Solar flare of April 11: A tangled web. NASA photo

Solar flare of April 11: A tangled web. NASA photo

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Another World Far, Far Away: Artist’s Depiction of Newly Discovered Planet. photo courtesy of NASA

A triple planet spectacular this month

May 10: An annular Eclipse will occur in Australia

May 11 and 12: At dusk a beautiful thin crescent moon will lie below Jupiter on May 11 and will move to the upper left of Jupiter on May 12. Venus starts to appear in the evening sky, close to the horizon, below and to the right of Jupiter.

May 17: Look for Regulus, the brightest star of Leo, just above the first quarter moon.

May 19: Elusive Mercury begins to appear, and soon after sunset it should be visible in a line with Venus and Jupiter. Binoculars will help this first glimpse. It will become increasingly easy to spot.

May 21: The moon is close to Spica, the brightest star of Virgo. The next day it moves close to Saturn.

May 24 to May 29: The month ends with an amazing triple conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury.  This trio will appear low in the bright twilight, but because all three planets are bright, it is easily visible. About 45 minutes after sunset look to the  northwest. Venus is the brightest of the trio while Mercury is the faintest. They will come closest together on May 26. On May 31 the three planets form a straight line with Jupiter on the bottom.  This will be the end of the show, as Jupiter falls off the end of the world and will sink to invisibility below the horizon at dusk in June.

The magnificent solar flare of April

April 11 provided the biggest solar flare so far in 2013, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed toward planet Earth. The flare, which erupted near the center of the sun, was in the middle of areas of unusually intense and tangled magnetic fields. Loops and arcs of hot gas trace the magnetic field lines. A massive cloud of electron and proton particles reached the earth a few days later. Because this cloud contained tangled magnetic fields torn off the sun, the outer reaches of the earth’s magnetic field was mangled in the process. Flying like stretched and snapping rubber bands, the earth’s magnetic field accelerated those charged particles into the earth’s poles where they produced spectacular auroral displays.

Two promising places to live, 1,200 light-years from Earth 

The spacecraft, named for the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, was launched on 7 March 2009. The Kepler observatory was designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to locate any Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and to determine how many of the hundreds of billion stars in our galaxy have planets. A photometer continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 stars. This data is transmitted to Earth and then analyzed to detect periodic dimming caused by extrasolar planets that cross in front of their host star. It is pleasing to note that the major contractor for the Kepler mission is Ball Aerospace in Boulder. In fact, the space craft is operated out of Boulder, Colorado, by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Together, LASP and Ball Aerospace control the spacecraft from a mission operations center located on the campus of the University of Colorado, where undergraduate students, supervised by senior scientists, are engaged in the operations.

The initial planned lifetime was 3.5 years, but because it has been so successful, the space craft mission has been extended to 2016. As of January 2013, there were a total of 2,740 candidate exoplanets.  Considering that there are some 100 billion other galaxies in our observable universe, that’s a lot of planets similar to the earth. But they all may not be capable of sustaining life, let alone conscious life.

Two good candidates were discovered last month, which orbit a star in the constellation of Lyra,  1,200 light-years away.  They are the two outermost of five planets circling a yellowish star slightly smaller and dimmer than our Sun, known as Kepler 62. The planets, roughly 40% and 60% larger than Earth, lie in the so-called Goldilocks zone of “just right conditions” and are presumably balls of rock, perhaps covered by oceans with humid, cloudy skies. They circle their star at distances of 37 million and 65 million miles, about as far apart as Mercury and Venus in our solar system, circling their star with similar periods of 267 and 122 days. We have perhaps three planets in our habitable zone, Venus, Earth and Mars. Mars once had water and would still be habitable today if it were more massive and had enough gravity to hang onto its original atmosphere. Venus undoubtedly had great oceans like the Earth, but they have evaporated because of its own version of global warming.

Kepler 62’s newfound worlds are not quite small enough to be exact replicas of Earth, but the results have strengthened the already strong conviction among astronomers that the galaxy is littered with billions of Earth-size planets.  According to a study by Caltech astronomers published in January 2013, the Milky Way Galaxy contains at least one planet per star, resulting in 100-400 billion exoplanets.

This brings us to the famous Fermi Paradox, which is close to the hearts of many Crestonians: why haven’t we been visited, let alone colonized, by an older and much wiser planetary civilization? In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Enrico Fermi had a casual conversation over lunch with colleagues Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herb York. They discussed a recent spate of UFO reports and a cartoon facetiously blaming the disappearance of trashcans upon marauding aliens. Moving beyond that, Fermi posed the paradox that given the likelihood of many planets in the Milky Way, why there isn’t any substantial and provable evidence of visits by aliens? One participant in the discussion recollects that Fermi then made a series of rapid calculations, probably on his placemat. Fermi was known for his ability to make good  quick estimates from first principles and minimal data, such as on December 2, 1942 when the reactor at the University of Chicago went critical in the world’s first controlled nuclear reaction. He concluded that Earth should have been visited long ago and many times over. If our galaxy contains hundreds of millions of planets, why, indeed, are the heavens so silent?