October 31, 2010

How to get Offworld

Everybody’s heard of Gliese 581g. It is claimed to be the first rocky exoplanet ever discovered that is within the Habitable Zone. I wont bore you with details. But let us explore the effects of that discovery upon the populace. What are the reactions of the public? It seems that more people became more aware about the idea of interstellar space travel. And within some high-profile organizations, prospects on how to move off-world were speculated upon. DARPA and NASA even planned a Hundred-Year Starship program to explore other star systems.

"The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NASA Ames Research Center have teamed together to take the first step in the next era of space exploration—a journey between the stars." ~DARPA

Yes, we are seeing seeds of action being generated by exoplanet discoveries. The impact of exoplanet discoveries upon humanity is that now we are beginning to think “Offworld”. We are beginning to plan missions to explore worlds not only the within our Solar System but somewhere beyond the light of other Suns.

The allure of sending humans to outer space is stronger than ever. But is it actually feasible? This fragile flesh and blood could be too brave for its own good. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (so to speak).

Even a trip to Mars may be a one-way mission for us puny earth-based creatures. But if we are really serious to set up a “human” colony on another planet, then we should send a couple--to begin with. They should be willing to make love on Mars and bear children on that planet. I’m curious how that "natural" way of adapting a human’s genetics to a particular planet would pan out. I’m pretty sure martian gravity, among other things, would have a profound effect on a local Mars-born baby (you might be thinking about height now). It all seems like science fiction at first glance. But wait till you hear about the prospect of modifying humanity's genetics to adapt to outer space, as NASA's Worden speculated upon.

But that brings me to the question: once you modify a human being, would he be still “human”? If we genetically-modified humans so much as to survive interstellar or interplanetary travel, would that scenario give birth to the “post-human” being?

"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."
~ John Wooden

Thinking about such things has led me to write a speculative story on how we could send an essence of humanity to extrasolar worlds. Not of flesh and blood nor bones--but of heart and soul, and the enduring human spirit of exploration. That story is called Boltzmann's Brain.

DARPA’s Starship (PDF)
NASA/DARPA Hundred Year Starship (PopSci)

October 22, 2010

Exoplanets and Open Data

Something exciting is brewing behind the scenes between Exoplanets and Open Data. The developer of the excellent Exoplanet App (for iPhone) has started a repository on GitHub for Exoplanet datasets, called The Open Exoplanet Catalogue. The great thing is that this repository is a mix of automated and community-driven movement in terms of keeping up with the fast-paced incoming stream of raw exoplanet data. It opens up an open massive data set (OMDS) for the exoplanet community to tinker with.

The automated part, which interests me a lot--is a python script that pulls in the latest updates from our exoplanet pointman named Jean Schneider from the great Exoplanet Encyclopedia.

Here’s how I can briefly describe the process: Jean Schneider gets new exoplanet information, updates his database. The python “bot” script grabs Jean's newly-updated exoplanet data and re-generates new exoplanet XML files, then puts them to github. You may download and peek at that bot script from here. And most importantly, you can grab the latest exoplanet dataset in all it's XML glory--ready to be consumed by any app or software you can dream of.

For the community-driven part of the setup, anyone can contribute scripts. An example would be for someone to write a derivative of the python script to churn out exoplanet files into JSON format, instead of XML.

It is still on the early stages so at this point "some branches of this repository are updated automatically...and the master branch is updated manually for now, to ensure consistency."

This repository is everything I’ve ever wished for. And I am thankful for it. This would be very useful for the renewed field of Data Visualization, and Data Journalism. This system will truly benefit the community of Open Data Journalists and Researchers within the exoplanet community. On a side note, for all the Android Developers out there: Here’s all the latest data, now please build the Exoplanet App for Android! And for those who can code, please contribute to this endeavor!

"The purpose of the Internet will be to catch the alien mind. It will be coded by human fingers, but it will be truly alien."
~Terence Mckenna

Python Bot Script
The Open Exoplanet Catalogue at GitHub

October 21, 2010

Kepler Confirms an Exoplanet (BOKS-1 b)

Prior to the launch of Kepler, ground-based telescopes discovered 3 candidate transiting exoplanets in the field of view of Kepler. But Kepler took a better look and actually verified that one of them is a true exoplanet, named BOKS-1 b (KID-9595827) - a jupiter-sized exoplanet orbiting a G-type star.

In the process of verifying the three candidates, Kepler in turn, discovered that the other two are not exoplanets, but actually Eclipsing Binaries.

The investigators tell the story here. In their own words:

“Three transiting exoplanet candidate stars were discovered in a ground-based photometric survey prior to the launch of NASA’s Kepler mission...All three stars are faint by radial velocity follow-up standard, so we have examined these candidates with regard to eliminating false positives and providing high confidence exoplanet selection.”

“Using the Kepler light curves...we find that two of our candidates are binary stars. The third candidate (BOKS-1) is a...G8V star hosting a newly discovered exoplanet...”

This is what’s so great about Science. Different telescopes could actually check on one another’s results, and verify each other's findings. And so for Kepler, it’s job is not only to discover new planets, but to also verify and confirm true exoplanets.

Direct PDF: http://xxx.lanl.gov/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1010/1010.4106v1.pdf

October 15, 2010

Remembering Carl Sagan

Nick Sagan autographed my issue
of Shrapnel!
Last weekend, I made sure I attended the NY Comic Con panel where Nick Sagan and Michio Kaku discussed about Science and Science Fiction. And I wasn't disappointed.

It was truly an amazing panel where Michio Kaku spoke eloquently on far-reaching ideas, and where Nick Sagan discussed the wonderful cycle between Science and SciFi.

Nick, who is Carl Sagan's son writes SciFi novels and comicbooks, which is a wonderful thing for me (as a newbie scifi fan) especially that his father inspired many, including me--to be enthusiastic about Science.

In that regard, I urge those who were inspired by Carl Sagan to write an essay in honor of his upcoming birthday.

Carl Sagan Day Essay Contest
When Worlds Collide: Shrapnel and Sagan
My NYComicCon Pics