Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bulk Rate Planets in the COSMOS

From the March page of my 2014 Year in Space Calendar:
Kepler's light sensor is so sensitive it can detect a drop of 0.01% of a star's brightness - equal to a fruit fly passing in front of a car's headlight.
Go optics! Go detector engineering! Go zillions of software systems that allowed Kepler to steadily stare at its tiny patch of sky for months on end, looking for those tiny drops in brightness that might indicate a planet passing in front of its star. It worked great, and last week NASA announced that thanks to some advances in the algorithms used to process all that sensor data, more than 700 planet candidates had been determined with high confidence to be actual exoplanets, orbiting stars in solar systems that are light years from our Solar System. 715 new worlds, orbiting 305 different stars. Pretty amazing stuff. NASA also released a brief video explaining how these new planets were confirmed. According to the cool Exoplanet app on my iPad, there are now 1,767 confirmed exoplanets.

Speaking of amazing science stuff, I'm really psyched to watch the new TV series COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13-part series debuting on March 9 on FOX, National Geographic, and many TV networks around the world. It is hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who as I have occasionally mentioned, is one of my personal heroes for his work in science education. He's a worthy successor to another favorite scientist and author, the great Carl Sagan. Sagan's original COSMOS TV series and book are still great, but 1980 was a long time ago in terms of space exploration and astronomy, so I am really looking forward to this "major rewrite" of that show. Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, herself a tireless promoter of science education, is one of the people behind the new series. 

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