I’m not sure I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t find the idea of planets around other stars fascinating. I’m no different. I grew up in an era where the only planets we knew about were the ones in our own solar system. When I went to college to study astronomy, I had Dr. Alex Wolszczan as a professor. He discovered the first ever confirmed extrasolar planets (or exoplanets) – and they were orbiting around a pulsar of all things. Yep, the first solar system found outside our own did not involve a main sequence star like our own. Unexpected to say the least.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)
Since then we’ve starting finding scores of exoplanets, and continue to narrow in on smaller and more earth-like planets.
So now the question – why infrared? One of the main uses of the upcoming powerhouse James Webb Space Telescope will be to study the atmospheres of exoplanets, hopefully to find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe. But JWST is an infrared telescope. How is this good for studying exoplanets?
A college friend of Maggie’s, Dr. Eric Mamajek, discovered a cool potential exoplanet system that might also have a ring system – we reported on it last January after the American Astronomical Society exhibit. We checked with Eric a year later to talk more about his discovery, any updates, and the art done of his potential exoplanet system by Ron Miller, who we also recently interviewed (part one, part two).
Here is Ron Miller’s artwork, showing one possibility of what this system might look like.
This is the second part of our interview with space artist, Ron Miller. He’s an author, illustrator, former art director for the National Air & Space Museum’s Albert Einstein planetarium, and his work is truly inspirational! Here is Part 1 of our interview where we talk about how he got into the digital medium, his philosophy on space art, and how he researches his pieces. In Part 2, we talk more about exoplanets, and look at and discuss specific pieces of his art. We followed these episodes about space art with an interview with Dr. Eric Mamajek, whose discovery of a potential exoplanet system was visualized by Ron Miller.
Below you’ll find the art we discuss in the podcast.
These pieces have very realistically rendered nebulae which we thought resembled real Hubble data.
“Rogue Planet” Image Courtesy of Ron Miller
This one is an artist’s impression of planets orbiting a pulsar. The first exoplanet system discovered was one around a pulsar. Dr. Aleksander Wolszczan from Penn State was one of the scientists who made this discovery. He was an astronomy professor of both Eric Mamajek (whose own exoplanet discovery we discuss in this podcast) and Blueshift’s Maggie Masetti, not long after his discovery.
I’m Korey Haynes, a graduate student doing research here at Goddard for my PhD thesis. What does a graduate student do at Goddard? Until recently, I spent about half my time taking classes and working on schoolwork, and the rest of the time conducting research here with my adviser. Now that I’ve completed all my classes – and passed the dreaded qualifying exams – I’m working on research full time.
While a lucky few people start grad school knowing exactly what they want to study, and many people come in totally undecided, I fell into a third category – I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, and then completely changed my mind. When I started grad school, I was going to study galaxies. Galaxies, of course, were the best area of astronomy. They have the prettiestpicturesbyfar, they’re some of the biggest things you can study, and there are all sorts of stillopenquestions. Plus I had already been to the Very Large Array in New Mexico as an undergrad to observe one galaxy, and I was getting to use Arecibo, the world’s largest single dish telescope, to help collect data on a large survey of galaxies during my first year in grad school, and I found all that observing to be very exciting.
Me, middle, visiting the Very Large Array as an undergrad with my classmates.
Credit: Korey Haynes
Each December, there’s a bit of a lull in astronomy news. Not only do the holidays slow things down, but astronomers are also getting ready for the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in January. These AAS meetings (there’s also a summer meeting in May or June) are a particularly high-profile place to announce a groundbreaking discovery or other exciting piece of research – scientists are surrounded by their peers, with press conferences held daily throughout the week-long meeting. We’ve covered a few of these meetings in the past – you can learn more about AAS press conferences, follow Maggie’s adventures at the 2011 AAS meeting in Seattle, or even listen to our podcast from a meeting in 2010.
This year’s AAS winter meeting was held in Long Beach, CA, where astronomers got a bit of sunshine and sand as well as time to meet with their colleagues, present their research, and hear about the latest and greatest astronomy news. We wanted to share some of the highlights from the astrophysics press releases – and there are some particularly exciting ones in this meeting’s batch!
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
From a “zombie” to a “rogue” – the astronomy community still can’t get enough of the strange planet Fomalhaut b! First, there was controversy over whether it was a planet or a dust cloud, and now they’re looking at the planet’s unusual orbit within the debris disk of its host star, Fomalhaut. The planet’s highly elliptical, 2,000-year orbit leads astronomers to suspect that there may be other planet-like bodies hiding within the debris around Fomalhaut. One or more of these other bodies may have gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b, ejecting it from a position closer to the star and sending it on a wild and potentially destructive orbit through the debris disk. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ve heard about Fomalhaut b, as astronomers are hoping to continue the hunt for other planets in its system, and to better understand its own characteristics. Read more »
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect – just days before Halloween, NASA released a story about a planet that had returned from the dead. The exoplanet, Fomalhaut b, was discovered in 2008 using data from the Hubble Space Telescope. More recently, other researchers suspected it might be a dust cloud instead, so its planetary status was revoked. However, even newer research has caused astrophysicists to reverse the decision once again – Fomalhaut b is a planet once more!
How did this happen? What makes Fomalhaut b so tricky to interpret? We wanted to go right to the source, so we got in touch with the head of the team that helped bring this planet back from the dead. Dr. Thayne Currie is a recent NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at Goddard Space Flight Center and is currently in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.
Blueshift:Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is the focus of your research at Goddard?
Thayne Currie: My focus at Goddard was primarly to look for new planets via direct imaging and better characterize the properties (atmospheres, orbits) of known directly imaged planets. I also did some research studying planet formation and planet-forming disks via infrared photometry and spectroscopy. Read more »
Curiosity has successfully made it to Mars! While it’s gotten a generous amount of press in recent days, we wanted add our own nod to the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory aboard its rover, Curiosity, (after its Seven Minutes of Terror) at 1:32 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6, 2012 (10:32 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012). Since then it has proceeded with its set up to get itself fully up and running in order to study the red planet.
The rover, launched Nov. 26, 2011, hosts a myriad of instruments that will allow it to analyze the martian landscape. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is about the size of a small SUV and carries with it three cameras, several spectrometers, as well as radiation detectors, environmental sensors, and atmospheric sensors. This mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet’s “habitability.” The rover will analyze samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially written in the rocks and soil — in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover’s onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in the past. We look forward to all that we can learn about Mars from the MSL aboard Curiosity. Read more »
A good chunk of the exoplanets that we’ve detected so far are huge, Jupiter-sized and larger. A lot of them are orbiting their stars at very short distances – it might seem strange to think that planets bigger than Jupiter are orbiting their stars closer than Mercury orbits the Sun, to the point where some of them take days or only fractions of a twenty-four hour day to complete one full orbit, but that’s what we’ve actually observed (among other really cool kinds of exoplanets). For comparison, Jupiter takes about twelve Earth years to travel around the Sun once, and these giant Jupiter exoplanets orbit in only fractions of that time. Exoplanets like these are called hot Jupiters, so named of course because while they’re “jovian” (Jupiter-like) in size, their proximity to their parent stars means that their surface temperatures are several hundred times as high as those of our outer planets. Hot Jupiters don’t start out at their sweltering homes though, and how they get there is pretty interesting.
In protoplanetary and debris disks (the millions of miles of stuff around a young star, yet to conglomerate into bigger objects like planets and asteroids), material is concentrated in rings. To maintain that ring structure (rather than have the material swirl out into thinner and thinner strands until an even distribution of matter is achieved), the rings can’t be shaped in perfectly concentric circles. Rather, each ring is tilted just a little to one side with respect to the one inside it, creating a twisting effect that causes some sections along each ring to be bunched up closer together, and some sections to be spaced out farther apart. This causes the matter in these bunched-up areas to be packed more densely than the places spread farther out. Just like how it’s easier to fit ten people into a van than it is into a sportscar, the amount of stuff there is doesn’t change – just how it’s being packaged. It helps to take a look at the diagram to picture this, since there you can really see how the subtle tilts in each ring contribute to the swirling effect.
A diagram of the structure of spiral density waves, credit Dbenbenn and Mysid; distributed via Creative Commons License
This, incidentally, is also what gives spiral galaxies their shape – on a much bigger scale, of course! Read more »
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Hubble captured this wonderful image that looks very much like an outer space firework explosion. Herbig-Haro 110 is a geyser of hot gas being blown away from a newborn star that ricochets off the dense core of a cloud of molecular hydrogen. Herbig-Haro 110 is one of a collection of the group of Herbig-Haro objects that come in a variety of shapes, but still have the same basic configuration. Twin jets of heated gas are ejected out from a newly formed star and stream through the space between stars. Astronomers suspect that these jets are fueled by gas and dust falling onto a young star. The disk acts as the fuel tank, the star acts as the gravitational engine, and the jets are the exhaust. When these jets slam into the gas between stars, it heats up the gas, causing it to glow. Gas within the shock front slows dramatically, but more gas just keeps building up behind it, causing more glowing (These “bow shocks” are so names because they resemble the waves that form at the bow of a boat). By studying these structures carefully, astronomers can “rewind” them, in a way, in order to study the star’s history. Read more »
Fomalhaut + Fomalhaut b; courtesy of NASA, ESA, UC Berkeley, NASA GSFC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and NASA JPL-Caltech)
For a lot of people, exoplanets are some of the most exciting discoveries in current astronomy. The first exoplanets were detected in 1992 orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12, all three of which were confirmed in 2007. In 1995, 51 Pegasi became the first main sequence star to have an exoplanet detected around it. In the years since, interest in exoplanets increased as they became easier to discover and there are now seventy-four NASA-confirmed planets outside our solar system, and thousands more are under close watch to see if they’ll make the cut. But long before we knew for sure they were there, even centuries before the excitement within the field today, astronomers wondered if there were any “other earths” out there – and a lot of them were confident that there were! As it turns out they were right, but a lot of what people hear about exoplanets (or exosolar planets, or extrasolar planets, pick your flavor) doesn’t come from scientific sources, which can breed some interesting discrepancies between science-fiction and science-reality. Read more »