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Elliott Horch

Astronomy Forum: Exploring Our Place in Space

Two of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by NASA — the human exploration of Mars and the search for Earth-like planets outside the solar system — will be the subject of a Nov. 16 forum at Southern.

The program, “Missions Possible: A Manned Flight to Mars; Finding ‘New Earths’ in the Milky Way Galaxy,” is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at SCSU’s Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

The Kepler Mission has identified more than 1,000 planets that are in a “habitable zone,” – an area in which their orbits are neither too close nor too far away from their suns to support life. Most recently, a planet 1,400 light years away called Kepler 452(b) shows the most promise to date of being able to sustain life. The planet has been dubbed “Earth’s older, larger cousin.”

Steve Howell, project scientist for Kepler, will be the keynote speaker. Howell is involved in NASA educational outreach programs and specializes in research on variable and binary stars. He serves on many review panels and was most recently a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel on NASA’s Constellation system.

Mars opportunityMeanwhile, plans are being developed for a manned flight to Mars for some time in the next two decades. While a manned landing is challenging, the development of a reliable return flight is a more difficult technological hurdle. The colonization of the Red Planet is also being considered by some, but would require means to deal with the planet’s thin atmosphere, lack of oxygen and barren cold weather.

Jennifer Stern, a space scientist for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will speak about the plausibility of human exploration of Mars, as well as what the recent discovery of water on the planet suggests for the possibility of life. She is a member of the science team for the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August 2012.

A panel discussion will follow the two main speakers, and will include: Elliott Horch, SCSU professor of physics; Jim Fullmer, SCSU associate professor of earth science; and Tabetha Boyajian, post-doctoral fellow at Yale University and a member of the citizen astronomy organization, “Planet Hunters.”

Horch, a noted astrophysicist, has developed an instrument for the National Science Foundation that is used on telescopes to dramatically improve the clarity of cosmic images and has been used as part of the Kepler Mission. Fullmer is a veteran astronomer whose expertise includes understanding the weather on celestial bodies, such as Mars. And Boyajian is the lead author of a recent article published in a scientific journal about the lack of conclusive evidence that a natural cause was responsible for a dimming of light in front of a faraway star. It has led some – including many in the scientific community – to believe the dimming is caused by a superstructure orbiting around that star, perhaps created by an advanced alien civilization, though Boyajian said it is still only a longshot possibility.

A question-and-answer period will conclude the program.

The forum is being sponsored by the SCSU Office of Public Affairs. Last fall, SCSU organized a forum to mark the 50th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and featured keynote speaker Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. National Security Council member and diplomat. A program to analyze the impending 2014 mid-term elections also was held last fall.

Other recent programs have included an examination of the situation in Ukraine in April 2014; a look at the Millennial and post-Millennial generations in October 2013; and a preview of the presidential and congressional elections in October 2012, featuring political journalist Erin McPike.

Parking will be available in the Wintergreen Parking Garage on Wintergreen Avenue, next to the Moore Fieldhouse.

For further information about the upcoming forum, please contact Joe Musante, the forum coordinator, at (203) 392-5073, or at musantej1@southernct.edu.

#scsuastronomy.

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NASA’s Kepler Mission may have found Earth’s ‘older cousin’ some 1,400 light years away. The planet is currently called Kepler 452-b, and scientists are optimistic that it might harbor some forms of life. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle

In one of our first posts in Wise Words, we examined the Kepler Mission — a NASA project to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy outside of our solar system. At the time — two and a half years ago — an estimated 105 planets had been confirmed as orbiting their sun in the “habitable zone,” a distance considered to be neither too close, nor too far, to sustain life.

Today, the Kepler Mission has identified about 1,030 such planets. And the most recent development is the discovery of a planet named Kepler-452b, located some 1,400 light years away, which astronomers say is likely to harbor some forms of life.

The planet has been dubbed as Earth’s cousin because of many similarities, including the apparent ability to host life. Scientists estimate that it is composed of about 60-percent water, comparable to Earth’s 71 percent. It orbits its sun in 385 days, compared with our 365 days. Kepler-452b is about 60-percent larger, but it is far from a massive planet like the outer planets of our own solar system. And it is an “older cousin” to Earth, having existed for about 6 billion years vs. Earth’s 4.5 billion years.

Another similarity is that it orbits only one star, according to Elliott Horch, an astronomer and associate professor of physics at Southern. He has assisted on some of Kepler’s projects.

“We just observed this exoplanet’s host star last week at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii,” Horch says. “My colleagues and I were trying to see if there is a close stellar companion in addition to the planet. But like our own solar system, it would appear from our observations that this system has just the one star at the center.”

The observation was made with a telescope that includes a DSSI (Differential Speckle Survey Instrument), a device developed by Horch that sharpens cosmic images many times over. He built it for the National Science Foundation in 2008.

Horch will participate in a panel discussion as part of an astronomy forum planned at Southern on Monday, Nov. 16. The program will examine Kepler, as well as the possibility and challenges associated with a manned mission to Mars. Guest speakers will include Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist, and Jennifer Stern, a space scientist and Martian expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. More information about the forum will be forthcoming.

Additional information about the recent discovery can be found in a recent NASA press release.

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Nearly half of planets discovered in the Milky Way Galaxy are believed to be part of ‘binary solar systems,’ meaning there are two suns in the solar system. In some cases, these planets orbit both suns. In this photo, two white dwarf stars located about 1,600 light years from Earth orbit each other. Image credit: NASA/Tod Strohmayer (GSFC)/Dana Berry (Chandra X-Ray Observatory)

It turns out that George Lucas might have inadvertently crossed the line between science fiction and science when he created the planet Tatooine in the iconic “Star Wars” saga.

While the concept of a planet orbiting two suns was intended to be fictional, modern astronomy has found that such planets actually do exist in the cosmos.

The Kepler mission – whose aim is to find Earth-like planets in parts of the Milky Way Galaxy – recently discovered that 40 to 50 percent of these bodies are actually part of binary solar systems. In other words, those planets are part of solar systems with two suns, rather than one.

The team of scientists that made this finding was led by Elliott Horch, professor of physics at Southern.

“Most of these planets are probably not like Tatooine, where the planet orbits twin suns that are close together. They generally orbit only one of the two stars, with the second star slowly orbiting the system at a much greater distance,” Horch says.

But Horch concedes that at least a small percentage of the Earth-like planets in these binary solar systems do orbit two suns. In some cases, that could result in planets having constant or near constant daylight.

Nevertheless, even for the large majority of planets that only orbit one of the two suns, their nighttime skies could be brighter than ours.

“This would mean that during the day on the exoplanet, the closer sun would dominate, but at night there would be an especially bright star — a night sun — that hangs in the sky,” Horch says.

If nothing else, it might eliminate the need on these planets for daylight savings time to give children some light while waiting for the school buses in the morning.

Horch developed the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI) several years ago for the National Science Foundation. The telescopic device provides astronomers with stunningly crisp images of outer space, and is being used by the Kepler mission.

He is currently developing a portable multi-channel intensity interferometer, which essentially is a double-barrel telescope that would generate ultra-high resolutions with even more detailed information about celestial bodies.

“With my previous instrument, the DSSI, it was like putting eyeglasses on a telescope,” he says. “This new project will be like remaking the whole eye.”

Construction of this new device, like DSSI, is being funded by the NSF.

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Saturn (pictured above) is known for its rings, but another planet more than 400 light years away is believed to have rings that are 200 times as large. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Move over, Saturn. It turns out you have a distant cousin – one that is much larger, much younger and carries a lot more “bling.”

Astronomers recently discovered what appears to be a young giant planet with breathtaking rings in a distant solar system more than 400 light years away from Earth. Their findings have just been accepted for publication in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal.

The astronomers – the University of Rochester’s Eric Mamejek and the Leiden Observatory’s (The Netherlands) Matthew Kenworthy – say the three dozen or so rings span nearly 120 kilometers – roughly 200 times the size of Saturn’s.

The planet – referred to as J1407b – has a mass estimated at between 10 and 40 times that of Jupiter, which is the heaviest planet in our solar system.

The discovery has caught the attention of Elliott Horch, a noted astronomer and professor of physics at Southern.

“This is another signpost along the journey that is going on in astronomy right now in the area of exoplanets – planets that orbit other stars besides the Sun,” he says. “How diverse the menagerie of planets that we know about is becoming!

“Imagine being close to this planet and having its rings take up a big chunk of the sky,” he adds. “What a sight that would be!”

Indeed, astronomers say that if Saturn had rings of the magnitude of planet J1407b, they would be visible with the naked eye in our nighttime sky. In fact, the rings would appear larger than the moon, despite being much further away from Earth.

The findings indicate there are gaps between some of planet J1407b’s rings, leading to a theory that moons have been formed from the rings, just as it is believed that many of Saturn’s 60 or so moons were created this way. Astronomers believe Saturn’s rings were also much larger early in its own life, before some of the material from the rings left to form moons.

Astronomers say that while Saturn’s rings are composed of ice, J1407b has rings probably made of dust since the planet’s temperature is believed to be far too hot to have ice rings.

Saturn, which has been around for about 4.5 billion years, is an old timer compared with the relatively youthful J1407b – a planet for a mere 16 million years or so.

Hey Saturn, maybe you can take the newbie under your wing…er, ring.