Saturday, November 14, 2009

Exoplanet Madness!

Back in April of this year, astronomers announced the discovery of the lowest mass planet ever found outside our solar system. The planet belongs to the Gliese 581 system which now has four planets that have been discovered in it. The Gliese 581 system lies 20.9 light-years (the distance light travels in a year-about 6 trillion miles) from our solar system. The system is the 87th closest system to the sun and is in the constellation Libra (the scales). The 1.9 Earth-mass planet lies too close to its small star to be in the habitable zone (the zone around a star that astronomers and exobiologists presume can support life -more like we know it to be based on) and orbits the small red-dwarf (classification M3V, the V means the star is on the main sequence where a star spends most of its life). This low mass planet orbits Gliese 581 in just over 3 Earth days. The Gliese star has about 33 percent of the mass of the sun.

In the current "Big Bang" theory, which is the dominant theory of how the universe began, and may very well be wrong, the universe isn't old enough for any of its M type stars to evolve off the main sequence as they stay on it for tens of billions -perhaps a 100 billion years. In comparison, our Sun which is a G type star will stay on the main sequence for right around 10 billion years, according to current theories and has used about 5 billion of those up. I will post a link for the stellar classification which goes from type O the largest downward in size to B, A, F, G, K and M. There are ten sub-types in each class running from 0 to 9.

Even though the 1.9 Earth-mass planet is not in the habitable zone, a planet of 7 Earth masses in the same system is. This planet was discovered by the well-known Michel Mayor and his team at the Geneva Observatory. Mayor, along with Didier Queloz discovered the first ever planet detected outside of our solar system on 6 October 1995. This was the 51 Pegasi b planet. So far it is the only planet detected in the 51 Pegasi system, and is larger than the 1.9 Earth mass planet in the Gliese system by a factor of 80. Michel Mayor says it's "amazing to see how far we have come since we discovered the first exoplanet around a normal star in 1995...This is tremendous progress in just 14 years."

Due to its size, it is quite likely that the 7 Earth-mass planet in the Gliese system is not a rocky world like Earth is. In fact, it is conceivable that the planet could be entirely covered by a huge and deep ocean. It is the first likely 'water world' candidate discovered. However, as water is such an abundant element in the universe, astronomers believe there may be countless numbers of these worlds to be discovered. This planet orbits Gliese 581 in about 67 days. It is very fascinating to speculate about what other types of life may be in other solar systems. The water worlds are a good place to start theorizing about other forms of life, as scientists believe life on our planet started in its oceans.

The planets in the Gliese system, as in many other systems (although it is not the only way planets can be detected now) were found by the "wobble" method. When a planet or even a star orbits around another star, astronomers can look at images of the star's light spectrum taken at different times. By comparing the results, astronomers can see a detectable "wobble" in the star's light, and from this they can even tell what the mass of the planet is and how long it takes to orbit the parent star.

Originally, most astronomers only thought life could evolve around stars of stellar types F, G and K. They thought the red dwarf M stars were simply to dim-and many thought that it was unlikely M stars would even have planets due to their small mass. This has certainly been proven wrong.

It is estimated -and of course this is a very, very round number estimate, that there are approximately 70 sextillion stars in the visible universe. That's 7 X 10^22 power of stars. M stars would be about 75% of this number of stars! For reasons yet to be understood, the universe favors creation of low-mass stars over the larger ones. If even just a tiny percent of M type stars can be found to support life, the possibilites for what might be out there in the universe are truly astonishing. The "Steady State" theory of creation is one that posits a universe infinite in space and eternal in time. This theory is coming back into vogue with some scientists. If this theory is correct-and there are many reasons to believe that creation and the universe might be infinite -then who knows what we may discover if we don't blow ourselves up first-or erase ourselves off the face of the planet by any number of other means.

The image is an artist's conception of what a planet in the Gliese 581 system could look like. Here are some links: . I will return to gryphons and mythical creatures the next time I am online. It may not be today as my back is still killing me and I haven't slept in awhile. Thanks again for your great comments and all the best to anyone stopping by!


Autumnforest said...

Fantastic info! It fascinates me to no end. To me, studying the universe is like driving down the freeway and seeing an horrific car pileup. You don't think you can take the image once it's in your head, but you also need to know--did anyone survive it? When I look at the vastness of the universe, I'm so overwhelmed by the concepts of time and space and eternity and it freaks me out. I think, "everything must have a beginning and end," but that's a rather infantile way to think. It all had to come from something that came from something that came from something. I haven't been entirely impressed with big bang, but sometimes I wonder if maybe new galaxies like ours are simply shot out of a black hole to create a new galaxy and that's our big bang- the result of being born from remnants of another galaxy, ad infinitum....

benjibopper said...

very cool stuff. i just heard on the radio today that they just discovered a lot of water on the moon - they crashed a vessel in the water and the splash was enough to fill several buckets.

Devin said...

Autumnforest-what you describe is pretty much how some of the newer theories about an infintie universe are layed out-many have new galaxies being "birthed" from massive black holes in the center of other galaxies-thinking about the expanse of the universe is mind boggling-its hard to understand the concept of a million-much less billions trillions quadrillions-ad infinitum-best to you as always my friend!!

Wasn't that cool Benji?!! every time i go to some of the astronomy sites they are talking about water on the moon -needless to say if humans ever permanently settle there it would be an enormous convenience!! best to you as always my friend!!

X. Dell said...

A planet that's seven times Earth mass? That's heavy, man. Heavy.

I don't suppose we would last too long in a fair fight with those inhabitants, huh?

Devin said...

Xdell-thanks so much for commenting on this post also!! I am kind of surprised I don't have more astronomy related things here (except the images maybe) as it is one subject that truly leaves me awe inspired-what you brought up about the creatures possible musculature with this kind of gravity is very interesting and has been discussed both in science fiction writing and in exobiology-topics like these can also make me wistful/melancholy at times because i do not know if humanity is smart enough-or if we can de-fang ourselves enough-to live to do the exploring -gosh i hope so-even tho its well past our possible lifetimes i would imagine unless they have some hella incredible drugs/inventions down the road -maybe "uploading" human consciousness into a robot type being? -i think the great sci fi author Greg Egan and others have discussed this possiblity -I think Egan's "Diaspora" and "permutation city" are two of the most thought provoking books i have ever read with regard to the possibility of human consciousness being uploaded and the like -i would highly recommend them to anyone with an inkling of an interest-sorry to go off topic -as always eh?? all the best to you my friend!!