How to find newborn planets without seeing them

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And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who click on the link below and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.

Astronomers Use The Doppler Effect To Find Three Newborn Planets

For Forbes:

We can’t witness the birth of our own Solar System, but the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is providing a picture of how it may have happened. ALMA spotted signs of three giant planets forming around a young star in our cosmic neighborhood. The technique astronomers used to study these planets is one that can be used to find other newborn worlds, and see exactly how clouds of gas and dust turn into something like the Solar System.

The star, which astronomers gave the memorable name HD 163296, is only about 4 million years old, which in cosmic terms makes it a baby. Researchers used ALMA to take detailed images of the disk of dust and gas surrounding the star, which showed three gaps. By studying the motion of carbon monoxide gas within the disk, the astronomers showed it was being moved by massive objects living in those gaps — a telltale sign of newborn planets. These findings were published in a pair of articles in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

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To know if there are aliens, we need to ask the right questions

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

Are We Alone in the Universe?

Panel from “Are we alone?”, a comic written by me with art by Maki Naro. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

How can we know if life exists elsewhere in the cosmos? To answer that question, we have to place Earth — and Earth life — in the context of other worlds in the Solar System and beyond. In my latest comic for The Nib with Maki Naro, we look at the science of planetary chemistry and the conditions of habitability as we know them, with the help of Johns Hopkins astrochemist Sarah Hörst and American Astronomical Society Public Policy Fellow Ashlee Wilkins.

Finding mountains on distant alien worlds

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How Astronomers Could Discover Mountains on Distant Planets

Planets too far away to photograph could yield some clues to whether water—and maybe even life—could exist.

For The Daily Beast:

Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover how habitable these far-off worlds are.

But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take to detect mountains on a world too far away to photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

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]

Discovering new planets with artificial intelligence

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Thanks to Google AI, Astronomers Have Found New Planets

They’re not habitable, but the dual discoveries change how we’re going to hunt for the next Earth.

For The Daily Beast:

For the first time, NASA has used machine learning to identify two new planets in distant star systems. One of those worlds is the eighth in its system, making that planetary system the largest-known yet discovered.

We know stars can have eight planets already (hello, Solar System!), so that’s no surprise. The excitement comes in how this new world was found: using an artificial intelligence machine learning method known as “neural networks.”

On Thursday afternoon, Christopher Shallue, a senior software engineer at Google Brain, and Andrew Vanderburg, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, announced the new worlds in a press conference. It’s the eighth planet orbiting the 90th star in the Kepler observatory’s catalog, so it carries the name Kepler-90i. It’s a smallish, rocky planet orbiting very close to its host star. This method also identified a fifth planet in the Kepler-80 system, described in the same research paper.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Two weeks in review (October 27-November 9)

The Universal Marathon: 13.8 billion years! You run this race whether you like it or not, so might as well enjoy it.

Evidently I forgot to post one of these roundups last week, so here’s two weeks’ worth of writing all at once! Also, I have a new sticker design you can order, for those of you (like me) who don’t willingly run for exercise, but want to feel you’ve accomplished something anyway. At least in a cosmological sense, we all run this marathon we call existence.

  1. Drown your town, drown the world (Galileo’s Pendulum): My colleague Andrew David Thaler asked how much water would be required to flood the whole world to the height of Mount Everest, so I took up the challenge.
  2. Hellish exoplanet has Earth-like density and composition (Ars Technica): It’s difficult to measure both the mass and the size of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars), because discovery methods are complementary to each other. A new pair of papers described the first exoplanet with a density similar to Earth’s, meaning it probably has a similar composition. However, the planet is hot enough to melt most rocks. Don’t plan your vacation there.
  3. New LUX experiment: No dark matter in this corner (Ars Technica): Researchers operating the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter detector announced the results of the first three months of operation. They found: nothing. Well, specifically they found nothing where some other detectors might have found a possible dark matter signature.
  4. Ghosts in the detector: why null results are part of science too (Galileo’s Pendulum): To follow up that previous article, here’s why the LUX detector wasn’t a failure, and definitely why we shouldn’t think dark matter doesn’t exist.
  5. A comment on comments, with cats (Galileo’s Pendulum): Comments on websites have always been a point of some debate. Do we have them? How do we moderate them? What constitutes reasonable commenting, and who makes that decision? Because of an ongoing “debate” between a few vocal people about pterosaur flight (of all things) on an old post about gravity, which I simply don’t have time or willingness to moderate, I decided to close down comment threads on older posts. That riled some people up.
  6. So close, yet so far (Galileo’s Pendulum): The closest star to the Solar System is invisible to the unaided eye, but in many ways it’s a more typical star than the Sun — much less the other stars we see in the night sky.
  7. The census of alien worlds (Galileo’s Pendulum): The Kepler observatory’s primary mission is over, but its legacy lives on. Based on Kepler data, scientists have estimated the possible number of Earth-class planets orbiting at habitable distances from Sun-like stars. Here’s my take on that study.
  8. I don’t believe in science (Galileo’s Pendulum): Oftentimes, big ideas in science — the Big Bang model, evolution, climate change — are regarded as optional, matters of belief. Here are some of my musings about science, belief, and what it means to trust science in the face of bad behavior, fraud, and controversy.
  9. Weekly Space Hangout (Universe Today): Yesterday, I participated in the weekly round-up of space and astronomy news, in conversation with other science writers. Much fun was had!

The New Yorker recently started “Elements”, a science and technology blog. Their most recent contributor is…me! I covered a strange little controversy begun when the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a professional society with over 10 thousand members, decided to pick a fight with a company offering a contest to name exoplanets. That company, Uwingu, decided to fight back, and the exchange highlighted a set of philosophical questions about who gets to name new worlds.

However, the International Astronomical Union, a society of professional astronomers, strongly disapproves of the entire concept, and published a statement to that effect (though without mentioning Uwingu by name). According to its Web site, the I.A.U.’s tasks include serving “as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and surface features on them.” The process of naming new objects is complicated (the Web précis of the document is itself formidable), and the I.A.U. press release claims exclusive rights to decide what a planet is called—even over the wishes of the scientist or scientists who discovered it. [Read more…]

Now, can I get a picture of Eustace Tilley wearing a bowler hat?

Who names the exoplanets? Who gets to decide?