position as Data Systems team manager. Chandra is NASA’s flagship X-ray observatory; orbiting the Earth at an altitude of over 86,000 miles it is specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and around black holes.

Men Are From Mars

The Urban Astronomer Allen Versfeld takes us to Mars, detailing the origins of the red planet’s bellicose namesake and comparing them to the rusty reality of our planetary next-door neighbor.

Unhappy Trails

On her blog we are all in the gutter University of Nottingham post-doc researcher Emma goes into detail about CCD imaging components and how they work, how they are affected by cosmic radiation and how Hubble imaging team members have had to devise a way to eliminate unwanted image artifacts that distort views of distant galaxies.

Stairway to Heaven

On Cheap Astronomy Steve Nerlich talks about the technology behind space elevators in his latest podcast. A concept that’s been around for a while, space elevators would theoretically simplify the transportation of objects and people into orbit…that is, once the technology to manufacture them is created. (Anyone have a spare 36,000 km of boron nitrite nanotubing laying around?)


Stereo image of the central peak of Copernicus crater.


3D Made Easy

Dr. Paul D. Spudis introduces us to 3D images without special glasses in a process called “free viewing”. Once learned, this allows you to view split 3D images in their native color in the same way that geologists do when looking at features on the Moon. I’m going to have to use my imagination on this one, since I’ve never managed to get 3D images to work very well for me. Check out his article on Smithsonian’s Air & Space blog, you’ll probably have more luck with it than I did!

The Lazarus Effect

Ken Murphy gives a compelling review of newly published science fiction novel Shadow on the Moon by Charles Lee Lesher. Set in 2092, the story follows Lazarus, a homeland security analyst who finds himself caught in a struggle between fundamentalist religious societies on Earth and an atheistic surveillance state established on the Moon. There’s a lot going on in this 500-page paperback and Ken does a great job summing it up for us…be sure to read the review on his blog, Out of the Cradle.

A Warped Mind

At Next Big Future, Brian Wang reports on the development of a theoretical warp drive engine that could propel a spaceship up to one-quarter the speed of light! The Alcubierre Warp Drive would stretch spacetime in a wave shape, causing the space in front of the ship to contract (thus making distances “closer”) and the space behind expand, allowing the ship to literally “surf” through space. (Don’t pack your bags for Gliesean beaches just yet…some testing is still required.) And if high energy bills are eating into your space development budget, Brian has an answer for that too: satellites that can harness power directly from the solar wind and beam it where needed, in the realm of, oh, say 100 billion times current world energy needs! <Doctor Evil pinky> Warp drives, beaming energy…I have a feeling I might want to bone up on my tridimensional chess skills…

Event Horizons

Ok class, get out your scientific calculators! Engineer Bruce Leeeowe details the theoretical use of varying types of black holes (yes, they come in different hypothetical flavors) to power particle accelerators. Whether it’s a Kaluza-Klein, Kerr or your traditional Schwarzchild (not advised) infinitely dense point, your next accelerator may be run by one. 😉 They’re possibly the universe’s most enigmatic objects and you can read more about them on!

Islands of Iron

Now let’s take a moment to wax poetic with Stuart Atkinson’s latest bit of verse, Oileán Ruiadh and Her Sisters, an ode to the metallic meteorites scattered across the Martian dunes. They’ve traveled the distances between the planets to rest on the rusted sands of Mars, waiting patiently for millennia to be found by Earth’s inquisitive emissary, Opportunity. Enjoy Stu’s poems and lots more images and information from Opportunity on The Road to Endeavour!


Artist's impression of Gliese 581g. Credit: Lynnette Cook/NSF.


And, not to ignore the elephant in the room (who thankfully didn’t eat all the pies), the following articles all deal with the recently announced news of a rocky planet orbiting red dwarf star Gliese 581 within its habitable zone, a topic that is stirring up lots of buzz in the scientific and lay communities alike – some ebullient, some hesitant, some skeptical, but all seemingly in agreement that this could be the beginning of a new exciting era in exoplanet discovery!

In The Zone

At Centauri Dreams, Paul Gilster discusses what it means to be in “the Goldilocks zone”, a region around a star that is “just right” for life as we know it to evolve, as well as clarifying the difference (it can get blurry in all the media noise) between habitable and inhabited. An important distinction that scientists and reporters need to keep in mind!

Beware the React-O-Sphere!

The Spacewriter Carolyn Collins Petersen also warns us to watch out for overblown reports about exoplanet discoveries on her latest post Finding a Habitable Planet. People are easily excitable, and journalists know this all too well…

Making Waves

Dr. Bruce Cordell gives an in-depth review of what we might expect to encounter on planet Gliese 581g (while carefully refraining from joining the ranks of “early ebullients”) on his space colonization blog 21st Century Waves.

Details, Details

Bruce Leeeowe again does what he does best: provide specific details on what sort of life could have evolved on the newly discovered Gliese 581g. Making comparisons to extremophile bacteria known to exist on Earth, he makes a compelling case for similar forms of life to exist on another Earthlike planet. Hey, if it happened here, it stands to reason it could happen somewhere else! (Or lots of other places…)

Two Steps Closer

On The Meridiani Journal, Paul Scott Anderson also reports on the discovery of Gliese 581g, as well as the upcoming confirmation of Kepler 9d, another recently identified exoplanet 1.5 times the size of Earth.

Brave New World

When you’re a tidally-locked planet in orbit around a red dwarf star, things are going to work a bit differently for you than they do on Earth. Markus Hammonds discusses these key differences in his post about Gliese 581g on Supernova Condensate – an astroblog that reminds us that we are all made of stars – red, yellow or otherwise.

Ghost Buster

If you’ve had enough of talk about aliens for one day, here’s a bit of respite for you: Bruce Leeeowe debunks ghost photography and the existence of identifiable spirits that walk our world on Just in time for Halloween too! (Tell ’em about the Twinkie…)


That’s it for this edition of the Carnival of Space! Hope you enjoyed it…with so much going on in, around and outside our solar system it can be hard to know where to look sometimes, but it’s always a good idea to keep looking up!

You can check out all the previous editions on Universe Today here.

Main image © Jason Major. Source: I used images taken during the 2008 Texas State Fair of the fairway and city skyline, combined with Cassini raw image data in the spectral RGB filters and finally a Hubble image of the Large Magellanic Cloud for the stars. Composed in Photoshop CS4.

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