Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Allen Telescope Array

Allen Telescope Array

The Search for Extraterrestrial (meaning outside Earth) Intelligence (SETI) has been going on for 50 years and as you can probably guess, we have not found any aliens yet. Otherwise, we would have stopped looking. 🙂

It STARTED with an astronomer named Frank Drake. He thought, quite reasonably, that since we were using radio waves to communicate here on Earth, beings on OTHER planets around other stars might be doing the same thing. The thing about radio wave transmitters, especially the kinds used by broadcasting stations, is that they transmit radio waves in all directions, including into out space. And if there were anybody out there with a receiver, they could easily pick up those transmissions.

If we can do it, why couldn’t another, sufficiently ADVANCED civilization on another planet do the same? And so, SETI astronomers have been using radio telescopes to look for signals from other civilizations.

Where are they?

There are many reasons why we have not yet detected any aliens. They may not have developed the technology to use radio transmissions, or they may have developed other means of communication like lasers. There is a branch of SETI that looks for laser signals from aliens but this is a very difficult search. As you are probably aware a laser is a concentrated light beam. In order to detect it, the laser has to be pointed right at us.

Is it possible that we have not detected anything because there is nothing to detect? Yes, it is possible but highly improbable. As one character from one of my favorite movies of all time put it, “I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty BIG place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”

Will we ever find life outside our solar system?

I believe we will FIND life on planets outside our solar system before the next 50 years of SETI are up. It may not be intelligent life that SETI looks for but it will be life, most likely plant life. As I have posted before, we are looking for other Earth-like planets. Once we find a few, we can start studying them with better telescopes to find the composition, or makeup, of their atmosphere. If we detect oxygen in the planets’ atmosphere, we will know that there are at least plant-based life on those planets. And where there are plants, there are critters to munch on them. 🙂

You can help look for ET.

Due to advances in radio telescope technology, SETI astronomers are flooded with data they have not yet analyzed because they do not have the computing resources to do so. So, just like Galaxy Zoo, scientists are recruiting the help of people just like to you to help them sort through the data and see if we have received signals from outside Earth. The project, called SETI@Home allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to download data from telescopes like the Allen Telescope Array pictured above and analyze it to see if CONTACT has been made. SETI is not just for professionals anymore; YOU could be the one who discovers ET!

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The cool thing about new technologies is that they can be used to study our universe with better SENSITIVITY than ever before. The downside to this is that with better instruments comes more data than all the professional scientists can currently analyze without outside help. Thank goodness for the internet, which makes it possible for virtually anyone, any age (well, old enough to read and use a computer) to help those scientists with the FLOOD of data they have to deal with.

Galaxy Zoo

Help scientists classify galaxies.


One such source of data is the ROBOTIC telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has been taking images of galaxies (among other objects) since 2008. It has photographed about a MILLION galaxies so far with more to come. There are 4 main types of galaxies, each of which has certain unique characteristics. Because galaxies are so far away, the images taken by Sloan survey are not as crisp as photographs we might take of flowers and mountains. While there exists computer programs that can differentiate between different objects in a picture, the image quality of Sloan galaxies is not good enough for a computer to help in this area.

This is where you come in. Galaxy Zoo invites internet users to help scientists classify galaxies. Over 150,000 people are already participants and some have DISCOVERED never before seen objects like the Voorwerp, which was discovered by a school teacher who volunteered some of her free time to classifying galaxies.

Voorwerp

A new object discovered by a Galaxy Zoo volunteer.


Getting started is pretty easy. You sign-up, there is a brief tutorial on how to use Galaxy Zoo and identify different types of objects and then you are off making YOUR OWN classifications and, perhaps, new discoveries. There is usually not a right or wrong answer, just what you think an image represents. A few other people are shown the same image to garner some sort of agreement on the classification.

Well, what are you waiting for? Head over to Galaxy Zoo and get started. You might see YOUR name listed on a scientific paper along with professional scientists. That would be really COOL!

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TWIST

Twist, twist.

I have decided to try to write one post a week summarizing some of the science and technology news of the week (well, it could be older news that I am just discovering :)) that I think are EXCITING. I will not go into details of each of the topics but try to give a brief non-technical description and should you choose to investigate it further, I will provide appropriate links. I am calling is TWIST. Any guesses what it stands for? 🙂

Anyway, here is the first TWIST.

Planet hunter’s first catch.

Kepler, the planet hunting satellite has FOUND 5 planets in the first 6 weeks it has been searching for them. Kepler looks for planets that might lie in between Kepler and another star by measuring the dip in the amount of light coming from that star as the planet goes around it. These planets are not Earth-like (these will take longer to detect), which is what Kepler is primarily looking for but it is a good thing anyway since it shows that Kepler is WORKING as expected. News article.

3D or not 3D?

CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, takes place very first week of January where technology companies bring out their LATEST and GREATEST gadgets along with cool technologies that will be available in stores soon. This year was no different. One of the coolest emerging technologies is 3D televisions. Yes, I know that 3D has been around for a while but it hasn’t quite taken off. This year it will be different. The technology has improved a lot and some TVs don’t even require you to wear those annoying glasses. While a 3D TV may not exist in every home, this is the year when every TV store will start carrying TVs that allow you to watch movies and play games in TRUE 3D. How 3-D TV Works.

You CAN touch this!

This is also the year of the TOUCH computer. No longer will you have to drag your mouse around and enter text using a keyboard. Touch enabled computers allow you to USE your finger(s) to open, close programs, draw pictures and do anything that you used to do with a mouse. You can also write directly on a touch computer as if you were writing on a piece of paper. What’s great is that your input is AUTOMATICALLY converted to text as if it were typed in. This technology has existed for a while but computer screens that could accept touch input were very expensive. Not any more. Some of these computers will just be a screen with no keyboard or mouse, although you could attach them if you wanted to. But why? Here is a good example of what a touch PC would be capable of: Microsoft Courier. Too bad this product was not actually announced so we don’t if it will ever be available for sale.

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Well, Earth-like planets to be precise. What does that mean, you ask? You see, Earth is a very SPECIAL planet. Special in the sense that it is the only planet that we (currently) know of that can support life.

How does Earth support life?

For starters, Earth is right DISTANCE from our Sun, in what some call the Goldilocks Zone (also known as the habitable zone). It is the region where water can exist in a liquid form on the surface of a planet. Too much closer and the heat from the sun would boil away all the water. Too far, and there isn’t enough heat causing any water on the planet to freeze.

Earth is also a TERRESTRIAL planet, meaning that part of the surface is solid, i.e. made up of rocks and dirt. The Earth is also large enough to have a GRAVITY that can have an atmosphere, you know, the air we breathe. Without enough mass, the gravity would be too low to prevent the air from escaping out into space. You can read more about this in my book. 😉

Believe it or not, those are the pretty much all the things that are needed for a planet to support life. What about OXYGEN, you ask? Oxygen that we breathe is created by plants, which are a form of life. You would think, with these meager requirements, there are probably HUNDREDS, if not thousands, of planets that can support life.

The thing is, detecting other Earth-like planets is not an easy thing to do. Stars are really far away, and planet that may exist around those stars tend to be very TINY compared to the star they orbit. Our own Sun contains more that 99% of all the mass in our solar system. And our, habitable Earth is quite small compared to giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

Kepler Satellite

Kepler Satellite

Kepler, the planet hunter.

As you can imagine, looking for other Earth-like planets is not an easy task. However, a space mission launched in March of 2009 aims to do just that. Kepler, named after the astronomer, Johannes Kepler carries very POWERFUL cameras to catch a planet transiting its parent star. A transit is when the planet that we are looking is in between us and its parent star as the planet goes around the star. When the planet is between us and its star, the brightness of that star as seen by us is lower than when the planet is behind star. The animation below explains it better than I can write it.

Look at the sky on a clear night. What is the largest star you see? Imagine looking for a planet in front of that star. A tiny Earth-like planet around a star that already looks only like a dot from where we are. That is what Kepler is trying to do. At a lecture given by a Kepler mission scientist that I attended, she said that they expected to find about a 100 Earth-like planets in the tiny patch of the sky it will look at. Whether those planets will have ALIENS will be another matter.

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