Feb 4th: Scoping Planets & Laser Surfing

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Podcaster: Dr. Al Grauer
travelers-in-the-nightTitle:
Travelers in the Night Digest:Eps. 363 & 364 – Scoping Planets & Laser Surfing

Organization: Travelers in The Night

Link : Travelers in the Night ; @Nmcanopus

Description: Today’s 2 topics:

  • Dr. Dimitri Mawet and a group of researchers at Caltech have published papers in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal which describe how the future 30 meter telescope, when it begins operations in the late 2020’s, can be used to measure the abundance of oxygen, methane, and other molecules in the atmospheres of nearby Earth like planets.
  • Yuri Milner’s 100 million dollar project “Breakthrough Starshot” has been created to leap frog our current rocket technology’s extremely long travel times to nearby planets.

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Bio: Dr. Al Grauer is currently an observing member of the Catalina Sky Survey Team at the University of Arizona.  This group has discovered nearly half of the Earth approaching objects known to exist. He received a PhD in Physics in 1971 and has been an observational Astronomer for 43 years. He retired as a University Professor after 39 years of interacting with students. He has conducted research projects using telescopes in Arizona, Chile, Australia, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Georgia with funding from NSF and NASA.

He is noted as Co-discoverer of comet P/2010 TO20 Linear-Grauer, Discoverer of comet C/2009 U5 Grauer and has asteroid 18871 Grauer named for him.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2017, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at signup@365daysofastronomy.org.

Transcript:
363 – Scoping Planets
NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope has discovered 7 Earth sized planets orbiting a small red star named TRAPPIST-1. It is in the constellation of Aquarius located and is about 40 light years from Earth. Three of them are in the habitable zone where temperatures could be suitable for life as we know it. In the next few years the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is likely to discover 70 or so Earth sized planets circling nearby stars.

We suspect that aliens finding oxygen and methane in Earth’s atmosphere would have strong evidence of life on our home planet since these molecules would not be present in our atmosphere without continuously being generated by living organisms. Recently, Dr. Dimitri Mawet and a group of researchers at Caltech have published papers in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal which describe how the future 30 meter telescope, when it begins operations in the late 2020’s, can be used to measure the abundance of oxygen, methane, and other molecules in the atmospheres of nearby Earth like planets. This is an incredibly difficult task since from our perspective the light from a planet is overwhelmed by the glare from the billion times brighter star which it orbits. Dr. Mawet’s group’s plan is to use an opaque disk, a baffle, and an optical vortex followed by adaptive optics to eliminate most the light from the planet’s star and feed the light which remains into a high resolution spectrograph. This instrument is designed to produce a pattern of present and missing colors which reveals the abundance of oxygen, methane, and other molecules produced by living creatures in a planet’s atmosphere.

364 – Laser Surfing
When we find a planet which appears to have the chemical signs of living organisms in its atmosphere, the desire to take a close up look at it will be hard to contain.

In a Scientific American article, Lee Billings describes Yuri Milner’s 100 million dollar project “Breakthrough Starshot” which has been created to leap frog our current rocket technology’s extremely long travel times to nearby planets. The plan is to put ultra light space probes on paths which will enable them to collect data as they streak by nearby potentially habitable planets. Our current iPhone technology is being used to envision a tiny robotic space probe which features cameras, life detecting sensors, maneuvering rockets, computers, and communications gear and yet has a mass of about that of a dime. Photons from 100 gigawatt pulses from a ground based laser array are then envisioned to reflect off the tiny spacecrafts solar sail where they transfer momentum to the space craft accelerating it to 20% of the speed of light. Numbers of these tiny robotic investigators could be launched together into Earth orbit and perhaps one a day could be sent towards a nearby star accelerated by laser pulses each of which contains the energy required to send a space shuttle into orbit. In a few decades closeup views and data from nearby worlds would begin streaming back towards the residents of our planet. The cost of investigating our planetary life hosting neighbors is likely to be less than what the US is planning to spend to upgrade its nuclear weapons.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.

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365 Days of Astronomy
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