July 25, 2009

Space Alone

A great story! 'Space Alone' is a great tale for future explorers of exoplanets (exoplorers), and for those who search for life in space.

July 23, 2009

Farthest, Nearest...and any exoplanet in between

ExoplanetOn twitter, someone asked me a question how far away the most distant confirmed exoplanet is. The answer is quite tricky. Rapid developments in exoplanet discovery renders the answer outdated within a few months or few years. Therefore, my answer will involve *how* to obtain the answer from the web so that the answer will have a longer "shelf-life" and stay as close to accurate as possible. Hopefully, this post will also benefit those who want answers to related questions--such as what the closest exoplanet is, and so on.
Start by going to The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia and sort the catalog via distance (by clicking the distance column).
The answer yields the topnotch most distant exoplanets to date OGLE-05-390L b, MOA-2007-BLG-400-L b at around 6,500 & 6,000 parsecs. This is roughly around ~21,190 & ~19,500 light-years away respectively.
But remember, independent exoplanet researchers from different countries may publish papers with different values. And you may stumble upon outdated information. The exoplanet SWEEPS-10 is still listed at 22,000 light-years away. So a little bit of research is definitely needed to answer questions in the nascent field of Exoplanetology.
Now if you want to be adventurous and ask a "mashup" question such as "What is the closest Super-earth?" then I recommend playing with the list of exoplanets on Exoplanetology at Freebase.
In that interface, you can add columns and refine the view to obtain details you've never seen before. More details will be reserved for another blogpost about Freebase, but the main thing to note is that answering your questions means getting involved with it in some way.
In a new field of Science, you most often need to input reliable data in order to obtain reliable answers. You can start by getting an account at Freebase and start inputting reliable data from reliable sources.
In this day and age where Citizen Science is proliferating, your interest is very precious. You are encouraged to contribute and learn. That makes you part of the revolution in Science.

July 21, 2009

On Another World

MoonForty years ago, man set foot on another world. The Moon. It is a great triumph for humanity. A symbol of man's inherent boldness for discovery and adventure.
How does it feel like to step on another world? Buzz Aldrin recounts a weird experience upon kicking moon dust which briefly flashes the shape of a petal on the trajectory back to the moon's airless surface. It must have felt something like walking on water.
It's been 40 years since man felt an other-worldy experience. The Moon may have truly felt like "another world" forty years ago, but the moon is not an "other" planet (at least not in the way we defined what a 'planet' is).
Landing on the moon has been a giant leap for mankind, but now it's time for the next step. A step into another world.
What could be in store for us on a red planet? The only way to find out is to get our foot on it's surface. Then it will be the first terrestrial planet to dip our feet other than earth. Who knows what mysteries lay hidden on another planet?
Let us celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 with the hope of a bold move to a brave new world.
In another time, in another place, I could have chosen to root for Alpha Centauri. But the time is now. And so I choose Mars.

July 15, 2009

Exoplanetology's Twitter Manifesto

When I started the @exoplanetology twitter account I did not expect that it would take me to an amazing journey through fascinating worlds. Well, twitter is a world of it's own, but it has allowed me to learn and discover new interesting realms that i could never have known without this medium.

My goal to answer the question, "How does the discovery of exoplanets impact humanity's culture and future?" --has guided me into worlds I've never known before. Little did I know that tweeting would become a soul-searching activity as well.

So I am forever thankful to the Tweeps--my Karass, the tweeting embodiment of the hive mind. They helped shape the path to new genres that I am dabbling into.

My latest foray, which I am so excited about--is exploring planetary worlds in fiction, comic books, graphic novels, short stories, movies, music, and videogames. I focus only on those that has something to do with worlds and exoplanets. I became interested in SciFi after I realized how inspiring it is to delve into the narrative behind planetary worlds, all the while enjoying the scientific study of real exoplanets. Without the stories, the study of Exoplanetology would be a bore. In a sense, Imaginative Science is the latest addition to my playground.

Thus, if you follow @exoplanetology then you would be taken along on a journey of exploration in science as well as in literature, culture, and some bit of futurism.

Some wackiness slips in between the cracks, occasionally. I often end up drawing other-worldy insights from mundane experiences, or finding planetary metaphors from simple things like soap bubbles.

Sometimes I tweet about what an astrophysics arXiv article is really saying, or you would just find me RT'ing or raving about a new comic book set on a distant alien world.

I like synthesizing. Often i'd tweet about how I can mix different subjects, for example Synthetic Biology and Astrobiology to find insights about detecting life on other planets. Exoplanetology is itself a synthesis of different fields of Science, namely Astronomy and Astrophysics, so it does not come as a surprise that I like to mash up things! I think it resulted in my blogging style becoming 'interstitial'.

The keyword is "Worlds", and it has become my favorite word lately. For me, "Worlds" is a key that integrates Science and Fiction, using imagination as the glue. And from that stems a redefinition: Aside from being "The Art and Science of New Worlds", Exoplanetology is also the over-all study and "Thought" of Worlds.

My intent with this twitter account is to be a node between the Third Culture and the informed public. Perhaps this makes it part of the Fourth Culture--a term derived after C.P. Snow's lecture, A Tale of Two Cultures.

The @Exoplanetology account is being stewarded by a non-scientist non-literati but with a strong interest in Science, the Humanities and the Arts--plus a penchant for seeking Truth. Thus there is no other way but for @Exoplanetology to act as node between these seemingly disparate things.

In terms of that perennial debate on God or un-God, I tweet from the standpoint of an active 'Seeker'--one who thinks that perhaps we don't know enough just yet to make a solid stance on whether God does or does not exist, but that there is plenty of Wonders in the Universe to inspire Awe, and then ponder upon that mystery. As such, it makes me forever curious.

Lastly, I myself am confused whether to treat @Exoplanetology as a person or as a robotic curator with no will of its own. But i've learned to appreciate the ambiguity of such treatment, after I realized that stewarding Exoplanetology has changed me, and guided my thinking in a lot of ways too.

The melding of the person and a meme is quite interesting to me, for I've never seen a nascent field of science come with a personality along with it's presence on the web. This is "only in twitter" they say, only in twitter.

I am @Exoplanetology and this is my Twitter Manifesto.

July 10, 2009

Starspots and Exoplanets

SunspotThis image is way too cool! It looks like it's from a page of a comic book or graphic novel, but it wasn't drawn by an artist. A supercomputer made this simulation of a sunspot in striking scientific detail.
Here's a little trivia:
Did you know that most sunspots are bigger than Earth? Sunspots can be up to several times larger than the diameter of the Earth. And sunspots are really "cool", cooler than the surrounding region of the Sun's surface.
Now this pretty model of a sunspot may be similar to the spots on the surface of other stars. And so we call them Starspots.
Starspots may be pretty but it's not really appealing to planet-hunters. The reason is that starspots may interfere with the transit method of finding planets. It may even distort the measurement of the exoplanet's true size.
The transit method relies on measuring the slight dimming of starlight as the planet passes across our field of view of the star. But huge starspots of an active star may be mis-interpreted as a planet since it also dims the light as the spots move across the star, often in the same direction as the planets.Lightcurve
That is why planet-hunters hoping to bag a new exoplanet discovery are wary of starspots when trying to interpret their data. They use all sorts of noise-reduction techniques to normalize the figures, and avoid the confusion.
But here's the interesting part: because of starspots, known exoplanets are given a chance to help astronomers study the surface of other stars. Irregular dips, bumps and spikes along the lightcurves may be attributed to starspots (if proven that it was not another planet that caused the bumps). Thus, known exoplanets then allow astronomers to approximate the size of the starspot, it's speed of movement, and it's rotational period around the parent star.
And consequently, the spots tell a lot about it's parent star such as the "solar-like" activity cycle, and the star's speed of rotation.
And there you have it! The unexpected relationship between Starspots and Exoplanets is actually a bitter-sweet engagement that poses a challenge to planet-hunters at first, but eventually brings us greater knowledge of exoplanetary systems in the long run.

July 2, 2009

Fireflies in the Sky

FirefliesIf you are enthralled by the sight of fireflies then you should definitely see Iridium Flares. They're like fireflies in the sky. It's my way of describing it after I saw a moving flash of light from a firefly just the other night. It made me remember the first time I saw an Iridium Flare months ago while I was randomly stargazing. It was an amazing treat! Iridium FlareIt was quite different from a 'falling star' so it ticked my curiosity. And i was able to verify that it was an Iridium flare using an online tool from NASA.
Iridium Flares are bright flashes of sunlight reflected by the satellites. But the light from Fireflies are produced via Bioluminiscence. The wonders that these two marvels provide is a great way to get inspired by nature and technology: Fireflies and Satellites, what a tandem!
So how do you get to see Iridium Flares? Head to Heavens Above and check when the next flare will be visible from your area. And if you have a gPhone or iPhone, there is an app that extends the data from the Heavens Above website to provide you with a list of the next occurence of a flare visible from your current location. These mobile apps goes by the same name, "Iridium Flares".
Summer's here, look down and the sparks from fireflies will definitely bring you to an eerie magical world. Look up and the stars and flares will treat you to an exoplanetary sight.
Fireflies and Satellites are two marvels from different realms, yet these "fireflies in the sky" signify an important synthesis: Biology and Technology, Nature and Astronomy, Earth and Space. They all go well together. Just take a look.