September 24, 2010

A Tale for the Transit Method

I’ve always been fascinated when planet-hunters describe the difficulty they face regarding the detection of exoplanets. They often refer to the analogy of trying to find a firefly against the backdrop of a huge bright searchlight. As if that's not hard enough, so I had a crazy “what if” moment, as i imagined other factors that could screw up their data. What if a fly actually walked across the field of view (FOV) of a CCD/telescope? Would it mimic the transit of an exoplanet across the face of a star when doing photometry?

I went on to find out by asking several astronomers about it. The ones i caught were displaying their awesome telescopes at Battery Park during the World Science Festival in New York. [Incidentally, that was also the same night when the James Webb Space Telescope was being showcased--a full-size replica was on display].

So when I asked real astronomers what the effect would be, if a fly (or any insect, for that matter) walked across the mirror of a telescope with a CCD during a photometry session--they all agreed that the fly would actually cause a dip in the captured brightness of the star!

Honestly, I don’t think so. And I am not yet convinced that the “fly effect” would occur when a housefly transits a star by way of strolling across the surface of the telescope mirror. I have no CCD at hand (and no volunteer fly as well), so I have no way to find out for sure. But my gendanken experiment ended up as a short story entitled The Fly and the Planet-hunter.

So, I dedicate that story to all the astronomers in the world (grumpy or not), and to all the flies, bugs and mosquitos who make astronomers’ lives astronomically difficult. No, its not that astronomers are grumpy, nor that planet-hunters are mean old men. Astronomers are actually very nice people, and eager to share their passion for astronomy. Sidewalk astronomers would even let you peer through their telescopes--but just don't touch the eyepiece because that will freak them out.

But the real work of astronomers are really tedious and requires a lot of maddening patience. Reflecting upon that, I had the urge to cheer up these dedicated folks, specially the amateur planet-hunters who go through challenging and dangerous situations (bear, anyone?) just to find exoplanets.

So I hope you'll enjoy the story. Perhaps it's a tale you can tell your grandkids as you show them the stars and how to find exoplanets, oh ye grumpy ol' man! :)

Short Story: The Fly and the Planet-hunter

September 16, 2010

Into the Armor [ Review of Halo: Reach ]

So, I finally stepped into the armor, and into the world of Halo. Yes, I've started playing videogames and Halo:Reach was the first one I loaded into the console, overtaking Mass-Effect2 which I plan to play next.

As I look back into the first few hours of my gameplay experience, I appreciated the fact that the narrative behind Reach is given much weight--that its not just all about shooting aliens. Well, maybe perhaps--as it’s what you’re gonna do most of the time to finish the rest of the game. But, the great thing is that the sense of teamwork is emphasized, “ lone wolf this time,” as I heard in the dialogue. So i’m itching to play multiplayer mode someday.

Being a noob, I started with the solo campaign. But I felt reassured that I have teammates that will cover me as I fumbled with the controls during a heated battle with The Covenant (aliens). It was quite easy to imagine that the soldiers fighting beside me are not just characters programmed with algorithmic AI behaviours, but each of them has a story to tell. We are the Noble team, and I play the part of the newcomer--a replacement to their previous colleague. And as i donned that Spartan helmet, it wasn’t long before i started to internalize the character of Noble Six, running around, shooting aliens, intently listening to my teammates, tracking and staying close to them as much as I can.

That was the great part. But here comes the bad. And it’s sad because i have to write it about such a great game. And I have to say it because this blog is focused on things Exoplanetary.

Walking around Planet Reach did not make me feel like I was on another planet at all. It was so earth-like. I felt disappointed because the quality of the graphics is stunning but it failed to immerse me in another world.

At times, I often had to gaze up at the sky to see the gorgeous ringed planet just to "remind" myself that i am on an exoplanet, and that i'm there on a noble mission. But the moment i resume and see the familiar trees, the usual grass, the same old rock formations and typical mountains-- I am suddenly just pulled back to Earth!

Am I asking too much? All I wanted was just a little bit of the taste of “otherworldliness”. What could be missing? Well, perhaps some weird flora would be a good start. Maybe some kind of orchid here and there would have done the trick. Or maybe some trees with some unique growth patterns or odd textures.

How about the animals? Well, what were the ostriches doing on planet Reach?! Or were those turkeys and livestock by human colonists there? I just shot them in frustration. I even saw a falcon. Or was it an osprey, oh my. I wish there were alien animals there that did not remind me about what we have here on Earth.

People are clamoring for the discovery of an earth-like planet. And there's media frenzy on every chance to delight the public with sensational news about earth-like worlds. Yet here i am, begging for an alien world from a videogame! From a videogame for Pete’s sake!

Stepping into the armor was fluid and natural. But stepping onto the exoplanet called Reach was not. I wish the makers of Halo had a little bit more creativity in terms of the planetary aspect. Or perhaps they should have hired some Astrobiologist to decorate that Planet.

Now that Microsoft is taking over of the franchise, I hope the next one will be much more awesome. I wish Halo to be Kinect-enabled to bring more immersion into gameplay. And I hope this review will be seen as a constructive criticism to the Halo franchise, or to any game that would be so much better if it immersed players into other worlds.

Yes, immersion is what i seek. And the reason why i started playing games is because i want to visit other worlds, and be immersed in them.

So now, for me to finish Halo: Reach, i must imagine a bit harder that the setting of Halo Reach is on an exoplanet. And if my mind gets tired of going against the grain, then i’ll just make an excuse that Planet Reach is simply the most Earth-like exoplanet I have ever seen.

September 10, 2010

Sentient Probes

Frankly, I am tired of us anthropomorphizing our space probes and imbuing them with personalities that aren't true.

It is time we do it for real.

We need probes that can make choices without human intervention. We need probes with actual personalities. We need not just Artificial Intelligence. We need Artificial Minds loaded on Sentient Probes.

Just imagine if the New Horizons probe, or Voyager--actually tweeted it’s own thoughts!

The trip to other worlds is such a boring affair for anyone, or any thing, such as a lifeless probe loaded with computers that merely process decisions and commands from humans sitting at the control center.

If we are ever going to send probes to other planets, let us give them minds of their own. Let’s give them more autonomy and a soul to squeeze. I am all for sentient probes.

But there is one crucial caveat: minds are restless.

Loading a sentient mind onto a probe that would traverse interstellar space for hundreds, even thousands of years is like torturing a virtual soul. Therefore, we need some way to keep them occupied. We need to load them up with lots of toys, playgrounds and what-have-you’s. Perhaps provide a companion with an opposing personality to keep them company. It would also serve to balance their collective behaviour. Kind of like left-brain/right-brain metaphor. It seems that virtual worlds are the most economical way to do it with regards to energy consumption on a long trip.

These probe-minds have to be active and humming and must be given an incentive to continue their mission. They must also be able to continually learn. And if their mission is to find life, what better incentive than to actually keep their life as an incentive.

It seems cruel, i know. That’s why I must elaborate upon that idea via a short story entitled "Life Begets Life" that I wrote for #FridayFlash. Of course, it has a tiny bit of exoplanet science so i can mention it on this blog.

And to make it exciting, I’ve put in some speculation regarding the presence of life on a tidally-locked planet, which is often orbiting relatively close to it’s host star. My guess is, life could be jump-started on the boundary where the roasted part of the planet meets the cold dark regions. I believe that Life is at the edge of Chaos and Order.

September 2, 2010

Musings on the Implications of Synthetic Life on Astrobiology

A year before Craig Venter announced the successful creation of the first synthetic lifeform, i asked him what insights it could bring to the science of Astrobiology. I asked what it would mean if synthetic lifeforms gave off different biosignatures and how that would be beneficial to those curious about life on other worlds.

I don’t think i got a concrete answer from Craig Venter at that time, and even after that, I’ve never really read any writeup about the tremendous impact synthetic life will bring to Astrobiology. That was then during the Crossroads conference, way back in May 2009 where Dimitar Sasselov was present as well.

I simply headed home that night with a glimpse of the ground-breaking event that lay ahead.

A year later came Venter's announcement of the first ever synthetic lifeform. Now Fast forward to July 2010, Sasselov suddenly mentions Synthetic Life in his controversial TED talk. But everyone was simply distracted by the controversy and confusion introduced by Dimitar when he used the word "earth-like" rather than "earth-sized". Perhaps many missed another big picture--which is the link between Synthetic Biology and Astrobiology and the impact it would bring to our culture and future.

Now imagine this scenario:

Consider a planet, and know it’s properties, such as surface gravity, atmospheric composition, pressure and chemical characteristics, temperature, and so on. Then create a model of that environment, or a subset of it--called a “hab bubble”. Virtually design an extremophile microbe that would survive within that bubble. Simulate the microbe and it's habitable bubble in a "virtual world". Send that simulator on-board a probe, continuously adjusting the parameters as the probe travels toward an exoplanet. Feed the simulator with updated data as new findings are discovered along the way. Upon reaching the destination, manufacture the microbe using local resources or chemicals on that planet, "build and live off the land". Then unleash the lifeform by setting it loose on the surface of the exoplanet.

This simple scenario became the inspiration for a short story, my first #fridayflash or #FlashFiction entitled “The Biosynthe”.

The Biosynthe (Short Story)
Craig Venter's Synthetic Lifeform
Dimitar Sasselov's TED Talk