Is an Alien Supercivilization Causing Taby’s Star to Flicker?

Two years ago the star KIC 8462852, also know as Taby’s star created a bit of a sensation in the press and all over the web. The reason for all the excitement was the suggestion that the star’s irregular light curve, the amount of energy generated over time, could be explained by the existence of an ‘Alien Megastructure’ built around the star. Well Taby’s star is acting up again and we still know very little about the cause.

Let’s start with a few things we do know for certain. First of all KIC 8462852 is an F spectral type star in the constellation of Cygnus. Now the F spectral class is the next class bigger and brighter than our Sun, which is spectral class G. Taby’s star is in fact estimated to be about 1.5 times as massive as our Sun and about 5 times brighter. Despite its brightness however, at an estimated distance of 1300 light years Taby’s star cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The picture below shows Taby’s position in our sky.

The Position of Taby’s Star in Cygnus

In many respects KIC 8462852 should be just an average, normal main sequence star, a star as stable and constant as our own Sun. Taby’s star is anything but stable however, its brightness has been observed to drop by as much as 22% and even after years of observations astronomers have been completely unable to find any pattern in the variations of its light. The picture below shows KIC 8462852’s light curve for the 17th of April in 2013 as measured by the Kepler Space Telescope.

Taby’s Light Curve (Credit NASA)

Several possible mechanisms for the variations in KIC 8462852’s brightness have been suggested. A system of one or more planets passing in front of the star can produce small and periodic dips in brightness; in fact this is how the Kepler space telescope has succeeded in discovering hundreds of planets outside our solar. However KIC 8462852 has larger reductions in it’s light output than could be caused by a planet, as much as 22% remember.

Other possible explanations include a swarm of asteroids or giant planets ‘flying in formation’ in highly eccentric orbits that sometimes bring them close to the star and other times take them far away from it. If the idea of three, four or more Jupiter sized planets orbiting as a group seems unlikely, well many astronomers agree with you. Bare in mind though, that astronomers have examined the light curves of millions of stars by now so it’s quite possible that Taby’s star is that one in a million oddball.

A recent suggestion has been made that the fluctuations in the light output from KIC 8462852 may be due to the star’s having swallowed a planet a couple of thousand years ago and in a sense its stomach is still upset.

Finally we have the proposed explanation that has everyone talking. There is a definite possibility that an alien supercivilization is building a structure similar to one described by Physicist Freeman Dyson and known as a Dyson Sphere. The idea of a Dyson Sphere is simple, in fact it’s the ultimate in solar power. By enclosing a star in a sphere an advanced civilization would have access to its entire energy output.

In this scenario the aliens are in the process of building the Dyson sphere around KIC 8462852 so that at present it is only capturing a small portion of the star’s total energy. This would still be more energy than the human race has used in its entire history.

All these possibilities are just that however, possibilities. We need more and more careful observations before we can make any kind of definite statement about the cause of the irregularity of Taby’s star. Since KIC 8462852 is now once again varying in brightness maybe soon we will learn more.

Before I go I do want to say one more thing. While much of what we know about KIC 8462852 comes from the Kepler space telescope or other professional observatories much of it has also come from observations by amateur astronomers. Throughout history these scientific hobbyists have discovered much of what we know about the Universe by their searches for comets or asteroids or by their measurements of the light curves of variable stars like Taby’s star.

 

 

Searching for ET on Wolf 1061c

Over the past two decades astronomers have had a field day discovering new planets orbits other stars within our galaxy. As of the beginning of 2017 more than 3500 extrasolar planets have been discovered, enough to give astronomers a good statistical sample of how many planets are out there, and what kind.

Artist’s Concept of the Wolf1061 System

Those planet’s which orbit their star in the ‘habitable zone’ where liquid water can exist on their surface have received extra attention because of the possibility that life may exist on them. Such planets are neither too close to their star nor too distant and are often referred to as Goldilocks planets. Wolf 1061c is one such planet and at a distance of 13.8 light years it is one of the closest.

Astronomer Stephen Kane of San Francisco State University is presently conducting an extensive examination of Wolf 1061c to learn all we can with our present technologies while at the same time preparing for further studies as new instruments come on line.

The parent star of Wolf 1061c is a small red dwarf star whose energy output is only 0.15% that of our Sun. This means that the planet must orbit very close to it’s star in order to receive enough sunlight to warm it’s surface. The planet itself has a mass of an estimated 4.25 times that of our Earth so it may have a much stronger surface gravity.

Also, Wolf 1061c is the middle of three planets known to orbit Wolf 1061. All of them are believed to be rocky worlds more massive than Earth and because the entire Wolf system is so small the three planet’s gravities interact with each other making their orbits change considerably with time. Professor Kane warns that this could mean that the climate on Wolf 1061c may be quite chaotic. While none of this makes Wolf 1061c sound like a good spot for a vacation home you should remember that life is very adaptable and the inhabitants of Wolf 1061c might find our Earth to be unbearably dull.

Professor Kane hopes to learn even more about Wolf 1061c when the new James Webb space telescope is launched in October of next year (2018). The examination of nearby extrasolar planets is one of the jobs the Webb telescope was designed to carry out so we should soon know even more about Wolf 1061c. The last two decades have been very interesting times for the planet hunters and let’s hope that the next two decades are even more exciting. To learn more about Professor Kane’s work the link below will take you to San Francisco State University’s news story about Professor Kane.

http://news.sfsu.edu/news-story/sf-state-astronomer-searches-signs-life-wolf-1061-exoplanet

 

 

Astronomer Predicts a Nova Eruption for first Time

Scientists make predictions, that’s how we know that our models are correct. If we can forecast that something will happen before it happens we must have a good idea of just what’s causing it to happen.

In my blog back on January the first I mention the total solar eclipse that’s going to happen on the 17th of August of this year and scientists have been predicting eclipses now since the time of the Roman emperor Claudius.

A few predictions have been some of the greatest moments in the history of science, such as when Edmund Halley predicted that a comet would return or when Paul Dirac predicted the existence of Anti-matter. Just a few years ago the discovery of the Higgs boson confirmed a prediction made by Peter Higgs back in the 1960s.

Now Astronomer Lawrence Molnar of Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan is making the first ever prediction of the eruption of a Nova, the explosion of a particular star system. The star system in question is called KIC 9832227, a 12th magnitude system in the constellation in the of Cygnus. The system consists of three stars, two of which form a contact binary, that is two stars that are so close to each other that they are “kissing”. See picture below.

Star Merger Geometry. L. Molnar, Calvin College

Professor Molnar and his team have been studying KIC9832227 for many years now and have noted an acceleration in the orbit period of the two stars, an acceleration which is increasing exponentially. Based on these observations Professor Molnar predicts that in 2022, give or take a year the stars will merge into one and that the resulting explosion will make the 12th magnitude system temporarily visible to the naked eye, a new star or Nova will appear briefly in our night sky.

While not as spectacular as a Supernova, where a star 10 or more times as massive as our Sun explodes in a fireball as bright as an entire Galaxy this is the first time anyone has been bold enough to predict a date on when a nova will occur. I hope that five years from now I get to see KIC 9832227 as it goes Nova. If it does Professor Molnar will have joined the ranks of Halley and Dirac and many others whose predictions have done so much to advance human knowledge. You can read an article on Professor Molnar’s work at Sky and Telescope Magazine by clicking on the link below.

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/uncategorized/stars-en-route-to-merger/

Before I go I want to also mention a new, and I think very beautiful picture of our Earth with the Moon that has been taken from orbit around Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Earth and Moon as seen from Mars- NASA Picture

If you’d like a better picture check out the article at Space.com by clicking below.

http://www.space.com/35252-earth-and-moon-from-mars-photo.html

P.S. I finally got around to making a unique header image for Science and Science Fiction. I hope you like it!

These are a few of My Favourite Things

I assume anyone who visits this blog, or at least anyone who comes back, has an interest in science, space and astronomy. With that in mind I thought I’d take a moment to tell you all about some of the web sites I like to visit, these are a few of my favourite things.

I guess the best place to start would be NASA’s main page. Now this page is pretty general, intended for students and the general public but it does allow you to access to information on every mission NASA has ever undertaken. Seriously, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found here.

http://www.nasa.gov

Another NASA site, which actually isn’t easy to get to from their main site, is “How to spot the Station” which allows you to get detailed sighting information to find the International Space Station as it flies over your head. I’ve seen that station now over thirty times and it’s always pretty cool

http://spotthestation.nasa.gov

And if you like NASA you’ll love the Jet Propulsion Labouratory (JPL) in California. Their main page is also general interest but again, if you look around there’s a lot to see.

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

JPL also has a really cool site that’s hard to get to from their main page. This is the small body database. Orbital and physical parameters for thousands (it’s growing all the time) of small asteroids and other objects in our solar system. It takes a little bit of figuring out but I really love the orbital diagrams, especially for Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Caution, the orbital applet is JAVA enabled so you need JAVA on your computer.

http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi

There are now several commercial sites that are also worth checking out on occasion. The best known is Space.com which is a news site dedicated to the latest happenings in space.

http://www.space.com

A new one, as far as I know, is Spaceflight insider. This site also has space news but it also has a launch calendar of upcoming launches from around the world.

http://www.spaceflightinsider.com

One last cool space site is SpaceWeather.com. Yes there is a web site dedicated to giving you the latest weather report from our solar system. A couple of interesting things to see here are the latest sun spot report, the solar wind and cosmic ray intensities and near Earth asteroid approaches during the next month.

http://www.spaceweather.com

Now let’s change course a little bit and look at some astronomy sites. I guess a nice segue would be the main web site for the Hubble space telescope. You can spend days just going through the beautiful images.

http://hubblesite.org

One of my favourite sites is the SEDs Messier data. Charles Messier was a French astronomer about the time of our revolution who was studying comets. Well he made up a list of fuzzy objects that weren’t comets. The objects on that list turned out to be galaxies and nebula and star clusters and supernova remnants. The SEDs site has tons of beautiful images of these objects.

http://messier.seds.org

A daily astronomical note of interest can be found at Stardate.org by  the McDonald Observatory in Texas. They often have information on things to see in the sky tonight.

http://stardate.org

Another observatory with a cool web site is Keck in Hawaii. Again plenty of beautiful images.

http://www.keckobservatory.org

A great commercial site is Sky and Telescope magazine. The best part of their site, as far as I’m concerned, is the interactive sky chart which can show you what the sky will look like anywhere in the world not just for tonight but for any night for the next hundred years. Oh, and the last hundred years as well. Lemme tell ya, I’ve planned many nights of stargazing using that site. This is also a great place to look for telescope and accessories to buy.

http://www.skyandtelescope.com

This getting to be a bit of a long post so I think I’ll save Physics and Paleontology and Archeology for a later date. I have one more site for today and it’s possibly the most interesting. Back in the 1960s Jodrell Bank Radio observatory in Manchester England discovered the astronomical objects know a Pulsars. Well Jodrell Bank has a web page where you can hear, that’s right hear the sound of collapsed stars only a couple of kilometers across that are spinning so fast that they generate a magnetic field so huge it shoots out a radio beam like a searchlight and every time that beam passes Earth Jodrell Bank hears a click. So go to this site and listen to the sound of a dead star.

http://www.jodrellbank.manchester.ac.uk/research/pulsar/education/sounds

You may have noticed I haven’t even mentioned Science Fiction. Don’t worry, I get ’round to it.

Happy Halloween

Tomorrow is Samhair, pronounced Sah’-win and better known in our modern world as Halloween. Samhair is one of the quarter points, the days that mark the middle of our seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. The days halfway between a solstice and an equinox.

Samhair is the quarter point for the Fall season just as Imbolc, we call it Ground Hog’s day, is the Winter quarter point. There is also the Spring quarter point of Beltane, May Day, and the Summer quarter point of Lughnasa which somehow never got a more modern name.

From what historians and anthropologists can tell, people have celebrated the quarter points just as long as the better know first days of the seasons. The same ancient astronomers who watched the movements of the planets against the background of fixed stars, who saw how the place where the Sun rose in the East every day changed during the course of a year gave us not only the four seasons but the four quarter points as well.

In pre-Christian Europe, the ancient Celtic world (by the way it’s Kel-tic, not Sel-tic) Samhair was the new year, the harvest time and a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the spirits was lifted. This was true of all the quarter points, for iron age people they were a time of both fear and promise. Because of the mystical, magical nature of the quarter points the Christian church tried for centuries to wipe out the ancient celebrations related to them. It is a historic fact that one of the heresies that Joan of Arc was accused of was dancing around a May Pole.

In the wider Universe of course, Samhair and Beltane as well as the Solstices’ and equinoxes are special times unique to our planet Earth having no significance on Jupiter or Pluto let alone another star system. It’s only because we are so tied to our home planet and it’s orbit around our Sun that the very idea of a certain day of the year having any significance makes sense. On other worlds Christmas, or your birthday or the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo have no meaning of any kind.

Nevertheless, as human beings we like to celebrate, to party and the recognition of certain days being special, being a good reason to party gives us pleasure and a chance to connect both with the living and those who celebrated before us. So get out an enjoy your Halloween, have some candy of roast some marshmallows over an open fire and remember how the rhythms of our world are the rhythms of our lives and have been since the beginnings of life on Earth.

Here we go again. The Universe just got ten times bigger!

A team of astronomers led by Christopher Conselice at the University of Nottingham in the UK have been studying the deep field images coming from the Hubble Space Telescope and concluded that the Universe contains ten times as many galaxies as was previously thought.

The previous census performed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, SDSS (link below) concluded that the observable Universe contained between 100-200 Billion galaxies.

http://classic.sdss.org/

This new census realized that the density of galaxies in the early Universe was far greater than it is now and that many of these early galaxies were too faint to be seen in the data used by the SDSS. On the basis of their data from the Hubble they have realized that the Universe contains on the order of one Trillion galaxies.

As exciting as this discovery is it’s really nothing new. Every time we study the Universe with new, more powerful, more precise instruments the Universe grows ever larger. Sometimes the expansion is linear as with this census by Dr. Conselice and his team, sometimes it is exponential as when Carl Hubble himself discovered that the smudgy nebula he studied were actual galaxies separate from our Milky Way. By the way, the Greek word galaxy just means Milky Way. From Galileo to Dr. Conselice we have learned that the Universe is more than we can ever imagine.

I have seen this phenomenon of expansion happen three or four times now in my life and I expect to see it happen at least one more time.The James Webb space telescope is expected to be launched sometime in 2018 and with this new window to infinity I have no doubt that the Universe will grow once again.

To read further about the new census follow in link below.

http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1620/

 

Yes there is a Thirteenth Zodiacal Sign, always has been.

For the past two weeks there have been a number of stories in the news about how NASA is Trying to change Astrology. I’ve been thinking about whether or not to post a blog on this subject and originally decided against it since astrology just isn’t worth talking about! However the story won’t go away so I’ve changed my mind in the hope that maybe this time people will recognize that astrologers don’t even know astrology let alone anything about reality.

For what it’s worth, about 3,000 years ago in Babylon the priests who watched the sky for messages from above (that is how Astronomy got started) decided that the position of the Sun against the background of fixed stars at the moment a person was born must have an effect on that person’s destiny. If the concept of astrological sign means anything that is what it is, the constellation of stars that the sun was in the moment of your birth. Now, I’ll admit that’s an interesting hypothesis, 3,000 years ago it was worth testing. It happens to be wrong but it was worth testing.

Now the ancient Chaldeans, the people of Babylon, recognized that during the course of a year the Sun went through thirteen constellations, that’s right thirteen, the twelve zodiacal signs we’re familiar with plus the constellation Ophiuchus. By the way, this is why a very easy to spot constellation like Orion or the Big Dipper is not a zodiacal sign while a very difficult to find constellation like Capricorn is.

The trouble started immediately. The Chaldeans didn’t like the number thirteen, it was considered unlucky even back then. So they just threw out the constellation of Ophiuchus, reality after all has to match our irrational prejudices. There was also the problem that some of the constellations of the zodiac are bigger that the others so the Sun spent more time in some than in others. The Babylonians solved this problem by just each making each sign the same length of time whether it should be or not. This then gave us the signs of the zodiac we’re all familiar with, Aquarius 20Jan-18Feb, Pisces Feb20-Mar19 etc.

But there was another problem the Babylonians didn’t know about, the precession of the equinox, the precession of the Earth’s axis in a huge circle every 26,000 years. The fact that it takes so long is the reason the Babylonians didn’t know about it. However it does mean that about every 2200 years the entire zodiac gets shifted by one entire sign to the left. It’s the dawning of the age of Aquarius remember, well that’s because for the past two millennia the equinox has occurred while the Sun was in Pisces but soon it will occur in Aquarius because the entire zodiac has shifted by almost one entire sign.

Now astrologers have either ignored of been ignorant of this plain fact for, well since the beginning of astrology. Because of this ignorance of their own “science” they have basically given almost everyone the wrong sign. For example, I was born on the 4th of September, which makes me a Virgo. Except that the Sun happened to be in Leo the moment I was born so, if astrology means anything at all I should be a Leo.

None of this is news. Astronomers have made headlines by pointing out the truth four or five times in my Life and the fact that reality is so quickly forgotten again is, disappointing at the very least. NASA has even had to publically say they aren’t trying to change people’s sign, actually they have issued a statement that astrology isn’t science anyway so it doesn’t matter.

As I said, we have gone through this several times in my life so at the very least it would be nice it would be nice if astrologers would take a little time to learn astrology. I’m not holding my breath.

Does the Universe have a Preferred Direction

One of the basic assumptions that Astronomers and Cosmologists start with as the try to understand this Universe we live in is that on the very largest scales it’s the same in every direction. That is, when we look deep into space at all the galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and voids between galaxies, the Universe looks pretty much the same in whatever direction we look. This property is know as isotropic.

This assumption is very basic to our understanding of reality. When I taught physics I always tried to impress on my students how, when you’re trying to solve a problem, you can put your origin anywhere you want and point your x, y and z axis in whatever direction want in order to make the problem easier to solve. So this idea is not only fundamental, it is also very useful.

Assumptions have to be tested however, and a group of Cosmologists at University College in London have used the data obtained by the Planck satellite’s observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to see if they could find any evidence that our Universe had a preferred direction or even if it had a spin. Now the CMB is radiation left over from the very earliest time after the big bang, photons of light that have whizzed through space for over thirteen billion years without interacting with any other particles giving us a baby picture of our Universe. (See the Image at the top)

The Cosmologists looked at the CMB data for any signs for elongations or spiral patterns that would indicate a preferred direction or an axis of rotation and they calculate that there is only a 1 in 121,000 chance that there is any anisotropic (non-isotropic) behavior in the CMB.

So it appears that all of our theories that are based on an isotropic Universe are still good, for now. In another decade or so another group of scientists will think of another way of testing this assumption with even greater precision and that’s as it should be. As human being we have to make assumptions, but we have to test them again and again.

For those who are interested, you can read more about the work of the University College of London cosmologists here:

http://phys.org/news/2016-09-scientists-universe.html

 

Proxima B, an Earth type planet circling the Sun’s nearest neighbor

Over the past few years the discovery of planets outside of our solar system has almost become routine. So many planets, and of such a wide variety of sizes, orbits and composition have been found that it now looks as though almost ever star comes with planets.

But the recent announcement in the journal nature ( http://www.nature.com/news/earth-sized-planet-around-nearby-star-is-astronomy-dream-come-true-1.20445) is something special. Not only does the planet orbit Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own Sun, but the planet is similar to the Earth in size and orbits Proxima Centauri at a distance where liquid water could exist on its surface.

The newly discovered planet has been named Proxima B and has a mass estimated to be 30% greater than Earth’s. If it possesses an atmosphere and oceans it could easily be a home for life and astronomers are organized a coordinated effort to learn all we can with our present and future technology.

The sun our new planet orbits is very different from our own star. Proxima Centauri is a small red dwarf with a mass of only 12% that of our Sun and emits only 1.5% of the energy of our Sun. Notice that, while Proxima Centauri is smaller it emits much less energy. This means that the fuel powering Proxima Centauri could last almost ten times longer than the fuel remaining for our Sun. That’s true of stars in general, the larger they are the shorter their lifespan.

So here we have an interesting plot for a Science Fiction novel. It’s several billion years in the future and the Sun is running out of fuel so the inhabitants of the solar system, not necessarily Earth nor necessarily human, are striving to reach Proxima B as a new home.

Of course, that’s just fiction!