Skip to main content

A Historical Day: Pictures of Planets


As you may have seen in the news, two explanet research teams have taken the first pictures of planets orbiting other stars. The astronomy community is buzzin' right now--this is absolutely huge! Up until now, we've only sensed the presence of planets by detecting their gravitational influence on their parent stars, or seeing the planet eclipse its star as viewed from Earth. The difficulty with taking pictures of planets is that the little guys are so much fainter than their host stars. It's analogous to seeing someone hold a candle next to a light house in Hawaii...as viewed from California!

Now we actually have portraits of two exoplanetary systems: Fomalhaut b, and HR8799 b, c and d. My former Berkeley classmate, Mike Fitzgerald, is 3rd author on the Fomalhaut b paper. Nice work Mike!

In the picture above, you can see the Fomalhaut planet orbiting just inside of a massive "debris disk" that is a lot like our solar system's Kuiper belt (where Pluto lives). The star is blotted out by a shield-like object mounted on the telescope kinda like the Sun visor on your car, which makes the whole thing look like the Eye of Sauron, huh?

There's something very powerful about actually seeing planets sitting there next to some of our stellar neighbors. What's especially cool, at least from my perspective, is that these new planets orbit stars more massive than our Sun. Known as "A-type stars" or "A dwarfs," Fomalhaut and HR8799 are about twice as hefty as our star. My own research has shown that stars more massive than the Sun are twice as likely stars to have planets. Mass matters when it comes to planets. It's nice confirmation to see--actually see--the first imaged planets around such massive stars! Here's an excellent writeup by Greg Laughlin over at oklo.org. You can follow the links he posted to see more cool pictures.

So remember where you were when astronomers announced the first pictures of planets outside of the solar system!

Update: Check out another good post here at the Bad Astromomy blog.
Update 2: NPR Science Friday Podcast here.

Comments

Amy Van Hook said…
I heard about that on NPR yesterday! I was all, my brother-in-law does that stuff. :)
blissful_e said…
John - you have an amazing way of writing about far-off complicated things in an entertaining and accessible way. :)

fyi - I was in Perth, Western Australia, when this was announced. Thanks for letting us know about it!

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …