700 New Neighbors!

It's nice meeting new people.
You know what it’s like. You finally get settled into your little cul-de-sac, the kids like playing on the driveway and – WHAM – some new jerk moves in with a big old Harley, a wife who loves wind chimes and three kids fresh out of reform school. It’s like being trapped in an episode of the Jerry Springer show. Well, that’s kind of what things are like for the various world space agencies. Now that they narrowed out the nearby possibilities for what may be exoplanets they’re now faced with the task of confirming them. And, thus far, they’ve confirmed 700 of the suckers.

This is not to be confused with the 700 Club which is a whole different animal all together and one that’s probably not paying any attention to stuff like this anyway.

Nevertheless, our old pal, Ian O’Neill take a look at the new kids on our block.

Astronomers estimate that our galaxy is teeming with around 50 billion exoplanets, but the number of alien worlds confirmed to exist has just passed the 700 mark.

One database keeping track of the growing number of exoplanet discoveries is the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia (exoplanet.eu) administered by astrobiologist Jean Schneider of the Paris-Meudon Observatory. On Friday news of this milestone was announced via the awesome (and free) the Exoplanet iPhone app:

There are now more than 700 confirmed exoplanets in the database. The latest addition is the planet HD 100655 b.

Wait a minute. What was all that news in 2010 about NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope spotting over 1,200 candidate exoplanets? Why is this particular database reporting only 700 discoveries?

The key word here is “candidate.”

Kepler has spotted a slew of alien worlds, but many of these detections require follow-up observations to confirm whether or not they actually exist.

For example, the recent controversy surrounding the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 581 g is a result of a follow-up observation of an exoplanet that Kepler (may have) detected, only for it not to be detected by another project — the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) High Accuracy Radial Velocity for Planetary Searcher (HARPS). The scientific process continues in the aim of confirming — or denying — Gliese 581 g’s candidature.

The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia is reporting 700 confirmed exoplanets,* whereas other projects (such as Kepler) have detected signs of hundreds more that await confirmation — only then will they be added to the database.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission has identified 25 confirmed exoplanets and mission scientists are confident that around 80 percent of the growing family of candidates will be proven to exist in the not-too-distant future.

Although 700 identified alien worlds may seem like a tiny number compared with the estimated 50 billion in the Milky Way, we’ve only just begun this profound journey of scientific discovery. We are only just glimpsing the tip of the proverbial exoplanetary iceberg.

Recent exoplanet discoveries include:

  • A newborn exoplanet spotted growing inside the protoplanetary disk of gas and dust surrounding its parent star.
  • An exoplanet orbiting a binary star system — akin to Star Wars’ fictional world Tatooine.
  • A weird world with a “hotspot” creating a rather nasty atmosphere.
  • An exoplanet that is currently being ripped to shreds by the X-ray radiation from its parent star.
  • An alien world that’s more alien than most: Its atmosphere is darker than coal.

*This number differs to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “PlanetQuest: New Worlds Atlas” database that currently stands at an exoplanet count of 687. PlanetQuest has a more conservative approach when listing exoplanet discoveries — Schneider’s database displays the discoveries as soon as they are announced.

According to Wesley Traub, chief scientist of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in an interview with SPACE.com, PlanetQuest will list the discovery only when it has been validated, checked, and the study has been accepted for publication. This means the NASA database will always lag behind the European one.

Our producers are all slavishly addicted to their i-Phones so I figured popping that link above in the story would earn me extra brownie points.

Now none of this means that those planets are inhabited. To find that out would require greater magnification than we currently have available. But it does give us some areas to concentrate on. We can focus our attention to see if there are any radio waves or other signs of intelligence.

By the way, if you click on Ian’s name above he has slide shows and videos that you can watch and learn from.

Over the last couple of weeks we have detailed up here some of the many problems the Russian space agency was having as of late. People dying, billion dollar probes wandering off and so on. So, I guess they were due for some good news. Their Phobos-Grunt space probe, which was destined for Mars and not supposed to plummet back to Earth with 12 tons of toxic waste, seems to be alive …. again.

The Russian Mars mission Phobos-Grunt has made a surprise announcement: she’s alive.

According to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Twitter feed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, a tracking station in Perth, Australia, picked up a signal from the ailing spacecraft:

ESA’s ESTRACK station in Perth, Australia, receives signal from Russia’s Phobos-Grunt. Breaking news in ESA web shortly esa.int

Within minutes, the promised news appeared on the agency’s website:

On Tuesday, 22 November at 20:25 UT, ESA’s tracking station at Perth, Australia, established contact with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. This was the first signal received on Earth since the Mars mission was launched on 8 November. ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communications with the spacecraft. More news will follow later.

This is obviously a surprise, especially as the 13-ton probe hasn’t signaled ground stations at all since its launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 8.

Soon after launch, it became clear that the upper stage engine had malfunctioned and the probe was stranded in low-Earth orbit rather than coasting its way to Mars.

For a long period, Russian space officials remained silent, and the only news on the fate of the spacecraft came from other space agencies, amateur astronomers and leaks from individuals within the Russian space industry.

On Tuesday (Nov. 22), Roscosmos broke its silence and confirmed that there was “little chance” of salvaging the mission.

But after Wednesday morning’s dramatic turn of events, is there a tiny glimmer of hope that if communications with the probe can commence, perhaps the mission isn’t doomed after all?

That might be a bit of a stretch — after all, no one is sure what the problem is; whether it’s a software glitch or complete hardware failure. There is no way to know if communications will continue, or whether the Perth ground station was lucky.

But one thing is for certain, something is ticking inside the onboard electronics of Phobos-Grunt, perhaps it’s the leverage Russian engineers need to gain access and correct the problem.

Here’s hoping they get it working. It’s an exciting project and they’ve been through enough recently.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o6biodnGaU&w=500&h=319]

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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