Extrasolar maelstrom!

22 10 2011

This week might be considered a red-letter period for discoveries relating to extrasolar planets, from imaging alien comets and their implications for otherworldly oceans to witnessing the dusty disks and primordial protoplanets of young, forming star systems.

In case you missed it, this week provides your healthy dose of Exoplanetology:

Very “Wet” Extrasolar System Found

Artist's concept, illustrating an icy planet-forming disk around the young star called TW Hydrae. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Telescope recently discovered direct evidence of cold water vapor surrounding the disk of dusty material surrounding a young star.

Whereas earlier studies had detected evidence of warmer water vapor within the material of young star systems, this is the first to extend this zone of water vapor into the cold regions extending far away from the parent star, TW Hydrae.

This finding is very significant to those searching for habitable planets or the life that might arise on them, as it bolsters the idea that comet-strewn planetary systems like our own (with water-rich inner planets) might be common in the galaxy.

Heavy Comet Bombardment Observed in Alien Solar System

Artist's concept, illustrating a storm of comets around nearby star Eta Corvi. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Evidence of the comet storms suggested in the previous discovery and which left their own scars on the rocky worlds of our own Solar System during the period called the Late Heavy Bombardment, (look up at the moon for evidence,) has been detected in the nearby star system Eta Corvi.

Tantalizingly, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected evidence of a titanic comet collision(s) – dust fragments that match the signature of a comet having been wiped out during an impact with a planet.

Further, the location of the dust plume coincides with the potential location of inner, rocky planets like our own…

Forming Planets Likely Culprit Dust-Sculpters

View of two spiral arms in the gas-rich circumstellar disk around star SAO 206462. (Credit: NAOJ/Subaru)

In a wave of discoveries that don’t seem to be letting up, researchers using the Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii have released images of spiral arms in the dust disk surrounding nearby star SAO 206462.

These images, the first of their kind, agree with simulations of what the gravitational effects of newly formed or forming planets can do to the gas and dust surrounding a young star.  (Researchers are cautious to point out, however, that other processes might be responsible for the pattens.)

Beyond potentially further bolstering our understanding of how planets and star systems form, the spirals suggest locations of further research to find extrasolar planets… and provide yet another serious contender for desktop wallpapers everywhere.

Humankind First: Birth of an Alien World Witnessed

Artist’s conception of newly born alien planet LkCa 15 b and its parent star. (Credit: Karen L. Teramura, UH IfA)

Not to be outdone by the truly significant discoveries already mentioned, a team of researchers using the Keck Observatory in Hawaii have imaged the youngest alien world to date – so young, in fact, that it is still forming out of the disk of gas and dust around star LkCa 15.

Using sophisticated optical techniques, the team was not only able to resolve the protoplanetary disk around the star LkCa 15, but they were able to peer into the zone where the new planet was spawning – a wide gap between the young parent star and an outer disk of dust.

What they found there was truly a first:  A protoplanet surrounded by a sheath of cooler dust and gas still falling into/onto the still-forming planet.

In all, it appears that with an accelerating pace the universe is becoming less a tapestry to simply observe and more an atlas of locations and potential destinations.  Will the names TW Hydrae, Eta Corvi, SAO 260462, and LkCa 15 one day fill an atlas of solar systems the way we now appraise continents on a globe?

-And will the subtle letters behind each name, themselves indicating the presence of a planet, fill the same atlas as we currently manage nations and provinces?

We can only hope… but at this rate, odds are looking good!


Chasing Mars through Eldorado Valley

28 06 2010

A gust front moving across Eldorado Valley (and the sensor truck.) Credit: Me

This past Friday I was fortunate enough to reunite with my friend Dr. Steve Metzger of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) to participate in another field season of dust-devil-chasing with a platoon of Mars researchers.  The crew this year included Dr. Asmin Pathare of PSI,  Dr. Lori Fenton of the SETI Institute, Tim Michaels of the Southwest Research Institute, graduate students from the University of Michigan, and a bevy of others from institutions both local and abroad.

As always, it was blisteringly hot and completely awesome.

The objective?  Characterize meteorological conditions and geomorphological events here, (particularly dust devils,) so that we might better understand them on Mars.

Setting up the "Michigan" meteorological station, one of several in the test area. Credit: Me.

Despite how insignificant dust seems, the way that dust is moved in a planetary atmosphere affects most everything, from cloud formation, global warming, and weather patterns to the raw density of the air.  And, aside from the more intellectually-lofty goals of understanding the history of Mars and understanding climate here on Earth, NASA really cares about the density of the Martian atmosphere simply because we need to know that to calculate how to land things there.

The location, Eldorado Valley, is a vesicularbasalt-ridden desert playa between Las Vegas and Boulder City, Nevada that just happens to be a spitting analog for several aspects of the Martian surface.

Fortuitously, it also just happens to be in my neighborhood.

In the arsenal of instrumentation today were several different equipment packages and setups, from massive meteorological towers to smaller future Mars-lander instrument stations, and from sensor-laden “storm chaser” trucks and remote operated mini-trucks to observation waypoints complete with various types of recording equipment.  Believe you me, the science was out in force.

Inside the chase truck, with the sensor boom arm in view. Credit: Me.

I partnered up with Steve in the chase truck, running as data-logging copilot for a portion of the day as we barreled across the playa, jumping on leads from the spotters and chasing down dust devils in a mad attempt to swing in front of them, thereby getting a clean slice of data through the vortex interiors with the sensors on the outside of the truck.

Despite it being windy enough to threaten blowing dust devils apart, we managed to nail quite a few by the end of the day, soaking up gobs of data on pressure, temperature, and the sediment content of the air.

I even had the chance to fire off one of the military-grade smoke grenades I brought along (to see if they actually work) in preparation for a future trip I’ve been planning.  While I didn’t get this one into a dust devil, the plan is to try and lob a grenade right in front of an approaching devil and record video of the inflow patterns across the leading edge of the vortex.  In my book it never hurts to test mathematical models with some real-world experiments.

In any event, it was a thrill and quite a privilege to jump into this, my third time out with Dr. Metzger in five years.  The team will be out in the field all of this next week, and with any luck I might end up back out with them next Friday.

Is it Mars?  Not quite.  But it is definitely close enough to whet the appetite.

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