The first of many…
January 21, 2011 Leave a comment
Last week, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft discovered the first terrestrial (rocky) exoplanet orbiting a star about 560 lightyears away from Earth. This marks the first rocky, Earth-like planet found outside of our solar system and brings the total exoplanet count to a whopping 500. If you’re really interested in keeping up to date with the exoplanet count, I suggest checking out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planetquest that features an up-to-date exoplanet count (they even offer a downloadable exoplanet counter widget) and fun interactive exoplanet activities and multimedia.
The new exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-10b, is the tenth exoplanet discovered by the Kepler mission, a mission which is proving capable of fulfilling its primary science objective to “Determine the abundance of terrestrial and larger planets in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars” . Unfortunately for Kepler though, as I reviewed in a previous post, the techniques we currently use to find exoplanets make it much easier to find larger planets (usually gas giants like Jupiter) than smaller rocky ones. Unfortunately, Kepler-10b is not in its star’s “habitable zone” or the correct distance from the star for water ice to exist on the planet; it’s twenty times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. If a planet is too close to its star then all the water will evaporate and if its too far away it will all freeze. Scientists are assuming that planets with liquid water will have the highest chance of supporting life (like Earth which has a surface 70% covered by water). Kepler-10b’s extreme proximity to its parent star probably means that the surface of the planet is either scorched arid rock or possibly even covered with a layer of molten lava. In any case though, the discovery of this first terrestrial world is a great sign of things to come.
January has been a big month for crazy astronomical stories gone awry in the media. After the zodiac controversy that hit last week, this week a new craze has exploded after an interview with Dr. Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, published by news.com.au. In the interview, Dr. Carter talks about the expected supernova of the red giant star Betelgeuse (yes, it’s pronounced Beetlejuice…Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice). The article is riddled with inaccuracies and just downright wrong information. First of all, the writer, Claire Connelly, tries to inaccurately spin the story to appeal to Star Wars fans by making it seem like Earth will have two suns like the fictional world of Tatooine. Connelly says, “[I]t’s not just a figment of George Lucas’s imagination – twin suns are real. And here’s the big news – they could be coming to Earth. Yes, any day now we see a second sun light up the sky, if only for a matter of weeks.” While it is true that “twin suns” are in fact real (we know that roughly half of the stars in are galaxy exist in multiple-star systems), there is no way that the Earth can ever have twin Suns. Binary star systems usually form together, meaning the other Sun would have to have been created at the same time as our Sun (which obviously did not happen). I suppose a very rare case could occur where a star comes in close contact to another star and the effect of gravity causes them to fall into mutual orbit, but the Sun is way too far away from any other stars (the closest is 4.2 lightyears away) and if that ever did happen, the planets in our solar system would probably be flung out of their orbits altogether. While it’s true that when Betelegeuse does supernova (which could be tomorrow or in another million years), we will be able to see the supernova during the daylight hours (much like how we see Venus in the early morning hours before sunrise), it doesn’t mean that we’ll have two suns or that “one day, night will become day for several weeks on Earth.” The supernova will just look like an extremely bright star in the sky that will be visible at night and during the day for a few weeks. The article goes on to make allusions to the Mayan 2012 apocalypse predictions, imply associations between the word “Betelgeuse” and the devil, and to erroneously state that Betelgeuse is the “second biggest star in the universe” (it’s the second largest in its constellation, Orion).
Of course, even though several reputable new sources quickly tried to convince people that the claims in this article were nonsense (see FoxNews and Discovery), others quickly tried to jump on the lead and continued to erroneously echo the story (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post). Just another example of how poor journalism can fuel public paranoia and misinformation.
Anyways, to wrap up this post, I figured I’d give you some fun information about Betelgeuse and its constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is the reddish star seen in the upper left of Orion, commonly seen as his left shoulder (see image above). It’s roughly 10 million years old and large enough that if it replaced our Sun, it would extend all the way out past the orbit of Jupiter. Orion, known as the famous hunter of the Greeks who was killed by Scorpio because he refused to acknowledge the gods, is also known by several other names around the world. In Egyptian lore, he is the god Osiris, who rules over the afterlife and judges the dead. In Arabic mythology, he is known as Al-Jabbar or The Giant and the name Betelgeuse, which comes to us from Arabic like many other star names, is said to loosely translate to “the Giant’s armpit”.