Tag Archives: Dr. Ethan Siegel

NASA Space Place – Is Proxima Centauri’s ‘Earth-like’ Planet Actually Like Earth At All?

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in October, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceJust 25 years ago, scientists didn’t know if any stars—other than our own sun, of course—had planets orbiting around them. Yet they knew with certainty that gravity from massive planets caused the sun to move around our solar system’s center of mass. Therefore, they reasoned that other stars would have periodic changes to their motions if they, too, had planets.

This change in motion first led to the detection of planets around pulsars in 1991, thanks to the change in pulsar timing it caused. Then, finally, in 1995 the first exoplanet around a normal star, 51 Pegasi b, was discovered via the “stellar wobble” of its parent star. Since that time, over 3000 exoplanets have been confirmed, most of which were first discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission using the transit method. These transits only work if a solar system is fortuitously aligned to our perspective; nevertheless, we now know that planets—even rocky planets at the right distance for liquid water on their surface—are quite common in the Milky Way.

On August 24, 2016, scientists announced that the stellar wobble of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, indicated the existence of an exoplanet. At just 4.24 light years away, this planet orbits its red dwarf star in just 11 days, with a lower limit to its mass of just 1.3 Earths. If verified, this would bring the number of Earth-like planets found in their star’s habitable zones up to 22, with ‘Proxima b‘ being the closest one. Just based on what we’ve seen so far, if this planet is real and has 130 percent the mass of Earth, we can already infer the following:

* It receives 70 percent of the sunlight incident on Earth, giving it the right temperature for liquid water on its surface, assuming an Earth-like atmosphere.

* It should have a radius approximately 10 percent larger than our own planet’s, assuming it is made of similar elements.

* It is plausible that the planet would be tidally locked to its star, implying a permanent ‘light side’ and a permanent ‘dark side’.

* And if so, then seasons on this world are determined by the orbit’s ellipticity, not by axial tilt.

Yet the unknowns are tremendous. Proxima Centauri emits considerably less ultraviolet light than a star like the sun; can life begin without that? Solar flares and winds are much greater around this world; have they stripped away the atmosphere entirely? Is the far side permanently frozen, or do winds allow possible life there? Is the near side baked and barren, leaving only the ‘ring’ at the edge potentially habitable?

Proxima b is a vastly different world from Earth, and could range anywhere from actually inhabited to completely unsuitable for any form of life. As 30m-class telescopes and the next generation of space observatories come online, we just may find out!

Looking to teach kids about exoplanet discovery? NASA Space Place explains stellar wobble and how this phenomenon can help scientists find exoplanets: spaceplace.nasa.gov/barycenter/en/

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: An artist’s conception of the exoplanet Kepler-452b (R), a possible candidate for Earth 2.0, as compared with Earth (L). Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

NASA Space Place – NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) To Revolutionize Earth-Watching

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in May, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceIf you want to collect data with a variety of instruments over an entire planet as quickly as possible, there are two trade-offs you have to consider: how far away you are from the world in question, and what orientation and direction you choose to orbit it. For a single satellite, the best of all worlds comes from a low-Earth polar orbit, which does all of the following:

* orbits the Earth very quickly: once every 101 minutes,
* is close enough at 824 km high to take incredibly high-resolution imagery,
* has five separate instruments each probing various weather and climate phenomena,
* and is capable of obtaining full-planet coverage every 12 hours.

The type of data this new satellite – the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1) — will take will be essential to extreme weather prediction and in early warning systems, which could have severely mitigated the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Each of the five instruments on board are fundamentally different and complementary to one another. They are:

1. The Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), which will measure the 3D structure of the atmosphere, water vapor and temperature in over 1,000 infrared spectral channels. This instrument is vital for weather forecasting up to seven days in advance of major weather events.

2. The Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS), which assists CrIS by adding 22 microwave channels to improve temperature and moisture readings down to 1 Kelvin accuracy for tropospheric layers.

3. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument, which takes visible and infrared pictures at a resolution of just 400 meters (1312 feet), enables us to track not just weather patterns but fires, sea temperatures, nighttime light pollution as well as ocean-color observations.

4. The Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS), which measures how the ozone concentration varies with altitude and in time over every location on Earth’s surface. This instrument is a vital tool for understanding how effectively ultraviolet light penetrates the atmosphere.

5. Finally, the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant System (CERES) will help understand the effect of clouds on Earth’s energy balance, presently one of the largest sources of uncertainty in climate modeling.

The JPSS-1 satellite is a sophisticated weather monitoring tool, and paves the way for its’ sister satellites JPSS-2, 3 and 4. It promises to not only provide early and detailed warnings for disasters like hurricanes, volcanoes and storms, but for longer-term effects like droughts and climate changes. Emergency responders, airline pilots, cargo ships, farmers and coastal residents all rely on NOAA and the National Weather Service for informative short-and-long-term data. The JPSS constellation of satellites will extend and enhance our monitoring capabilities far into the future.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: an artist’s concept of the JPSS-2 Satellite for NOAA and NASA by Orbital ATK (top); complete temperature map of the world from NOAA’s National Weather Service (bottom).

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

NASA Space Place – Gravitational Wave Astronomy Will Be The Next Great Scientific Frontier

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in March, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceImagine a world very different from our own: permanently shrouded in clouds, where the sky was never seen. Never had anyone see the Sun, the Moon, the stars or planets, until one night, a single bright object shone through. Imagine that you saw not only a bright point of light against a dark backdrop of sky, but that you could see a banded structure, a ringed system around it and perhaps even a bright satellite: a moon. That’s the magnitude of what LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) saw, when it directly detected gravitational waves for the first time.

An unavoidable prediction of Einstein’s General Relativity, gravitational waves emerge whenever a mass gets accelerated. For most systems — like Earth orbiting the Sun — the waves are so weak that it would take many times the age of the Universe to notice. But when very massive objects orbit at very short distances, the orbits decay noticeably and rapidly, producing potentially observable gravitational waves. Systems such as the binary pulsar PSR B1913+16 [the subtlety here is that binary pulsars may contain a single neutron star, so it’s best to be specific], where two neutron stars orbit one another at very short distances, had previously shown this phenomenon of orbital decay, but gravitational waves had never been directly detected until now.

When a gravitational wave passes through an objects, it simultaneously stretches and compresses space along mutually perpendicular directions: first horizontally, then vertically, in an oscillating fashion. The LIGO detectors work by splitting a laser beam into perpendicular “arms,” letting the beams reflect back and forth in each arm hundreds of times (for an effective path lengths of hundreds of km), and then recombining them at a photodetector. The interference pattern seen there will shift, predictably, if gravitational waves pass through and change the effective path lengths of the arms. Over a span of 20 milliseconds on September 14, 2015, both LIGO detectors (in Louisiana and Washington) saw identical stretching-and-compressing patterns. From that tiny amount of data, scientists were able to conclude that two black holes, of 36 and 29 solar masses apiece, merged together, emitting 5% of their total mass into gravitational wave energy, via Einstein’s E = mc2.

During that event, more energy was emitted in gravitational waves than by all the stars in the observable Universe combined. The entire Earth was compressed by less than the width of a proton during this event, yet thanks to LIGO’s incredible precision, we were able to detect it. At least a handful of these events are expected every year. In the future, different observatories, such as NANOGrav (which uses radiotelescopes to the delay caused by gravitational waves on pulsar radiation) and the space mission LISA will detect gravitational waves from supermassive black holes and many other sources. We’ve just seen our first event using a new type of astronomy, and can now test black holes and gravity like never before.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger B. P. Abbott et al., (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration), Physical Review Letters 116, 061102 (2016). This figure shows the data (top panels) at the Washington and Louisiana LIGO stations, the predicted signal from Einstein’s theory (middle panels), and the inferred signals (bottom panels). The signals matched perfectly in both detectors. Click for a larger view.

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!