May 30, 2009

The First Exoplanet of Astrometry: VB 10b

The planet-hunting technique called Astrometry has finally snagged it's first catch -- a Jupiter-like planet called VB 10b, orbiting a small star.
Astrometry involves measuring the motions of a star as an unseen planet tugs the star back and forth. This technique has been in the list of planet-hunting methods for quite a while now. Actually, since around 1950's that several claims of exoplanets discoveries were made using this technique. But only now has it's first discovery been verified.
It has taken 12 years for VB 10b's discoverers, Pravdo and Shaklan--to finally announce the existence of an exoplanet orbiting a dim M-Dwarf star located 20 light-years away in the constellation Aquila.
This finding may mean that astrometry could be a powerful planet-hunting technique for both ground- and space-based telescopes. It may also enliven the amateur planet-hunting community involved with this technique using CCDs.
The discovery is very exciting. It has elicited wonderful remarks from the scientists active in the field. The chief scientist for NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL said that this "is a hint that nature likes to form planets, even around stars very different from the Sun". And Steven Pravdo himself says that "this could mean planets are more common than we thought."
And it continues to ring in my ears: Nature likes to form planets, they are more common than we thought.


May 23, 2009

The Long Shot: What Do You See?

The Long Shot
My printed copy of Seed Magazine's web-only feature article "The Long Shot" signed by the author himself, Lee Billings.
"What do you see?"
It's great when someone asks you that question. Rorschach may disagree, or you may be unwilling to answer at all, like the captain of Icarus 2 in "Sunshine" who faced solar flares.
I just wanted to share what I saw after I read an article from Seed Magazine: The Long Shot by Lee Billings.
If you read the first and last sentence of that article, what do you see?
For me, I see two "long shots": One from the person searching for Earth-like worlds around Alpha Centauri, and the other from the visiting journalist.
"What I see" already began from the first sentence of that article. The descriptions of the scene made me close my eyes to see it all with my mind.
Why all this drama? Because it is my dream to visit all the great observatories and telescopes around the world. Just being there would have been part of the culmination of my long shot. Meeting actual planet-hunters would have made it sweeter.
Closely following and writing about the ongoing saga of the quest to answer "Are We Alone?" is another long shot. I've heard it said that there is no money in Journalism. But it is especially in this kind of topic that I learn that fact first-hand with this blog. People are fairly oblivious to what it means if we ever find life on other worlds. I've heard it so many times, "people just don't care". The public's attitude towards space exploration takes it's toll on the lack of funding for these kinds of projects. It is apparent in the struggle of Debra Fischer to keep the project afloat. I feel her description of "being in a sinking ship, throwing everything overboard just to keep moving forward".
However, for those who see something magnificent in the quest for knowledge about life on other worlds, it is well worth the ride. This is true also for those who are not directly involved in the actual frontier of Scientific endeavor, like me.
I am in it for a piece of the journey and adventure. And if stories are what the universe is made of, then I want to share in this particular story. I want to see through a planet-hunter's eyes, through their massive telescopes. I want to see the Milky Way from the mountaintops overlooking the domes and then feel the wind in my face gazing skyward.
To have a drink with someone who stood in that spot that I dream about, is to share in the joy of that experience. In my life, I've never really bothered much to look at the name of the author of an essay or article, but Lee changed all that as i've come to realize that journalists have that sense of adventure as well.
It is a great moment in history to be alive and to take part in the saga to answer perhaps Mankind's greatest question: Are we alone?
So if you happen to look up to the night sky from the mountaintops, please tell me, what do you see?

May 21, 2009

Father and Son Conjunction


A photo overlooking NYC (captured from Hoboken, New Jersey) during the close conjunction of Mars, Venus and the crescent Moon shortly before sunrise on May 21, 2009. By the time this photo was taken, Mars is already drowned out by the oncoming sunlight, but still barely visible in binoculars.
Although not included in the upper-right side of the frame, Jupiter and three of it's Galilean moons were a nice binocular treat as tiny pinpoints of light.

May 15, 2009

A Review of Google Sky Map for Android

Android+SkyMapWhat was the first app I installed on my Android GPhone? Google Sky Map! Could it be one of the reasons why I got the gPhone instead of iPhone? Yes! It's the only one of it's kind that seems to let me "see" through walls to survey the stars from anywhere at anytime.
Google Sky Map almost transforms your Android gPhone into a kind of "Augmented Reality" device. Here's how it works: When you hold or move your phone at any direction, the screen shows the stars, planets, constellations and other celestial objects in that area of the sky. They are correctly labeled for your convenience. It also shows the grid of the Right Ascension (RA) and Declination.
The thing I can share is that ever since I used it, it seems to have expanded my Astronomical Sense of Awareness(tm), well in aspects of orientation at least. Now I can tell you exactly where the Polaris is from my bedroom, or cubicle. Also I can point where the Southern Celestial Pole is even while sitting at my favorite toilet seat! Is this the glimmerings of a heightened sense of awareness?
With continued use, I will soon be able to answer anyone who asks me where Cygnus is, at any time of the day.
Another great thing about it is that it allows me to look at the Southern constellations as well. I point it on the ground of course, and it gives me an eerie feeling that I'm actually floating in space.
Below are some notes that I've compiled regarding it's features.

Great. It resolves some notable Double/Binary Systems.
Awesome. I'm always looking out for Jupiter, and Cygnus--where Kepler is staring at. You just input the object's name and an arrow will guide you to which direction you should hold your phone. The arrow changes color as you sweep closer to the target, and turns yellow as you "lock-in" on the object.
Sometimes I look like a "pervert spinning around trying to photograph a fly" during my sweeping motions to home in on the target. One time, I didn't realize the object I was searching for happened to be in the direction of another person. So when I finally managed to lock on the target, my gPhone was directly in front of a lady's face. Don't ask me what happened next.
Tip: Do not use the search feature when around other people.
Fast. Provided you don't run other memory-intensive apps in the background, it is smooth when you sweep across the sky. (But it jitters a bit even when you hold the phone completely still) Tip: Close other apps to maximize performance. Also, turn off the Sky Gradient in the settings to improve responsiveness.
It performs well running in parallel with Twidroid and Twitta. But it sucks with Last.FM. It starts to jiggle wildly.
Excellent. Stars and Constellations are where they are supposed to be. :) Tip: If you notice a misalignment, wave the phone (using your wrist) in a figure-eight, zen-like manner to re-calibrate, and the constellations will fall into their rightful place!
User Experience.
Excellent. If it overlayed graphics over real image, it would be the ultimate Amateur Astronomer's Augmented Reality system, similar to Wikitude.
The GPS+Compass+Gyroscope sensor combo is a real killer. Google Sky Map managed to leverage that by implementing it to my favorite subject, Astronomy.

Exogazing Use.
This App will be indispensable for Exogazing now that it can show me the Right Ascension (RA) and Declination of the sky. I used to find an exoplanet's location in the sky via constellation, but now i know which part of the sky it is when given the RA/Dec values. The Planetary Society gives this info in their Catalog of exoplanets so I'll be using both in tandem. I just count a few lines on the Declination grid to get an estimate, though.

Other Fun Tricks
Using velcro, I attached my Android on top of my binocular and the experience is amazing! While holding the whole contraption sweeping across the sky, after I lock-in on an object using the search feature of Sky Map, I then just simply look through the eyepiece and the object is there! It works swell specially when the zoom, calibration and orientation is perfectly matched between the App and the binocular.
Oh, now i wish my binocular has this graphics overlay directly inside of it's field-of-view!

Feature Requests:
1) Search via Right Ascension (RA) and Declination (Dec). I need to find some objects given the RA and Dec coordinates. Also, it would be great if the Declination were labeled so i didn't have to count lines?!
2) Zoom feature must at least reveal the fainter stars when you zoom in at a closer Field-of-view (FOV).
3) FOV scale. I need an easy way to match my binocular's 4.5 degree FOV with the current zoom setting of Sky Map. Right now I resort to calibrating using two guide stars of the big dipper. It would be awesome if it shows the zoom level in the interface.
4) Satellite tracking/search. I'd like to see Iridium flares on demand. Is that too much to ask?
5) Option to use camera and over-lay graphics on the image in real-time. This would make it truly an Augmented Reality device!

Over-all, the Sky Map is a great tool for Astronomy enthusiasts. It's a great learning tool and a wonderful teaching instrument. Now you can do astronomy in broad daylight and see stars and constellations from the other side of the hemisphere.
And yes, it is fun!

May 7, 2009

The Sense of Wonder at the Crossroads

The WonderDefinitely, the Crossroads was the best conference I have ever attended in my life. The danger of driving sleepy through foggy roads overnight from Jersey to Cambridge was well worth it. If I was a real journalist, I would have written numerous science topics from that event because all speakers were excellent in their presentations. Every single one of them provided plenty of ideas to write about.
Gerrit Verschuur gave a nice warm-up with the Drake Equation. Dimitar Sasselov mentioned "Life as a Planetary Phenomenon", an idea put forward by Andy Knoll--which is the best phrase I ever heard in years. Maria Zuber's presentation about landing humans on Mars was detailed, and she gave a very informed account of the challenges that a human would undertake on a round-trip mission to Mars. Craig Venter gave an overview about synthetic life which made me very curious how these artificial lifeforms would provide insights to Astrobiologists looking for alien biomarkers on other worlds. Juan Enriquez gave a mesmerizing tour of exciting research brewing around a corner in Cambridge that gave hints of the Singularity, and the coming of Homo Evolutis. Then Peter Ward gave an eye-opening account of his Medea Hypothesis, urging us to stop CO2 and engineer our way out of Global Warming to become true anti-Medeans. David Charbonneau spoke with utmost clarity and eloquence that for a moment I saw Carl Sagan in him. I also think Charbonneau owned the *best* slide ever--Welcome to the Era of Comparative Exoplanetology. He also gave a very positive note about the role of Amateur Astronomy in contributing to Science specially in the field of Planet-hunting. I was delighted to know that the future of Citizen Astronomy is brighter than ever before.
At that point however, the moderator David Aguilar--an Astronomer who's ever so keen, promptly noticed that the conference had already taken an unexpected turn. And it was punctuated by Freeman Dyson who was the last speaker.
Dyson opened his talk with the story about William Herschel who was a dedicated Amateur Astronomer that made excellent contributions to Science and Astronomy. I was moved when Dyson said, "Amateurs, do not be discouraged!"
Thus when I was picked by David Aguilar to have the privilege of asking the last question, I worked hard to contain myself in front of Dyson. "Sir, I am touched by your opening story about Herschel, and how you encouraged Amateurs. And I would like to hear it all over again. May I ask that you inspire us all once more?"
Dyson then proceeds to mention the meeting of Worlds, intersection of Cultures, melding of Disciplines, and the reconnection of Poetry, Science, Art, and the role that technology will play. He then goes on to recommend an upcoming book "The Age of Wonder", by Richard Holmes. It is a tale about the sense of wonder, a common trait among the Romantic Poets and Scientists during Herschel's era.
Finally Dyson concludes the conference saying that we will soon witness the coming of a new Age of Wonder.
Indeed we are on the Crossroads, at the intersection of exciting new worlds where we shall see wondrous things in the coming years.
As I drove back home through the rain, I was mesmerized all the way. I went to Cambridge seeking adventure and inspiration, and I truly found it, with a sense of Wonder.

May 2, 2009

Crossroads: A Real-Time Experience

CrossroadsWriting from Boston at 3am and digging up the experience that I had earlier during the Crossroads conference in Cambridge, I refuse to let any of my experience just slip away into mere memory. So I came up with this first post on the series about what transpired earlier:
As usual, I arrived late. I missed the first speaker, who spoke about the "meaning" of life. And the amateur "Citizen Science Journalist" that I am, had no audio recorder. But I had a thought recorder, in the form of twitter. So I whipped up my laptop and my new Android.
And as soon as my Twhirl and Twidroid loaded up, and my fabled "Citizen Science Journalist" hat was firm on my noggins, the game was on.
But hush now, there is one secret: Nobody knows that I was conducting a personal experiment:
I wanted to know how it felt like, to be in the midst of it all. To engage the speakers, to be in there capturing snippets of thought, and broadcasting them in real-time. Actually, it was more than broadcasting. It was like "thinking out loud" onto a HiveMind. I was a Twitterer incognito (or so i'd like to think)!.
On the part of the twitterer, the experience is exhilarating. I know because I experienced it first-hand: I was listening to very interesting people. And then I tweeted as they spoke about interesting things. I acted like a node. A live human medium to the global community in real-time. I also asked them questions that I was deeply curious about. And then I "compressed" their answers concisely so I can tell the whole world about it quickly. Twittering makes you listen, and tweeting actually makes you think!
Now perhaps the presence of a twitterer is a horror on the part of the speakers. It may be arbitrary, but if I was one of the speakers, I would certainly be terrified knowing that someone in the audience is waiting for me to blunder so he can tell the whole world about it unedited and!
But no one knew what I was up to. So I avoided Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: With these scientists not knowing that a twitterer was among the audience, it would not affect their behavior.
And here is my initial conclusion about the whole experiment:
This form of "real-time" media journalism will truly take off like never before in the near future. It will make conferences more engaging, more interactive, more exciting and more cerebral. Citizen Science Journalism will explode.
Tell me if a speaker didn't want to be "heard" by a global HiveMind in real time, and then to evoke reactions "as it happens"?
The fact that he is a speaker means he wants to be heard, and heard big time!
And tell me who among any "Citizen Journalists" would not want to be listened to by his or her "followers"? Tell me who would not want the thought that people could be eagerly awaiting for the next tweet?
Why didn't I bring a digital recorder? Perhaps I knew somehow that I will not listen to the recording anyways. Maybe I knew that listening to it all over again would just be a grudging work to me, transcribing would be a pain. For me, what mattered was the "Now" moment, and the "Aha" that comes in the midst of it.
Atop it all, it was an exhilarating experience to stand face to face with the great scientists of our time. And knowing that perhaps I might never get the chance in my life to meet any of them ever again, makes it all the more cherished.
My heart was thumping like drums as I looked into their eyes, and then I asked my questions.
Truly it was proven to me once again that asking questions is one of the greatest experiences of a human being.
It's alright to be afraid to ask questions, but listen to your heart and let it all out: Ask your questions anyway.