Where does the good go

My God, It’s Full Of Planets!

I was planning my next Taylor Tuesday and I noticed in the authoring tool that there is an astronomy category on this blog for some reason. So I say to myself, “WTF?” and do a search for astronomy related posts, wondering what Dawn Summers could have possibly said about astronomy. Zip. Nada. Ziltch.

Well, let’s just go ahead and correct that. In March of 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope went up. Its job is to try to find planets around other stars. It’s pretty much kicking a bunch of ass doing so.

Unlike other telescopes that look around here and there at the whims of whatever scientist happens to be controlling them at the time, Kepler looks at a small and very specific part of the sky continuously. And it doesn’t just look at one star at a time in that part of the sky, but it looks at all of them simultaneously. For about 2.5 years now.

Here is a picture of the area of the sky that Kepler is staring at. (Click to make it bigger).

Now if you hold your hand up at arms length and make a fist, that fist is about the size of the area of the sky that Kepler is looking at. Go ahead, hold it up there, no one is watching you. Now while it’s up there, think about the rest of the sky, all around the earth, even under us on the other side of the planet. I think you’ll get the idea that what Kepler is looking at is a pretty small piece of sky.

Now as Kepler stares at this portion of the sky, it is looking at all the stars in there. If you live in a city, you can probably only see 1 or 2 stars with the naked eye in that spot, but there are really thousands of stars there. And they are all in our own galaxy. So Kepler is looking at these stars and waiting to see if any of them get a little dimmer for a period. And if they do, and that dimming is repetitive, they have spotted a planet!!! As the planet circles its star and passes in front of it, the starlight getting to us will dim in teeny tiny amounts. Kepler is sensitive enough to detect this. Based on the amount and period of the dimming, we can infer lots of information about the planets. Their size, mass, and distance from the star can all be figured out to pretty decent degrees of certainty.

So what have we found? So far, Kepler has found over 1200 planets in that tiny patch of sky!!! 54 of them may be in the “habitable zone” of the parent star. That means they are at a distance where temperature and climate could be similar to earth (liquid water, etc).

With these numbers, we can begin to statistically extrapolate total expected numbers for our “local neighborhood” as well as the rest of the galaxy. This study suggests that there are over 160 billion planets in our galaxy. Yeah. 160 BILLION!!!

There are about two billion earth analogs in our galaxy alone, and within about 1000 light years of earth there are over 30,000 habitable planets. Holy Crap!!!

So, as you may know, we aren’t the only galaxy out there. Here is another picture for you. It’s called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field.

Almost EVERY little smudge of light in this image is a galaxy. Remember the fist to the sky thing? Ok, cut a 1mm by 1mm piece of paper and hold it to the sky at arms length. That is the size of this image. In that tiny amount of space, there are over 10,000 galaxies. And that is true for EVERY tiny patch of sky all around us.

That adds up to over one sextillion earth like planets in the universe!!! That’s this many 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

So, by now you may be asking yourself – Well where *is* everybody???

Beats me.

Edit: OMFG! I found the post tagged as Astronomy and it’s about astrology. A sad face cannot do justice to the betrayal I feel. Oh, the humanity!

24 Responses to “My God, It’s Full Of Planets!”

  1. Dawn Summers Says:

    Wrong astronomy. O_O

  2. Mary Says:

    My horoscope said I would read a blog post about astronomy today!

    More Smarty Pants post please.

  3. Jamie Says:

    This same kind of extrapolation leads many scientists to conclude that the odds are 100% that there are tens of thousands, or more, of intelligent civilizations out there. No one knows what they look like or what kind of lifeforms they may be, but one thing is for certain:

    You are the worst person in the universe. And that’s amazing.

  4. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    I’m going to go ahead and extrapolate that Jamie is talking about Dawn, and not me.

  5. Jamie Says:

    An astute observation. But really, it was obvious, amirite? I mean, she’s pure evil and we all know it, so why are we tip-toeing around it?

  6. Astin Says:

    Now, I could be wrong, but haven’t most of these planets in habitable zones not actually seem feasible for habitability? Ie.- mega-planets, gas planets, etc? Well, at least not human settlements.

    Also, how will these planets being in my house while Mercury is in ascension and Neptune is in retrograde affect my lottery numbers?

  7. Dawn Summers Says:

    The hell does Vinny have 7 comments already and there’s not even any youtube video embedded??? #RACES

  8. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    Astin – so far there are 5 “earth sized” planets found in the habitable zone. Keep in mind that as the study continues, more and more planets are found. First you find the planets closer to the stars because they orbit faster and transit their stars more often.

    Someone watching the sun in this way would only see the earth transit one per year (obviously). Also, the angle of the solar system needs to be right. If we are looking at a star from the “top” we will see no transits even if there are planets.

    All these things add up to the numbers that have been statistically generated. As time goes on, those numbers get refined, but what we are finding so far is that those refinements keep making the total estimates increase.

  9. Jamie Says:

    I think the idea is that since we’ve only observed a fraction of a fraction of a fraction (etc., X 1000) of the planets existing in so-called ‘habitable zones’, that some percentage of them will be iron core planets with similar characteristics to earth.

    But in the end, it’s an academic exercise because the science is in and the distances between our planet and another habitable one is way too far to even contemplate. The amount of energy needed to transport even the mass of one human (let alone the fuel, ship, food, etc… for the trip), over a distance of…let’s say 40 light years, at near light speed, is incalculable. We’re talking more energy than 10,000 suns will produce in their lifetime.

    If we’re not picky about speed, and we can harness solar winds and other sustainable inter-stellar energy sources for the trip, then we could conceivable make a long trip like that, but we’d go through dozens or hundreds of generations of humans on the ship before we got there. And if we could survive for hundreds of years in space, then why not just live there rather than a planet?

    Our best bet to continue an earth-like existence would be to terraform Mars. And since the world’s governments (the ones with the deep pockets to make this happen), can’t even agree on whether global warming is real, I’d say the odds of this happening are zilch.

    Better learn to love the taste of pollution I guess.

  10. Jamie Says:

    Also, someone really really really needs to make a ‘Sh*t Dawn Summers says’ video.

  11. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    “The amount of energy needed to transport even the mass of one human (let alone the fuel, ship, food, etc… for the trip), over a distance of…let’s say 40 light years, at near light speed, is incalculable. We’re talking more energy than 10,000 suns will produce in their lifetime.”

    It’s not incalculable. It is a lot of energy, but not anything near 10,000 suns. It is actually reasonably feasible. It would just cost a ton. Also, you have to remember that as your velocity increases (even if you increase it slowly via solar wind, etc) relativistic effects will come into play. While it may seem like generations to people on earth, those traveling would experience a much shorter time to destination.

  12. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    At 90% the speed of light, it would only take the traveler > 20 years to go 40 light years. At 99%, it would take less than 6 years.

    Of course you need to build in some ramp-up and ramp-down time. It would take abut a year to accelerate to .99c at a constant thrust that would simulate gravity.

  13. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    FYI – I’m not saying it’s easy. Some estimates say it would take 100 times the energy output of earth to get to the closest star (4 light years away), but advances in propulsion technology could drastically reduce that number.

  14. Jamie Says:

    Ok, let’s say we solve the energy issue (fusion energy becomes practical and Mr. Fusion is in every household). We still have the time and speed issue to deal with. Einstein says that as speed increases, mass increases. That’s why the speed of light is the fastest we can go because as we approach that speed, our mass approaches infinity and we’re using more and more energy to push ourselves forward.

    So let’s say that we can go the speed of light – 1 MPH. Relativity doesn’t say that time speeds up for us, the travelers. Time stays constant for us. It speeds up for everyone not traveling as fast as us. So if we travel one light year, we’ve still aged a year. And how close is the nearest ‘habitable zone’ planet in our galaxy? A quick Google search indicates that Gliese 581c is about 20 light years away. Given that it might take a few years to accelerate a mass to close to light speed, we’re talking a minimum of 25 years, under the best conditions and solving a bunch of currently impossible physics issues, to make it there.

    My feeling is, if we can solve these issues of creating enormous energies, etc…, then we’d be able to either clean up our own planet, or terraform Mars.

    Not that I wouldn’t want a penpal on Gliese 581c, but wouldn’t it suck to send an email and get a response back 50 years later, only to find you made a typo?

  15. Jamie Says:

    Hmmm….I’ve been reading more on time dilation. Scratch my issues with time.

    Speed and acceleration still very much a problem.

  16. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    No, you misunderstand relativity. Forget about going the speed of light, if we could do that we would be at every point in the universe simultaneously.

    But lets suppose we are going at 99% of speed of light, and suppose we have the energies to get to that speed. From our frame of reference, we have not gained any mass (there is another reason why it becomes increasingly difficult to accelerate, but that isn’t really it.) But suppose we can.

    We would (as travelers) experience length contraction due to relativity, and from our point of view, the star would be closer and take less time to get there. The analog to this is that the outside world would speed up from our point of view. Those on earth would age 20 years (if we were going to Gliese 581c), while we would only age about 3 years by the time we got there.

  17. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    Oops. Missed your retraction.

  18. April Says:

    Huh. You finally found something that would make me long for Taylor Swift.

  19. PirateLawyer Says:

    This post inspired me to dig up my old copy of Heinlein’s Time for the Stars.

  20. Smarty Pants aka VinNay Says:

    That was one of my favorite books as a child!!! It had a major role in solidifying my path to studying astrophysics.

  21. Dawn Summers Says:

    hahahaha @April I LOVE YOU! #bffday #bffday

  22. Astin Says:

    Alternatively, there could be some sort of cryogenic stasis technology so people travel for 20 years or so and wake up no older. Plus, this stops people from killing one another after spending two decades in close quarters.

    Or, warp drive.. slipstream… hyperdrive… foldspace… wormholes…

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