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...

Stellar Snowball

The closest star to the Earth, aside from the Sun, is Proxima Centauri, a small red dwarf star that is part of the Alpha Centauri system, roughly 4 light years away.  If you don’t know light years, the distance is a staggering 37,800,000,000,000 Km.  Beyond that our stellar neighbourhood fills in as you move 20 light years in any direction, and by 100 light years, there are dozens of stars around us.  This gives a stellar density of about 0.14 stars per cubic parsec (a parsec is about 3.26 light years), pretty normal in terms of the number of stars in a given...

Makemake Moon

Hubble just discovered the newest moon in the solar system, a tiny rock orbiting the dwarf planet Makemake, far beyond the orbit of Neptune. The new moon is about 250 Km across, compared to the 1,400 Km wide Makemake.  It orbits in approximately 12 days, and has an edge on orbit, making it difficult to spot. “Our preliminary estimates show that the moon’s orbit seems to be edge-on, and that means that often when you look at the system you are going to miss the moon because it gets lost in the bright glare of Makemake,” said Alex Parker of...

Space Mice With Liver Disease

Mice are a common laboratory animal for pre-human testing.  Everything from drugs to medical treatments to surgeries have been tested on mice, and the effects of spaceflight are no exception.  Animals such as Laika the dog and Rhesus monkey Albert 1 have had their own test flights, but mice offer an easy alternative when there’s not much extra room on a spacecraft. In a recent study, mice flown on the space shuttle Atlantis were shown to have developed early signs of liver disease.  Could humans in space exhibit the same symptoms? “Prior to this study we really didn’t have much information...

Saturn Double Shot 1/2: Less-Than-Ancient Moons

It’s always funny explaining astronomical time to a non-scientist.  I often get the craziest looks when I mention a million years as being a ‘blip on the radar.’  Perhaps there is some immortal alien race out there who would understand how nothing much happens on the scale of the universe in a million years.  To humanity and our ever-accelerating advancement, a million years is thrice the age of our entire species.  But I guess Einstein was right when he said that ‘it’s all relative.’ This brings us to Saturn, a planet as ancient as the solar system.  Moderately old in...

Ceres and Photoshop

NASA has been zeroing in on certain features of dwarf planet Ceres and looked at them in more detail.  Here are the most surprising as well as what we know so far. There are a few other great videos in this playlist, but the first one gives a great summary of what has been seen so far.  The most surprising and interesting feature of Ceres in my opinion has been the Occator crater.  With the enigmatic bright spots that have been observed since the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres, we are seeing them in finer detail than ever before, and we...

Cometary Chaos

In 2014, comet C/2013 A1, known as sliding spring, came within 140,000 Km of the planet Mars.  This is a bit more than a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon.  Comets are small, so gravitationally this interaction was insignificant, but from an electromagnetic point of view, things were shaken up big time! Comets are small, relatively speaking.  A typical comet is a few kilometers across, about the size of a big city.  But with sunlight melting ices and liberating gases and dust from the comet’s interior, the part of the comet we see in the sky,...

Searching for Nine

Planet nine from outer space has yet to be found, but the theory is sound, and the hunt has begun.  Since the announcement by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown on January 20th, astronomers have been finding ways to search for the theorized planet, using all the available data to zero in on it’s position.  It’s certainly big enough to find, at roughly 10 Earth masses, but with a huge swath of space to search, everything that excludes part of the search area is a step in the right direction. One of the ongoing goals of researchers is to carefully calculate...