Kepler Discovers 8-Planet System

Moments ago, NASA announced that the Kepler space telescope, for the first time ever, has discovered a star that has a system of 8 planets, similar to our own solar system. The exceptional part of the discovery is that it was found in existing Kepler data, using google artificial intelligence software that was trained to find positive detections in over 30,000 data sets.  Known as a neural network, the software was trained to look for patterns in the intensity of light from stars.  Normally, humans would need to do this work, but with so much data, there simply wasn’t enough...

My Three Suns

Not just the title of an excellent Futurama episode, but now a real place.  A planet has been found orbiting in a triple star system, a surprising find that may be more common than once thought. Astronomers from the University of Arizona used the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to directly image the new planet as it orbits the brightest star in a triple system 320 light years away, in the constellation Centaurus. Orbits like this are thought to be extremely unstable due to the varying gravitational field in the system. “HD 131399Ab is one of the few exoplanets that...

Reproducible Results and Baby Planets

When I report science news, discuss new discoveries, and get excited about new results, it can be difficult to hear that little voice in the back of my mind that says ‘reproducible results.’  It’s the voice of the pure scientist that reminds me to be critical of the things I read, and be open to critical review for the things I write and say. Any result isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on unless it can be independently reproduced.  This is a key to scientific advancement.  If the result can’t be reproduced, then something is wrong.  It may be an error with...

How Life on Earth Began

One of the most important questions our species has tackled is the origin of life on Earth.  If we can figure out the conditions and catalyst for the beginning of life, we can look elsewhere in the universe for those same conditions, and zero in on the potential for finding extraterrestrial life.  We know the universe is old enough for the painstakingly slow evolutionary process, but what started it? In the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment, a flask containing the basic natural elements water (H20), methane (CH4), Ammonia (NH4), and Hydrogen (H2), all present on the early Earth, was subjected to...

New Kepler Planets Confirmed!

In a major announcement this week, researchers with the Kepler Space Telescope science team have confirmed the existence of 1,284 new planets that had originally been found by Kepler.  This is a huge leap in the number of confirmed planets, bringing the total to over 2,300. The previous science data collection done by Kepler was completed in 2013, so why is this new news? Well the exciting part is that these are confirmed planets.  Usually when Kepler detects a signal indicating a potential planet, it needs to be verified by using some of the larger ground-based telescopes.  Kepler is not immune...

The How and Why of Planet Nine

It hasn’t been found yet – let me make that clear.  But with evidence that it should exist, astronomers are looking more closely at the proposed planet nine and how it might have formed, and how it could have ended up in such a distant orbit. When you start to think about how a planet ten times the mass of Earth could have ended up more than ten times as far from the Sun as Neptune, a few scenarios pop into mind: It was formed in the inner solar system, where interactions with gas giants or another star pulled it out It formed...

Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss it

Have you ever seen a picture of a comet or asteroid in the sky against a background of stars? Here let me show you. Can you spot the asteroid? Okay I confess there is no asteroid in the image above, but if there was you’d believe me because an asteroid in this image would be indistinguishable from the stars.  They are all points of light, so how can you tell them apart? There’s something that separates asteroids, comets, planets, and all other solar system objects from background stars in an image. When you’re driving in a car and you look to the...

Three Nearby Earths

As the search for planets in the galaxy continues, there are two places to focus on: Distant stars with potential large planets, and nearby stars with potential small planets. If we are able to find Earth-like planets orbiting nearby stars, they will be prime targets for future generations to explore. Astronomers have just announced the discovery of three new planets orbiting a star only 40 light years from Earth.  The star is a very small red dwarf, only slightly larger than Jupiter, and even though it’s close to Earth, it can’t be seen with the naked eye or even with a large...

A Lonely Universe?

Life in the universe is a fascinating topic.  The simplest question: Are we alone? It breeds so many deeper and more profound scientific questions, like “How many habitable planets are there?” “How likely is life to develop on any given planet?” and “How long can a civilization survive?” We can’t answer them definitively, but we can narrow it down. The Drake equation, shown above, was first developed by Frank Drake, the head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in 1961.  He took the question of are we alone and made it quantifiable, in a probabilistic way.  It lets us...

Titanic Methane Seas

Even after a decade of interloping among the Saturnian system, the Cassini spacecraft is still doing great science.  It helps that there are lots of places to visit, since Saturn has 62 moons and the largest ring system of the gas giants.  Arguably the best science has come from Saturn’s largest moon Titan, second largest moon in the solar system (behind Ganymede) and the only moon known to have an atmosphere. Since Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn and it’s system of moons, it’s been revealed that over 1.6 million square kilometers of Titan’s surface are covered in liquid...