GJ 504 b: Pretty in Pink

For those of you who love the color pink, you might enjoy a recent discovery in the world of astronomy. NASA scientists have discovered a gas giant planet around four times the size of Jupiter, and it is entirely pink!

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Read more about this fascinating planet here: http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/gj-504-b-pretty-in-pink/

Image Credit: BeeSadie on DeviantArt


Found! 3 Super-Earth Planets That Could Support Alien Life

The habitable zone of a nearby star is filled to the brim with planets that could support alien life, scientists announced today (June 25).

An international team of scientists found a record-breaking three potentially habitable planets around the star Gliese 667C, a star 22 light-years from Earth that is orbited by at least six planets, and possibly as many as seven, researchers said. The three planet contenders for alien life are in the star’s “habitable zone” — the temperature region around the star where liquid water could exist. Gliese 667C is part of a three-star system, so the planets could see three suns in their daytime skies.

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If you thought sitting alone at the lunch table was bad, imagine drifting alone through space. This is the life of PSO J318.5-22, the Jupiter-esque exoplanet floating a mere 80 light-years away from earth. Clocking in at just 12 million years old, astronomers hope that the (relatively) young gas giant will give some insight as to how similar planets behave shortly after their birth. The absense of a bright star allows researchers to study it much more easily. 

A 2-year observation, which concluded in october, placed the small exoplanet within a collection of young stars called the Beta Pictoris, a moving group that formed about 12 million years ago. The star in question has a planet very similar to PSO J318.5-22 orbiting it, but unlike Beta’s planet, this one doesn’t orbit any star, leading astronomers to question how it was formed and how it wound up floating without a star


How many Earth twins are out there? Hundreds possibly

NASA’s recent discovery of Kepler-186f, the first habitable Earth-sized planet is big news in humankind’s long search for extraterrestrial life.

A universe full of exoplanets: Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, which was launched in 2009 to hunt planets across the universe, we’ve managed to find around 1800 exoplanets so far, many of which have been discovered in just the last year or so.

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Strange Super-Earth Planet Has ‘Plasma’ Water Atmosphere

A nearby alien planet six times the size of the Earth is covered with a water-rich atmosphere that includes a strange “plasma form” of water, scientists say.

Image: An artist’s rendition of Gliese 1214 b traveling in front of its star, shown in blue light. Credit: NAO

Astronomers have determined that the atmosphere of super-Earth Gliese 1214 b is likely water-rich. However, this exoplanet is no Earth twin. The high temperature and density of the planet give it an atmosphere that differs dramatically from Earth.

“As the temperature and pressure are so high, water is not in a usual form (vapor, liquid, or solid), but in an ionic or plasma form at the bottom the atmosphere — namely the interior — of Gliese 1214 b,” principle investigator Norio Narita of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan told SPACE.com by email.

(NASA)  Do extrasolar planets have water? In an attempt to find out, the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope made detailed observations of the atmospheres of two planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. Unfortunately, water vapor was not detected in either exoplanet. Spitzer watched star systems HD 209458b and HD 189733b closely in infrared light both before and after the parent stars eclipsed their known planets. By comparing eclipsed and uneclipsed spectra very closely, astronomers could deduce bright light-emitting atmospheric gasses that were being blocked during eclipse. Were water vapor one of these atmospheric gases, a new indication that life might exist outside of our Solar System would have been found. The planets being analyzed are known as hot Jupiters – they have sizes close to Jupiter but orbits closer to the distance of Mercury. The above illustration shows an artist’s depiction of one of these dry worlds. Although no water vapor was detected this time, the techniques of measuring exoplanet atmospheres are quite promising, and the search for distant water and other biomarkers is just beginning.

Hubble finds dead stars “polluted” with planetary debris

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has found signs of Earth-like planets in an unlikely place: the atmospheres of a pair of burnt-out stars in a nearby star cluster. The white dwarf stars are being polluted by debris from asteroid-like objects falling onto them. This discovery suggests that rocky planet assembly is common in clusters, say researchers.

The stars, known as white dwarfs — small, dim remnants of stars once like the Sun — reside 150 light-years away in the Hyades star cluster, in the constellation of Taurus (The Bull). The cluster is relatively young, at only 625 million years old.

Astronomers believe that all stars formed in clusters. However, searches for planets in these clusters have not been fruitful — of the roughly 800 exoplanets known, only four are known to orbit stars in clusters. This scarcity may be due to the nature of the cluster stars, which are young and active, producing stellar flares and other outbursts that make it difficult to study them in detail.

Hubble’s spectroscopic observations identified silicon in the atmospheres of two white dwarfs, a major ingredient of the rocky material that forms Earth and other terrestrial planets in the Solar System. This silicon may have come from asteroids that were shredded by the white dwarfs’ gravity when they veered too close to the stars. The rocky debris likely formed a ring around the dead stars, which then funnelled the material inwards.

The debris detected whirling around the white dwarfs suggests that terrestrial planets formed when these stars were born. After the stars collapsed to form white dwarfs, surviving gas giant planets may have gravitationally nudged members of any leftover asteroid belts into star-grazing orbits.

Besides finding silicon in the Hyades stars’ atmospheres, Hubble also detected low levels of carbon. This is another sign of the rocky nature of the debris, as astronomers know that carbon levels should be very low in rocky, Earth-like material.

This new study suggests that asteroids less than 160 kilometres across were gravitationally torn apart by the white dwarfs’ strong tidal forces, before eventually falling onto the dead stars.

Image credit:  NASA, ESA, STScI, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Gigantic Ring System Around J1407b Much Larger, Heavier Than Saturn’s

Astronomers at the Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands, and the University of Rochester, USA, have discovered that the ring system that they see eclipse the very young Sun-like star J1407 is of enormous proportions, much larger and heavier than the ring system of Saturn.

The ring system – the first of its kind to be found outside our solar system – was discovered in 2012 by a team led by Rochester’s Eric Mamajek.

A new analysis of the data, led by Leiden’s Matthew Kenworthy, shows that the ring system consists of over 30 rings, each of them tens of millions of kilometers in diameter.

Furthermore, they found gaps in the rings, which indicate that satellites (“exomoons”) may have formed. The result has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

“The details that we see in the light curve are incredible. The eclipse lasted for several weeks, but you see rapid changes on time scales of tens of minutes as a result of fine structures in the rings,” says Kenworthy. “The star is much too far away to observe the rings directly, but we could make a detailed model based on the rapid brightness variations in the star light passing through the ring system. If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b, they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full moon.”


Frost and Fire

In the constellation of Leo 33.1 light years away, a Neptune-sized planet orbits a red dwarf star at a distance of 4.3 million kilometres—15 times closer than Mercury is to our sun. It’s no surprise that the planet, Gliese 436 b, has an incredibly hot surface temperature of 439 degrees Celsius, but it’s definitely a surprise that the planet is also covered in ice. Since the boiling point of water is 100 degrees Celsuis, it seems impossible for ice to exist, but Gliese 436 b’s ice isn’t exactly conventional ice as we know it on Earth. It’s a phenomenon called “hot ice”, or “ice ten”—a kind of hot, solid water. It looks a lot like our ice, but if you touched it, it would pretty much melt through your flesh. It’s not kept in a solid state by a low temperature; instead, the planet’s gravity is so powerful that it pulls all its water vapour towards the core, forcing it together into a densely-packed, solid, hot layer. Even the incredibly hot temperatures can’t evaporate or melt it. Since the ice alone isn’t enough to account for the planet’s estimated radius, it’s thought that on top is an outer layer made up of hydrogen and helium. It’s puzzling, though, because planets with hot, hydrogren-dominated atmospheres are predicted to have significant amounts of methane and no carbon monoxide—but on Gliese 436b, it’s the other way around, and we have no idea why yet.

(Image Credit: 1, 2)

Unlikely Planets Found in Violent Star Clusters

When it comes to forming planets, Mother Nature isn’t very picky. Despite horrific conditions inside densely packed open clusters, stars apparently have no problem forming and hanging on to an orbital brood. That’s the conclusion from a new study that used data collected by NASA’s now-dormant Kepler space telescope to hunt for planets in a one-billion-year old open cluster called NGC 6811, a collection of about 70 stars located about 3,400 light years away in the constellation Cygnus. Read more.



How many planets? is an interactive feature from New Scientist detailing the late Kepler exoplanet-hunting spacecraft’s planetary haul. 

Kepler focused its gaze on a tiny piece of the sky near the constellation Cygnus, about 150,000 stars. By looking for small dips in a star’s intensity caused by a planet orbiting in front of it, the Kepler team tallied 3,588 possible exoplanets.

By then throwing out all the big boys that are nothing like Earth (down to 1,696) and then focusing on the planets that are in their star’s habitable zone (where the conditions could allow for liquid water on its surface), they narrowed it down to 51 possible Earth-like exoplanets.

Not that many, eh? Well, keep in mind that Kepler would miss planets who weren’t in the right orientation or orbited dim stars. A few calculation corrections tick that number up to 22,500…

Finally, Kepler was only looking at 0.28% of the sky. Expand it to the whole of the Milky Way, and you get something like 15-30 billion possible Earth-like planets. (I want to emphasize the possible there, because really, who knows?)

Kepler may be gone, but I can’t wait to see what future planet-hunting missions, using different detection strategies like gravitational distortion and newer imaging equipment, can find. Earth is definitely not alone. The real question for our time is this: Are we alone?

Explore the full interactive at New ScientistFor more exoplanet explorations, check out Lee Billings’ new book Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search For Life Among The Stars

Most Amazing Exoplanets

The term ‘exoplanet’ applies to any planet outside of our solar system. At last count, we have identified 3,538.

Out of the thousands of planets we know about, some of them are incredibly bizarre compared to what we are used to seeing in our own solar system. Here are some exoplanets with very unique characteristics:


The most astounding fact about Kepler-78b is that it shouldn’t even exist, according to our current knowledge of planetary formation. It is extremely close to its star at only 550,000 miles (900,000 kilometers). As a comparison, Mercury only gets within 28.5 million miles (45.9 million kilometers) of the sun in the nearest point of orbit. With that proximity, it isn’t clear how the planet could have formed as the star was much larger when the planet formed. With its current distance, that would mean it formed inside the star, which is impossible as far as we know. 

The planet itself is only slightly larger than Earth, though surface conditions are markedly different. The temperature on the surface is estimated to be 4300° F (2400° C), which is nearly nine times as hot as the temperature on Venus. Unfortunately for Kepler-78b, it is likely that the star’s gravitational pull will gradually bring the star closer and totally consume it in the next 3 billion years.


While Kepler-78b still has about 3 billion more years before getting consumed by its star, the process is well underway for WASP-12b. This exoplanet is actively getting pulled apart by its parent star, much to the delight of astronomers who can watch the process unfold. So much material has been pulled away from the planet, it has been pulled into an oblong football shape. Astronomers have estimated that WASP-12b has about 10 million more years until it is completely pulled apart by the star.

The planet is described as a “hot Jupiter” as it is a gas planet that is about 40 percent larger than Jupiter. It is currently so close to its star that it only takes 1.1 Earth days for the planet to complete a full orbit. The star, WASP-12, is G-type main sequence star, just like our own sun. It is located about 800 lightyears away in the Auriga constellation.


TrES-2b has been dubbed the “dark planet” because it does not reflect light. If we were able to view it directly, it would likely just look like a coal-black ball of gas. At 1800°F (1000°C) the planet is way too hot for clouds, which would help reflect the star’s light. The red tinges are areas of superheated gas. Other darker planets only reflect about 10% of the star’s light, but TrES-2b only reflects about 1%, making it the darkest planet ever discovered.

Why is TrES-2b so dark? Scientists aren’t quite sure. Right now, the best guess is that the majority of the planet’s composition is something like sodium or potassium which absorbs light. This dark world is located about 750 lightyears away in the Draco constellation. 

HD 189773b

HD 189773b is pretty exciting. It is relatively close, at only 63 lightyears away. It is also the first planet to have its color determined and it turned out to be a pretty blue planet, just like Earth. Unlike Earth, however, HD 189773b is a gas giant with a temperature that reaches a sweltering 1800°F (1000°C). The weather gets more extreme, because intense pressure and temperature turns silicate particles in the atmosphere into glass, which then rains down. As if that doesn’t sound dangerous enough, the winds have been estimated to gust at 4,000 mph (7,000 km/h) which really whips those glass particles around. 

55 Cancri e

55 Cancri e is twice the size of Earth but is nearly 8 times more massive and twice as dense. Last fall, researchers deduced that the mass of the planet was largely carbon. Due to the pressure and surface temperature of 4892°F (2700°C) it very well could have formed diamond. It is so close to its parent star it takes a mere 18 hours for the planet to complete a full orbit.

55 Cancri e is only about 40 light-years away from us in the Cancer constellation. The parent star is much more carbon than our own sun, so it might be too surprising that planet e is also carbon-rich. From there, it isn’t much of a stretch to assume that the other four known planets in the system would also have a high carbon content.

Because of these extreme conditions, astronomers don’t believe that 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere, making it a poor candidate for the possibility for life. However, it is close enough for astronomers to use it to test hypotheses about planetary formation.

PSR B1620-26b

Nicknamed “Methuselah,” PSR B1620-26b is the oldest known exoplanet. The planetary system formed approximately 12.7 billion years ago, when the Milky Way galaxy was in its infancy. It is located in the Scorpius constellation about 12,400 lightyears away. 

Methuselah orbits binary stars and goes around them in a circumbinary orbit. As if Methuselah’s age isn’t interesting enough, the fact that it orbits two mismatched dead stars is quite unusual. One of the stars is a pulsar and the other is a white dwarf. Since Methuselah is found in a dense star cluster, astronomers initially thought it could be a star as well, and would be considered a brown dwarf. Measurements from the Hubble would confirm that Methuselah is a planet, and it remains the oldest one we’ve ever discovered.


Located 1,400 lightyears away in the Hercules constellation, TrES-4 is the largest exoplanet we have discovered so far. Though it is over 1.7 times the size of Jupiter, it has an extremely low density and is categorized as a “puffy” planet. The planet’s density is about the same as cork, which came as quite a shock. Astronomers attribute this to extreme heat of 2,300° F (1,260° C) due to is proximity to the star. At only 4.5 million miles (7.2 million kilometers) away from its sun, TrES-4 is able to complete an orbit in three Earth days.

Gliese 436 b

30 lightyears away in the constellation Leo, Gliese 436 b is a planet that is about as massive as Neptune. The planet also happens to be covered in burning ice - though the ice isn’t anything like what we’re used to. The extreme pressure of the planet forces the water to stay in solid form, even though the temperature exceeds 570° F (300° C). The outer layer of the solid water is superheated and comes off as vapor. Water has over 10 solid states, not including common ice.

In its present position, the water would not have been able to condense down into a solid, indicating that it migrated toward its sun after it formed.


Two Alien Planets With Endless Oceans - Unlike Anything in our Solar System

“These planets are unlike anything in our solar system. They have endless oceans,” said lead author Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the CfA.

“There may be life there, but could it be technology-based like ours? Life on these worlds would be under water with no easy access to metals, to electricity, or fire for metallurgy. Nonetheless, these worlds will still be beautiful, blue planets circling an orange star — and maybe life’s inventiveness to get to a technology stage will surprise us.”

These two “Water World” planets orbit the star Kepler-62. This five-planet system has two worlds in the habitable zone — the distance from their star at which they receive enough light and warmth that liquid water could theoretically exist on their surfaces. Modeling by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) suggests that both planets are water worlds, their surfaces completely covered by a global ocean with no land in sight.

Kepler-62 is a type K star slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. The two water worlds, designated Kepler-62e and -62f, orbit the star every 122 and 267 days, respectively. They were found by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which detects planets that transit, or cross the face of, their host star. Measuring a transit tells astronomers the size of the planet relative to its star.

Kepler-62e is 60 percent larger than Earth, while Kepler-62f is about 40 percent larger, making both of them “super-Earths.” They are too small for their masses to be measured, but astronomers expect them to be composed of rock and water, without a significant gaseous envelope.

As the warmer of the two worlds, Kepler-62e would have a bit more clouds than Earth, according to computer models. More distant Kepler-62f would need the greenhouse effect from plenty of carbon dioxide to warm it enough to host an ocean. Otherwise, it might become an ice-covered snowball.

“Kepler-62e probably has a very cloudy sky and is warm and humid all the way to the polar regions. Kepler-62f would be cooler, but still potentially life-friendly,” said Harvard astronomer and co-author Dimitar Sasselov.

“The good news is — the two would exhibit distinctly different colors and make our search for signatures of life easier on such planets in the near future,” he added.

“Imagine looking through a telescope to see another world with life just a few million miles from your own. Or, having the capability to travel between them on a regular basis. I can’t think of a more powerful motivation to become a space-faring society,” said Sasselov.

Kaltenegger and Sasselov’s research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Starshade is NASA’s latest design in a cutting-edge effort to take pictures of planets orbiting stars far from the sun.

The flower-shaped spacecraft’s goal is to make detecting and imaging exoplanets much, much easier. Despite the fact that astronomers have been indirectly detecting exoplanets for more than 15 years, actually taking a picture of one has been an incredibly difficult task thanks to the often-blinding lights of their parent stars.

In conjunction with a space-based telescope, NASA’s starshade will position itself precisely between the telescope and the star that’s being observed, blocking the starlight before it even reaches the telescope’s mirrors. Light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible and astronomers would finally be able to take actual pictures of them.

These images could provide clues as to whether or not such distant worlds could support life as we know it.

Dr. Stuart Shaklan, JPL’s lead engineer on the starshade project, says “The flower-shaped petals are part of what makes the starshade so effective. The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves. Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight.”

Princeton researcher and principal investigator of the starshade project Professor Jeremy Kasdin has assembled a team that will create a smaller scale starshade at Princeton to verify that the design blocks the light as predicted by the computer simulations. Also, to measure its accuracy, a team at JPL will test the deployment of a near-full scale starshade system in the lab.

Tell Congress that you support doubling NASA’s funding so that they can bring these projects to light faster and without budget worries.

Take action now: http://penny4nasa.org/take-action

Read more: http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/video/15

Population of known alien planets nearly doubles as NASA discovers 715 new worlds

The 715 newfound planets, which scientists announced today (Feb. 26), boost the total alien-world tally to between 1,500 and 1,800, depending on which of the five main extrasolar planet discovery catalogs is used. The Kepler mission is responsible for more than half of these finds, hauling in 961 exoplanets to date, with thousands more candidates awaiting confirmation by follow-up investigations.

“This is the largest windfall of planets — not exoplanet candidates, mind you, but actually validated exoplanets — that’s ever been announced at one time,” Douglas Hudgins, exoplanet exploration program scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, told reporters today.

About 94 percent of the new alien worlds are smaller than Neptune, researchers said, further bolstering earlier Kepler observations that suggested the Milky Way galaxy abounds with rocky planets like Earth.

Most of the 715 exoplanets orbit closely to their parent stars, making them too hot to support life as we know it. But four of the worlds are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and reside in the “habitable zone,” that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.

The $600 million Kepler spacecraft launched in March 2009 to determine how frequently Earth-like planets occur around our galaxy. The observatory detects alien worlds by noticing the telltale brightness dips caused when they pass in front of, or transit, their parent stars from Kepler’s perspective.

Kepler’s original planet-hunting mission ended last May when the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed, robbing the spacecraft of its ultraprecise pointing ability. Still, scientists have expressed confidence that they will be able to achieve the mission’s chief goals with the data Kepler gathered during its first four years in space.

Those were very productive years. Kepler has flagged more than 3,600 planet candidates to date, and mission team members expect that about 90 percent of them will end up being the real deal.

Indeed, the 715 new planets were pulled from just the first two years of Kepler observations, so more big planet-confirmation hauls could be coming as researchers work their way through the rest of the mission’s huge database.

All of the 715 newfound alien planets reside in multiplanet systems, just like Earth. Taken together, the new planets orbit a total of 305 stars, researchers said. And these systems are generally reminiscent of the inner regions of our own solar system, where planets travel around the sun in circular orbits that are more or less in the same plane, they added.

“These results establish that planetary systems with mulitple planets around one star, like our own solar system, are in fact common,” Hudgins said.

Scientists validated the newly discovered worlds using a powerful and sophisticated new method called “verification by multiplicity,” which works partly on the logic of probability.

Image credit: NASA

Why scientists need to search for alien life on purple planets

Billions of years ago, when microbial life first emerged on Earth, our planet would have appeared purple from space. Armed with this knowledge, scientists now say we should be on the lookout for exoplanets tinged in a similar purple hue — a possible sign of extraterrestrial life.

Back during the Archean era, some three billion years ago, one of the more widespread forms of life were purple bacteria — photosynthetic microorganisms that inhabited both aquatic and terrestrial environments. These conditions would have been similar to the one recently discovered by Australian scientists, an ecosystem dating back 3.5 billion years.

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