Kepler Planets Found Orbiting Two Stars, Luke Skywalker Finds Tatooine

On a clear night, when you are able to get away from city lights and take a real look at the sky, you will notice something. Things are up there—a ton of them.  Most kids have grown up with the idea that the number of stars in the sky number somewhere around or equal to the amount of grains of sand found on a beach.  Recent looks at and around the universe, however, have proven that planets may be just as numerous as the stars.

The fittingly described “planet-hunting” NASA Kepler Space Telescope, has kept true to its name and has gone where no men have gone before—giving scientists reason to believe that other Earth-like planets may be more numerous than we may think.  Dr. Arnaud Cassan and his team of researchers from the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris used a special technique to get a closer look at 100 million stars between 3,000 and 25,000 light-years away from Earth.  Using light that has been intensified by the gravity of a massive star, the telescope acts as an “astronomical magnifying lens,” illuminating bodies previously unobserved.  It was by this technique, that the team was able to spot what was originally believed to be only an anomaly.

“Planets are the rule rather than the exception,” explained Dr. Cassan.  And among these planets are Kepler-16, Kepler-34b, and Kepler-35b.  What makes these planets so special is the binary star system that each one orbits.  Planets orbiting two separate stars are a recent discovery, with the first one (Kepler-16) being discovered just last year.  Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b exist 4900 and 5400 light years away, respectively, in the constellation Cygnus.  And their uniqueness is further compounded by the fact that they also happen to be situated relatively close to what is considered the habitable zone. 

It is in this “Goldilocks” zone where elements would provide the necessary means for water to form on the planet’s service—not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  While the atmosphere surrounding a binary star system is rocky at best, researchers, like astronomer William Welsh of San Diego State University, point out that this discovery proves that “nature likes to form planets, even in chaotic environments close to two stars.” Welsh added that he was going to continue to remain on the look-out for more “circumbinary planets.”   “[The search]’s by no means easy,” Welsh stated, “but I expect we will find more of these gems in the Kepler data.”

But looking at conditions on these planets, it is evident that they are in no way similar to that found here on Earth.  All three planets almost match Jupiter in its size but are closer to Neptune in weight (a dense 17 times heavier than Earth)—making anything that were to live on it, literally, something out of this world. Claud Lacey, of the University of Arkansas who, although an expert in the field of binary star systems did not participate in this new research, muses on what may be living on these new planets: “Perhaps a large, floating-type animal that could adjust its density so that it could rise and fall in the atmosphere.”

…That would be awesome…

For the time being, the suns are nowhere close to setting on this new information.

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Spaced Out: Atlantis Launch Brings End of an Era

It may have seemed like a long time in the making, a notable era has ended this morning with the launch of the American space shuttle Atlantis, the final launch for United States shuttle missions. After 30 years of groundbreaking missions, Atlantis becomes the last in the line of many shuttles like it to head towards its retirement. Here it will join others of its kind, like NASA’s Discovery and Endeavour, and become a monument in this country’s history. 

“We’re going to have a party on the day of the launch,” stated Michael “Rich” Clifford, the deputy program manager for the Atlantis shuttle at Boeing Co., and former astronaut.

And everybody has plenty of reasons to celebrate.

From its first launch back in 1981, the NASA shuttle missions have prepared 134 space shuttles for launch—the final flight of Atlantis being the 135th, with its own repertoire of now 33 launches under its belt.

But although the launchings have been a sight to see for many years and have provided the world with countless images of a space never before seen, it did not come without its high costs. And a big cost it tuned out to be.

From the initial space race that started it all, the NASA shuttle missions have absorbed money by the truckload. Costing a pretty penny and well over the intended $90 billion budget (more than double the originally anticipated costs), the elaborate program began to weigh heavy in the United States pocket book. 

Former astronaut Duane Carey, who is perhaps best known for his own flight back in 2002 as pilot of STS-109, agrees that NASA may have fell a little short.  “But there is no embarrassment in setting the bar impossibly high and then failing to clear it…What matters is that we strived mightily to do so—and we did strive mightily. The main legacy left by the shuttle program is that of a magnificent failure.”

So what does this mean for space exploration now?

NASA deputy administrator, Lori Garver, recently alluded to the idea that now NASA would be able to take on more “ambitious goals” and manned space flights will be left to other private companies. This can also mean that when it becomes necessary to send astronauts to the International Space Station, the responsibility will more than likely fall to the Russians—with NASA offering outside support.

All in all, today will become yet another memorable day in American history as the four individuals who make up this last crew—commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim—suit up and take their seats for the last time.

The purpose of their trip is to pass on supplies to the Raffaello logistics module, helping to keep those in orbit stocked until 2012.  And after a 12-day stint outside of the atmosphere, they will return back to Earth—another day sure to gather much attention and fame.

“I’d have to say [that] after the last 30 years, certainly our program and these shuttles, throughout all of their missions, have traveled very well.  And after 135’s landing, I think we can say at that point that we’ve arrived,” remembers NASA test director Jeff Spaulding.

Over the years the United States shuttle missions have come to be as much a part of the American way of life as baseball and apple pie. Be with it all said and done, it will be a new age that we enter with new dreams and new technologies.

Photo Credit: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/196742main_atlantislift-web.jpg