Tag Archives: alien planets

We’ll Survive 2012 Apocalypse, So Will Doomsday Fears


Humanity will survive the supposed December 2012 apocalypse, but, unfortunately, so will irrational doomsday fears, scientists say.

Doomsayers around the world are gearing up for armageddon on Dec. 21, based on predictions supposedly made by the Mayans more than 1,000 years ago. Even after the sun rises Dec. 22, however, many folks will be only momentarily reassured, quickly latching onto another scenario purported to bring about the apocalypse within their lifetime.

The persistence of these worries stems from a variety of factors, researchers say. The deluge of misinformation on the Internet, poorly developed or underutilized critical thinking skills and plain old human nature all contribute, convincing many people to fear the worst despite the lack of compelling evidence (and the poor track record of such dire predictions over the years).

“There have been end-of-the-world predictions every few years throughout history, really,” said astronomer David Morrison, head of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “We had two or three last year.”

Morrison spoke at the SETICon 2 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., on June 23 during a panel discussion called “Cosmophobia: Doomsday 2012 and Other Fiction Science.” [Don’t Panic: 2012 Doomsday Fears Debunked]

Flood of Misinformation

Though Morrison and other scientists work hard to tamp down fears of Comet Elenin, the mythical planet Nibiru and other supposed agents of impending doom, their voices of reason have a hard time being heard these days.

“We are completely drowned out by the doomsayers on the Internet,” Morrison said. “It’s very hard for the truth to even get a hearing.”

It’s especially hard to reach young people, most of whom seem unable to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, he added.

“At the best, they will just count numbers,” Morrison said. “‘Well, there are 83 websites that say the world will end in 2012, and one that says it won’t. So it must be true.'”

Not all of the misinformation is coming from altruistic folks who just want to get the worried word out, said fellow panelist Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Some of it is probably pumped out by people trying to make a buck.

“Today, it seems like money is much more important than truth, that anything goes,” Fraknoi said. “Fear-mongering has become a large and profitable industry.”

Data from the publishing world appear to back him up: A search for “Doomsday 2012” books on Amazon.com returns nearly 200 titles.

It’s Human Nature

But not all of the blame can be laid at the Internet’s feet. Doomsday fears have cropped up repeatedly throughout history, and in most cases they weren’t sustained by YouTube videos and “Nibiru” Google searches. [Oops! 11 Failed Doomsday Predictions]

The Millerites, for example, believed that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in 1843 or 1844, and that the world as we know it would be destroyed in the process. Another group called the Seekers thought a huge flood would ravage our planet on Dec. 21, 1954. The Seekers’ leader, a Chicago woman named Dorothy Martin, claimed to have gotten this information from aliens living on the planet Clarion.

We shouldn’t be too surprised whenever such cults grab the headlines, said Leonard Mlodinow, a Caltech physicist and author of such books as “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randonmness Rules Our Lives” and “The Grand Design” (which he wrote with Stephen Hawking).

“I think it’s a very natural human phenomenon,” Mlodninow said. “People who we consider very rational believe such things all the time.”

He cited today’s major religions, saying that they would have seemed just as odd and irrational as the doomsday cults if we’d encountered them back in the early days, before they became so well established.

“I don’t consider those people particularly weird,” Mlodinow said of modern doomsayers. “I just think that they’re early adopters, you might call them.”

There’s likely some ego-boosting pyschology involved as well, said panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.

“To some extent, it’s a very empowering thought — that you know something very important that those nerdy, pointy-headed, tweed-jacketed academics down at the local university won’t acknowledge,” Shostak said. “I think you have to look for the answers there.”

Is Education the Answer?

Whatever their causes, doomsday fears are quite prevalent in the United States and abroad.

For example, a poll commisioned by the news agency Reuters earlier this year found that 15% of people worldwide — or roughy 1 billion folks — believe the apocalypse will come during their lifetime. In the United States, the figure is 22%.

Such worries aren’t just interesting sociological or psychological phenomena, Morrison said. They can have tragic consequences for believers.

“At least once a week, I get a question from a young person — usually 11, 12 years old — who says they are contemplating suicide before the end of the world,” Morrison said. “I know of several cases at least of reported suicides, of people who are obsessed with the end of the world in 2012.”

The best way to combat irrational doomsday worries — especially among the young — is education, Fraknoi said. We need to teach better critical thinking skills and instill a love of discovery that will inspire kids to seek out the truth — and make them less likely to be gulled by fanciful rumors.

“Ask yourself the question, ‘Why should I believe a word of this?'” Fraknoi said. “If you know how to answer, ‘Why should I believe a word of this?’ then you’re much closer to scientific truth.”

Artist’s conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X courtesy of gilderm, sxc.hu

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/07/06/science-of-doomsday-fears/

Tiniest Alien Solar System Discovered


The most crowded alien planetary system found yet possesses five worlds all orbiting a star at least 12 times closer than Earth does the sun, researchers say.

Investigators discovered these exoplanets using NASA’s pioneering Kepler space observatory. The orbiting telescope has detected more than 2,300 potential alien worlds since its March 2009 launch. It searches for these planets by observing more than 160,000 stars simultaneously, looking for small dips in stars’ brightness due to orbiting worlds passing in front of them.

The researchers used Kepler to analyze the planetary system around the star KOI-500, a star about the mass of the sun but only three-quarters its diameter and around 1 billion years old — less than one-quarter the sun’s age. KOI-500 is approximately 1,100 light-years away in the constellation Lyra, the harp.

KOI-500 is a super-compact planetary system, the most tightly packed one seen yet, hosting at least five planets ranging from 1.3 to 2.6 times the size of Earth.

“All five planets zip around their star within a region 150 times smaller in area than the Earth’s orbit, despite containing more material than several Earths,” study lead author Darin Ragozzine, a planetary scientist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, said in a statement. “At this rate, you could easily pack in 10 more planets, and they would still all fit comfortably inside the Earth’s orbit.”

These planets orbit so near KOI-500 that their “years,” or the time it takes to circle their star, are only 1.0, 3.1, 4.6, 7.1, and 9.5 days long. The planets are so close together that their mutual gravity slightly pushes and pulls on their orbits. Still, their orbits appear completely stable overall — they appear in no danger of crashing together, or of hurling each other away from or into their star, Ragozzine told SPACE.com.

Intriguingly, the outer four planets orbiting KOI-500 follow a synchronized orbit seen in no other system to date — a so-called four-body resonance.

“These four planets come back to a similar orbital configuration about every 191 days,” Ragozzine said.

The orbits these planets are now in make them too hot for the planets to have formed there. The researchers suggest the planets around KOI-500 were originally more spread out, and migrated inward due to gravitational interactions between them and the protoplanetary disk of gas and dust they originated from, Ragozzine said.

“We think that the migration process that put them into their current orbits also helped synchronize them into a four-body resonance,” Ragozzine said.

Recent theories for the formation of the giant planets of our outer solar system, such as Jupiter and Saturn, also involve planets moving during the formation process. As these giants shifted their orbits, researchers suggest their gravitational pulls hurled asteroids and comets toward the inner solar system, causing the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment about 4.1 billion to 3.8 billion years ago, which pummeled Earth, the moon and the inner planets with a barrage of countless impacts.

As scientists have discovered more and more exoplanets, they have found that most observed worlds orbit much closer to their stars than any planet in our solar system orbits the sun, including so-called hot Jupiters, which are giant planets orbiting closer to their stars than Mercury does the sun. Scientists still don’t understand why most observed alien planetary systems look so unlike ours.

“This difference probably has to do with the different ways planets interacted with the disk of gas and dust they came from,” Ragozzine said. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to [be done to] understand these processes better.

“As the most compact system of a new compact population of planets, KOI-500 will become a touchstone for future theories that will attempt to describe how compact planetary systems form,” Ragozzine continued. “Learning about these systems will inspire a new generation of theories to explain why our solar system turned out so differently.”

The scientists will detail their findings on Oct. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Reno, Nev.

Illustration by Karl Tate, SPACE.com.

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/10/15/tiniest-alien-solar-system/

5 Projects NASA Is Considering


As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, the space agency recently announced the 28 selections for study and development as part of its larger Space Technology program. Proposals focus on developing technology that would help the agency achieve its future goals, and include research into power, propulsion systems, structures and avionics.

Phase I proposals receive $100k for one year of research and Phase II proposals receive $500k for two years. They are eons away from any practical application, but the range of proposals give a hint of the direction NASA is moving.

Water Walls

Getting rid of human waste is a big issue when you are floating out in space, and NASA’s Ames Research Center proposes an answer. In this space craft a system within the walls filters out reusable water from waste material through osmosis. The waste material then gets recycled out as a radiation shield.

Exploration of Under-Ice Regions With Ocean Profiling Agents (EUROPA)

Pretty much the coolest submarine you could ever imagine, this project looks to design a craft for exploring Europa, the underwater ocean of Jupiter’s sixth closest moon. Developed by a team of scientists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University, the submarine would be able to dive beneath Europa’s icy surface to discover what lies beneath.

Venus Land Sailing Rover

While the EUROPA submarine explores the depths of one planet’s moon, this project would create a craft that instead looks from the sky. NASA’s own Glen Research Center proposed a craft that would be able to sail above or through this planet’s dense atmosphere.

The V2 Suit

The full name of this project is the Variable Vector Countermeasure Suit (V2Suit) for Space Habitation and Exploration, or V2 for short. This spacesuit creates the sensation of gravity during movement by guiding flywheels attached to the suit, using gyroscopes and accelerometers. Designed by Kevin Duda of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, the suit tackles muscle atrophy and bone loss that occurs when astronauts spend long periods of time in zero gravity.

The Fusion Propelled Rocket

This proposal researches how fusion energy could be used to fuel rocket propulsion systems. Using fusion energy speeds up the time quite a lot — currently it takes a mission 210 days to reach Mars. With this technology, it would take 30.

This article originally published at PSFK

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/09/future-nasa-projects/

Wide Range of Alien Planets May Support Life


Life may be able to survive on a broader set of alien worlds than astronomers had thought, a new study suggests.

Researchers have created a new online tool called the “Habitable Zone Gallery,” which looks at every known exoplanetary system and determines that just-right range of distances from the host star where liquid water could exist. The upshot is that scientists might not need to pin their hopes for alien life on a planet like Earth, whose circular orbit keeps it in the middle of the habitable zone all the time.

Large numbers of alien planets on eccentric, highly elliptical orbits likely dip into the habitable zone now and again, bringing them brief periods of benign conditions, scientists said. And research here on Earth shows that life can survive big swings between hot and cold, wet and dry.

“Some organisms can basically drop their metabolism to zero to survive very long-lasting, cold conditions,” lead author Stephen Kane, of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement.


“We know that others can withstand very extreme heat conditions if they have a protective layer of rock or water,” Kane added. “There have even been studies performed on Earth-based spores, bacteria and lichens, which show they can survive in both harsh environments on Earth and the extreme conditions of space.”

Even planets that might be hostile to large organisms could conceivably host smaller, simpler life-forms, researchers said. After all, humans could not have survived on Earth back in the early days, when life first got a foothold on our planet.

“Life evolved on Earth at a very early stage in the planet’s development, under conditions much harsher than they are today,” Kane said.

Many life-harboring worlds might potentially not be planets, he added, but rather moons of gas giant planets like Jupiter or Saturn in our own solar system.

“There are lots of giant planets out there, and all of them may have moons, if they are like the giant planets in the solar system,” Kane said. “A moon of a planet that is in or spends time in a habitable zone can be habitable itself.”

Kane cautioned that it’s tough to know anything definitive about the habitability of a planet or moon without detailed knowledge of its atmosphere. Both Earth and Venus experience greenhouse effects, for example, but Venus’ has gone into runaway mode, making its surface hot enough to melt lead.

Still, the new research suggests that many worlds across the galaxy could be habitable. Kane and co-author Dawn Gellino, also of the Exoplanet Science Institute, are now trying to determine which already-discovered exoplanetary systems might be good candidates for extremophile life.

“There are lots of eccentric and gas giant planet discoveries,” Kane said. “We may find some surprises out there as we start to determine exactly what we consider habitable.”

The study was published in the journal Astrobiology. The Habitable Zone Gallery can be found at www.hzgallery.org.

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/14/alien-planets-life/

Alien Planet Haul: Telescope Spots 41 New Exoplanets


Astronomers have discovered 41 new alien planets in one sweep by analyzing how each world gravitationally yanks on its neighbors.

The newly confirmed exoplanets were spotted by NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope, which has detected more than 2,300 potential alien worlds since its March 2009 launch. The new finds, announced in two separate papers, bring the number of verified Kepler worlds to 115 and the total exoplanet tally to nearly 800.

“Typically planets are announced one or two at a time — it’s quite exceptional to have 27 announced in a single paper, or 41 in two,” said Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist at the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Batavia, Ill. Steffen is lead author of one of the studies.

“It goes to show how rich the Kepler data are and how useful these new methods can be,” Steffen told SPACE.com.


Kepler flags exoplanet candidates via the transit method, which looks for dips in a star’s brightness caused by a planet crossing in front of it. Confirming these candidates can be a tricky and laborious process, however, requiring follow-up observations by ground-based instruments or further analysis of Kepler’s data.

Two independent teams of researchers took the latter tack to confirm the 41 new alien planets. They delved deep into the telescope’s observations, studying how each world’s gravity tugs on its sibling planets. These slight pulls cause regular variations in the planets’ orbits, affecting when they cross in front of their stars.

One paper, by Jiwei Xie at the University of Toronto, confirms 24 new planets in 12 systems. Another study, by Steffen and his colleagues, confirms 27 planets in 13 systems. Five of the systems, and 10 of the planets, are the same in both papers. All in all, the new research adds 20 new planetary systems to the 47 that Kepler had previously confirmed, marking a more than 40% increase.

“With systems like these, we can get really good information about the interactions among the planets in them,” Steffen said. “This, in turn, helps us place the Earth and our solar system into the context of all planetary systems. Note that the number of planets in our solar system is now only 1% of the number of planets that are known. So, unlike 15 or 20 years ago, we can start to answer questions about how lucky we really are.”

Steffen and his colleagues submitted their paper to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, while Xie submitted his study to the Astrophysical Journal.

The $600 milllion Kepler observatory’s main mission is to find Earth-size planets in the so-called habitable zones of their parent stars — a just-right range of distances that could support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it.

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/21/kepler-telescope-new-exoplanets/