Friday, December 19, 2014

First Earth-based telescope to spot an exoplanet

Time now again for Science Friday.

Until now, the vast majority of exoplanets have been discovered by space telescopes such as the Kepler.

Now, a ground-based observatory has spotted an exoplanet. The 97.5 inch Nordic Telescope in La Palma, Spain has discovered 55 Cancri e, a planet orbiting a star 50 light years from Earth. Before you space fans get your hopes high, this exoplanet is unlikely to support life, at least not as we know it. It is estimated at being eight times the size of Earth and is thought to have an average daytime temperature of 3,000 degrees F. Much of that is due to 55 Cancri e being the planet in its solar system that is nearest its sun. Think of it being rather like our own Mercury. Despite the harsh conditions on this new exoplanet, astronomers are still studying its atmosphere for signs of water vapor.

The home star for 55 Cancri e (doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?) is in the constellation of Cancer and can only barely be seen by the naked eye. Interestingly enough, that star has a companion star, a large red dwarf, orbiting it from a distance of 1,000 astronomical units (or 1,000 times the distance between the Sun and Earth.) Perhaps more interesting than any of that is the fact that the discovery was made with an Earthbound telescope. Such observatories face many limitations due to atmospheric interference and whatnot. This bodes well for the potential of new, space-based observatories such as PLATO and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) slated for launch in the next few years. These telescopes have cutting-edge technology for astronomy and are created solely for the location and study of exoplanets.

But there is a hell and it's called "The Comments Section." A reader seemed a bit put-off by this quote from an astronomer involved in the study of the new exoplanet: "Observations like these are paving the way as we strive towards searching for signs of life on alien planets from afar. Remote sensing across tens of light-years isn’t easy, but it can be done with the right technique and a bit of ingenuity."

The response from the reader? Paraphrasing, she/he lamented the fact that so many times we hear about the discovery of a new planet, but the conditions on it are not thought to be suited for life. We must therefore be the only intelligent life in the universe.

I gnashed my teeth for a while and paced about a bit, percolating a (perhaps vituperative) response to such an ignorant comment. Fortunately for me (and the commenter), someone else posted there own response before I could have it out like a savage:

"You’re right of course – of the estimated 100 billion solar systems in the Milky Way alone, I think we can deduce from the 50 or so planets we have identified that there is no life in the universe other than here.

Indeed, I'm not much skilled at math but even I can get a beginner's understanding of the sheer size of the matter. One small point: while agree very much in spirit with the response, I believe we've discovered a few more than "50 planets." Actually, the number's upward of 1,000. And counting. Nevertheless, it was a spot-on comeback.

Ah, the Comments Section. Not a place for one with mysophobia.

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