Saturday, February 05, 2011

top: NASA design for an antimatter rocket. middle: exoplanet image by Adrian Mann. bottom: photo of space shuttle Endeavor over Earth.

Captain's Log: Exo, Endeavor, Anti-Matter Starship and Holodeck on Earth

Just a few weeks ago we learned of the first roughly Earth-sized planet orbiting another star in what we believe is a "habitable zone," or distance from its sun. Until last week, the figure of likely exoplanets discovered was 500. Now NASA Kepler mission has announced that both of those figures are way too small.

The mission has discovered some 1200 exoplanets (or more accurately, exoplanet candidates. None has actually been seen yet, just scientifically inferred.) And that's not all: "Among the new and yet-to-be-fully-confirmed planets are 68 near the size of Earth and 54 in what is deemed the temperate, or habitable, zone of their solar systems."

Further, smaller planets of Earth size seem to be more common than gas giants like Jupiter. While scientists doubt that any of the exoplanets discovered so far can harbor life, William Borucki, head of the Kepler mission (Kepler is the small satellite providing the data)asserted: "If Earth-sized planets are common, then it's likely that life is common on the planets around their stars.This is really our first step in man's exploration of surrounding galaxies in terms of life and the extent of life that might be there."

Not everyone believes that even this data improves the likelihood that there is life on other worlds. But it does advance the possibility that there are "class M" planets as part of other solar systems. And speaking of other solar systems, another discovery announced last week: an exoplanet solar system with six planets--the first time that many planets have been discovered orbiting one star.


The other big space news of the week was the announcement by Mark Kelly that he will be space shuttle commander for the Endeavor mission, as scheduled. Kelly is the astronaut husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the Member of Congress shot and seriously wounded in what law enforcement officials call an assassination attempt in Tucson. After being released from her Arizona hospital, Giffords has been in rehabilitation in Houston, with Kelly at her side. She is being treated and rehabilitated for gunshots to her brain. Because of the momentum of her treatment, and because she is a big supporter of the space mission, Kelly decided to resume training and be on board when the rocket lifts off with Endeavor on April 19.

The mission, scheduled for two weeks, will be Endeavor's last, and the next-to-last shuttle flight. Kelly said that he expects Giffords will attend the launch.

Trek Echoes in Reality

"Some say that the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL) facility sounds a whole lot like the holodecks on Star Trek. Lockheed Martin spokespeople won't go that far, but the similarities are unmistakable." It's a virtual reality system used to test equipment, including NASA's next generation space vehicle, called Orion.

NASA is also dreaming of vehicles way beyond that--like the anti-matter powered rocket pictured above. There's not much more than the illustration in this New Scientist article on future technology, but NASA does include it on their own site.

But in something a little more Star Wars than Star Trek, a physicist says there may be a second sun in our sky, as early as--where have we heard this year before?--2012. The bright star Betelgeuse,he suggests, could go supernova, and if it does, the bright expansion would appear as a second sun for awhile, perhaps brightly enough to cancel nighttime darkness altogether. There's also a bit of Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 about this, especially since this scientist speculates it will be beneficial to the earth, or at least not harmful.

No comments: