20 year Hubble anniversary

My favorite thing about showing up 3rd for searches of “Hubble” in Google image is that whenever Hubble is in the news, I know it pretty quickly thanks to the sharp increase in hits. (Right now the third result is some website that has swiped my Hubble image, but it still links back to FTSOS.) For instance, tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the launch of Hubble.

The universe was a different-looking place 20 years ago. The most powerful optical telescopes on Earth could see only halfway across the cosmos. Estimates for the age of the universe disagreed by a big margin. Supermassive black holes were only suspected to be the powerhouses behind a rare zoo of energetic phenomena seen at great distances. Einstein’s cosmological constant, a hypothesized repulsive property of space, was merely a skeleton in the astrophysics closet.

But astronomy was kicked-started into fast-forward on April 24th, 1990 when NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope left the blurry skies of Earth for the stars. Tucked away inside the space shuttle Discovery’s cargo bay, the telescope was set free into low earth orbit on April 25th.

Of course, this naturally means eye candy on FTSOS.

CO2 found on exo-planet

I need to get back to some science. Fortunately, CO2 was recently detected on an exo-planet.

NASA said its Hubble Space Telescope has discovered carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of “hot Jupiter” planet HD 189733b, which orbits a nearby star 63 light-years from Earth.

The planet is itself too hot to support life — its surface is about 1,800 degrees F (1,000 degrees C).

But the astronomers said the observations are a proof-of-concept demonstration that the basic chemistry for life can be measured on planets orbiting other stars.

So the CO2 itself doesn’t mean anything particularly important, but it does lend credence to the idea that it is only a matter of time before astrobiology becomes an enormous field. How exciting would it be to finally confirm that we aren’t all alone, afterall? Granted, we may never make contact with any life we find, most obviously if it isn’t intelligent, but also simply because it may be so far away. This CO2, for example, was produced at 63 years ago. Assuming there was life that close (which would be almost as tremendous as the discovery of the life itself) – and it was intelligent – it would be 126 years before we could make two way contact; that’s 63 years for our (presumably) radiowaves to travel at the speed of light, reach the life-bearing planet, and then 63 years for a return message, provided the exo-life even gave a damn.

Hubble captures another great image

With such a large and spectacular Universe, doesn’t it seem a tad arrogant for humans, such a small piece of a small planet next to an average star, to believe it to have been made entirely, or even in part, just for us? Surely we aren’t so grand.

The Hubble telescope has captured a spectacular image of a pair of colossal stars, WR 25 and Tr16-244, located within the open cluster Trumpler 16. This cluster is embedded within the Carina Nebula, an immense cauldron of gas and dust that lies approximately 7500 light-years from Earth.

Hubble image

Just a little more astronomy

This is a bit much astronomy for a primarily biology blog, I know. Unless something great pops up, this will be the last astronomy post for at least a little while.

Some new research into the tidal forces of stars and their planets has yielded some interesting results.

Planets around small mass stars may only have a billion-year window during which life can form. This is the implication of research into the tidal forces that can pull a planet into a tighter orbit around a star.

The so-called habitable zone around a star is loosely defined as planetary orbits in which water would be liquid, not vapor or solid, on the planets’ surface. These orbits are closer-in for smaller (less bright) stars.

However, habitability is not a permanent property of a planet.

“For some planets around low mass stars, they are not going to hang around in the habitable zone forever,” says Rory Barnes of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the University of Arizona. “They are going to be pulled out.”

The pulling is due to tidal forces that arise because the gravitational attraction between planet and star is not uniform over their surfaces.

Barnes and his colleagues have shown that the tidal forces around a small mass star can draw a planet from the habitable zone on the order of a billion years, as reported in a recent issue of Astrobiology Journal.

If some of these migrating planets can be detected, they could provide a test of the Gaia hypothesis, which says that life can force changes to a planet in order to keep it in a habitable state.

So basically life may only have a 1 billion year window to form. That certainly isn’t the case across the board since this research applies specifically to low mass stars. But is it at all surprising that life on Earth originated somewhere between 200 million and 1,000 million years ago, i.e., within the first billion years of the planet’s existence?

Solar System Like Ours Discovered

Evidence found of solar system around nearby star

WASHINGTON — For the first time, astronomers think that they’ve found evidence of an alien solar system around a star close enough to Earth to be visible to the naked eye.

They say that at least one and probably three or more planets are orbiting the star Epsilon Eridani, 10.5 light-years — about 63 trillion miles — from Earth. Only eight stars are closer.

The host star, slightly smaller and cooler than our sun, is in the constellation Eridanus — the name of a mythological river — near Orion in the northern sky.

Epsilon Eridani is much younger than the sun, about 850 million years old compared with 4.5 billion years for our system.

“This really is a system like our solar system was when it was five times younger than it is now,” said one of the discoverers, Massimo Marengo , an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s like a time machine for our solar system.”

“This system probably looks a lot like ours did when life first took root on Earth,” said Dana Backman , of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. , the lead author of a report to be published Jan. 10 in The Astrophysical Journal .