Spotlight on Science: Exoplanets

Exoplanets are planets outside the scope of our solar system. If we forget for a minute that we just keep moving the edge of the solar system out, and think about how strange it must have been for those first astronomers.

Think about it. First, we realized not everything orbited the earth, then we weren’t even the middle of the galaxy, then we realized we weren’t anywhere near the middle of the solar system but it’s okay because we were a planet that could have life and that was super co-

oh.

So now we’re not actually that special at all, which is fine, particularly when you look at all the awesomely badass planets that are out there; from HD85512b, a super-earth that might support life (it’s 3.5 x the size of our planet and has a pretty decent atmosphere (1) ), only 35 light-years away, to KIC 12557548b, a planet that is evaporating.

Image: JPL-Caltech/NASA

This planet (that dark streak that looks like a reverse comet) is burning to pieces, and might be just the iron core of the planet. As it gets smaller, gravity decreases, accelerating this destruction as the bits of planet become harder to hang on to.

The closest exoplanet, Alpha Centauri Bb (only 4.37 light years away, basically right next door) is not at all habitable, being far closer to Alpha Centauri than Mercury is to our Sun, and having an orbit of only three days, so is likely to be a tiny lava world zipping around its sun.

Since the Kepler mission started actively looking for exoplanets, we’ve discovered possibly 262 habitable planets (possibly being the operative word) – exciting news for anyone who reads a lot of science fiction! Gliese 581 g is the most Earth-like planet to date, but it’s situation, orbiting a red dwarf star, is substantially different to our own bright yellow sun.

It’s an exciting time to be in satellites, like at Goonhilly – their largest satellite, “Merlin”, is looking up and they’re working with NASA on Deep Space Communication. If you visit their centre in England, you can write messages to outer space!

Sophia. It was chilly and I was tired at Goonhilly, but it was still pretty cool, and the Arthurian names are awesome.

1: http://arxiv.org/abs/1108.3561

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