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NASA AND Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have devised a wonderfully artful means of describing exoplanets, planets that are extrasolar, orbiting stars other than the Sun.
The two organizations have jointly established the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, http://goo.gl/9709IY, an entertaining and informative site containing the latest in exoplanetary science. [Note: Links to the bureau work on our desktops and Wife Dottie’s iMini, but not on my iPhone.]
An Eyes on Exoplanets download from the bureau website gives an overview of these imaginary itineraries. A lot of the information comes from the Kepler spacecraft launched in March, 2009, its mission dedicated to identifying exoplanets. One Kepler discovery has been the incredible number of significant objects circling other stars: on average, at least one planet for each star in the sky.
An Interstellar Trip Planner allows starting with Earth and adjusting attributes to gauge the suitability of another planet for a visit. Earth is the only planet of our Solar System in what’s known as the habitable zone, the region around a star that allows a planet to have liquid water on its surface.
Kepler-186f, discovered in April, 2014, and considered an “Earth cousin,” is such an exoplanet. It circles a red dwarf star about 490 light-years from here. That is, light from there, traveling at 186,000 miles/second, takes 490 years to reach us. Said another way, Kepler-186f and its red dwarf star are seen today as they existed in 1525, the time of England’s King Henry VIII.
This exoplanet is only 10 percent larger than Earth, a criterion that suggests a possibly solid surface. (Super-size exoplanets are more likely to be gaseous, like our Solar System’s Jupiter.) Kepler-186f’s distance from its star makes it capable of having liquid water.
Were plant life to exist on Kepler-186f, its photosynthesis could have been influenced by red-wavelength photons from this exoplanet’s cool red dwarf star. Could grass be red there?
Kepler-16b, 200 light-years from Earth, was identified by the Kepler mission in 2011. Like Tatooine in Star Wars, this exoplanet orbits a pair of stars.
Kepler-16b is decidedly less hospitable than Kepler-186f: Likely a gas giant, its surface temperature is around that of dry ice, -150 to -95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kepler-16b was identified when it passed between its stars and us. Because of its orbiting pattern, Kepler-16b ceased transiting one of the pair in 2014; it’ll have a break in crossing its second, brighter star from 2018. This planet will be undetectable by transit method until around 2042.
The third in the Exoplanet Travel Bureau’s poster collection is HD 40307g. By intergalactic standards, it’s a relative hop-skip-and-a-jump away, 42 light-years from Earth.
Yet, to put this distance in perspective, Proxima Centauri is the closest star, 4.28 light-years away. An Extreme Planet Makeover feature offered by the Exoplanet Travel Bureau gives trip planning to this star and other destinations. Cruising at a Boeing 757’s 600 mph, for example, the Proxima Centauri trip would take 5 million years!
HD 40307g was identified in 2012 by the European Southern Observatory, located in northern Chile, using its HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher). The HARPS apparatus separates light into a spectrum and measures the varying reflectivity of its component parts.
Scientists don’t know if this sizable exoplanet is rocky or gaseous. In any event, based on twice the Earth’s volume and eight times the Earth’s mass, the gravitational pull of HD 40307g would be much stronger.
What a skydiver’s rush!
As of January 2015, three more exoplanents have been added to the small, habitable category: Kepler-438b, Kepler-442b and Kepler-440b. I suspect the Exoplanet Travel Bureau has more posters on the way. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015