Friday, November 21, 2008

Now this is cool

OK, I need a break from all the politics and doom-and-gloom economic news we get on a daily basis. There was a news story that absolutely fascinated me the other day as it was one of those "first in history" events. Just a few days ago, astronomers announced the first visual proof of extrasolar planets; i.e. planets not part of our solar system. Up to this point we had all sorts of indirect evidence and confirmation that planets existed around other stars based on measurements of the star's change in brightness or a measured wobble and other things, but we had no pictures of a planet orbiting another star. That all changed this past week when pictures were released which confirm four extrasolar planets: one around the star Fomalhaut (which is in the constellation Piscis Austrinus) and three around the star HR 8799 (in the constellation Pegasus). Now, of course the pictures show little more than pinpoints of light near the parent star, but that is a lot closer than we've ever been in our quest to find life outside of our own planet. Fomalhaut is 25 light-years from Earth and HR 8799 is 129 light-years from Earth.

At this point, estimates place the planets at sizes as big as or bigger than Jupiter as well as being at distances too far to harbor life. The planet around Fomalhaut, named Fomalhaut b, orbits at a distance of an estimated 115 AU (astronomical units, or 115 times as far as the Earth is from the Sun...115 x 93 million miles). Because Fomalhaut is a larger and brighter star than the Sun, Fomalhaut b receives about the same brightness and energy that Neptune in our own solar system receives. The planets around HR 8799, named HR 8799b, c, and d, are about twice the size of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune respectively and because HR 8799 is also a brighter and larger star than the Sun, they are at comparable distances to those three planets in our solar system in terms of brightness and energy received (though they are physically further away).

Now, you may ask, who cares?? Well, I have always had an interest in space. I am fascinated by all the things we are learning about the planets in our own solar system as well as the discoveries being made about other planetary systems. Seriously, the things we've learned and seen in just the past few years are pretty incredible, seeing things that humans have wondered about for centuries. I thought about that a few years ago when the Cassini probe arrived at Saturn (which included several "firsts") and then when the Huygens probe landed on and took the first pictures from the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. Titan has been known since 1655, yet only in the last few years have we seen what it actually looks like since it is shielded by a dense atmosphere. In 2015, we will finally get our first up-close look at Pluto when the New Horizons mission arrives. I know a lot of people don't see much point in studying far-off worlds when our own has so many problems. Learning about the universe not only enlightens us for the sake of being enlightened, but it also gives us perspective on our place in the universe. Were it not for discoveries in space, we would still regard ourselves as the center of the solar system or even the universe; the only place that harbors life. Now, while we still have no direct evidence of life outside the planet, the discoveries we have made have allowed us to guess that it is almost certain Earth is not the only planet to harbor life. I think in the end, changes in our perspective and understanding are what is going to help us solve the problems of the world since simply throwing money at them hasn't done much to solve them. Until we collectively understand that we are all part of the same human race that share this planet (and are ultimately all children of God), no amount of money or rhetoric will solve the very things that keep us from progressing as fast as we could if we didn't have to worry about warfare.

Notes on pictures: 1. That is my favorite picture of Earth, which is actually a composite image from 2001. 2. Even though it's so pixelated, this is an amazing picture to me. This is what Earth and the Moon look like from Mars. This picture was taken by the Mars Global Surveyor in 2003.


Jessica said...

I don't get much of the news...ok, any news, that's the eat, bath, bed routine time. So I really enjoyed that and had no idea about the new discoveries that are being made. Thanks!

Granny J said...

Have you read the book "The Kolob Theorem" by Lynn M. Hilton, PhD?

I loved it!