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Earlier this week, we learned that there is (most likely) at least one planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B. If you want to get really in-depth on this discovery, how it was made, and what it means, you should be reading Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams blog.
I wanted to highlight this image, specifically, in order to quote some particularly evocative writing that Gilster posted yesterday. Cue the stirring music:
When planet-hunter Greg Laughlin (UC-Santa Cruz) took his turn at the recent press conference announcing the Alpha Centauri B findings, he used the occasion to make a unique visual comparison. One image showed the planet Saturn over the limb of the Moon. Think of this as the Galilean baseline, for when Galileo went to work on the heavens with his first telescope, the Moon was visually close at hand and Saturn a mysterious, blurry object with apparent side-lobes.
Laughlin contrasted that with [this image], showing the Alpha Centauri stars as viewed from Saturn, a spectacular vista including the planet and the tantalizing stellar neighbors beyond. Four hundred years after Galileo, we thus define what we can do — a probe of Saturn — and we have the image of a much more distant destination we’d like to know a lot more about. The findings of the Geneva team take us a giant step in that direction, revealing a small world of roughly Earth mass in a tight three-day orbit around a star a little smaller and a little more orange than the Sun. What comes next is truly interesting, both for what is implied and for what we are capable of doing.
Read the rest of this post, which explains what happens next with the research and why astronomers will be focusing their planet-hunting efforts on Alpha Centauri B.
Last night, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory announced that they'd found a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B — an orange star a little smaller and a little less bright than our own Sun. That's important, because, while more than 700 planets have been found outside our solar system, this one — Alpha Centauri Bb (yeah, I know) — is by far the closest. To give you an idea of what we're talking about in distance here, imagine that we are Kansas City and Mars is Toledo. Alpha Centauri Bb is like Tokyo — but you have to get there the long way around and nobody has invented the boat or the plane yet. Basically, it's closer than any other planet we know of outside our solar system, but not really close close. Just 4.37 light years is still more than 25 trillion miles, which is still a long ways away.
Likewise, Alpha Centauri Bb is classified as an "Earth-like" planet, but that shouldn't give you any ideas of colonizing it Zefram Cochrane-style. Bb is way too close to its star for that — closer, even, than Mercury is to our own Sun.
But you should still be excited about this. Terrible, filing-cabinet name aside, Alpha Centauri Bb is jeffing epic. Until now, we didn't think our closest neighboring solar system had any planets at all. And because of the way planets work, writes Lee Billings at the Centauri Dreams blog, this single find means we're much, much more likely to discover other Centaurian worlds. Billings is a former guest blogger here at BoingBoing and his work on exoplanets is second to none. I highly recommend reading his full piece:
Anyone in the Southern Hemisphere can look up on a clear night and easily see Alpha Centauri — to the naked eye, the three suns merge into one of the brightest stars in Earth’s sky, a single golden point piercing the foot of the constellation Centaurus, a few degrees away from the Southern Cross. In galactic terms, the new planet we’ve found there is so very near our own that its night sky shares most of Earth’s constellations. From the planet’s broiling surface, one could see familiar sights such as the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter, looking just as they do to our eyes here.
• Read Lee Billings' full post about Alpha Centauri Bb, and keep an eye on the Centauri Dreams blog for further updates/analysis.
• In the late 1980s, NASA considered sending an unmanned probe to Alpha Centauri B. It would have taken 100 years to get there, using nuclear explosions to create thrust.
Image: Marco Lorenzi via NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day
When somebody says that a new species has been discovered, it's easy to get the impression that this is an animal nobody has ever seen before. But that's usually not exactly what scientists mean.
Take the lesula (or Cercopithecus lomamiensis), an African monkey whose "discovery" is making headlines this week. While it does seem to be true that this particular species hasn't been previously named and documented in the scientific literature, the scientists who wrote about the lesula were not the first people to encounter one. What's more, lesula do not represent a species totally removed from animals we already knew about. Here's Mongabay's Jeremy Hance:
"There are monkeys out there between the three rivers that no one recognizes. They are not in our field guides," Terese Hart wrote tantalizingly in a blog post in 2008. "We've sent photos to the most renown of African Primatologists. Result: a lot of raised eyebrows. And the more we find out the higher our eyebrows go."
One of these monkeys was the lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis). John Hart first came across the new species in June 2007 when he and a field team were shown a captive baby lesula, kept as a pet by the local school director's daughter in the remote village of Opala. The next step was locating the species in the wild.
...the lesula is apart of the Cercopithecini family, which are commonly referred to as guenons. It's most similar to the owl-faced monkey (Cercopithecus hamlyni), which is also found in the region. But the lesula sports a lighter coat and has unique calls. Genetic testing, furthermore, proves the species are distinct from each other and have likely been separated for a few million years, probably by impassable rivers.
Read the rest
Back in December, I told you that physicists at CERN thought that by this summer they might be able to say, once and for all, whether the Higgs Boson particle exists. As a quick reminder, here's how I described that particle in a post from last year:
You know that reality is like a Lego model, it's made up of smaller parts. We are pieced together out of atoms. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks. (Quarks and electrons, as far as we know, are elementary particles, with nothing smaller inside.) When you're talking about the Higgs Boson, you're talking about the mass of these particles. Here's an imperfect analogy: A top quark, the most massive particle we know of, is like an elephant. An electron, on the other hand, is more like a mouse. And nobody knows for certain why those differences exist.
There is a theory, though. Back in the 1960s, a guy named Peter Higgs came up with the idea that all these particles exist in a field, and their mass is a reflection of how much they interact with that field. Heavy particles have a lot of interaction. Lighter particles are relatively standoffish. If this field exists, the Higgs Boson is the tiny thing it's made of.
So that's the Higgs Boson—what it (theoretically) is and why that matters. And now, scientists at CERN are saying that they might have found it. What's that mean? Basically, they found a new sub-atomic particle that seems to fit the theoretical description of what a Higgs Boson should be like. The New York Times reports that scientists are calling it the "Higgslike" particle for now.
Meanwhile, all across the Internet, science journalists and bloggers are alternately celebrating the discovery, skepticizing the details, and cringing at the overuse of the obnoxious moniker "God particle". Want to know more? Here are some great places to start:
Read the rest
Kepler-22b is a newly confirmed exoplanet, orbiting a Sun-like star 600 light years away from Earth. The exoplanet sits in the "habitable zone"—a range of orbits around a star that are, based on what we know about life on Earth, most likely to provide the right conditions for life to happen.
That is pretty damn cool. But it does not mean there must be life on Kepler-22b. As Phil Plait explains on the Bad Astronomy blog, there's a lot we don't know about this exoplanet yet, and "within the habitable zone" is not a guarantee of habitability. Case in point: Our solar system. Earth is within the Sun's habitable zone. But so are Mars and Venus, and you may have noticed that they are not especially teeming with life.
Kepler detects planets when they transit their star, passing directly in front of the star, blocking its light a little bit. The bigger the planet, the more light it blocks. The astronomers going over the data determined that Kepler-22b is about 2.4 times bigger than the Earth. The problem is, that and its distance from its star are all we know. We don’t know if it’s a rocky world, a gaseous one, or what. It may not even have an atmosphere!
Another good post to read on this subject is Matthew Francis' explanation of "habitability" on the Galileo's Pendulum blog. Even the statement, "Kepler 22-b is within the habitable zone," comes along with a lot of assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true.
The following factors are needed to calculate whether a planet is in the habitable zone: The temperature of the host star: the hotter the star, the more it emits light of all wavelengths ... The size of the host star: a large star emits more light from its surface simply because there is more surface area ... The albedo of the planet: how much light gets reflected back into space ... Hand in hand with albedo comes the composition of the planet’s atmosphere—if it has one.
When we say Kepler-22b is in the habitable zone, we're assuming that it has the same atmospheric composition and albedo as Earth. We don't know that. And it's a big leap, bearing in mind (again) that there's not even another planet in our own solar system that shares those characteristics.
I swear, I'm not a fun-hater. Kepler-22b is awesome. Just keep it in context and know that there's still a lot we don't know about this thing.
Size comparison of Kepler-22b via Galileo's Pendulum.
That's an Eastern Pacific black ghostshark, native to the coast of southern California. It's one of 94 new species the California Academy of Sciences documented in 2009. Ghostsharks (or chimaeras) are, unsurprisingly, related to sharks, but only distantly. Their evolutionary path branched away from their better-known cousins some 400 million years ago. What makes them different? Among other things, retractable sexual appendages on the foreheads of the males.
California Academy of Sciences: New Species of "Ghostshark" Named By Academy Researchers
Treehugger: 94 New Species Described by the California Academy of Sciences in 2009