Big Exoplanet News, and Reactions Thereto

Apart from the search for extraterrestrial life within our own solar system (which I'm going to go on record as saying probably exists, at least in microbial form, on Europa, Jupiter's icy moon), the search for planets outside of our solar system might be the sexiest major project in space exploration.* Several such "exoplanets" have been discovered since the mid-90s, and most of them have been on the scale of Jupiter. This, as far as I can tell, is because smaller planets are much harder to detect.

Scientists have traditionally observed exoplanets in two ways: by measuring variations in the brightness of a star as the star is transited by its planet, or by measuring the "wobble" of the star caused by the planet's gravitational pull as it orbits. This latter phenomenon is predicted by Newton's Third Law (which, by the way, also means that when you jump up in the air, you force the Earth to move away from you ever-so-slightly). We've never been able to truly "see" an exoplanet. Until now.

That's right, folks. The Hubble Space Telescope has beamed back the first visible-light image of an exoplanet:


Those two little dots represent a planet three times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star Fomalhaut at a distance of 10.7 billion miles.

I enjoyed comparing the dry, matter-of-fact reporting byAPOD ("Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. The Hubble data represent** the first visible-light image of a planet circling another star.") with the pants-shitting enthusiasm of Bad Astronomy ("This is incredible: For the first time, ever, astronomers have captured an optical image of a planet orbiting a star like our own.).

So, there you go. Our ability to observe and measure deep space is increasing by the day. Very exciting times.

UPDATE: Catherine sent me this Washington Post article while I was writing this post. Wild.

* I omit the search for intelligent life, since I don't think that's very high on anyone's list these days. We've basically ruled out intelligent life elsewhere in our solar system and we have a hard enough time finding planets in other systems let alone finding out what's going on on those planets.

** Note the pedantic noun-verb agreement, treating "data" as plural. I love scientists.

Speak to Me, Meatball: Phoenix Edition

NASA has lost contact with the Phoenix lander, the plucky little robot that's been beaming back all kinds of cool images and other data from Mars, including confirmation of water ice. The lander has been having trouble charging its solar-powered batteries due to the winter season and dustier skies.

The press release at the other end of that link suggests that the loss of contact was expected, though throughout all the ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the past few months I didn't hear anyone mention the lander's mayfly lifespan.

For several years I was a NASA skeptic, believing that the jillions of dollars spent on space exploration might be excessive (see, e.g., this, which was followed suspiciously by this), though I've since softened that attitude. Still, sending extremely expensive robots to other planets so they can die after a few months strikes me as a tad troubling.

Meet Mercury


Mercury is something I will almost certainly never see in my telescope, so it's good that a big expensive NASA robot is flying around taking fancy pictures of it.


What's interesting about this, apart from the "rays" stretching between the poles, is the fact that we've never seen an image like this of Mercury before. The MESSENGER craft is beaming back views of planetary features that have previously been visible only through much less dramatic radar imaging. Pretty cool stuff.

Back in Action

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The prolonged silence has come to an end, though I make no promises as to frequency of posts going forward. In addition to moving to a new state and starting a new job, my son was born earlier this month about six weeks ahead of schedule. So it's taken me a little while to get back on the astro wagon.

But, this evening as I was taking out the trash I noticed a big bright planet in the southern sky, so I set up the telescope with lightning speed and got a look at it from the balcony outside my bedroom (which, fortunately, provides a great southern view, which in Denver isn't all that topographically but makes for good skywatching).

Anyway, the planet was Jupiter, as I guessed, and one of its moons was visible as well. The atmospheric turbulence around here isn't as bad as it is in the Bay Area but it still made it hard to focus on the planet. Still, it felt good to observe again after such a prolonged hiatus, and I'm looking forward to exploring the views provided by the thin air and slightly lower amount of light pollution.

Still Shining

Just wanted to let my enormous audience know that I have abandoned neither this blog nor my interest in astronomy. Rather, the lack of recent activity is attributable principally to the fact that I'm in the middle of an interstate relocation. I'll be moving to an area with darker skies and closer proximity to the guy who write the Bad Astronomy blog, both of which should only enhance my astroblogging experience. Unfortunately in the meantime my telescope has been lovingly boxed up and will remain so for several weeks as my wife and I look for a permanent home in our new state. Until then, Galaxy willing, I'll be posting about various random bits of space-related news as events warrant.

(Types on a Blackberry due to premature cancellation of home Internet service.)

Phoenix and HiRISE Are Friends

Stargazing has been difficult for a while, mainly due to the weather. There were a number of clear nights in winter when I could see all kinds of cool crap with the telescope, but as the air has gotten warmer the night skies have lost their clarity, and I'm starting to realize how difficult it is to be a backyard astronomer in a large metropolitan area with lots of ambient moisture.

Fortunately, there are other telescopes out there without such difficulties. Consider, for example, HiRISE, the big fancy telescope that takes really cool pictures of Mars. The astroblogger community is currently going positively ape over this image:


(Click for big.) What you're seeing there is an image that HiRISE took of the Phoenix probe landing near a ten-kilometer crater on Mars (according to the HiRISE site, the probe isn't actually landing in the crater, but about twenty kilometers in front of it).

An representative example of blogger gushing can be found on Bad Astronomy (using my absolute least favorite formular for a blog post title):

Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of million of kilometers away.

Maybe I was born too far into the Space Age to get this worked up over the fact that the extremely expensive robots we send into space are able to take pictures of each other, but hey, whatever catches your virus.

Space-Navigating the Spring Sky

Something that I like to think I was always aware of on some level but never thought too much about until I started backyard starfucking is the fact that the sky changes over the course of the year. As such, after the recent extended bad weather cleared up and I decided to take to the skies once more, I saw that my familiar winter sky had given way to a brand new spring sky.

Throughout winter, Orion dominated the sky, looming overhead and acting as a sort of compass toward the other major sky-landmarks. Once I spotted Orion it was generally a simple matter to find the nearby constellations of Taurus and Gemini, and Orion's imaginary arrow points at the Pleides, which were almost always directly overhead.

Last night I decided to explore the spring sky and see if I could make some new dot-and-line friends. To help me on my adventure I brought along my Space Navigator, a Christmas gift from my inlaws. This device is basically a hand-held version of the onboard computer on my first telescope, except that it actually functions properly. The operation is sort of difficult to explain, but basically, you punch in your longitude, latitude, date, and time, and it knows what's in your sky. It gives you a list of visible objects and then helps you find them through a combination of text and interchangeable star maps.

What's even niftier to my mind is the fact that the Space Navigator also performs this function in reverse. If you tell it what direction you're facing and how high in the sky you're looking, it can tell you what you're looking at. Or, more precisely, it will tell you what map to look at to find what you're looking at.

So, with the help of the Space Navigator, I discovered a few things about the spring sky in my neck of the woods. First, there were a few things I was able to figure out on my own -- Orion (and his friends) are now hanging lower in the sky than they were a few months ago, and I could barely find the damn Pleiades (this was due mainly to light pollution and moisture in the air, but still striking -- when the seven sisters were directly overhead they were often immune from these effects closer to the horizon). Also, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) has been clearly visible in the northern sky for several weeks.

In addition to these two, admittedly pretty easy to spot and recognize, constellations, I found that Leo has taken over Orion's post as the dominant figure overhead, while Auriga is also making quite an appearance. Right near Auriga is Camelopardalis, the Space Giraffe (seriously, follow the link), which I think should be designated the official imaginary sky object of the Heuristic Squelch. Other constellations that I don't have the energy to link to were Lynx, Perseus (both near Auriga), and Virgo. Sirius is still the brightest star in the sky but it was so close to the horizon that I didn't immediately recognize it.

Also, continuing the saga of my quest to find Andromeda, I had high hopes that the Space Navigator would be my key to trapping the elusive galaxy once and for all, since in addition to stars and planets the Space Navigator has a full database of deep space objects. Unfortanately the deep space objects are listed only by number, not name, and my dumb ass didn't know that Andromeda is M31. Next time, perhaps.

No Yodeling on Mars


Bad Astronomy Blog is reporting on a nifty image fromHiRISE: An action shot from Mars, showing an avalanche in progress. I concur with BAB that this is, indeed, very cool. Our fellow dumb planets aren't just inert lumps of rock -- they have their own sounds, smells, accelerations due to gravities, good days, and bad days. It's just strange to think that no one is experiencing these things in person on a day to day basis.

Blood Moon

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In response to Michele's comment from the previous post, I did do some nominal eyeballing of the lunar eclipse the other night, but nothing major given the uncooperative weather.

I caught a glimpse of the red moon peeking over a cloud mass as I got on the freeway coming home from work. It looked really cool, but it was behind me for the duration of the drive home so I didn't get a chance to look at it. By the time I got home it was just a faint red glow behind the cloud cover.

Dr. M and I went out to dinner, and on our way back the red moon was clearly visible, though the clouds were returning by the time we got home. I lingered outside wondering if I should set up the telescope, and at the moment the thought occurred to me a cloudy mist started forming in front of the moon, as if to tell me to go back inside and play on the Internet instead. And so I did.

There are, of course, tons of cool pictures of the eclipse available online, including this one from APOD in which the moon is shown with two of its sky-friends.

Jupiter at Dawn


I got up this morning to take a walk before work, but when I got outside and saw Jupiter hanging high in the eastern sky, I decided to stop putting off my pre-dawn stargazing (or planetgazing), and I went back inside to get the telescope.

As expected, Jupiter surpassed Saturn in terms of viewing awesomeness. I wasn't able to see the red spot, but I could clearly make out stripes, and even in the relatively bright dawn sky I could see four moons. Three of the moons formed a straight line relatively close to the planet, with one one the left and two on the right. A fourth moon was hanging farther off up and to the left. I suspect that if and when I observe Jupiter in a dark night sky I'll be able to see even more hot moon action.

One thing I noticed was that, particularly with the higher-powered eyepiece, it was just about impossible to get the planet fully into focus. I quickly realized that this had nothing to do with the optics of the telescope. Even when I took my hand off the focus knob, the sharpness of the image would fluctuate. Looking more closely, I could see what looked like those air perturbations you see over roads on hot days (only, in this case, small enough to be visible against a tiny dot in the sky). I imagine that the changing temperature of the morning atmosphere was creating all kinds of air turbulance, which was affecting the clarity of the image. Again, this is a problem that will hopefully be somewhat abated by viewing in a temperature-stabilized night sky.

As I was closing down the operation a woman who was walking her dog came along and asked me what I was looking at (in a friendly, not accusatory, way). I resisted the urge to say "Your apartment," and instead explained that I was observing Jupiter and pointed out the fading bright spot in the sky (the sun was creeping over the horizon at this point so the planet was becoming very hard to see). As we spoke, her dog investigated my backpack, and after she was gone I saw that he had drooled all over it. I'm sure the cats will be excited about that.

More Entries

Big Exoplanet News, and Reactions Thereto - November 14, 2008
Speak to Me, Meatball: Phoenix Edition - November 11, 2008
Meet Mercury - October 8, 2008
Back in Action - September 21, 2008
Still Shining - July 5, 2008
Phoenix and HiRISE Are Friends - May 28, 2008
Space-Navigating the Spring Sky - March 31, 2008
No Yodeling on Mars - March 3, 2008
Blood Moon - February 22, 2008
Jupiter at Dawn - February 15, 2008
Saturn and Earthshine - February 11, 2008
The Terrible Secrets of Space, Part Three: Our Dumb Solar System - February 6, 2008
The Terrible Secrets of Space, Part Two: Our Bubblegum Universe - February 6, 2008
The Terrible Secrets of Space, Part One: Let's Get Small - February 4, 2008
The Moon, A Nebula, and a Not-a-Nebula - January 19, 2008
Uncoordinated - January 13, 2008
Jiggly Mars - January 6, 2008
SPAAAAAAAAACE! - December 31, 2007

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Recent Comments

  • didofoot: Isn't it cute how I saw you had written Mercury read more
  • hb: Yes, there is snow on Mars, but it was spotted read more
  • didofoot: And snow, right? Didn't they see evidence that it had read more
  • heidi heilig: Awesome! :) good to see you back. read more
  • Mike?: Have you ever used your telescope while simultaneously making a read more
  • michele: did you eyeball the lunar eclipse last night? read more
  • didofoot: Good lord, what time are you up in the mornings? read more
  • Tom Sciortino: Let me know when Jupiter is in view at night. read more
  • jmv: Where the hell is your factoids about PLUTO? The REAL read more
  • didofoot: This is weird, because I'm pretty sure I saw a read more
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