Category Archives: super earths

Holiday ‘MEarth’ and a possible new direction for NASA

Astronomers Wednesday have discovered ‘MEarth.’

No, not mirth (although some could use it this holiday season).

“MEarth”, as in “mega-earth”:

Astronomers said Wednesday that they had discovered a planet composed mostly of water.You would not want to live there. Besides the heat — 400 degrees Fahrenheit on the ocean surface — the planet is probably cloaked in a dark fog of superheated steam and other gases. But its discovery has encouraged a growing feeling among astronomers that they are on the verge of a breakthrough and getting closer to finding a planet that something could live on.

“This probably is not habitable, but it didn’t miss the habitable zone by that much,” said David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the team that discovered the new planet and will reports its findings on Thursday in the journal Nature.

Geoffrey W. Marcy, a planet hunter from the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an accompanying article in Nature that the new work provided “the most watertight evidence so far for a planet that is something like our own Earth, outside our solar system.”

Only 2.7 times the size of Earth and 6.6 times as massive, the new planet takes 38 hours to circle a dim red star, GJ 1214, in the constellation Ophiuchus — about 40 light-years from here. It is one of the lightest and smallest so-called extrasolar planets yet found, part of a growing class of planets that are less than 10 times the mass of Earth.

Dr. Charbonneau’s announcement capped a week in which the list of known planets, including these “super-Earths,” grew significantly.

An international team of astronomers using telescopes in Australia and Hawaii reported in one paper that they had found three planets, including a super-Earth, orbiting 61 Virginis, a star in the constellation Virgo that is almost a clone of the Sun. It was the first time, they said, that a super-Earth had been found belonging to a star like the Sun; the other home stars have been dwarfs. And in a separate paper, they reported finding a planet somewhat larger than Jupiter at the star 23 Librae.

And in yet another paper, a subset of the same group reported finding a super-Earth and probably two bigger planets circling HD 1461, a star in Cetus.

Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was involved in all three papers, said astronomers thought that one-third to one-half of all Sun-like stars harbored such super-Earths orbiting at scorching distances much closer than Mercury is to the Sun.

In the 15 years since the first extrasolar planet was found, more than 400 have been detected. The field is getting more intense as dedicated planet-hunting instruments like the Kepler satellite from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, due to report a new batch of such planets next month, get into the game.

Alan P. Boss, a planetary theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said of the planet hunters, “Give them a couple more years and they’re going to knock your socks off.”

Dr. Charbonneau’s planet, only 1.3 million miles from its home star, is distinguished by its relative coolness — a consequence of the dimness of GJ 1214, which puts out one three-hundredth of the Sun’s energy. He and his colleagues had set out to search for planets around such stars, noting that they are more numerous and that it is easier to discern planets around them.

His planet-hunting equipment is a bank of eight telescopes called MEarth, pronounced “mirth,” on Mount Hopkins in Arizona. Each telescope is only 16 inches in diameter, no bigger than those that grace the backyard of many amateur astronomers. They monitor the light of 2,000 nearby stars, looking for the regular blips caused when a planet passes by, or transits.

In May, Zachory Berta, a first-year graduate student of Dr. Charbonneau, called the group’s attention to blips in the Ophiuchus star that seemed to be happening every 1.6 days. If he was right, Mr. Berta said, the next transit would occur at 6 a.m. on May 13.

Dr. Charbonneau was in Washington later that day preparing for a State Department dinner when he got a group e-mail message that began: “We have a winner. Congrats Zach!”

From the drop in starlight, the astronomers could calculate the diameter of the Ophiuchus planet, known now as GJ 1214b. Then they used a sensitive spectrograph on a 3.6-meter telescope in Chile to measure its gravitational tug on the star, thus deriving the planet’s mass. Using those two numbers, Dr. Charbonneau and his colleagues could calculate the density of the planet, about one-third that of Earth.

“What we probably have here is a water world,” Dr. Charbonneau said.

Dr. Charbonneau said the weight of the new planet’s presumptive atmosphere kept the water liquid rather than just boiling into space. He acknowledged that a different recipe, with more rock and a very puffy atmosphere, would also fit the data. That is unlikely, he and other planet experts say, but the steam-world theory may be soon tested.

The new planet is close enough to be studied directly by telescopes on or near Earth. Indeed, Dr. Charbonneau said his team had already applied for observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Our own TV signals,” he said, “have already passed this star.”

Actually, MEarth is the bank of telescopes on Mount Hopkins in Arizona that discovered this world. I just used a play on words.

It’s interesting that we’re discovering these water planets recently using ground telescopes. Must be that Microsoft planet discovering software works pretty good.

A Sultry World Is Found Orbiting a Distant Star


Well, President Obama did make a decision Wednesday when he had a talk with NASA head Charles Bolden.

And boy, the North Alabama Space Administration ain’t gonna like it!

President Barack Obama will ask Congress next year to fund a new heavy-lift launcher to take humans to the moon, asteroids, and the moons of Mars, ScienceInsider has learned. The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

The current NASA plan for human exploration is built around the $3.5 billion Constellation program, which would provide a way to get humans to the space station and beyond. But its initial launcher, Ares 1, has faced a string of cost and technical problems, and it was excluded from several options for future space flight put forth earlier this year by an outside panel chaired by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine. Although that panel suggested a $3 billion boost to NASA’s $18.7-billion-a-year budget in order to take a firm next step in human space flight, Obama’s support for a $1 billion bump next year represents a major coup for the agency given the ballooning deficit and the continuing recession. And NASA just won a $1 billion boost from Congress for 2010 in a bill signed by the president.

According to knowledgeable sources, the White House is convinced that scarce NASA funds would be better spent on a simpler heavy-lift vehicle that could be ready to fly as early as 2018. Meanwhile, European countries, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for a moon base, saving the U.S. several billion dollars. And commercial companies would take over the job of getting supplies to the international space station.

“The decision is not going to make anyone gasp,” said one source in the White House, which hopes to ease congressional concerns about the impact of the new plan on existing aerospace jobs. But the decision, which has not yet been formally announced, is sure to spark opposition from Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and other members who fear that any change to the current Constellation rocket program will lead to mass layoffs in their states. Indeed, Shelby inserted language into the final 2010 spending bill for NASA requiring congressional approval before any changes are made to Constellation.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush proposed sending humans back to the moon in 2004. Since that time, however, interest has grown in other destinations. While the U.S. partners focus on lunar exploration, the White House is more intrigued by missions to asteroids and Phobos and Deimos as a precursor to a human landing on the Red Planet in the distant future. That option was given particular prominence by Augustine panel members when they testified this fall before congressional committees. To prepare for human visits, NASA may order additional robotic missions to the martian moons and asteroids in coming years.

The new program would jettison Ares 1. To appease congressional critics like Shelby, the Administration hopes to ensure that research and development work on the new rocket would proceed without significant job losses at NASA centers like Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

But Shelby appears to be preparing for battle. In a 14 December letter to NASA’s inspector general, he said that several Augustine panel members were registered lobbyists who took “direct advantage of their temporary roles on the Commission to further their personal business.” He asked the inspector general to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter.

Augustine could not be reached for comment. The panel did include the president of a company that stands to gain from a recompetition of the new launcher, but none of the committee members were registered lobbyists, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. But there were numerous staffers from industry backgrounds who helped compile the Augustine report released in October. Shelby’s press secretary, Jonathan Graffeo, did not return calls requesting comment.

The report has kindled heated debate within Congress, the aerospace industry, and the White House regarding what direction the president should take. Obama chose from several options presented to him by NASA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Those options included keeping the budget flat and delaying a new launcher, building a heavy-lift launcher with an additional $1 billion for the agency, ramping up NASA’s annual budget by $3 billion for an aggressive program, or abandoning space flight altogether and reducing NASA’s budget. The president’s decision to go with the second option is a major departure from his 2010 budget plan, which called for a 5% increase in 2010—the boost just approved by Congress—but then remaining flat through 2014.

This is a major coup for the nascent commercial space companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who have yet to prove they can safely transport humans to Earth orbit.

The 2018 time frame for a “simpler” heavy-lift launch vehicle is interesting also, since any such vehicle, even using the mainstream chemical rocket technology, is a major undertaking involving many people and locations.

Maybe a bone to throw to Senator Shelby, as the article suggests?

Exclusive: Obama Backs New Launcher and Bigger NASA Budget

Human Anomalies and Earth-like Planets

Kiiriq recalled that elders would call them Tunnit or Inukpasuit, the giants. They were treated as fearsome coastal dwellers and were considered enemies of Inuit. They spoke an Inuit language of an archaic type understandable to our ancestors.

Kiiriq would continue his tale and describe how Inupasuit were viewed as unkempt and unclean by Inuit standards. They were considered a danger to Inuit because they at times waylaid and captured unwary hunters.

Being smaller then them, our ancestors were considered a delectable prey. Once captured, they would be cooked and eaten with relish. Thus Inuit feared these giant beings and would attempt to wipe them out if they could. They were considered slow of thought but clever in their means of pursuit of game.  Inuit were ever moving eastward and the Inupasuit soon fell into the lot of myths and legends in our great grandparents’ time.

My research led me to Farley Mowat, author of Westviking, who includes descriptive appendices called “The Vanished Dorset”.

Mowat provides a description by the Norse who encountered the Dorset (Tunnit) around A.D.1000 as being swarthy and ill looking with remarkable eyes.

The “giants in the earth” mythos is common in Northern Native American cultures too it seems.

I read an article in a magazine a few years back about a tribe of Native Americans living around Hudson Bay that curiously have Northern European genetic markers.

And no-one knows why.

Inukpasuit, Inuit and Viking contact in ancient times


Earth-like planets with life-sustaining conditions are spinning around stars in our galactic neighborhood, US astrophysicists say. They just haven’t been found yet.

“There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those — perhaps half of them have Earth-like planets,” Alan Boss told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AASS).

“So I think there is a very good chance that we will find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20 or 30 light years of the Sun,” the astrophysicist from the Carnegie Institution for Science told his AAAS colleagues meeting here since Thursday.

By “Earth-like”, they mean a rocky world that’s Mars-size to something five times the Earth’s mass, but less than the mass of a Neptunian world.

That leaves plenty of wriggle-room for interpretation.

Earth-like worlds in our galactic neighborhood


75,000 years ago early humans built a stone calendar that predates all other man-made structures found to date. This ‘African Stonehenge’ has for the first time created a link to the countless other stone ruins in southern Africa and suggests that these ruins are much older than we thought. The complex that links Waterval Boven, Machadodorp, Carolina and Dullstroom, covers an area larger then modern-day Johannesburg.
Six years of research by a group of independent scientists and explorers has delivered what may be the crucial missing elements in our understanding of the lives and development of early modern humans. Their discovery has been released in a book they call Adam’s Calendar. But the research has also shown that these stone settlements represent the most mysterious and misunderstood structures found to date. It points to a civilisation that lived and dug for gold in this part of the world for thousands of years. And if this is in fact the cradle of humankind, we may be looking at the activities of the oldest civilisation on Earth.

I wonder if those ruins have any relationship to these in South America?

Maybe Michael Cremo isn’t so crazy after all?

Discovering the oldest man-made structures on Earth


Proxima planets, China Moon and Noachian Mars

Recent studies of the triple star system closest to our solar system, Alpha Centauri, indicate that Centauri A hold slim chances of having formed super-Earth type worlds and only slightly better chances of Earth sized ones ( A Discouraging Look For Centauri A Planets ). But according to Paul Gilster, prospects of finding an Earth type world might be better if we took a closer look at the very closest star to us and the smallest stellar component of the Alpha Centauri System, the M-type red dwarf Proxima Centauri:

Today, M dwarf interest grows. There’s at least the chance of a workable ecosystem around such a star, assuming flare activity (common to these stars) might act more as an evolutionary stimulus than a deterrent to life. Moreover, the long lifetimes granted to M dwarfs mean that stable environments could exist for many billions — perhaps hundreds of billions — of years. This is why we’ve seen a recent florescence of M dwarf studies, with a keen interest in their astrobiological prospects, and why Proxima Centauri remains an interesting target. And although it hasn’t gotten the press of its larger siblings, Proxima has generated studies that are closing in on characterizing its system…

We can already say this about Proxima planets: If they exist, they are no larger than 0.8 Jupiter masses in the range of orbital periods ranging from one to 600 days. That’s from radial velocity studies published in the late 1990s. This work is now complemented by seven years of high precision radial velocity data gathered with the UVES spectrograph at the European Southern Observatory. Michael Endl (McDonald Observatory) and Martin Kürster (Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie) address the question of what kind of planets we can exclude from the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri based upon these data.

Proxima’s habitable zone, remember, is in close because this is a small star — the authors assume 0.12 solar masses, a reasonable estimate if on the high side, for reasons they explain in their paper. The habitable zone then becomes 0.022 to 0.054 AU, which corresponds to an orbital period ranging from 3.6 to 13.8 days. And the UVES data make it clear that no planet of Neptune mass or larger exists out to a distance of 1 AU.

For periods of less than 100 days, no super-Earths are detected larger than about 8.5 Earth masses. And for the actual habitable zone of Proxima Centauri we can rule out planets larger than 2-3 Earth masses in circular orbits. Needless to say, this doesn’t rule out planets of Earth mass or smaller in this zone.

Civilian mainstream science is getting better at detecting distant objects around other stars and it’s only a matter of time before an organization like an university or a non-profit discovers an Earth-type world for study.

Planetary Prospects Around Proxima

Update: Paul noted I was perhaps too extreme in my analysis of his post, so I made appropriate changes. In fact, he says prospects around Centauri B might be better than expected with improving search methods.

When Alpha Centauri is involved, no word is the last one! Corrections duly made Paul, thanks!


The last time man set foot on the Moon was in 1972 when Eugene Andrew Cernan, last man on the Moon, boarded the Apollo 17 lunar module. That was 36 years ago and space flight has changed significantly since then, now NASA has more competition, as highlighted by Griffin during a visit to London:

Certainly it is possible that if China wants to put people on the Moon, and if it wishes to do so before the United States, it certainly can. As a matter of technical capability, it absolutely can.” – Dr Michael Griffin

As to whether it actually matters whether China are the next to land on the Moon is open to interpretation. After all, the first nation to set foot on Earth’s natural satellite was the USA, so is a return trip a big psychological “victory” for China? “I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say if it matters or not. That would just be an opinion and I don’t want to air an opinion in an area that I’m not qualified to discuss,” Griffin added.

This is more than a mea culpa, it’s a capitulation, as far as a credible civilian space program goes that is.

To me, this is proof that our military has already captured the high ground with advanced technology, why else would government mouth-piece Griffin show an obvious ‘could-give-a-shit’ attitude whether China gets to the Moon before Americans get ‘back’ there?

China Could Beat US in Moon Race


Scientists at Brown University in Rhode Island used an instrument aboard a US spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to hunt for traces of phyllosilicates, or clay-like minerals that preserve a record of water’s interaction with rocks.

They found phyllosilicates in thousands of places, in valleys, dunes and craters in the ancient southern highlands, pointing to an active role by water in Mars’s earliest geological era, the Noachian period, 4.6 to 3.8 billion years ago.

“These results point to a rich diversity of Noachian environments conducive to habitability,” the authors conclude.

An intriguing find was of deposits in the pointed peaks at the centre of craters. These peaks are generally taken to be underground material thrown up by an impacting asteroid or comet.

For water to be present in such peaks, it must have been present as much as five kilometres (three miles) below the planet’s surface, the paper suggests.

“Water must have been creating minerals at depth to get the signatures we see,” head researcher John Mustard, a professor of planetary geology, said in a press release.

I never seen the term “Noachian” applied to another planet other than Earth before.

Maybe Mars had a race of beings who fell from Grace like humans, only the opposite happened to them, instead of dying in a huge Flood, they died from a massive “dry-off”?

Aye, it’s a big Universe Mr. Scott!

Water World: New Data Pinpoint Mars’ Wet and Balmy Past

Latest from Phoenix, Super Earths

The Phoenix lander team revealed the latest images from the mission at a press briefing on Friday. This first image shows an area dug by Phoenix’s scoop, which disclosed a bright surface just a few inches down, which may be ice. “There’s still some debate about the bright material,” said Phoenix Principle Investigator Peter Smith. “Not everyone is sure that this is ice. So there’s been some debate on our team, centering around that perhaps there’s a salt layer just under the soil that also would be bright. Everyone does believe there’s ice under the surface, and whether this is ice or not is the question. The other question is, is this thick ice that goes down deep beneath the surface, or is this a thin layer and we’ll be able to scrape through? So being able to scrape with our scoop is a high priority for us.”

This pair of images taken by the Optical Microscope on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander offers a side-by-side comparison of an airfall dust sample collected on a substrate exposed during landing (left) and a soil sample scooped up from the surface of the ground beside the lander. In both cases the sample is collected on a silicone substrate, which provides a sticky surface holding sample particles for observation by the microscope.

Similar fine particles at the resolution limit of the microscope are seen in both samples, indicating that the soil has formed from settling of dust.

The microscope took the image on the left during Phoenix’s Sol 9 (June 3, 2008), or the ninth Martian day after landing. It took the image on the right during Sol 17 (June 11, 2008).

The scale bar is 1 millimeter (0.04 inch).

This is the latest color image of Phoenix, its surroundings and the scoop with soil.

While we can’t look inside the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) oven which will “bake” the Martian soil to test the type of gases that are released, we can see that some of the soil has gone into TEGA. “We were finally successful and some of the material has slid down over the screen” said Smith, “sort of like material going over a cheese grater, and some of the material has slid down and filled the oven. We sent the commands for the first operation of TEGA last night, but we don’t have our data back yet, so we can’t report on any results. That will be coming later next week. So this is a very exciting time for us. We find the soil is very clumpy, it’s sticky, it’s an unusual soil not at all like the types of soils we used in our tests, which worked just fine with all the instruments. So we’ve developed another method of collecting samples, which is to tilt the scoop and vibrate it, and so it shakes down a small amount of material onto the instruments.”

And finally, here’s the latest weather report for Mars, on the 17th sol of Phoenix’s stay on Mars.

A commenter joked that Mars and Minnesota have the same temperatures just about. I’m not going to put that to the test because it’s cold enough here in Upstate NY sometimes to put Siberia to shame!

As for ice or salt, it sure looks salty to me. But another commenter pointed out that white salt is from refinement. I guess we have to wait until next week for the oven test results to come out to verify yay, or nay.

Latest Phoenix Images: Ice or Salt?


Does every single star harbor planets and, if yes, how many?” wonders planet hunter Michel Mayor. “We may not yet know the answer but we are making huge progress towards it.” Mayor and his team of European astronomers have found a star which is orbited by at least three planets. Using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the ESO La Silla Observatory, they have found a triple system of super-Earths around the star HD 40307. This is the first system known to have at least three planets.Jupiter or Saturn, and current statistics show that about 1 out of 14 stars harbors this kind of planet.

Back in 1995, Mayor, along with Didier Queloz, made the first discovery of an extrasolar planet around 51 Pegasi, and since then more than 270 exoplanets have been found, mostly around sun-like stars.
Most of these planets are giants, such as

“With the advent of much more precise instruments such as the HARPS spectrograph on ESO’s 3.6-m telescope at La Silla, we can now discover smaller planets, with masses between 2 and 10 times the Earth‘s mass,” says Stéphane Udry, one of Mayor’s colleagues. Such planets are called super-Earths, as they are more massive than the Earth but less massive than Uranus and Neptune (about 15 Earth masses).

HD 40307 is slightly less massive than our Sun, and is located 42 light-years away towards the southern Doradus and Pictor constellations.

“We have made very precise measurements of the velocity of the star HD 40307 over the last five years, which clearly reveal the presence of three planets,” says Mayor

Extra-solar planets are definitely common-place. It’s only going to be a matter of time before we find Earth-type ones. When we do find the first one, the pressure to actually send a probe will be enormous, the technical difficulties will be solved real fast.

For better or worse, the stars are calling us.

Three ‘Super-Earths’ Found Orbiting One Star

Dual hat tips to Universe Today and Centauri Dreams