Thoughts on Extrasolar Planets

Some thoughts about planets outside our own solar system.

I was watching a show about extrasolar planets today, and it made me think of some things.

First, let’s start by saying that the search for planets outside of our own solar system is terrifically exciting – with planets come the possibility of life, and finding life outside our solar system (or, indeed, anywhere outside Earth itself) would be absolutely fantastic.

Earthlike_moon_extrasolar_gas_giant_smallA lot of attention is given to the possibility of life-friendly planets, but I see very little attention given to the possibility of life-friendly moons.

For example, we’ve found lots of very large planets around other stars – largely because larger planets are easier to find with the techniques we use. But, often we gloss over these discoveries because they are large planets (like Jupiter) which are considered to have a low probability of life. (They’re also often quite close to their parent star, which means they are quite hot – again, unfriendly for life.)

However, it’s worth remembering that moons of such planets might indeed be the right size and temperature for liquid water to form – and thus, be potentially life-bearing. Indeed, given how common larger planets are, and how larger planets almost always have lots and lots of moons, it stands to reason that it might be more likely to find an “Earth-like” moon than an “Earth-like” planet.

Of course, at the moment we have no real way to detect moons of extrasolar planets – so for the time being, we’ll continue to focus mostly on finding planets, not moons. But once we do get the ability to detect moons (perhaps when we build some larger space-based telescope arrays), I think we’ll make some exciting discoveries when we look at existing larger extrasolar planets with an eye towards finding their moons.

In any case, the search for planets (and moons) outside of our own solar system that might be suitable for life will continue, and these discoveries will continue to astound and amaze us.

40 Years Since the Moon – And What Do We Have to Show For It?

It’s the 40th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon… and time to really start wondering why we never followed up on those first amazing steps.

So, today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 40 years ago today – back in 1969, for crying out loud! – a human being set foot on the moon, a place some 238,857 miles (on average) away.

But somehow, it makes me sad that during my lifetime no human being has ventured beyond low Earth orbit, to say nothing of returning to the moon or other places in space.

Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the new world and everyone back in Europe just said “meh… it’s so far away, and getting there is a hassle and is too expensive, so we’ll just stay around home instead.”

You’d think that with 40 years of technological advances, going to the moon (or even just space) would be no-sweat for us now. But it seems like we put our energy into other things during that time… kind of sad, in a way.


I was up late last night (as always) and I had noticed recently that Jupiter was in our night sky rather brilliantly. But last night the sky was unusually clear, so on impulse I pulled out my tripod, set my camera for full manual mode, and tried my hand at taking some night photos.

I’ll let you be the ultimate judge of them, but I think they came out brilliantly!

the night sky and jupiter

My first attempt – a 15 second exposure of the sky looking pretty much due south from my balcony. In retrospect, 15 seconds was probably too long of an exposure. The bright line in the lower-right is a plane passing by.

(Yes, there are power lines near my house. No, I’m not worried about them. They’re not really that close, although they look closer in the picture.)

the night sky and jupier (darker)

This one is a darker photo (shorter exposure). But even still, you can see the stars are slightly streaked – amazing how much the sky moves in just a few seconds. If you needed proof that the earth is really spinning quite fast, there you have it!

The constellation you can (sort of) see is Sagittarius, I believe.

jupiter and stars 3

This is probably one of the best photos of the bunch I took. If you look really closely, you can see a few dots around Jupiter – those are actually the moons of Jupiter. Amazing!

jupiter and moons (cropped and enlarged)

This is a closeup and blow-up of the last photo. Obviously, the bright blob is Jupiter, but what’s interesting (to me at least) are the 3 little dots of light around it. They’re Jupiter’s moons! I’ve never seen them before, even when I’ve used binocculars and telescopes. Amazing that my little 12x zoom lens was able to pick them up! From left to right they are (I believe): Ganymede, Io, and Europa.

In the grand scheme of things it’s no big deal to have photographed Jupiter and it’s moons – I’m sure millions of people have done it already before me. But for me, it’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always been facinated with astronmy, and taking photos of the things I’ve previously only ever read about is… well, cool!

With this experience taking photos of the night sky, I may try my hand at some more interesting shots. (I guess I’ve been looking at the Astronomy Picture of the Day site too much lately.)

Space: The Final Frontier

I was watching a show on the Discovery Channel last night called “When We Left Earth.” It was quite good, and as these sorts of shows often do, it got me thinking.

When I was a kid, I was always facinated by space. I built model spaceships, I pretended that my house (and even my tree fort) were spaceships, and I imagined fanciful worlds in space and almost all of my toys & whatnot were connected with space in one way or another. I used a small telescope to stare at the stars, at the planets, and at the moon. I gobbled up books of all types on space. And I dreamed.

I still get the tingles watching and listening to the recordings of space missions – especially the lunar missions. I still feel wonder when I see pictures from our probes we’ve sent to Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and the other planets – the same wonder today that I felt the very first time I saw those pictures.

Those remarkable feats – to go where no one has gone before. They are important not just for the science they returned, but for the imagination they inspired in all of us. It was Richard Nixon who perhaps put it best:

“For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

Given how deeply divided we seem to be these days, I can think of no one single thing that has the potential to bring us all together in such a beneficial – and peaceful – way.

I truly hope to see that sort of mentality as we had during the lunar mission era come back again within my lifetime, and to see the people of this Earth come together as they did back then. And I also hope that the spirit of exploration, and of peace, that such an endeavor can inspire stay with us all for a very, very long time.

On “An Inconvenient Truth”

I finally got around to watching “An Inconvenient Truth” tonight, and I have to say, I’m all riled up.

Stormy WeatherThere can be no doubt that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. That’s not what I’m all riled up about. I’m all riled up about what we can do about it and more worryingly, is it already too late?

One of the first things to really “shock” me in the film was the graph of the world’s population. I suppose I’d always “known” it, but I’d never really “known” it, if you follow me. Our population isn’t growing exponentially, it’s growing in some way that defies my knowledge of mathematics to explain it. It’s more like a straight line rising straight up than any sort of curve. In the 1950s there were only a little more than 2 billion people in the world – now we are over 6 billion. In another 30 years there will be close to 9 billion.

That is one hell of a lot of people.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the percentage of the population that is “industrialized.” Because that percentage is rising at an astronomical rate as well. And if you consider that the more “industrialized” a people are, the more energy they consume, well… you don’t need a degree in economic theory to understand basic supply & demand. With that many people, demand for energy will go up a lot. And there is no way our supply can keep up – even if there were vast, untouched resources on the same scale as the Middle East, it wouldn’t be enough to keep up.

Without change, we are going to consume more and more energy. As supply dwindles, and as demand increases, economic pressure will push us to consume every last bit of energy possible – and to hell with the consequences.

We will put the future of the human race – the future of our children – at risk, just for a few more years of energy, of the lifestyle we’ve gotten used to, that we’re “comfortable” with. And this risk is far more than the risk we used to be afraid of at the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

There are only 3 possibilities to deal with this problem:

  1. Reduce the population (thus decreasing demand)
  2. Relocate the population (I’m talking about space colonization)
  3. Invent new technologies to make better use of the limited energy we posses

Let’s address them in turn.

Number 1 is going to happen if we don’t do something yesterday. If things continue as they have gone in the last 50 years, we will see mass starvation and massive death all across the globe. One way or another, there will be fewer people around. But it won’t be a pretty sight.

The Moon and some electric power linesNumber 2 is my personal choice. Space colonization brings with it the ability to harvest energy from the sun – or even terraform other planets and use resources there instead of bringing them from Earth. At least then, if we screw up the Earth so bad, we ourselves won’t totally die out.

Number 3 is starting to happen – although still too slow in many people’s opinions. And new technology can only take us so far – we can only squeeze so much out of a limited resource, no matter how efficient we make the technology. Without deep, radical, fundamental changes in our understanding of how to get energy, we will run out.

When you look at it like that, all 3 choices seem pretty dismal. But the great thing is that we don’t have to choose just one – we can take the best part of each solution and try to use them all at once, and maybe together we can do something about it.

But there’s a dark side to all this. To make a difference, we all really have to do it together. I mean everyone, everywhere, every nation, every city, everyone. We can’t do it piecemeal. It can’t just be one or two or even three countries – even if they are the biggest polluters or energy consumers. It has got to be everyone. Because our human nature demands it – if you have to restrict yourself, change your lifestyle, you’re going to resent your neighbor if he (or she, or they) don’t have to do the same – if they get to keep their lifestyle, if they don’t have to make sacrifices like you do. Our human nature demands that we all give equally, or else none of us will give. (This is, of course, a form of the “tragedy of the commons.”)

And we will all have to give. This sort of change isn’t going to be easy. I have a favorite little quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Lion King,” that goes something like this:

“Change is good…”

“…Yeah, but it’s not easy!”

Truer words were never said.

But we must change. It’s not going to be painless – let’s get that right out in the open right now. It’s going to hurt. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. That’s the way change is. And like most major paradigm-shifting changes, you can’t really see how things are going to be until you’re on the other side – and so will it be with this change. We don’t know what the future will bring, or even what it will be like. But we know we have to make the change. Because we do know what the future will be like if we don’t change.

It is not going to be easy. But it will be good.

Once we are on the other side, things will be better. We’ll have the technology, the policies, the systems in place and it’ll all be easy. Because once you’ve made the change, and it’s over with, well, it’s no longer change anymore – it’s just the way things are.

As the movie credits rolled, I was reminded of another quote that I really like – maybe you’ve even heard it before. I think that it is just as appropriate now as it was when it was first uttered:

For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

John F. Kennedy
Address at American University
Washington, D.C., 1963

(Image credit to muha… and Kliefi for their Creative Commons licensed images.)