August 30, 2010

Wake up! It's an Amazing Time to be Alive!

Finally, xkcd did exoplanets! And a good one at that! I've been waiting for this webcomic and now it has finally come!

And it resonates. Tracking the surge in exoplanet discoveries has naturally led me to look into interstellar space travel as well, which is somewhat inevitable for anyone enthusiastic about exoplanets and what they would mean for mankind, and to our culture and future.

Wake up! Wake up! You live in an amazing time! Hit the snooze button once and then head for the stars!

" advancing as irresistibly, as majestically, as remorselessly as the ocean moves in upon the shore."
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Onwards to Exoplanets:

August 22, 2010

Double Planet and the Planetary Archetype

Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to see things in a whole new way. Throughout our lives we see our planet from a single vantage point--from its surface.

Then something deep within us is awakened when we see our own little home from a different viewpoint.

Take a look at the latest snapshot of our home planet--the  loopback address--from another set of eyes called MESSENGER, gazing back at the Earth from within the orbit of Venus. Looking like a double star, some people simply called those two bright lights as a "Double Planet", seemingly unwary of the ongoing debate about what a planet really means.

For the few, the words just naturally comes out upon seeing Earth and it's moon in a different light. When viewed from way out there, the scene tells the mind that the smaller piece of sphere is a member of the archetypal “Planet”.

But most people delve into the technical side of thinking, getting into the nitty-gritty details of defining "planet" based on one humdrum star system alone--ours.

We’ve recently heard that the moon has been called as a "Satellite Planet". But what makes a "planet" a planet? Do we really need to see things from another viewpoint before we can call other objects as planets?


My opinion is that many objects in our solar system are planets. Yes, I mean those round dwarf planets that many folks refuse to consider planets, despite calling them "Dwarf Planets".

Through the years, as I tracked the new discoveries in exoplanets, i've realized that the current definition of a planet--that definition which was voted upon--is rigidly based on our solar system alone.

Indeed, there are many exoplanets that would not be planets at all if we applied our heliocentric definition of “planet” unto them. For example, there are exoplanets with highly elliptical orbits that do not lie within the plane of their system. And then there are those that share the same orbital zone with other planets via resonant orbits, and others with retrograde orbits, and so on, ad inifintum, ad weirdum.

With all the weird new discoveries of other planetary systems that challenge our limited notions of a planet, I am led to conclude that the greatest factor of what a planet is boils down to the simple quality of being round. In scientific terms, its the hydrostatic equilibrium, the balance between gravity and pressure that molds lumps of matter into a spherical shape.

To me, that property of roundedness is the Archetype that makes an astronomical body (that orbits a star) a true planet. Round is simple, round is sublime.

Often, when I look at the moon, I see a planet. And it’s good to see it that way from a different vantage point as well. And when this satellite planet is seen together with the Earth, what we're truly seeing is a double planet.

MESSENGER: A snapshot of home
A 'Double Planet Seen from Mercury

August 19, 2010

Possible Data Mining Age in the Future of Exoplanet Science

Exoplanets. Distant worlds light-years away, yet they continue to move ever closer to humanity’s psyche, enticing us to declare them worthy of serious research.

The study of exoplanets is of such enormous intellectual importance and it helps us understand our place in the universe,” said Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society.

The search for exoplanets is one of the most exciting subjects in all of astronomy,” the Astronomy Decadal Survey committee expressed their enthusiasm in a report entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Thus, a program was recommended “to explore the diversity and properties of planetary systems around other stars, and to prepare for the long-term goal of discovering and investigating nearby, habitable planets." The survey proposed The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a $1.6 billion dollar telescope that would provide us with more exoplanet data. The report states that “in addition to determining just the planetary statistics, a critical element of the committee’s exoplanet strategy is to continue to build the inventory of planetary systems around specific nearby stars.

Now look closer at those words. “Inventory”, “census” and “statistics” of planetary systems. Clearly, the current focus is to continue to “gather” more and more data. We just turned into proverbial planet hunter-gatherers!

Kiddding aside, the excitement to gather more exoplanets in our database is great. But then I feel that something is missing, and that something must be done in addition to it all.

I feel that the future prospect of “processing” must also be planned in parallel with the construction of these telescopes.

We are continously building instruments to gather more and more exoplanet data but we are not preparing the infrastructure to handle the imminent data explosion in Exoplanetary Science.

I anticipate a bottleneck when all these planet-hunting telescopes finally get deployed and the copious amounts of data comes flooding in. On what basis am i saying this? Well, take this for example: Dozens of Earth-mass planets could already be within the database of the Kepler Team right now even as we sit waiting for their announcement. That is why i think that not just one earth-sized planets would be announced at one time, but several of them. It’s just that the Kepler scientists are extra careful about their greatest discovery ever in humanity's history. They are simply making sure that their discoveries are solid before they reveal it to the whole world.

But perhaps it’s understandable to withhold data about historical “firsts” because so much is at stake for the Scientists making the announcement.

The raw data will eventually be shared to the public for Citizen Scientists to gobble up. But I can't help but think that in some way, it’s a mini-bottleneck. And looking ahead, there is no infrastructure for outside help to “harvest” planets from the raw data the will eventually pour in. So far so good, only pure Scientists can harvest the goods.

In my previous post, I asked these questions: How will Scientists keep up with petabytes of raw data? How will web technology keep up? How will the internet enable Citizens to contribute to science for the love of it? What needs to be done?

Looking around at the changing face of Science that results from the enabling power of web technology, we see the important contributions of a swarm of minds working together for Scientific goals.

Take a look at GalaxyZoo, FoldIt, StarDust@Home, Rosetta@Home, Einstein@Home and SETI@Home. These are awesome computational engines that tap the human potential in analyzing massive amounts of data, to produce novel scientific discoveries. Despite the public excitement in the field of exoplanets, I'm surprised that there is no program like them that are focused on exoplanetary science. I have reason to think that in some way, the same idea of "distributed processing" can be applied to the deluge of exoplanet data that will arrive in the coming decades.

"We're at the dawn of a new era, in which computation between humans and machines is being mixed," says Michael Kearns--a computer scientist dealing with the concept of distributed thinking.

So how can we apply the power of distributed thinking in Exoplanetary Science? Who must jump-start the GalaxyZoo for Exoplanets? Should NASA or ESA do it? Should ExoPAG work on it? Universities? Or should the private sector do it? Should someone write a grant proposal? Or perhaps open a kickstarter project for it?

It’s been said that we are currently in the Golden Age of planetary discovery. But if we don’t begin to create some way to collectively "process" the huge amount of data gathered by planet-hunting telescopes, a “bottleneck era” might follow. It will be an era in which we are virtually “aware” that planets lie hidden within massive amounts of data stored somewhere in hard drives locked away at some facility. And like the exoplanet that was re-discovered within the Hubble archives, it would take years to mine these planets from out of the digital ones and zeros and be announced as a belated exoplanet discovery.

I am guessing that that such an era may likely occur if we don't build a system to process the data in a collective fashion. But then we would refuse to call it a bottleneck era. We would simply name it a much better-sounding term, The Data Mining Age of Exoplanetary Science.

New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics:
$1.6 billion telescope would seek out alien planets:
Dark Energy and Exoplanets Top List of Astronomy Priorities:
Citizen science, People power:

August 14, 2010

The Exoplanet Seeker and Mendeley

I recently built a tunnel to a new source of information about exoplanets. This new source is an outfit called Mendeley, in which i tapped their API to bring in lists of Scientific papers about exoplanets and present them inside The Exoplanet Seeker's pages.

There’s still a lot to be improved in The Exoplanet Seeker, especially in terms of getting the right names of exoplanets. Often, a simple blank space causes null results (HAT-P-7b vs. HAT-P-7 b) from the datasources. So, i would continue to improve it as time goes by. For now, the most notable upgrade is the addition of Mendeley among the data sources, and the creation of a faster launcher page for The Exoplanet Seeker. It now has a new home, so please update your bookmarks.

I heard about Mendeley in the past, but i felt it was too “sciencey” and inaccessible for a laymen like me. All that changed when I heard about their open API. So i immediately coded up something to test what they had to offer. And it did not disappoint.

In as much as new exoplanet discoveries are starting to change the landscape of Humanity’s Thought (to be punctuated by the revelation of earth-like planets) the evolution of the web is also changing the landscape of Science. What Mendeley has done with their Open API is great for the proliferation of Scientific study via the internet for both professional scientists, researchers and lay-people.

What i am anticipating is the imminent data explosion in Planetary Science brought about by the accelerating discovery of new exoplanets. How will Scientists keep up with petabytes of raw data? How will web technology keep up? How will the internet enable Citizens to contribute to science for the love of it?

Clearly, we are living at a time like no other. Right now i can only say two words that keep me excited about the changing landscape of the relationship between Science and Technology: Fascination and Wonder!

Pipe Dream:
Space Matters:
The Exoplanet Seeker Home: