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...

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...

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 Beacon in the Dark

Until the recent discovery of gravitational waves, the only ‘sense’ that astronomers had was vision.  Granted our ‘vision’ with telescopes is far broader than human eyes, we still need to find ingenious ways to use the precious photons that rain down on Earth. One of the new ways astronomers are using light is to look at what we call a ‘light echo.’  In reality it’s a reflection of starlight.  When a new star is forming, it is accompanied by a protoplanetary disk, which will eventually form all the planets of the system.  Our own solar system went through this stage 4.5...

The Intense Invisible Aurora

Jupiter has aurora.  It’s not surprising since it has a very powerful magnetic field.  It’s only natural that the two largest structures in the solar system, the Sun’s solar wind influence (called the heliosphere)  and Jupiter’s magnetosphere, should be constantly battling. But don’t expect to see Jupiter’s aurora through a backyard telescope.  The result of this battle is far more energetic, producing an aurora invisible to the human eye, one made of X-rays. The Sun constantly blasts charged particles off into space in all directions, assaulting the planets, moons, and other solar system bodies.  It is this blast of solar wind that gives...

Saturn Double Shot 2/2: Enceladus Eruptions Explained

One of the most surprising and intriguing finds during the decade-long Cassini mission has been the discovery of geysers on the Moon Enceladus.  Originally spotted in 2005, scientists have spent the last decade trying to understand how they work.  And now they finally have a working model. How does an eruption on a frigid Moon last so long?  Eruptions on Earth are not long-lived, and if they are, they are very spread out. For Enceladus to have a ton of localized geysers in the South polar region, you need some pretty specific scenarios. Aside from the fact that a constant stream of material could clog...

Edge-On: Good for Planets, Bad for Galaxies

Every time we see amazing photos of galaxies or planetary disks, we can see most of the detail since we see them face on.  But since the orientation of spiral galaxies in the universe is random, there are a plethora of galaxies ignored by image processors since we just can’t see much of the detail.  We can still learn from edge-on spiral galaxies, just not as much as we can from those that are face on. We can see some fascinating dust lanes in the image above, and a ton of detail considering the view, but we don’t know what...

Potential Ninth Planet!

Sadly no, this time we are NOT talking about Pluto. Astronomer Mike Brown from Caltech, heralded as the ‘man who killed planet Pluto’ has done some new work that might replace Pluto with a better fit for a true ninth planet, one that is ten times the mass of Earth.  Now the only problem is finding it. But wait, if we haven’t seen it, how do we know it’s there? Well it certainly showcases the power of science, that an understanding of the true laws of nature can give us incredible predictive power.  It started out as a ‘that’s strange’...