It ain’t aliens — but this weird-looking star is still interesting

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We Haven’t Found Alien Megastructures… Yet

The mystery formations and data discrepancies of Tabby’s Star turned out to have explanations. But that’s not what’s important about the mystery star.

For The Daily Beast:

For a second, we thought they were aliens.

In the case of Tabby’s Star—the star more formally known as KIC 8462852—the data (an an accompanying photo of towering figures) was weird enough that a few people surmised it maybe pointed to a sign of an alien civilization. The odds were never good, and a paper published earlier this week shows that aliens almost certainly aren’t involved.

Instead, astronomers think the abnormalities are probably either dust orbiting the star, fragments of comets, or even variations in “weather” on the star’s surface.

These possibilities are a lot more boring than aliens, but that doesn’t mean Tabby’s Star isn’t interesting. The very fact that we still don’t know exactly what’s going on (other than “it ain’t aliens”) is itself interesting.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

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Using NASA science to count the world’s biggest fish

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

A NASA Algorithm Can Save Endangered Whale Sharks

Constellations of spots on these school bus-sized animals were hard to track, until now

For The Daily Beast:

Like too many other species, the world’s largest fish is in trouble.

Despite being listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whale sharks are threatened by overfishing and human-caused damage to the ocean environment.

What makes the race against extinction even harder is the fact that scientists don’t have a precise idea of how many whale sharks are actually out there.

That may seem odd, because adult whale sharks can reach 10 meters (33 feet) in length, making them roughly the size of a school bus. However, they live much of their lives in open water; very few scientists had even seen one before the 1980s. Even with technological improvements over the last 30 years, it’s a difficult species to study, thanks to their lifestyle.

To get some idea about their numbers, researchers need to tell them apart. Each whale shark, has a unique pattern of lines and spots behind its gills, a sort of shark fingerprint.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Green Peas were all my joy, galaxies were my delight

Most galaxies are somewhat red or blue in appearance, depending on the populations of stars that comprise them. However, citizen scientists working with the GalaxyZoo project identified a previously unknown type of galaxy: Green Peas, so named because they are small and green. The color comes from ionized oxygen, a particular form of emission that only happens under unusual conditions. A new study shows that Green Peas could resemble a kind of early galaxy responsible for reionization: the breakdown of atoms due to aggressive star formation when the Universe was young.

A new paper by A. E. Jaskot and M. S. Oey argues that galaxies much like the Green Peas could be responsible for the reionizing radiation. They analyzed the light emissions from the galaxies, and determined that their gas is thinner than in typical star-forming galaxies, which could allow more ultraviolet light into intergalactic space. The researchers also found signs in a few Green Peas of extremely massive stars, the ones most responsible for ionizing radiation. [Read more…]

The orbiting Kepler observatory has been a remarkably successful project since its inception. By watching one small patch of the sky continuously, Kepler has enabled astronomers to discover upward of 2300 possible exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars. While many of those candidates likely are not actually planets, follow-up observations have confirmed 854 exoplanets as of December 28, 2012. The American Astronomical Society meeting, happening as I type this post, is devoting about 30% of its sessions to discussing recent exoplanet discoveries. This is an astoundingly rich field of study!

However, it’s also one that is remarkably accessible. Through the citizen science program Planet Hunters, non-scientists helped discover 42 planet candidates, 15 of which may lie in their system’s habitable zone—the region at which liquid water may exist on the surface.

The Planet Hunters identified 42 exoplanet candidates, including 33 with at least three transits—the more transits we can observe, the more reliable the identification as a planet, and the better the estimates of orbital characteristics. Forty of the potential exoplanets have orbits longer than 100 days, and 9 may have orbital periods greater than 400 days, placing them farther out than most previously identified worlds. [Read more…]

Maybe you could be the one to discover the next Earth