Saturday, December 26, 2015

Wolf 1061c: The Closest Exoplanet To Earth To Harbor Life?

At around 14 light-years from our planet, will the exoplanet – as in a planet outside of our Solar System - that can harbor life similar to one found here on Earth? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Star Trek fans may be wondering if the planet is related to Wolf 359 – that Federation colonized planet that was invaded by the Borg – but when the discovery was announced back in December 17, 2015 following a study based on 10 years of archival spectrum taken of the star Wolf 1061 using the HARPS Spectrograph attached to the ESO 3.6 meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory at La Silla, Chile. The discovery was made by a team of astronomers from the University of New South Wales of Australia. 

Wolf 1061c or WL1061c is an exoplanet – that is a planet that lies outside of our Solar System – orbiting the red dwarf star Wolf 1061 in the Ophiuchus constellation about 13.8 light years from Earth. Wolf 1061c is the second planet in order from its parent star in a triple planetary system and has an orbital period of 17.9 days. Wolf 1061c is classified as a super-Earth type exoplanet as its mass is 4.3 times that of Earth and an estimated surface gravity of 1.6 times that found on the surface of the Earth. In astronomical terms, the Wolf 1061 system is relatively close to planet Earth’s Solar System at 13.8 light years away. This makes it the closest known potentially habitable planet to Earth, yielding interests from astronomers the world over. 

Wolf 1061c’s orbital distance of 0.084 AU (astronomical units) – assuming mild eccentricity – lies at the inner edge of its parent star’s habitable zone, which extends from approximately 0.073 to 0.190 AU. For comparison, the habitable zone of our Sun is approximately at 0.5 to 3.0 AU if you account for our Sun’s greater energy emission. Because it is so close to its parent star, planet Wolf 1061c is likely to be tidally locked – meaning one side of the planet permanently faces its parent star and the other side permanently faces away. Although this scenario could result in extreme temperature differences on the planet, the terminator line that separates the illuminated side and the dark side could potentially be habitable for life-forms similar to that that exists here on Earth, as the temperature there could be suitable for liquid water to exist. Additionally, a much larger portion of the planet could also be habitable if Wolf 1061c has a thick enough atmosphere to facilitate heat transfer away from the side permanently facing its parent star.     

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

2015 – 100th Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

With UNESCO marking 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies, will the centenary of Einstein’s presentation of General Relativity inspire advances of current physics and cosmology?

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in November 1915, Albert Einstein presented to the world his “Theory of General Relativity” as a way to resolve another contradiction of physics not covered by his “Theory of Special Relativity” ten years before. According to Isaac Newton, gravity travelled instantly through the universe. But according to Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, nothing can go faster than light (but there’s an intriguingly convincing work by Thomas Van Flandern of the US Naval Observatory back in the mid 1970s proving otherwise that you can also check out). To overcome these incompatible views, Einstein introduced another, even grander theory in which space and time are not empty but are instead like a fabric that can be curved and stretched. This new picture – in which gravity originates from the bending of sheets of space-time – revolutionized cosmology and gave us the most compelling theory of creation, the Big Bang. 

Einstein’s Special Relativity was incomplete because it made no mention of acceleration or gravity. Einstein then made the next key observation: Motion under gravity and motion in an accelerated frame are indistinguishable. Since a light beam will bend in a rocket that is accelerating, a light beam must also bend under gravity. 

To show this, Einstein introduced the concept of curved space. In this interpretation, planets move around the sun not because of a gravitational pull but because the sun has warped the space around it, and the curvature of space itself due to the sun pushes the planets. Gravity does not pull you into a chair; space pushes on you, creating the feeling of weight. Space-time has been replaced by a fabric that can stretch and bend. 

General relativity can describe the extreme warping of space caused by the gravity of a massive dead star – a black hole. When we apply General Relativity to the universe as a whole, one solution naturally describes an expanding cosmos that originated in a fiery “Big Bang”. 

One of the simplest demonstrations using everyday objects to explain Einstein’s General Relativity that even the youngest school-kids can grasp is the bowling ball, marble and bedsheet set-up. Put a bowling ball on a bedsheet and shoot a marble past it. The marble will move in a curved line. A Newtonian physicist would say that the bowling ball exerts a “force” that “pulls” on the marble, making it move in a curved line. A Relativist would say that the ball curves the bedsheet and that the bedsheet “pushes” against the marble. This “simple” demonstration of Einstein’s General Relativity on how gravity shapes the cosmic space-time also explains why the 1919 solar eclipse observation that shows the sun’s gravitational well curving the path of starlight and the advancing perihelion of the planet Mercury that Newtonian physics is at a loss to explain why.  

Einstein’s General Relativity also shows that gravitational fields affect the flow of time – making them slow down which was only demonstrated unequivocably just recently – back in the mid 1990s - when atomic clocks were accurate enough to show the difference. Without correcting the effects of General Relativity, the Global Positioning System or GPS signals from the satellites to your receiving unit would have errors of several parts per billion – which is enough to make them useless. 

Recently, one of the most grandiose experiments to test the limits of Einstein’s General Relativity was the hunt for gravitational waves. Physicists can’t yet put the entire universe on a lab bench, but experimental tests of Einstein’s theories can now be carried out with subatomic precision. Perhaps the most elusive phenomena predicted by General Relativity – but has yet to be observed – are gravitational waves. In theory, a cataclysmic event such as a spiraling merger of two black holes should produce wavelike ripples in space-time that could still be detectible by the time they reach planet Earth. Two Earth-based observatories, Advanced LIGO and Advanced VIRGO at the University of Pisa in Italy, will look for disturbances as small as a hundred-millionth the diameter of a hydrogen atom.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Will There Be An Increase In Annular Solar Eclipses?

Though currently relatively rare, will there be an increase of occurrences of annular solar eclipses in the future?

By: Ringo Bones 

When it comes to total solar eclipses, annular solar eclipses offer little, if any, importance to earthbound astronomers despite of its relative rarity in occurrence. I mean when was the last time an annular solar eclipse made headline news or was used to verify an astrophysical hypothesis? And the only well-photographed annular solar eclipsed was the one that occurred over the North African desert back in December 1955. But believe it or not, annular solar eclipses could occur more frequently in the future because the Earth’s Moon is moving farther away from us. 

Ever since its formation and held in orbit, our Moon had been moving farther away from us because the tidal friction it caused is slowing down planet earth’s rotation for several billion years. Currently, the Moon is orbiting 240,000 miles or 384,400 away from us and when it was newly formed, it was actually 10 times closer and a day on Earth only lasted 2 to 3 hours. But back then, the Earth was rotating faster and the tides were more than a thousand feet high according to unearthed geological evidences. But over time, tidal friction caused by the Moon orbiting the Earth slowed the planet’s rotation to what it is today – 24 hours. 

Ever since the Apollo 11 astronauts installed that quartz retro-reflector on the Moon back in July 20, 1969 that allowed precise laser measurements of the Earth-Moon distance down to the nearest fractions of an inch or millimeter, we have known for sometime now that the Moon is moving away from us at a rate of 2 to 3 centimeters per year. And it is only a matter of time that when a total solar eclipse occurs, the Moon is now too far away from the Earth’s surface to fully cover the Sun – thus the increased frequency of annular solar eclipses. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Faster Than Light Astronomy: The Future Of Astronomy?

Even though research on the subject is still on the fringes of mainstream science but will natural phenomena that carries information faster than the speed of light be the future of astronomy?

By: Ringo Bones 

Many a scientist who criticize SETI – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – using radio waves as a “dead end” because the 186,000 miles-per-second is just too slow for practical interstellar, never mind intergalactic, communications seems to be currently ignored by the mainstream global scientific community. And so are those who are currently investigating into superluminar phenomena in nature that allows data and information propagation across free space faster than the 186,000 miles-per-second / 400,000 kilometers-per-second speed limit of the speed of light. But if a naturally occurring phenomena – or an intelligently cleaver coaxing of it – that allows data transfer and communication faster-than-the-speed-of light not just represent the future of SETI but also of all branches of astronomy as well? 

Hints of a faster-than-light data communications that might occur naturally has not only been speculated but also inferred in scientific investigations ever since physicist began exploring the limits of Albert Einstein’s General Relativity when it was published back in 1916. Astrophysicists during the early 1970s had uncovered – based on data suggested by the Standard Model quantum mechanics particle accelerator results at that time – that during the few seconds after the Big Bang, the universe might have expanded many times faster-than-light, perhaps even sever billion times faster, but most of them point to a faster-than-light hyperinflation expansion space of the early universe several seconds old despite current particle accelerators are still not powerful enough to replicate such conditions. 

Mainstream astronomy’s most exotic – I.e. weirdest telescopes / astronomical instruments have hinted superluminar / faster-than-light phenomena since their operation. Various neutrino detectors that are buried a couple of miles beneath the surface of our planet has since shown that supernova neutrinos often arrive before the light of the star undergoing supernova explosion. Case in point is the Supernova 1987A that was seen back in 1987 whose neutrinos from the supernova’s Large Magellanic Cloud location arrived to Earth 3 hours before optical telescopes saw the supernova back in February 23, 1987 because shockwaves from stars going supernova travel 10,000 times slower than the neutrinos before the shockwave blows the entire star despite neutrinos still travelling at 186,000 miles per second. 

Speaking of other exotic / weird astronomical instruments that suggest the existence of superluminar / faster-than-light propagation of information in free space, the LIGO – which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory, the National Science Foundation’s current most ambitious – and NSF’s current most expensive science experiment at 367-million US dollars (2002 dollars) has since been upgraded after it failed to detect any gravitational waves during its operation from 2002 to 2010. The upgraded super-LIGO is slated to detect concrete evidence of gravitational waves produced by very energetic astronomical phenomena – like the ones produced via the collision between two neutron stars or the collision of two black holes – as predicted by Albert Einstein’s General Relativity when it was published back in 1916. But does LIGO’s failure to detect gravity waves borne of mainstream astrophysics’ assumption that the force of gravity propagates across the cosmos at 186,000 miles per second – i.e. the speed of light? 

During the early 1970s, a US Naval Observatory associate professor Thomas Van Flandern performed a calculation which he later published in “Physics Letters A” titled “The Speed of Gravity – What Experiments Say” which demonstrated that the force of gravity propagated at least 20-billion times faster than the speed of light and may propagate instantaneously across the universe. Given that Prof. Stephen Hawking had noted in his A Brief History of Time that the force of gravity propagates at the speed of light across the universe, does the discrepancy between the two warrants a more thorough investigation of naturally occurring superluminar / faster-than-light phenomena? 

 Is mainstream science in general – at present – extremely skeptical when it comes to conducting experiments / research / reexaminations of empirical evidences of natural phenomena suggesting the existence of faster-than-light information and signal propagation across free space? Well, currenly accepted ones suggesting the existence of faster-than-light information / data propagation, like Albert Einstein’s Quantum Entanglement in which he nicknamed as the “spooky action at a distance”, Quantum Tunnelling, the EPR Experiment Paradox – i.e. the Albert Einstein Boris Podolsky Nathan Rosen Experiment Paradox – all date back from the 1930s and more recent experiments suggesting the existence of superluminar phenomena that warrant further investigation seems to be quickly swept under the rug by mainstream science. 

If proven to be true, superluminar phenomena / faster-than-light phenomena which could form the basis for Superluminar Astronomy / Faster-Than-Light Astronomy could well revolutionize the science of astronomy as we know it. Not just by changing our overall picture of the universe but also having the ability to control robotic spacecraft on distant planets as if they were just a few miles away using a data transfer / signal transfer method faster than the speed of light. Imagine being able to control those robotic rovers on Mars without the 20-minute delay due to the 186,000 miles-per-second speed limit of the speed of light which takes radio waves as much as 20 minutes to reach the surface of the planet Mars; Or being able to finally join the “Cosmic Internet” that allowed the free sharing ideas of intelligent beings across the universe using signals that allow the transfer of information and signals several billion times faster than the speed of light across the vast emptiness of interstellar space. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The New Horizons Spacecraft: One Giant Leap For Robotic Space Exploration?

Despite their limitations in comparison to human space explorers, is the New Horizon spacecraft demonstrates the best of our current robotic spacecraft ability?

By: Ringo Bones 

Despite of the post Cold War austere fiscal environment at NASA, the recent successes demonstrated by the New Horizons spacecraft currently taking our clearest snapshots of Pluto so far can be quite inspiring to anyone interested in astronomy and space exploration as a whole. Given the spacecraft’s recent accomplishment despite being built on a “relatively” shoestring budget of 700 million US dollars is no mean feat indeed. 

When NASA’s task-masters at Capitol Hill green lit the New Horizons program back in 2001 and the four year timetable on the construction of the craft for its scheduled launched at the beginning of 2006 are just one of the miracles successfully pulled off by the New Horizons spacecraft. If the funding and launch timetable was delayed to several weeks after the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is no longer a planet, the “princes” at Capitol Hill would probably had scrapped the funding of the New Horizons program. In honor of Pluto’s discoverer, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Tombaugh’s ashes was taken onboard as payload on the New Horizons spacecraft so that he can achieve the closest physically possible of actually visiting Pluto first hand. 

Due to its distance and small size, the world’s astronomical community have virtually little interest on the planet Pluto that between the cataloguing of the planet via “old school” astronomical photographic plates by Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and astronomer Carl Lampland in the 1950s, the actual location of Pluto’s orbit could be in error by as much as 62,000 miles. It was only after 1990 that the global astronomical community’s orbital data accuracy on Pluto became on par of that of the planets Uranus and Neptune. It is only understandably so due to Pluto’s remoteness at over 3 billion miles away from planet Earth and since Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930, astronomers here on Earth had only “witnessed” about 1/3 of its almost 250-year orbit around our Sun.  

The recent New Horizons spacecraft’s successful 8,000 mile “close flyby” would not have happened without the due diligence of one of the New Horizons program’s co investigator Dr. Marc Buie due to a lack of usefully accurate data on Pluto’s orbit and actual distance from the Sun. By 2012, the New Horizon’s team was concerned on the lack of accurate orbital data on the planet Pluto that Dr. Buie actually did his own legwork at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in order to reexamine around 1,000 of astronomical photographic plates of Pluto taken by Clyde Tombaugh and Carl Lampland during 1930 to 1950. The new computational data acquired by Dr. Buie became very indispensible in programming the New Horizon’s spacecraft’s trajectory so that when it encounters Pluto by July 2015, it will be within 8,000 miles – as opposed to 62,000 miles away. 

Due to its destination’s remoteness from the Sun where the ambient strength of sunlight is only 1/1000th found here on Earth, the use of solar panels is out of the question in the New Horizons spacecraft. Instead, it uses a plutonium-239 powered thermoelectric reactor similar to that used in the Voyager spacecraft to power its systems. Due to Pluto’s remoteness, it took nine and a half years for New Horizons to reach its Pluto flyby despite travelling 1 million miles a day at 51,000 miles per hour. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary

Even though it is slated to be retired in five years time, is there still life left in the Hubble Space telescope?

By: Ringo Bones

Since its launch into low earth orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery back in April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has proven itself to be the proverbial “little telescope that could”. Freed from the inherent turbulence of the earth’s atmosphere by placing it in orbital space, the Hubble Space Telescope has the potential to be far better than any earthbound telescope that has come before. But for its entire 25-year lifespan is not totally free from controversy.

When it was found out that its primary mirror was misshapen – as in light rays hitting the mirror’s edge is reflected differently in comparison to the light rays hitting the center of the mirror by as much as one-thirteenth the thickness of the human hair which significantly affected its performance when looking at distant galaxies tens of millions of light-years away. The mainstream press dubbed it the 2-billion dollar blunder upon hearing the news and some folks – most of them your right-wing conservative types – are the ones voicing the loudest criticisms of the fledgling space telescope.

For all intents and purposes, Reagan era “conservative” America may have something to do on why the misshapen main mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope was overlooked and was only found out after it was sent into space. Perkin Elmer – the Hubble Space Telescope’s main mirror contractor – wasn’t allowed to verify if they’ve ground the mirror accurate enough using the test jig at the then Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (before they merged with the famed cruise missile manufacturer Martin Marietta). Given that it was still the height of the Cold War, Hubble’s main mirror never got the opportunity for troubleshooting in an optical test jig at Lockheed where they test the main mirrors of NSA’s 1980s era Keyhole Reconnaissance Satellites for fears that the then Soviet Union might know the optical capabilities of the 1980s era U.S. spy satellites – thus the “blunder” that got overlooked. But given that the main mirror was misshapen in such a precise manner, folks at NASA managed to device a “contact lens” to correct the Hubble Space Telescope’s misshapen main mirror – at a fraction of the total cost of the space telescope.

With a Space Shuttle flight to fix the Hubble back in December 2, 1993, a team of NASA astronauts led by Story Musgrave managed to install the “contact lens package” – as in the COSTAR corrective optics module - to fix the Hubble. The mission was totally worth it when in July 16, 1994 the Hubble Space Telescope managed to give humanity a “ringside seat” to the crash of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 to the planet Jupiter. Then came the “Hubble Deep Field” series of images and a host of other images that forever changed the science of astronomy.

But the Hubble Space Telescope is truly the “space based telescope that could”. As in the Hubble consumes as much power as a household electric clothes drier and its “jitter spec” is of 0.007 arc-second accuracy – in layman’s terms it is like pointing a hand-held laser pointer on the top of the Washington Monument and keep it steady enough to aim at a dime on top of the Empire State Building while keeping it steady enough to keep the laser point or spot aimed squarely at Roosevelt’s profile on the said dime. Another "weird fact" is that the mechanical parts of the Hubble Space Telescope is lubricated by sperm whale oil given that during the mid 1980s - during the time period of the famed telescope's construction phase at Lockheed - it was the only lubricant available at the time that wouldn't seize up in the weightlessness and extreme temperature swings of outer space conditions.

Since the late 1990s, the Hubble Space Telescope has been slated for replacement. The James Webb Space Telescope which will be placed over a million miles away from earth. If its specs can be trusted, the James Webb Space Telescope has the potential to detect any earth-like planet within 10,000 light-years. And despite its age and scores of upgrades later, it seems that the Hubble Space Telescope’s “imminent” retirement 5 years from now is not yet certain given that it was originally designed to last for only 15 years.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Will The Dawn Spacecraft Uncover Something New From Ceres?

Given it is still a virtually unexplored part of out Solar System, will the Dawn spacecraft uncover something new from Ceres? 

By: Ringo Bones 

 Since its launch in 2007, there has been scant press coverage on the Dawn spacecraft and its intended destination – a region in our Solar System that lie between the planets Mars and Jupiter called the asteroid belt. Besides some Earth like asteroids fictionalized in the first season of The Twilight Zone, it seems that the asteroid belt is an out of sight out of mind part of our Solar System. Fortunately, the recent pictures sent by the Dawn spacecraft has slightly peaked everyone’s interest of these so-called “dwarf planets” – as they are now called by the International Astronomical Union – that reside in the asteroid belt. 

As of Friday, March 6, 2015, the Dawn spacecraft entered the orbit of Ceres. According to the mission’s chief engineer Marc Rayman at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the 473-million US dollar mission says: “It went exactly the way we expected. Dawn gently, elegantly slid into Ceres’ gravitational embrace.” 

Ceres is the second and final stop for Dawn, a robotic spacecraft that was launched in 2007 on a voyage to the main asteroid belt, a zone between Mars and Jupiter that’s littered with rocky leftovers that dates back from the formation of the Sun and the planets some 4.5 billion years ago. Dawn will spend 16 months photographing the icy surface of Ceres. Dawn previously spent a year at Vesta – the only “dwarf planet” of the asteroid belt that can occasionally seen with the naked eye from the Earth’s surface, exploring the asteroid’s surface and sending back stunning close-ups of its lumpy surface before cruising onto the Texas-sized Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. 

The 4.8 billion kilometer trip was made possible by Dawn’s ion propulsion engines which provide a gentle yet constant acceleration and are more efficient than chemical-based rocket thrusters. As Dawn approaches Ceres, it beamed back the best pictures ever taken of the “dwarf planet”. Some puzzling images revealed a pair of shiny patches inside a crater – signs of possible ice or salt – which is something that can’t be seen by earthbound telescopes. Marc Rayman says that the Dawn spacecraft is currently in Ceres’ shadows and won’t take new pictures until it emerges in April, he said. 

Since its discovery in the evening of January 1, 1801 by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, Ceres has intrigued generations of astronomers. Ceres measures 965-kilometers (600 miles) in diameter and is named after the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvest. It was initially called a planet before it was demoted into an asteroid and more recently classified as a “dwarf planet”. Like true blue planets, dwarf planets are spherical in shape because their size or mass generates enough gravitation for it to attain hydrostatic equilibrium and thus attaining a spherical shape unlike the smaller oddly-shaped asteroids.