Kepler launches and the Web watches

In the early hours of Saturday morning (UK time) NASA successfully launched the Kepler spacecraft into orbit. It was pretty late here but no matter how tired I got staying up I knew watching a live launch, and the tension laced build-up, is always worth it.

Kepler is going to search for Earth sized worlds by constantly studying a patch of sky in the constellation of Cygnus. Over about three and a half years it will watch about 100,000 stars in this patch to see if any of them show a little dip in brightness, caused by a planet moving in front of the star (known as a transit). The Kepler team expect to find around 50 Earth sized worlds during the course of the mission, so it promises to present some fascinating results when the data starts flowing down.

For me, space lift-offs and landings are especially enjoyable nowadays because the Internet allows those of us, around the world, who love this sort of thing to share in the excitement of the moment, through things like Twitter. Those of you who remember the night Phoenix landed on Mars will perhaps know what I mean, when we even got on the spot expert commentary courtesy of Mars Live.

On Saturday morning, within a few moments of the Delta II rocket’s launch, pictures popped up on Twitpic of Kepler rising into the sky, whilst people near the launch site were ‘tweeting’ their feedback (and even videos!).

For the most part I sat back and watched the NASA TV feed alongside the stream of comments and updates from the Twitter space community, who were closer (sometimes literally) to the Kepler mission than me; be they NASA press officers, scientists, hardened spaceflight enthusiasts, amateur astronomers or other interested folk. Even though some people belittle Twitter I think it’s fantastic to see it bringing a group of people together like this — getting everyone talking — sharing both enthusiasm and information. I frequently find myself learning something from it and that can only be a good thing.

Looking forward to this coming week, the Space Shuttle Discovery will launch on 11th March. It’s another night launch from the Kennedy Space Center and no doubt NASA will be showing it live on NASA TV. So although it’ll mean another late night here in the UK, I know where I’ll be.

Kepler launch YouTube video courtesy NASA TV

Hubble, Keck and Gemini directly image distant exoplanets

An artist’s impression of Formalhalt b orbiting its parent star.
Credit: ESA, NASA and L. Calçada (ESO)

In two separate papers published in the journal Science today, astronomers announced that they have directly imaged several extrasolar planets around other stars. One team used Hubble to find an approximately 3 Jupiter mass planet orbiting the star Formalhalt, whilst another team used Keck and the Gemini telescopes to find a family of planets around the star HR8799. Hubble studied Formalhalt in visible light and was able to make what can only be described as a truly remarkable image (see below), of the planet embedded within the star’s dusty disc. I think Stuart’s suggestion for its name is spot on.

The view of Formalhalt (masked by a coronagraph) showing the new planet embedded within a dusty disc (inset). See the annotated full-resolution image here.
Credit: NASA, ESA and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley, USA)

These discoveries clearly mark an important waypoint in our efforts to image an Earth like planet around a distant star, but they are also absolutely amazing in their own right. There’s far more in-depth commentary out there in the blogosphere, so I’ll point you in the direction of Sarah Askew, Phil Plait, Dave Mosher (who has a great IM interview with an exoplanet expert) and of course there’s an episode of the Hubblecast that you can watch below!

Exoplanet NAM post

I’ve written up a new post about today’s NAM announcement of the discovery of an embryonic exoplanet. The first paragraph is below:

“Astronomers here in Belfast have just announced that they have discovered what they believe to be the youngest ever planet observed. So young that it may have not completely formed yet. They used radio telescopes in the UK (the MERLIN network) and in the US (the VLA) to study the star system of HL Tau, a star in Taurus about 520 light years from Earth”

You can read the full article and see the pictures here.

NAM news 1: SuperWASP strikes (10x)

swasp_3.jpgOne of the results that has just been released from the National Astronomy Meeting is that the SuperWASP exoplanet hunting project has discovered an incredible 10 new exoplanets. SuperWASP is an ingenious project which uses eight sensitive CCDs on eight wide field telescopes to monitor a huge number of stars in the night sky. It can record an incredible 100,000 stars in one image! What they are looking for is the tell-tale blink (more of a temporary and gradual dimming) of a star’s light which indicates a planet passing in front of the star.

This method of looking for the dimming of a star is known as the ‘transit method’ of exoplanet hunting. There have been around 270 exoplanets discovered so far and 45 of those found have been via the transit method. What’s even more impressive is that of those 45, 15 were detected by the SuperWASP instruments. The new planets that the robotic telescope has discovered range in masses of between half and just over eight Jupiter masses.

If you haven’t heard of the SuperWASP project or want to find out more then have a read of their pages here.

Above: The SuperWASP-South instrument array
Credit: SuperWASP

“Hazy red sunset on extrasolar planet”

Here is the latest release from the ESA/Hubble office that I have been working on. Hubble astronomers have used the orbiting space observatory to study the atmosphere of the extrasolar planet HD189733b (a number I can’t seem to get out of my head having written it so many times over the past few weeks). This world had previously been observed by the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope but now Hubble has shown that it actually has a layer of hazes in its upper atmosphere made up of tiny grains of (probably) silicates, iron and aluminum oxide. To read the full press release visit the ESA/Hubble website and of course there is the latest episode of the Hubblecast out where Dr J talks to the head of the ESA/Hubble group Dr Bob Fosbury about this amazing world.

Image credit: ESA, NASA and Frédéric Pont (Geneva University Observatory)