Alien Spotting by 2020?

alien-worldWith recent observations made possible by the Kepler space telescope, numerous planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. Whereas previous observations and techniques could detect exoplanets, scientists are now able to observe and classify them, with the ultimate aim of determining how Earth-like they are and whether or not they can support life.

Combined with advanced astronomical techniques, the latest estimates claim that there may be are up to 50 sextillion potentially habitable planets in the universe. With their eyes on the next step, the scientific community is now preparing to launch a bevy of new space telescopes that can peer across the universe and tell us how many of those planets actually harbor life.

TESSOne such telescope is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will launch in 2017. While Kepler was focused on a single patch of sky with around 145,000 stars, TESS will be equipped with four telescopes that keep track of around 500,000 stars, including the 1,000 nearest red dwarfs. TESS is expected to find thousands of orbiting, Earth-sized-or-larger planets around these stars.

But to find out whether or not any of those planets actually house life, another sophisticated telescope needs to be employed – the James Webb Space Telescope.Whereas TESS is Kepler’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope – a joint NASA/ESA/CSA venture – is the planned successor for the Hubble Telescope and is due to launch in 2018.

TESS_Space_Telescope_Mirror37-640x425The JWST has a primary mirror that’s about five times larger than Hubble’s (pictured above), which means it can resolve much fainter signals, locating stars and other objects that have never been seen before. Because it primarily operates in the infrared band (whereas Hubble was tuned towards visible light), the JWST will also be able to see through dust clouds into hidden areas of space.

The JWST’s scientific payload includes a spectrometer that’s sensitive enough to analyze the atmosphere of distant planets. By measuring light from the parent stars, and how its reflected in the planets atmospheres, it will be able to determine if there are life-supporting elements and evidence of biological life – such as oxygen and methane.

TESS_comparisonBecause these planets are light years away, and because the reflected light is incredibly dim, the James Webb Space Telescope will only be able to do this for large planets that orbit red and white dwarfs. Still, that leaves thousands or even millions of candidates that it will be able to observe, and determine whether or not they are already inhabited by extra-terrestrial life.

And last, but not least, there’s the New Worlds Mission, which aims to put a Starshade – which is essentially a big flying space umbrella – into space. This disc would then fly between the James Webb Space Telescope and the star its observing, blocking out large amounts of light and the result “noise pollution” from nearby bright stars that the JWST isn’t observing.

Starshade_1280x720_H264With the Starshade in place, the JWST would be able to probe thousands of nearby planets for signs of life and return data to Earth that is of far greater accuracy. The New Worlds Mission is currently in the prototyping stage, but NASA hopes to procure the necessary funding by 2015 and and launch it within the JWST’s own lifetime.

Because of all this, it is now believed that by 2020 (give or take a few years) we will have the ability to directly image a distant planet and analyze its atmosphere. And if we find methane or another biological marker on just one planet, it will completely redefine our understanding of the universe and the lifeforms that inhabit it.

The answer to the question – “are we alone in the universe?” – may finally be answered, and within our own lifetime. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the Starshade space umbrella, courtesy of New Scientist.


The Arkyd 100: Crowdfunding Space Exploraiton

ARKYD-in-SpacePlanetary Resources made quite the impression last year when they announced their plans to begin prospecting near-Earth asteroids with in the intention of mining them in the near future. Alongside such companies as SpaceX and Golden Spike, they are part of a constellations of private interests looking to establish commercial space travel and tourism. But their latest proposal goes a step further, bringing crowdfunding and the realm of space exploration together.

That’s the idea behind a Kickstarter campaign that the company began to raise money for a crowdfunded space telescope. Known as the Arkyd 100, the company claims that this new telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

asteroid_miningTo make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Once the telescope is up and running, it will allow them to better map the asteroid belt, thus assisting them in finding the rocks they want to mine for precious metals and trace elements. And with public financial backers making it happen, anyone pledging money will be able to own a piece of the prospector!

During a webcast on May 28th to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, gave a rundown on the details of the telescope. And interestingly enough, the Planetary Resources’ technical team that designed it also worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover. So if you do choose to invest, you will do so with the knowledge that the same people who helped build the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are behind this project. If that doesn’t inspire investor confidence, I don’t know what will!

ARKYD-Space-SelfieA wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope. And those who invest will have the chance of recouping certain rewards, depending on how much they choose to pledge. Those pledging the minimum donation of $25 will receive the “Your Face in Space” benefit, where you will have you picture placed on the Arkyd and receive a picture of said photo the telescope with Earth in the background. Higher pledges will provide access to the telescope for students and researchers worldwide.

After less than 2 hours into their campaign, Planetary Resources had raised over $100,000. And as of this article’s writing, just one day shy of a week, the campaign has reached $710,945 of their $1 million goal, and they still have 27 days left. I guess people want a piece of this project. And who can blame them, since it is a scientific and historic first!

Check out the promotional video for the Arkyd and Planetary Resources below. To make a donation or get information about the Kickstarter campaign, visit the campaign page here.


Top Five Exoplanets In The Known Universe

Hello again! Boy, I tell ya, it’s good to be back in the swing of things. You know what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder? Well, they also say a few things about being addicted to your devices! But either way, I’m happy to be back in civilization and able to communicate with my friends and colleagues who are, unfortunately, only reachable electronically.

And I’m even happier that people have had a creative outburst while I was away. I miss being able to take part in brainstorming sessions and coming up with new ideas with people. So I was pretty pleased when I came home and found my inbox so crammed full of emails and comments from my writer friends. And, like a plant that’s been deprived of water, their thoughts set my mind aflame with new ideas!

For one, I realized I had yet to discuss NASA’s top 5 Exploplanets in any real detail. Not long ago, it was announced that the planet Gliese 581 g, which is roughly 20 light years from our Solar System, is the most Earth-like planet in this region of the Galaxy, and hence, the most likely candidate for settlement someday. However, this news came as part of a larger story about all the planets, Earth-like or otherwise, that NASA has been confirming the existence of in recent years. Guess I was too busy focusing on how this effecting my writer’s group to expand on how cool these discoveries really are 😉

The table above shows the top five contenders, grouped according to how similar they are to Earth in terms of gravity, atmosphere, distance from their star, and ability to support life. Gliese 581 g, the fourth planet from the Gliese 581 star, ranks as number one with a 92 percent comparison match. Being roughly the same size as Earth, though boasting significantly more mass, it is also thought to have roughly the same gravitational pull. In addition, the astronomer who was intrinsic in it’s discovery, Steven Vogt, indicated that it is a prime candidate for extra-terrestrial life.

The second candidate, at 85%, is Gliese 667C c, a planet which orbits a red dwarf roughly 22 light-years away. It is so named because it’s parent star is part of a triple star system, or a trinary. Since c is estimated to be at least 4.5 times as massive as Earth, it has the honor of being designated a “Super-Earth”, and no doubt would have enough gravity to make even a world-class athlete feel overwrought from the simple task of walking.

Third is Kepler-22 b, an exoplanet which was spotted by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope in 2009. An 81% match to Earth, this world is another “Super-Earth” which is speculated to have an atmosphere and climate which could be hospitable to Earth creatures. Unfortunately, this bad boy is over 600 light years away, making it a pretty poor candidate for settlement anytime soon.

Fourth up is HD 85512b, another super-Earth which orbits the orange dwarf Gliese 370, which is roughly 35 light-years away. At a relatively reasonable distance, and a 77% match to Earth, this planet could be a suitable candidate for colonization one day. NASA already estimates that its average surface temperature and presence within the star’s “Habitable Zone” would be within tolerable limits. Hopefully the gravity is the same!

And coming in at fifth place is the second planet to come to us from the Gliese 581 system, the fifth planet known as Gliese 581 d. As the above table shows, g and d are both within the systems Habitable Zone and could be made to support human populations, provided certain requirements (i.e. the existence of water, suitable temperatures and gravity) were met. When it was first discovered in 2007, it was dismissed as being “too cold” to support life. However, subsequent atmospheric modelling studies suggest that it could be habitable provided its atmosphere is capable of generating a Greenhouse Effect, as Earth’s is.

Many question how and why the discovery of exoplanets will benefit humanity. As one of my friends (hi Rami!) asked me recently, what good is it to colonize worlds do us if our problems remain? I argued that it would ensure our survival, but quickly realized that I’d need to make a better case if I was going to prove that point. As a curve-ball, I asked him to consider the possibility that maybe Earth itself, as we’ve made her in the past 15,000 years, could be the problem…

Naturally, that statement requires clarification. But that’s something for another time. Right now, all I am hoping for is that the discovery of habitable planets within humanity’s reach will mean either the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, or the option of planting the seed of humanity in a distant solar system. The implications of either would be mind-blowing, and I for one feel privileged to live in a time when such possibilities might be coming true!