Heads Up: In The Stars

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has a cool post up that’s just out of this world – literally. Phil discusses the planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani.

This is a planet about 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter and was indirectly discovered by watching the star wobble as the planet orbits around it. Extrasolar planets are nothing new and astronomers have been finding these ‘planets’ since 1989. (Do we even know what a planet is? – Oh yeah) Depending on where you look and *cough* how you define what you are looking at, there are (as of today October 10, 2006) somewhere between 181 and 210 extrasolar planets. If you are interested in this kind of stuff, you might check out the California and Carnegie Extrasolar Planet Search or the JPL/Nasa PlanetQuest sites. Both let you get your feet wet in the wonderful worlds of extrasolar planets. For those with Shockwave, the PlanetQuest sight has an amazing 3D Worlds Atlas (click on the Explore the Universe in 3D image). Rotate, zoom, search – like a Heinlein description. This thing rocks!

The neat part of Phil’s post isn’t the fact that there are extrasolar planets. He makes two points. first that there is a disk of material orbiting Epsilon Eridani. The planet orbits in the same plane as the disk and thus supports the idea that planets form out of disks of material orbiting stars or proto-stars. He also manages to get a snarky jab at Creationists, ID-iots, Controverisals. (But then again that target is so broad, what branch of science can you look at and not find something they haven’t gotten wrong?)

More interesting is Phil’s discussion of the possibility of imaging the planet using the Hubble Space Telescope. That’s right, really take a picture of a planet orbiting a different star. That is too cool! This won’t be the kind of image popular science programs would present, a close up with the star in the background and clouds and things, it would be a blob of light right next to another blob of light and be kind of blurry. But, oh, the information in that blur. Scientists could learn lots about the planet just by being able to resolve it. According to Phil that should happen sometime next year.

I would advise you to start reading Phil’s blog every day, from now until the planet is imaged. You never know what might happen between now and then. I know, til then, I’ll be keeping my head in the stars and my eye on Phil’s blog.

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