News From Space: First Blue Exoplanet Discovered!

HD_189733_b_deep_blue_dotEver since our astronomers have gained the ability to see into deep space and discern what lies in distant solar systems, a total of 910 extra-solar planets have been discovered. Of those, only a handful have been confirmed as potentially habitable by Earth scientists. Despite these discovered, it was not until recently that a “blue planet” outside of the Solar System, thanks to NASAs Hubble telescope.

But here’s the kicker: as it turns out, the planet is not blue due to the presence of liquid water. The blue color likely comes from clouds in the atmosphere made of molten glass. The planet is known as HD 189733 b, located roughly 63 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Vulpecula (aka. the Fox). Initially discovered in 2005 by French astronomers who observed it passing in front of its star, HD 189733 b is one of the best-studied exoplanets.

Hd189733b_blue_planet_artPrior to this new finding, it was already known that the planet was a hot Jupiter — a massive gas giant that orbits very close to its parent star — and that, using polarimetry, it was most likely blue. Since that time, the blue color has been confirmed by a spectrograph aboard Hubble which scanned the planet during an eclipse. As it passed behind its parent star and out of our vision, Hubble recorded less blue light coming from the star, while the other colors remained the same.

This strongly indicates that the light reflected by HD 189733 b’s atmosphere is blue and thus, if we were close enough to directly observe the planet, it would appear blue. This is an apparent first for astrophysicists and astronomers, who wouldn’t normally be able to observe such a fluctuation from 63 light years away. But the size of the planet, plus the amount of light reflecting off it from its very-close-by star, mean that Hubble can do its thing.

blue_planet_image2-640x660As for the cause of the color itself, the current theory is that the planets atmosphere is full of clouds that contain tiny silicate particles, which absorb some light frequencies but reflect and scatter blue light. In the words of NASA, because the surface of the planet is around  815 Celsius (1,500 Fahrenheit), these particles are likely in a molten, liquid state that periodically turn into rain. Yes, you read that right, the planet experiences periods of molten glass rain!

In addition to that, it is also known that its orbital period (length of a year) is only 2.2 days. The planet is also tidally locked, meaning that one side is always facing towards the sun while the other experiences perpetual night. So basically, outside of its blue color, HD 189733 b is about as uninhabitable as it gets.

Ah well, the search for a truly Earth-like exoplanet continues I guess! And in the meantime, enjoy this short video from Hubble ESA – a computer graphic representation of the universe’s other “blue planet”:


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!

NASA sees light from distant “Super Earth”

Big news coming in over the wire! Apparently, NASA scientists, using the Spitzer Space Telescope, have spotted light from a planet in a distant solar system. Back in 2004, in a solar system named 55 Cancri A, a planet that is twice the size of Earth and almost 8 times its mass, was first discovered. They named this planet 55 Cancri e, is 41 light years from our solar system, and is often referred to as a “Super Earth”.

Though NASA has known about the planet for some time, it’s only now that they’ve been able to detect infrared light coming from its surface. As part of NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts, Spitzer is part of a long term goal to find habitable planets in our universe, as well as extra-terrestrial life.

Unforuntately, 55 Cancri e is not one such planet. In addition to not being able to support life in its current state, terraforming it would also be useless. It’s mass and density means that it’s gravitational field is far stronger than anything we humans would find tolerable. But hey, maybe it’s got some friends that won’t crush us like bugs the second we set foot on them! And as they say, it’s a big universe. Always a chance we’ll find intelligent life somewhere else…

In the meantime, check out this video on 55 Cancri e from!

Super Earth Visible For First Time