Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Science, Space — Rick Moran @ 11:29 am


We are getting so close to discovering extra-solar civilizations, you can almost taste it.

Of course, in science, this is usually the point that the ground disappears beneath your feet. But there are a couple of things about this discovery of a near earth like planet that point to some kind of breakthrough in the near future.

First, the discovery itself is one of those “gee whiz” moments that occur when something extraordinary happens in science:

It’s not exactly Earth’s twin: It’s about six times bigger, a whole lot hotter and made mostly of water. But compared to the giant gas balls that account for nearly every other extrasolar planet ever found, it’s pretty darn close. And through a fortunate happenstance of cosmic geometry, astronomers will be able to study GJ 1214b in great detail.

“If you want to describe in one sentence what this planet is, it’s a big, hot ocean,” said Harvard University astronomer David Charbonneau. “We can even study its atmosphere. This planet will occupy us for years. That’s part of what’s so exciting about it.”

Described by Charbonneau and 17 other astronomers in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, GJ 1214b is the latest of roughly 400 planets detected by earthly telescopes. Of these, 28 are considered “super-Earths” — planets with a mass roughly comparable to our own.

The super-Earths themselves are too distant to be seen. Instead, astronomers infer their presence from subtle distortions in starlight, caused when photons travel through the super-Earths’ gravitational fields. Depending on the degree of distortion, astronomers can even calculate a planet’s mass.

Unfortunately, a couple of other “super earth” discoveries can’t be examined in quite the minute detail as GJ 1214b (let’s call it “Gilligan” for the moment). In order to glean the spectrum from these giant earths, it is optimum for the object to pass in front of their star. But these transverses are not common and therefore make viewing these objects difficult.

But Gilligan is differrent:

GJ 1214b does pass in front of its sun. Separated from Earth by a distance of just 42 light years, it’s close enough to be studied. Scientists will finally get to look at another Earth-like world.

Another exciting fact about Gilligan:

The telescopes that spotted GJ 1214b were custom designed to find Earth-like planets around nearby stars, and had only operated for a few months before striking water.

If true, it may be that we’ll have to start dusting off Frank Drake’s old equations and update them for the 21st century. When I read that, a chill went up the back of my neck. Either they are incredibly lucky and have found a needle in a haystack in record time, or we are in for a huge surprise as far as the number of earth like planets out there.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Kepler telescope, launched last year, has begun its own search for extra-solar earth like objects. This is a unique mission that will focus it’s photometer on a field containing about 100,000 stars for the entire 5 year mission. It’s goal; to find earth like planets in a “habitable zone” that transit in front of their own stars:

The Kepler instrument is a specially designed 0.95-meter diameter telescope called a photometer or light meter. It has a very large field of view for an astronomical telescope — 105 square degrees, which is comparable to the area of your hand held at arm’s length. It needs that large a field in order to observe the necessary large number of stars. It stares at the same star field for the entire mission and continuously and simultaneously monitors the brightnesses of more than 100,000 stars for the life of the mission—3.5 or more years.

The photometer must be spacebased to obtain the photometric precision needed to reliably see an Earth-like transit and to avoid interruptions caused by day-night cycles, seasonal cycles and atmospheric perturbations, such as, extinction associated with ground-based observing.

Results from the Kepler mission will allow us to place our solar system within the context of planetary systems in the Galaxy.

As mentioned above, these transits, while not rare, are not present for all planets. But the advantage of Kepler is that it will be looking at a huge number of stars simultaneously and will probably be able to give us a better idea of not only the number of earth like planets, but also whether Sol like solar systems are common or something of a rarity.

On deck for NASA - the NextGen space-based telescope. Due to launch in 2014 (heh - we will see that date slip), we are going to trust the Ariane rocket supplied courtesy of the European Space Agency to launch this cargo into a unique part of space; what scientists call an “L-1″ orbit that will place the earth, the moon, and the sun where those three bodies are directly behind the telescope at all times and thus, the instrument can be shielded at all times from infrared radiation emanating from those bodies.

This is crucial because the NGST or James Webb Telescope will be able to look back to the very beginnings of star and galaxy formation, as well as being able to discern life on distant planets. It’s sensitive infrared instruments must have a total black out of all extraneous radiation for that to happen.

Are we finally on the verge of finding E.T.?

“Only rarely does a long-sought scientific frontier loom so prominently just beyond the horizon, that the next generation of instruments seems sure to reach it,” wrote Geoffrey Marcey, a University of California, Berkeley astronomer, in a commentary accompanying the findings. “They provide the most-watertight evidence so far for a planet that is something like our own Earth, outside our solar system.”

Perhaps not locating an advanced civilization. But if all the other conditions for life are right - and that discovery seems just around the corner - from what we know of how life evolves, the odds are very great that the “Are we alone” question may be answered through physical observation and not simply inferred by using our common sense.


  1. How cool is this?

    We have needed a new frontier for a long time. Americans kind of suck at stasis and need expansion and challenges and possibilities. Granted 42 light years is a bit of a haul. But it’s not the thousands of light years it might easily have been.

    The answer to life the universe and everything = 42. Who knew Douglas Adams meant it literally?

    Comment by michael reynolds — 12/19/2009 @ 11:39 am

  2. Based on the intriguing bits and pieces of info we’ve gathered over the past 30 years about our neighbor Mars, it seems to me that more study of that planet would be far more interesting — and informative, plus cool — than anything we’re likel to be able to infer about Gilligan and others in distant solar systems.

    And Mars can be directly explored — even by manned expeditions, although that might cost more than would be justified compared to robot exploration.

    In any case, we’ve been dragging heels on this for decades.

    Comment by John Burke — 12/19/2009 @ 1:50 pm

  3. John:

    The narrative is lacking for Mars. People need a story not a science puzzle. And a good story inevitably involves characters. We’ve taken character out of the story — no astronauts, no potential aliens — and made rational choices involving machines and action at a distance.

    People won’t spend billions on a story about how some guy at an observatory saw something through his telescope and sent a hi-tech Roomba to look at it. Not unless the end of the story is: we build a big-ass spaceship an go there ourselves.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 12/19/2009 @ 2:42 pm

  4. I’m so totally stoked about this! I want the improvements in cloud computing and quantum computing to happen *now* so we can infer as much as possible from the data gathered by the new telescopes going up into space.

    Makes me totally want to go see Avatar now. ;)

    Comment by Jeremy G. — 12/19/2009 @ 6:59 pm

  5. The narrative is lacking for Mars. People need a story not a science puzzle.

    From my read, the Mars “story” blows away Gilligan’s. And I don’t see Gilligan catching up quickly. People were captivated for weeks when the rovers first sent back pictures. And for the first few months, the story of the rovers was water cooler talk all over the world (and discoveries over the years have at times piqued people’s interests again). I’m not sure something that can’t actually be “seen”, will do much to get people excited (at least people beyond the space geeks).

    The super-Earths themselves are too distant to be seen. Instead, astronomers infer their presence from subtle distortions in starlight, caused when photons travel through the super-Earths’ gravitational fields. Depending on the degree of distortion, astronomers can even calculate a planet’s mass.

    No contest between public interest in Mars vs. Gilligan. But I think ultimately the Big Question of intelligent life elsewhere will be answered by the search and discovery of Gilligans.

    The probes they plan on sending to Mars in the future are pretty sophisticated. The one that’s going in 2011 will be a “smart lander” with a nuclear powered rover that might wander around for a decade. Sample return missions scheduled for I think 2014. These will be interesting but do not hold out the promise for the kind of spectacular discoveries that can be made by the NGST or even the earth based observations that are getting more and more detailed.


    Comment by sota — 12/19/2009 @ 8:48 pm

  6. [...] Right Wing Nut House » EARTH LIKE PLANET FOUND CLOSE BY [...]

    Pingback by Finding The Right Air Purifier | myBlog — 12/20/2009 @ 9:00 am

  7. It is exciting to see some indication the theories of solar system creation may be more true than false. But don’t forget it’s only an indication. A water (hot ocean) world six times the size of Earth? Show me the equations that predicted this planet. Then to jump to “conditions for life” is a bit of a stretch unless you work for the CRU under Jones. There is so much we don’t know in these areas that it’s fair to conjecture that or lack of knowledge is several orders of magnitude less than what some believe.

    There are some theories (as in t-h-e-o-r-i-e-s) about how a single cell may have spontaneously occurred and how it managed to survive yet alone reproduce.

    Evolution has become stagnated in the same sort of defensive posture climate science has become. Really interesting questions of species creation are blocked by the evolution theory. We’ve never really seen the mutation process working nor can we explain the explosion of species during certain periods. We just say “evolutionary process” and voila! Sometimes you read about mutations but in order for mutations to “take hold” there would have to be multiple near-identical mutations so they could breed to perpetuate the new species. All this means is we kid ourselves if we really think we know much about life, creation of species and how that all works in the cosmic scheme of things.

    And don’t forget unless there is faster than light transportation and/or communication capability we’d not even “see” what happened for quite a long time.

    So, raise a toast to ET, sing a song of praise but don’t bet a quarter you’ll see any thing other than what the Earth has seen these last few billion years.

    Comment by cedarhill — 12/20/2009 @ 10:31 am

  8. Finding a water world certainly increases our chances of finding life outside of the solar system. But don’t hold your breath waiting for scientists to find an “extra-solar civilization.” While life may be common in the universe, it’s probably mostly bacterial. On Earth for example, life appeared almost as soon as the crust cooled, but consisted almost entirely of microbes for about 4 billion years. All the interesting stuff has happened only in the last 500 million years. If that’s how long it takes for life to get off the ground, then extraterrestrial civilizations are likely few and far between.

    Comment by Jonathan — 12/21/2009 @ 7:29 pm

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