Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Nearby Faint Star With 6 or 7 Planets

Big news today from astronomers studying "exoplanets" -- planets that orbit other stars in the sky. Groups of astronomers in Europe and America, working together, have found a faint nearby star which has 6 or maybe even 7 planets orbiting it, three of which are in the "habitable zone" -- where water can be a liquid.

The name of the star is Gliese 667C (part of a system of three stars that orbit around each other). Only the faintest of the three stars has been found to have planets, but that faint one has quite a family of them. You can see the planets and the star on our diagram.

The way astronomers name these things is by giving each object a letter in order of discovery. So in this Gliese 667 system, capital A, B, and C are the letters for the three stars. Then the planets around star C are given lower-case letters, starting with b. (Planet "h" is not fully confirmed, so it has a question mark next to it.) The green zone is where the planets are that have the right temperature for life as we know it.

The three planets in the green zone of this star are what we call "super-Earths" -- they are bigger than Earth, but smaller than Uranus and Neptune. The method we use to discover these planets only gives us an estimate of their mass, but given how crowded the habitable zone seems to be, scientists are feeling reasonably sure that these planets are no bigger than about 10 Earth masses.

This is the largest number of planets ever found in the habitable zone of another star. (Planet h, the one that is not yet confirmed, is just tantalizingly at the edge of that zone.)

All the planets and the three stars are about 22 light years away in the constellation of Scorpius. (The closest star is 4 light years away, so, in the cosmic scheme of things, Gliese 667 is one of our closest neighbors!)

What's especially interesting about this discovery is that the faint star that has all the planets is what astronomers call an M-type star -- it has only 1/3 the mass of our Sun and shines with only about 2% of our Sun's light output. So the habitable zone is much closer to the cool star than our Sun's is. The planets in the habitable zone take between 28 and 62 days to orbit the star. (Recall that the Earth takes 365 days to go around our much hotter Sun!)

The interesting part is that M type stars are much more common in the universe than stars like our Sun. So if an M type star like Gliese 667C can have 6 or 7 planets crowded around it, that means that perhaps other such M type stars also have families of planets and the number of sites we can look for life in the universe has just gone up.

For more technical details, more pictures, and even short videos, see:

(By the way, Gliese comes from the name Wilhelm Gliese, a German astronomer, who constructed one of the most important catalogs of nearby stars. Many faint stars near us have Gliese numbers from his catalog.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer Science Fiction

With the summer vacation and the season of science fiction blockbuster movies now upon us, it's a good time to think about reading a science fiction book in the coming months. If you like science, but all you know about science fiction is what you see on TV or in the movies, you might be pleasantly surprised by how much more scientifically realistic and how much more filled with real human emotion some written works of science fiction can be.

But it can be hard for the beginner to find the best science-oriented science fiction.  There are so many books available, many of them more devoted to fantasy than real science fiction.

On my Facebook page: I keep a set of images and captions that may be useful if you are on the lookout for some science fiction authors to get to know.  When you get to the Facebook page (which is called "The AstroProf"), clic on the small "Photos" link in the header box. That takes you to a new page and then you can click on "Albums" to see collections of some of my favorite astronomy photos, bumper stickers, and more. 

One of the albums consists of photos and brief discussions of some of my favorite science fiction writers. For each author, I list a little about why I like him and suggest a book you may want to start with.

In addition to the recommendations in this album, I also keep an annotated web list of science fiction stories with good astronomy in them. If you want to see good portrayals of the planets, black holes, or time travel in science fiction, you might check out my list at:

Here's wishing you a summer of starlit skies and good reading.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Galaxy with a Tail Shows How Some Galaxies Run Out of Gas

In a galaxy with lots of raw material (like our own Milky Way), baby stars are forming all the time.  But some galaxies have run out of the gas (and dust) for making new stars, leaving them barren, with no further opportunities for "childbirth."  Now a new observation of a small galaxy shows how the raw material for stars can be stripped out of a galaxy by outside circumstances.

This is not the first time astronomers have been intrigued by the appearance of the little galaxy known by its catalog number IC3418.  In 2010, the GALEX satellite observed ultraviolet light from the galaxy and first revealed that it had a "tail" -- streamers of gas that had been removed from IC3418 and were following behind it.  Now, new research gives us a better understanding of just how the little galaxy got stripped of its life-giving gas.

IC3418 is falling through a giant collection of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster.  Consisting of some 1,500 galaxies and lots of superhot gas, the Virgo Cluster is our nearest big cluster of galaxies.  Because the Virgo Cluster is full of hot gas, when little IC3418 falls through it, its own gas is stripped out.  (The cluster's hot gas can't affect the stars of a galaxy, which are heavy, but can strip away the lighter gas.)  It is this stripped away gas you are seeing as a tail in our picture.  The removed gas makes some new stars as it gets compressed and it's their glow we see.  But by leaving its parent galaxy, the gas in the tail deprives IC3418 of the fresh gas it needs to make new stars.

This makes IC3418 an old barren galaxy long before its time. It's as if the interaction with the big Virgo Cluster made it age right before our eyes.  The stripping of gas works so well because the speed with which the little galaxy moves through the cluster is 2 million miles per hour!  (Don't try speeds like this at home without adult supervision.)

For a beautiful picture of some of the thousands of galaxies that make up the Virgo Cluster, check out:

The new observations were reported by a team led by astronomer Jeff Kenney of Yale, and were reported at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society going on this week in Indianapolis.