Thursday, November 26, 2009

webspotting 13 - PlanetQuest

As published in the Dec 2009/Jan 2010 issue of SCOPE, the newsletter of the RASC Toronto Centre. Republished here with permission.


403. The number of exoworlds discovered so far. I don't know about you but I am truly fascinated with the search for planets beyond our solar system. It is exciting to me to know that (if I can avoid being run over by a truck, crashing my car, or being sucked into a black hole) I will experience, in my lifetime, the discovery of Earth-sized exoplanets in the Goldilocks zone with oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres!

 I noted in my lumpy darkness blog back in Dec 08 that I was finding it rather incredible that we were detecting the particulars of a planet (mass, size, atmosphere), not from our Federation starship parked in orbit, as reported by a pointy-eared science officer, but from our home planet via telescopes across light-years of space-time.
Hubble and  Spitzer continue to analyse the atmospheres of exoplanets... Two analyses are complete. The recent discovery showed water, methane, and carbon dioxide on a planet 150 light-years away.
It was only in Sep 08 that the University of Toronto team of David Lafrenière, Ray Jayawardhana, and Martin van Kerkwijk made history with the first photograph of a planet orbiting a star. It was very exciting to see Dr Lafrenière present this cutting-edge research to us in Jan 09!
Of course, the Kepler telescope was launched in March 2009. In the direction of Cygnus, it is scanning for terrestrial planets the size of Earth. Early test results in August showed better than expected results. They've lost a couple of sensors. That means they have slightly less than 95 megapixels! I’m sure they'll do just fine.
This must surely be one of the most exhilarating branches of astronomy. You can keep tabs on what everyone is doing in one spot. Visit for an informative historical timeline, and a compilation of all the various missions, past and present. With a Mac widget or Windows gadget you can download a list of related websites. My favourite area is the interactive 3D star system atlas (requires Shockwave).
You might want to note a few of the nearby systems visible to the naked eye or small telescope. Like Fomalhaut. Handy to show visitors during star parties or sidewalk astronomy. It will be fun to watch their faces when you tell them we know there are planets around that star... that we've seen them. Oh, and they harbour water!

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