Saturday, May 26, 2012

From Dust to Dust: A Planet Too Close to Its Star

Astronomers have used the Kepler Observatory (a giant camera in space that is searching for evidence that planets orbit other stars) to make a remarkable discovery.  They found a planet taking only a little more than 15 hours to orbit its star.  Think about that figure!  Our own Earth takes 365 ¼ days -- what we call one year -- to orbit the Sun. Even heat-scorched Mercury takes 88 days to go around our star.  A planet whose “year” is only 15 hours must orbit extremely close to the star and must thus be exposed to searing heat.  

Indeed this planet is so close that the heat of its star appears to be evaporating its rocky surface and creating a cloud of dust, which we can see blocking the star light on each orbit. This planet is doomed to become nothing but dust in the next 200 million years or so, calculations show.  The temperatures at its surface are estimated to be 3300 degrees Fahrenheit.  

The star and planet are about 1500 light years away, so we are not likely to be visiting them any time soon.  But if you go, be sure you take a good asbestos space suit.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Coming in June: SETIcon

Next month, the nonprofit SETI Institute (the organization devoted to the search for life in the universe) will be holding a big weekend public event in the San Francisco Bay Area which I will be part of. For those of you who will be (or could be) in the area, here is more information about some of the remarkable people who will be joining me:

SETIcon II: A Weekend Where Science and Imagination Meet
June 22 - 24, 2012
Hyatt Regency Hotel, Santa Clara, California

See: for more information

Guests will include:

* Frank Drake, the astronomer who undertook the first project to listen for extra-terrestrial radio messages and founded the SETI field
* Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and former associate administrator for science missions at NASA
* Robert J. Sawyer, award-winning science fiction writer -- who has written some of the best novels about alien contact
* Rosaly Lopes, planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab and one of the world's experts on volcanoes on other worlds
* Jill Tarter, the leader of the quest to find signals from alien civilizations -- on whom Jodie Foster's character in the film "Contact" is based

* Mae Jemison, Shuttle astronaut and the first African-American woman in space (who played Lieutenant Palmer on "Star Trek: Next Generation")
* Geoff Marcy, astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is considered the foremost planet hunter in the world today
* Alex Filippenko, part of the team that received the 2011 Nobel Prize for discovering the "dark energy" that is speeding up the expansion of the entire universe
* Robert Picardo, television actor who has appeared in "Star Trek: Voyager," "Stargate," "China Beach," and other programs
* Debra Fischer, of Yale University, co-discoverer of the first system of planets around another star

* Seth Shostak, host of "Big Picture Science", Huffington Post columnist, and the public scientist at the SETI Institute
* Alex Hall, the senior director of the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize
* Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian of the atomic bomb
* Scott Hubbard, Stanford, NASA's first Mars Program Director and the former director of NASA's Ames Research Center
* David Morrison of NASA, who has been the point person in debunking the myth of Doomsday 2012

* plus members of the Kepler Mission science team, authors, artists, and many of the key scientists from the SETI Institute.

(Confession: I have the pleasure and privilege of being the Vice-chair of the Institute's Board of Trustees.  However, I am not being paid to be at the convention or for anything I do for the Institute, so I am not gaining financially in any way by sharing this information with you. I always like to be very clear about such things.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Moon Over Lick Observatory
Photo by Rick Baldridge (Peninsula Astronomical Society)

"Super-moon" This Weekend (Sort of)

This weekend, two characteristics of the Moon will conspire to make it look a little brighter and a little bigger than usual. It might just give you an extra reason to take a night stroll with someone with whom you like to spend time in the dark. At about the same time, the Moon with be full and closest to the Earth in its slightly oval orbit. This means the full Moon Saturday night will be somewhat more spectacular than in a typical month. It has no bad effects on us, but it will be nice to look at. (The media are calling it a super-moon, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but it's worth glancing up at, if your evening is clear.)

Even the very responsible story from NASA is a bit strong, but it's probably the best reference to learn more:

If you worry that the full Moon is connected with "lunacy" and crazy behavior, and this close moon will only make things worse, fear not! Many experiments have now shown that there is NO connection between strange behavior, crimes, or births and the full moon. If you want to learn more, you can check out my resource guide to astronomical "pseudo-science" at:

Hope your Saturday night is a heavenly one!