January 22, 2010

A Data Pipe Dream

I have a dream, a data pipe dream. I'd like to share a vision on how to maximize the usefulness of data in the field of Exoplanet Science.

Even before I built the so-called Exoplanet Seeker, I had something else in mind. I wanted to build a "mash-up" from the treasure trove of data available about exoplanets. Much data on exoplanets are freely available but there is no standard as to how they are shared, and have no structure as to be usable by other web applications. And there is no way to channel them to other applications. In other words there are no "pipes" to send them through in order to make them more useful.

I am thankful that exoplanet researchers are sharing their data online. But now we must move to the next logical step. Most of the data providers do not expose their data in a structured way like XML or JSON. So far, the only one I saw that is friendly to programmers is LookUP, as they share data in XML, JSON, and AVM format.

Currently, there's no way for web developers to create compelling Web Apps or "mashups" from the data available at The Exoplanet Encyclopedia, NStED, or Exoplanets.org. The best I could do was to come up with a very simple exoplanet seeker, in the hopes that it signals a vision of what is to come in the next few years as more exoplanet discoveries pour in.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of exoplanets that will fill scattered databases across the earth. Think of how many Petabytes of data all these discoveries will mount to. And finally, think of how wonderful it would be if all the exoplanet researchers and planet-hunters in the world shared their data in the form that is usable by other Scientists, and open to Citizens as well.

I believe that when an interoperability standard is developed (perhaps something like an "Exoplanet Markup Language", ExoML), or when exoplanet data sources started sharing their data semantically, then a new form of Science will emerge from this abundance of structured Exoplanetary Science data. Awesome things can emerge from this information pipe infrastructure. Perhaps even some new and novel discoveries can come out of it.

If programmers can readily create visualizations from open data, or run simulations using structured data, or create cross references from different planetary characteristics along with their host stars' qualities then perhaps patterns can be discovered, like how they discovered the relationship between the lithium content of stars and the presence of planets around them. I'm sure there are other clues that are hidden in all these data, just waiting to be mined. Even old data can still contain yet undiscovered treasures, like how an exoplanet was found hidden within Hubble's old data archives.

This data pipe dream must have been apparent in two of my previous posts, "The Extremophile Zone" that hints some aspect of this data infrastructure (injecting how social media can play a role in science), and another is "Life is a Pattern", a flash fiction that gives a glimpse of this vision in a metaphorical narrative.

I hope that some organization picks up on this thread to enable a collaborative data pipeline among exoplanet researchers around the world.

January 20, 2010

Basic Guide To Star Adoption

If you've been following the saga of humanity's search for Earth-like worlds but you've always felt like an outsider in that effort, then here's your chance to become part of that endeavor. Yes, Science need the support of Citizens. In fact, Citizen involvement is the Holy Grail of Exoplanet Science.

So here's how you can contribute to science financially. There is a project called "Pale Blue Dot" that encourages donors to pick one of 100,000 stars in Kepler's field of view that show promise for hosting planets.

For $10 you can adopt one of these stars and plant your personal flag in that star on Google Sky. As Kepler makes new discoveries, you will get email updates about your star and its potential planets. Now, the fun part is that if you've chosen the right star, you'll be named in history as the adopter of the star with the FIRST known Earth-sized or Earth-like planet! Then imagine if that planet is introspected later on by the James Webb Telescope and actually hosts extra-terrestrial life! Isn't it great to be the proud parent of aliens?!

Now with that kind of title, money should not be an issue. But if you are curious about where the money goes, here is the gist. The money raised will go to the Kepler Astroseismic Science Consortium, an international group of researchers who study the seismology of stars. The group cannot get NASA funding to support its research because the agency can't fund foreign organisations.

You may think that Astroseismology may have nothing to do with planet-hunting, but knowing more about stars leads to more knowledge about the planets they hold. Kepler is in fact officially contributing to the field of Asteroseismology. Scientists can use pulsations to measure the radius of the star, giving NASA a way to determine the size of the planet. Pulsations can also help determine the stars' ages, which can help give an idea of how planetary systems form over time. The researchers may even be able to detect non-transiting planets that the main Kepler team would miss, if the planet is massive enough to make the star wobble towards and away from Earth.

So whether you hit the bullseye or not, it's all worth it. You can rest assured that you have been a generous contributor to Scientific Research and the advancement of human knowledge.

Personally, the Pale Blue Dot project appealed to me because it allows me to contribute to Science in a fun way. And the method of fund-raising is noble and is very unlike the possessive stance where you "buy" stars and delude yourself that you own them. But being able to brag to your friends that you adopted a whole world of aliens and civilizations is kinda crazy fun!

So now that I've brought the sparkle in your eyes and convinced you to be part of Science (and soon to be part of history)--lets do it! You need to go to the Pale Blue Dot project and adopt star(s). But which among these tens of thousands of stars are most likely to be the first one to be discovered that hosts the first Earth-like planet known in history?

Here's where i can help you choose your best bet. I've gathered several facts that would give you the best chance of adopting that lucky star. But don't tell your friends about this yet. They will beat you to that star! First here are some of the relevant facts:

1) Prior to launch high-resolution spectroscopy is performed to identify and eliminate the giant stars in the FOV.
2) There are gaps in the middle. This is like the blind spot(s) of Kepler.
3) Objects near the edges of the CCDs may be of marginal quality and may be off the edge of the CCD.
4) Differential velocity abberation causes the FOV (Field of View) to expand and contract by about 6 arcsec on an annual basis as the spacecraft orbits the Sun. This means that an object near the edge of the FOV will move by about 3/4 of a pixel.
5) The CCD data channel changes with the season and the exact pixel location will move slightly.
6) M dwarfs (Cool stars of spectral type M or red dwarf stars) have great chances of having Earth-like worlds. In fact, Gliese 581 and Gliese 876 is a red dwarf.

So given those facts, I can tell you that you should:

1) Choose the ones that are somewhere in the middle of a CCD. Do not choose the stars outside or at the edges of the CCDs. The rectangles in the photo denote the borders of the CCDs.
2) Choose small or medium stars and not the giant ones
3) Choose the reddish or orange stars. They are probably M stars, most likely to be discovered first that hosts planets in the habitable zone. There are still plenty of available stars that are small and has a reddish tint, as seen in the snapshot above.
4) Choose isolated stars, those which has no close neighbors. We don't know yet whether two stars very close together are true binary systems. (There's a lesser chance of planets forming in binary systems compared to isolated stars of the same type)

The list above is just a basic guide to improve your chances of guessing which star would be discovered first that hosts the first known earth-sized world. For the detail-oriented, there are more complex methods to improve your chances. But for the capable ones, I simply recommend the simplest way to snag that star accurately--by employing statistics. Simply adopt ALL those stars and you're guaranteed! But there's no challenge in that, so it's just better to make playful bets with your friends as to which star would win the honors. Of course a disclaimer is that if CoRoT, HARPS, Mearth and other planet-hunting teams beat Kepler to the punch, you would lose the *first* "Alien-Parent" title. But then again, that's another game (perhaps seriously played by the planet-hunters themselves). We could limit our game to the stars in Kepler's view for now.

Many earth-like planets may in fact orbit stars other than Red Dwarfs, but we want to target the *first* ones to be announced. The Habitable Zone around smaller and dimmer stars are closer to their suns. Their earth-mass planets will have tighter orbits and shorter orbital periods. Thus, observed transits of potential habitable worlds in these stars would occur more often than the 365 days it takes for our earth to go around the sun, relatively speaking.

A couple or more of transits is enough for Kepler to detect the presence of that planet, hence a little over a year and a half from now, the Kepler team might announce the discovery of that Earth-sized planet that orbits around the star you've chosen! So you better hurry. Adopt that star now to be the proud parent of Extra-Terrestrials!

January 16, 2010

The Exoplanet Seeker

Today, I just unveiled a convenient way for exoplanet researchers and enthusiasts to "seek" data about specific exoplanets from highly-targeted sources. I call it "The Exoplanet Seeker". It's a simple interface to enable anyone to easily query numerous exoplanet databases on the web to find data on an exoplanet of choice. Currently, it can be found at the homepage at http://www.exoplanetology.com for easy access.

Current exoplanet data sources include the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia, NASA's PlanetQuest New Worlds Atlas, The Planetary Society's Catalog, Exoplanets.org's table, ArXiv, and so on.

As you can see, each database has it's own unique focus and presentation. For example, The Planetary Society's Catalogue has orbital diagrams, while exoplanets.org has the lightcurves, and Planet Quest's New Worlds Atlas has the nice graphical charts.

So the Exoplanet Seeker acts as a junction point to all these great sources of exoplanet data. More sources will be added as they come along. And of course, more exoplanets will appear in the auto-suggest list as they get entered into Freebase which powers the auto-suggest feature.

And the great thing about all this is that anyone can contribute by adding data into Freebase--which is easy: just copy the data from the reputable sources! [eyebrows rising sharply? tee-hee] Perhaps this is just the beginning of "Open Source Exoplanetology" via Citizen Science.

The interface that I provided is just a tip of the possibilities if enough exoplanet data is entered on Freebase. Many exoplanet apps can be made from the wealth of free structured data on the Freebase platform.

To use the Exoplanet Seeker, simply start typing into the empty field and a list of exoplanet suggestions will pop up so you can choose accordingly. Then select an exoplanet data repository to search from. Finally, click the "SEEKER" button to search data about that exoplanet from the source database that you've chosen. A new browser window will be opened showing the search results from the external website providing the exoplanet data.

Please enjoy The Exoplanet Seeker and I welcome your comments, and will dodge violent reactions. Do let me know any of your suggestions.

Happy Exoplanet Seeking!

January 8, 2010

The Loopback Address of Habitable Worlds

In the world of servers and the interwebs, there is such a thing as a loopback address. It's often on most computers or simply http://localhost that is used to find out if the internet infrastructure is functional. It's also used to test if a webserver (such as Tomcat) is active on a local machine.

In the search for Habitable Worlds, there is a kind of "loopback address" as well. Our loopback address is Earth--the local host of life.

Recently, we have used some of our space probes to look back at our planet from millions of miles away. As if from a mirror, we've learned new things by watching Earth--giving us initial insights on what to look for on exoplanets for prospects of habitability.

One of these crafts, EPOXI has helped scientists to come up w/ a potential technique in detecting features on the surface of exoplanets. They based their findings on how the oceans and continents of the Earth appears from 30 million miles away. The same team also found out that "sun glints" are reflected from the oceans of the Earth.

And from a little farther away, the Voyager spacecraft has shown us that our planet is a tiny speck of pale blue dot, which has evoked lucid reflections from the late Carl Sagan.

With all these beginner insights of what to look for on other planets, we've alternately began to think of how other alien civilizations would see us. By some recursive loop of "Exoplanetary thinking", we now think about how they would think of us thinking about them thinking about us.

And in turn, any extraterrestrial in the same curious endeavor of finding life elsewhere would naturally begin their quest by also looking back at their homeworld--their loopback address.

Perhaps there is a cosmic rule, that for Civilizations which starts to think about other habitable worlds, they will find that the loopback address begins at home.

"... and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." --T.S. Elliot

The New Exoplanetology
Seeing Earth from an Alien Perspective
Sun Glints
Pale Blue Dot

January 5, 2010

The First Five Exoplanets for 2010 from Kepler

Amidst the bone-chilling weather, on the first Monday of 2010 the Kepler Mission Team announced 5 new exoplanet discoveries to kick-start the new year, and to coincide with the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington.

The new exoplanets were named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b. They range in size between Neptune to larger than Jupiter, and have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days. Estimated temperatures of these "Hot Jupiters" range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and much too hot for life as we know it. All five of the exoplanets orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.

I consider the discovery of these seething hot giants as a warm-up for Kepler (no pun intended). Planets with short periods of orbits will be announced first as they transit their star much quicker relative to the Earth's 365-day orbit. Soon, the planet-hunting telescope will discover smaller, and possibly more "earth-like" worlds as Kepler stares longer at stars with planets orbiting a bit farther away from their suns, and thus probably lie within a Habitable Zone. As Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington says, "We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect. It's only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog."

Congratulations and High fives to the Kepler Team!