Thursday, April 17, 2014

First "Earth Cousin" Planet Found

Astronomers working with the Kepler telescope, led by Elisa Quintara of the SETI Institute, have announced the discovery of the first planet orbiting another star that meets the two characteristics we have been particularly waiting for.  The planet is Earth-sized AND it orbits its star in the zone where water is likely to be liquid (called the “habitable zone.”)

The planet and star have no name, but only a catalog number – Kepler 186.  Located in the constellation of Virgo, about 500 light years away, the star is “red dwarf” – smaller and cooler than the Sun.   So a planet has to be closer to it to have the right temperature for liquid water.  But every star has its own habitable zone and Kepler 186 is no exception.

We have actually found five planets around Kepler 186 so far, but the other four planets are very close to the star and much too hot for life as we know it.  Called Kepler 186f, the newly found planet takes about 130 days to go around its star, and its distance is in the zone where water could be liquid (if the planet has a significant atmosphere.)

Astronomers actually know of some 1,800 planets around other stars so far, orbiting at a wide range of distances and showing a wide range of sizes.  In the past, we have found a number of planets that were the same size as Earth but all of these were too hot – orbiting too close to their stars.  We have also found a number of planets that were in the habitable zone of their stars, but these were bigger than Earth.  Most likely they were so big they would look more like Neptune or Jupiter, made mostly of gas and liquid (or at least having a huge shell of gas and liquid before you could touch solid ground.)

Kepler 186f (sorry planets don’t get names yet) is the first planet that is both the right size and the right distance from its star.  Today, at their national press conference, the scientists who discovered it made sure not to call it an “Earth twin,” however.  Instead, they used the term “Earth cousin” to describe their discovery.  That’s because Kepler 186 is a cool red star, about half the size and mass of the Sun.  So the light of this star will look different on the newly discovered planet – instead of the yellow sunlight we are used to, anyone standing on the surface of Kepler 186f would see reddish-orange sunlight.  The scientists speculated whether any plants on the new planet would receive enough energy to do photosynthesis, and their first conclusion was a tentative yes.

What’s especially important about this discovery is that roughly 80% of all the stars in our Galaxy are red dwarf stars.  If, as our observations are starting to show, MOST stars will have planets, then most planets are likely to orbit red dwarfs.  So places like Earth and our Sun may be the exception.  And Kepler 186f may be a mainstream kind of world in the vastness of the Milky Way.

On our diagram, above, you can see the orbit of the Kepler 186 system’s planets to the same scale as the inner planets in our own solar system.  The fuzzy green region in each case is the habitable zone of each star. You can see the Earth comfortably in the habitable zone of our Sun, and 186f in the habitable zone of 186.  The painting of 186f in this picture is just from the artist’s imagination.  We really have no idea what the planet looks like.

(By the way, for those of you who like to count, you may wonder why the fifth planet in the Kepler 186 system gets the letter f, when f is the sixth number of the alphabet.  That’s because in this pretty awkward naming system we are using, the star is called Kepler 186a, and the letters of the planets start with b.  I don’t endorse this system, folks, I just explain it.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Would the Lunar Eclipse Have Looked Like from the Moon?

We who live in North or South America (and had clear skies,) experienced a total eclipse of the Moon Tuesday morning, April 15.  But what would the eclipse have looked like to someone on the Moon?

First, since the Moon always keeps one side toward the Earth and one side away from the Earth, we have to pick a side. For this purpose, the interesting side of the Moon is the one that was facing the Earth and the Sun. It was sunny and bright on that side of the Moon before the eclipse began. Then, an observer on the Moon would have seen the Earth move in front of the Sun, and darkness descend. It would have gotten colder too without the warmth of the Sun.

Since the nearby Earth looks bigger from the Moon that the Sun does, the Earth more than covered the Sun. Still, the Earth's atmosphere bends some of the sunlight behind it toward the Moon. So someone on the Moon would have seen a faint ring of light around the dark Earth. (If you had a telescope on the Moon, you might also have seen the lights of big cities and large fires on the night side of our planet.)

How do we know that this "Moon perspective" about the eclipse is right? A Japanese spacecraft called Kaguya captured just this kind of image during a lunar eclipse in February 2009, as it was orbiting the Moon. In the picture above (courtesy of the Japanese Space Agency), you see several views of the Earth from the Moon during the eclipse. The ring of light is not complete, because some part of Earth was below the Moon's horizon as seen by Kaguya. At the end of the eclipse, you can see the first light of the Sun coming out from behind the Earth, making a kind of diamond ring effect. How wonderful that our robot spacecraft can give us views in the solar system that earlier scientists could only imagine!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Apr. 14-15, 2014 Total Eclipse of the Moon Visible Throughout North America

I've put the information about this eclipse in question-and-answer format:

1. What Is Happening?

               Late on Monday evening and early Tuesday morning, Apr. 14-15, a total eclipse of the Moon will be visible from throughout the U.S.  In a lunar eclipse, the full Moon and the Sun are exactly opposite each other in our skies, and the Earth gets between them. This means that the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon, darkening it.  (See the diagram above.) This will be a nicely democratic event; the eclipsed Moon will be high in the sky and easily visible (provided it’s not cloudy.)

2. When Will the Eclipse Happen?

Partial eclipse starts
10:58 pm
11:58 pm
12:58 am
1:58 am
Total eclipse starts
12:07 am
1:07 am
2:07 am
3:07 am
Total eclipse ends
1:25 am
2:25 am
3:25 am
4:25 am
Partial eclipse ends
2:33 am
3:33 am
4:33 am
5:33 am

As the shadow of the Earth slowly moves across the Moon, we first see only part of the Moon darkening (partial eclipse).  When the Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon, we see a total eclipse, weather permitting.  

The best times to watch probably start a half hour before total eclipse starts, by which time a substantial part of the Moon is eclipsed.  The whole total phase lasts 78 minutes this time, and it looks pretty much the same the whole time, so only the most dedicate eclipse buffs will stay up for the whole thing.

3. What is Visible During a Lunar Eclipse

               As the shadow of the Earth covers the Moon, note that our natural satellite doesn’t become completely dark.  Light bent through the Earth’s atmosphere still reaches the shadowed Moon, and gives it a dull brown or reddish glow.  The exact color of the glow and its darkness depend on the “sooty-ness” of our atmosphere – how recently volcanoes have gone off and how much cloud cover, storm activity, and human pollution there is around the globe.

               Also, as the Moon becomes dark, other things in the night sky become easier to see.  As you look toward the southwest, you can see Mars to the right of the Moon, the bright star Spica just below and near it, and Saturn off to the left. Here is a nice diagram from Astronomy magazine (click to make it bigger). 

(Note that this is drawn for 3 am Central Time, which is 1 am Pacific Time.)

4. Is it Safe to Watch, and How do I Watch?

               Since the Moon is safe to look at and eclipses make the Moon darker, there’s no danger in watching the eclipse with your eyes or a telescope.  (The more dangerous eclipse is the solar one, where it is the Sun that gets covered.) Lunar eclipses don’t require you to have fancy equipment or to go to a dark location.  Bring binoculars, if you have them, to see the Moon larger, but just your eyes are fine.  Take someone along with whom you like to spend time in the dark!

5. What Can I Tell My Kids (or Kid Brother or Sister)?

               Suggest that they take a careful look at the shadow of the Earth as it moves across the bright face of the Moon.  What shape is it?  The round shape of the Earth's shadow suggested to the ancient Greeks, more than 2000 years ago, that the Earth’s shape must be round too.  Eclipse after eclipse, they saw that the Earth cast a round shadow, and deduced that we lived on a round planet (long before we had pictures from space.) 

Also, if kids have to miss this eclipse, you can console them by letting them know that there will be another total lunar eclipse on Oct. 8th, 2014 (and two more in 2015.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Talk on the Work of and Crisis at Lick Observatory Now on YouTube

As you may have heard, the Lick Observatory (on whose Council I am now proud to serve) is being threatened by budget cuts at the University of California. Recently, Dr. Alex Filippenko (who was named the best professor at Berkeley a record nine times, and is a wonderful speaker) gave a very exciting talk on: "Exploding Stars, New Planets, Black Holes, and the Crisis at Lick Observatory". The video is now available on YouTube at

Lick Observatory, the first mountain-top telescope facility in the world, was founded in 1888, but continues to be a vibrant research facility and an important site for student and public education. Dr. Filippenko, who chairs the Lick Observatory Council, discusses some of the most exciting research being pursued at Lick, but also explains the funding crisis, what is being done by local citizens, and how you can help.

Today's image is a snapshot I took at Lick, showing Dr. Filippenko (left) with noted venture capitalist Jim Katzman, standing in front of the Katzman Automated Imaging Telescope. It was with the use of this telescope that astronomers discovered a number of special exploding stars in other galaxies that could be used as distance markers for the universe. That work led to the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the cosmos and won the two groups involved the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. We can't let them shut this facility down, folks!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Two Major Discoveries about Our Solar System

Two major finds were announced yesterday: the first rings found around an asteroid, and the most distant object -- a dwarf planet -- ever seen in our solar system. Let me fill you in on the details.

The unexpected rings were found around the asteroid Chariklo, a 150-mile wide chunk that orbits between Saturn and Uranus. A group of South American astronomers observed Chariklo moving in front of a star, and glimpsed two thin rings around it. The rings are roughly 4 and 2 miles wide and are separated by a gap of some 5 1/2 miles. In the past, when we have found distinct thin rings like this, they have been kept thin by the presence of small "shepherding moons." The analogy is the shepherds keep a flock of sheep in a thin line, and these moons keep the particles of the rings from drifting away from their formation. So we expect that one or more such moons will eventually be found around Chariklo.

How did an asteroid get itself a set of rings -- which we have previously seen only around giant planets? Our best guess is that Chariklo was involved in some sort of cosmic accident and the rings are left-over debris from that event.

By the way, Harry Potter fans and mythology buffs will appreciate the name of the asteroid. In classical mythology, Chariklo was the wife of Chiron, the best known of the Centaurs -- creatures that were half human and half horse. In the same way, the Centaurs in our solar system are also half-breeds -- they have some characteristics of asteroids and some of comets.

The second discovery was of a dwarf planet orbiting so far away from the Earth and the Sun that it is the most distant world we have seen in our solar system. The small, frozen world, estimated to be about 250 miles wide, is called 2012 VP113, a boring provisional name that includes the date of its first sighting and letters and numbers that give a code for what its order is in the discovery of small objects that year. But because the letter code happens to be VP, the discoverers have nicknamed it Biden (but that will not be its final official name.)

I can't resist noting, in case you were not aware of this, that each vice president of the U.S. already has a direct connection to the world of astronomy, since the vice-president's residence is on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Many vice-presidents brings guests to the observatory and even have parties there.

Little "Biden" (the world) is really, really out there, beyond what we think are the borders of the Kuiper Belt -- the zone of Pluto, other dwarf planets, and small icy chunks that make a belt outside the orbit of Neptune. The conventional wisdom has been that this belt should end at 50 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (which we call 50 astronomical units), or about 4 1/2 billion miles from the Sun.

Biden, on the other hand, makes a looping orbit further out, and never gets closer to the Sun than 80 astronomical units or 7 1/2 billion miles. And most of the time is is even further out. (Another object found earlier, now called Sedna, is also out there.) The presence of such "far-out" members of our solar system, while not impossible, is surprising enough that astronomers are now set to pondering what got them out there.

Our image shows an artist's conception (no one has a photo of it) of what Chariklo and its two rings might look like out there, provided by the European Southern Observatory.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Guide to Science Fiction with Good Astronomy

Many people who love astronomy tend to look down on science fiction, criticizing it for not sticking to the real world. But many of these critics are really talking about science fiction movies and TV shows, and not about written science fiction stories. Like a number of astronomers (including the late Carl Sagan), I was influenced to become an astronomer by the science fiction stories I read.

As a way of saying thank you for all the wonderful reading I did (and still do), I now keep a web page that lists science fiction stories that include GOOD (sticking with the facts) astronomy. I've recently updated that guide, with more topics, more stories, and (for the first time) stories that you can read free on the web!

Some of the recommended stories are just a few pages, others are full novels or series. But if you enjoy reading about what's out there, and how humans might one day interact with the universe, I encourage you to check out the guide at the educational website of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific:

The photo accompanying this blog post was taken in 1989, during the Voyager spacecraft encounter with the planet Neptune. I was invited to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to cover the event for the magazine I edited at the time, and posed between two of my favorite science fiction writers, Gregory Benford (left) and Fred Pohl (right).

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Explaining the New Discovery about the Big Bang

As you may have heard, a large team of scientists (from many universities and labs) has used a telescope at the South Pole to make ground-breaking measurements of the very first instants oftime after the Big Bang. There's been a lot of media interest in the discovery, and this morning I was part of a team of scientists (including string theorist Brian Greene) who tried to explain the measurements and the ideas behind them on KQED's Forum program with Michael Krasny. You can hear the full hour at:

In the photo, you can see the Dark Sector Lab, a research facility just 3/4 of a mile from the Earth's South Pole. It was the antenna at left (BICEP2) that detected and measured microwaves that are the "afterglow" of the big bang.

For decades, physicists have explained some of the most intriguing large-scale properties of the universe by suggesting that, a tiny fraction of time after the big bang, the cosmos underwent a period of tremendous "inflation" (like blowing up a balloon with the breath of a million people, instead of just with your own lung-power.) That sudden increase in the size of the universe can help us to understand many things about cosmic conditions today, some 14 billion years after the big bang.

But did this "inflation" really happen? That's what the experiment at the South Pole set out to discover. If it did, it would have left very subtle imprints on the "cosmic background radiation" (the afterglow of the big bang) which today comes to us in the form of cool microwaves. (Cool here meaning less energetic waves than the light from the screen on which you are reading this post.)

The imprint of inflation was so delicate that it took several years of observations and even more years of massaging the data to tease it out of the microwave maps we make. One of the leaders of the team said during the show that the effect was 1 part in 30 million. But if it's confirmed by other experiments, this will stand as a milestone in our study of the universe. It's a remarkable wedding between the small scale world of atoms and waves (gravity waves making tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time) and the large-scale world of the entire universe.

It's one more piece of evidence that we now live at a time of "precision cosmology" -- being able to measure the properties of the entire cosmos with laboratory accuracy.