Tag Archives: extrasolar planets

Are Some Astronomers (Culturally) Illiterate?

Sometimes, the public perceives astronomers, especially professionals, as being somewhat out of touch.  Every now and then, an incident comes along which explains how that impression may have come about.

As  chronicled in an article from Space Daily, two astronomers from Northwestern University, Sourav Chatterjee and Jonathan C. Tan, published a paper in which they discussed Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized extrasolar planets that orbit exceptionally close to their suns.  These astronomers explained that those planets likely formed at or very near to their present locations because they accreted (came together) from material that spiraled in towards the star from the protoplanetary disk.  So far, nothing very controversial and it probably is how it actually happened.

Where the cultural illiteracy enters the picture is the terminology the two scientist use to describe the planets.  They refer to them as “Vulcan planets”.  Their rationale is that, back in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that the orbit of Mercury was a bit off from what Newtonian mechanics said it would be.  Inspired by the discovery of Neptune from variations in the orbit of Uranus, Urbain Leverrier proposed the existence of a planet that orbited closer to the Sun than Mercury and named it “Vulcan”.  Despite a reported sighting by a French amateur astronomer, nobody found anything that fit the description, and when Einstein explained the variation in Mercury’s orbit as being caused by relativistic effects due to the warping of space-time by the Sun, the whole business was forgotten.  Since this non-existent planet orbited very close to the Sun, the two astronomers thought the term “Vulcan” should be used to name the planets described in their paper.

While the whole history of the close-to-the-Sun planet that wasn’t was well-known to astronomers, it flies over the head of the general tax-paying public (the people who fund a lot of astronomical research these days) like the Blue Angels at an air show.  If you asked people on the street what pops into their mind when you mention the term “Vulcan”, probably nine out of ten would answer either an arid Earth-like planet envisioned by Gene Roddenberry or a pointy-eared, green-blooded, inhabitant of said planet, the most famous of which was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (and portrayed in the J. J. Abrams version of the franchise by Zachary Quinto).  Either those two astronomers were extremely ignorant of popular culture (very unlikely) or they thought they were better than other people.

Should astronomers show more awareness of popular culture when they come up with names and terminology?  Does their ignorance and/or contempt for popular culture show a contempt for the public that provides much of their funding?

IAU: Incompetent Astronomical Union?

Those who have read Laurel Kornfeld’s Pluto Blog know that she believes the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is essentially a totally Euro-centric elitist old boys network.  And Alan Stern, arguably the hardest working man in space science as he is working on two space missions (Rosetta and New Horizons) in addition to running the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), wants to start up a rival organization, though I feel it will wind up being an astronomical version of a rump republic (a governing body with very little to no legitimate authority).  I believe the IAU is a flawed organization, but I thought it could be fixed through reforms.  Now I am not so sure.

Recently, the IAU announced a contest to name extrasolar planets. Sounds like an interesting idea, doesn’t it?  However, the way the IAU is carrying this plan out indicates that the problems with the organization are very deeply rooted in its culture.  For starters, only astronomical organizations that are registered with the World Directory of Astronomy (run by the IAU) will be allowed to participate.  This does not mean that members of these groups can submit entries.  Rather, the group as a whole submits their entry.  On top of that, it appears that IAU will be using the convention used to name minor planets in our solar systems, which I feel is totally inappropriate for the job.  This process only nominates the names.  Then comes the voting.  The details can be read in the official contest rules.

The whole thing reeks of dishonesty.  The IAU will control the nomination process and it is very likely that the vote totals when the names are voted on will never be made public.  Given the IAU’s penchant for voting irregularities, it is entirely possible that the winner will be decided regardless of the actual votes.  Perhaps the IAU needs election monitors to audit the voting.

Then there is the idea that the minor planet naming system can be extended to extrasolar planets.  A better naming system already exists.  When the Vikings landed in Iceland, they used a system called “landnam” or land-naming to assign names to geographical features.  The names derived from Viking mythology.  I am not proposing that Viking mythology be used to name extrasolar planets.  What I am suggesting is that extrasolar planet names be derived from what could be considered the mythology of space – science fiction.  For example, if an Earth-like extrasolar planet is discovered in or near the habitable zone of the 40 Eridani system, it should be named Vulcan.  The “Star Trek” franchise alone contains a good number of names suitable for extrasolar planets, such as Bajor, Cardassia, Bolia, Betazed, Romulus, and quite a few others.  Then, there is the “Star Wars” franchise. In fact it even has a name suitable for a gas giant – Bespin.  Add the other noteworthy science fiction franchises (“Babylon 5”, “Galactica”, “Doctor Who”, etc.), and there should be enough names to serve the purpose for quite some time, especially if the names are limited to Earth-sized or nearly Earth-sized planets (the taxpaying public who fund exoplanet surveys are not terribly interested in extrasolar gas giants, hot Jupiters, or hot Neptunes).  However, in the increasingly unlikely event that a gas giant is detected in the Alpha Centauri system, it should be named “Charybdis”.  If it was good enough for James Cameron, it should be good enough for astronomers to use.

This proposal would engage the attention of the public, who as I explained earlier, fund much of astronomical research through their taxes.  And, as the old Scottish proverb goes, “He who pays the piper gets to call the tune”.

Now, some might argue that such an approach could run afoul of copyrights, trademarks, etc.  First of all, any holder of such rights would be very stupid to complain about this.  What they would be getting out of the use of those names for this purpose is free advertising.  Best of all, this free advertising would last essentially forever.  Every time someone would write a scientific paper about a given named exoplanet, they would use the name.  This is the kind of publicity that cannot be purchased and most businesses would love to have their products, or parts of their products, immortalized on the biggest billboards imaginable.

Of course, another solution would be to have an international body, such as the United Nations, grant whatever organization that would be in charge of astronomical matters (a reformed IAU or whatever replaces the IAU) exemption from those laws.  I believe that the Internet Archive has an exemption of that sort already.

Getting back to the point that got this started, do you feel that the IAU can be fixed via reforms or should the whole edifice be torn down and replaced with a newer, more responsive organization?

What is the Real Cost of Saving Kepler?

Kepler K2 Mission Diagram

Diagram of Kepler’s K2 Mission

In March of 2009, the Kepler mission was launched.  It was placed in an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun and observed a patch of sky located in the Milky Way near the constellation of Cygnus to look at thousands of stars to detect any dimming that was caused by a planet passing in front of a star.  This mission was by any criterion a great success and racked up an impressive number of discoveries, including the first rocky planets in the habitable zone of a star.

However, in April of 2013, one of the spacecraft’s reaction wheels (powered gyroscopes used to control the pointing of the vehicle) failed.  One had failed earlier, but there were still enough wheels for the mission to continue.  This time was different.  Kepler was placed into a safe mode which allowed it to communicate to Earth.  For the next three months, various strategies were tried to see if the reaction wheel that failed earlier could be restarted.  It was restarted but did not function well.

Then, some on the team had a stroke of brilliance.  After doing the complicated math and computer simulations, they came up with a way to save the mission by using the pressure of solar radiation (a major cause of instability to Kepler) as a means to help keep the spacecraft stable.  NASA liked the idea, known as “K2” (no connection to the extremely dangerous Himalayan mountain of the same designation) and depicted in the above diagram.  So, Kepler was saved, but at what cost?

In terms of dollars and cents, it was a great bargain.  However, when it came to Kepler’s capabilities, it turns out to be an almost Faustian deal.

The great strength of the original Kepler mission was that it kept one well-known section of sky under continuous surveillance.  That way, Kepler would not miss anything that took place.  As a result, Kepler discovered planets of longer periods and was able to observe the three transits required to confirm the discoveries.  The success of this strategy can be seen in the large number of planet discoveries from the mission.

Due to the use of solar radiation pressure as stabilization, Kepler has to be pointed at the ecliptic plane (the plane where the planets of the solar system tend orbit).  That doesn’t sound so bad, but since the Sun appears in the ecliptic plane, Kepler has to move to observe another field about every 83 days so the Sun doesn’t shine into the instrument and burn out the detectors.  Factoring in the time it would take to adjust Kepler each time it moved to one of the eight fields, that yields less than 83 days per field.  So, the concept of continuous surveillance goes right out the window.

Since a “year” for Kepler in its solar orbit is 379 days and only about four and a half fields can be observed in one Kepler “year”, that means quite a bit of time will pass before it returns to a field for further observation.  A lot can happen in that time and a many potential planets will be missed.  Mission scientists naturally downplay this and claim that the increased number of viewing locations will make up for it.  True, there will be some discoveries made from the K2 mission, but they won’t be anywhere near as numerous due to the spotty nature of the observations.  If you are a fan of extrasolar planets, you better get used to most of the new discoveries being hot Jupiters, hot Neptunes, and lava worlds, rather than the more interesting habitable zone planets, because the short duration of observations in each field will favor the planets with really short orbital periods, even with the new policy of requiring only two repeat transits to confirm a planet instead of three.

And this approach of observing lots of area for shorter intervals appears to be the wave of the future in searching for extrasolar planets from space.  If you like the K2 mission, you’ll love the followup mission to Kepler called TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) which will survey most of the sky while in an eccentric Earth orbit with little time devoted to each field.

You can read the full gory details about K2 here.  Is the new strategy of observing more area in less time worth it for extrasolar planets or should there be a return to more time in less area in the future?