PROPHECY NEWS DAILY - Signs in the Skies in Bible Prophecy
Astronomers on Verge of Finding Earth's Twin
By Jeanna Bryner, Senior Writer - posted: 24 June 2008 06:47 am ET
This artist's impression shows the newly discovered trio of super-Earths orbiting a sun-like star, HD 40307. Credit: ESO.
Planet hunters say it's just a matter of time before they lasso Earth's twin, which almost surely is hiding somewhere in our star-studded galaxy.
Momentum is building: Just last week, astronomers announced they had discovered three super-Earths — worlds more massive than ours but small enough to most likely be rocky — orbiting a single star. And dozens of other worlds suspected of having masses in that same range were found around other stars.
"Being able to find three Earth-mass planets around a single star really makes the point that not only may many stars have one Earth, but they may very well have a couple of Earths," said Alan Boss, a planet formation theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C.
Since the early 1990s, when the first planets outside of our solar system were detected orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257, astronomers have identified nearly 300 such worlds. However, most of them are gas giants called hot Jupiters that orbit close to their stars because, simply, they are easier to find.
"So far we've found Jupiters and Saturns, and now our technology is becoming good enough to detect planets smaller, more like the size of Uranus and Neptune, and even smaller," said one of the top planet hunters on this world, Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.
Marcy, Boss and other scientists are optimistic that within the next five or so years headlines will be splashed with news of a near twin of Earth in another star system.
"What is amazing to me is that for thousands of years humans have gazed at the stars, wondering if there might be another Earth out there somewhere," Boss toldSPACE.com. "Now we know enough to say that Earth-like planets are indeed orbiting many of those stars, unseen perhaps, but there nevertheless."
Seeing tiny planets
Two techniques are now standard for spotting other worlds. Most of the planets noted to date have been discovered using the radial velocity method, in which astronomers look for slight wobbles in a star's motion due to the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet. This favors detection of very massive planets that are very close to their host stars.
With the transit method, astronomers watch for a dimming of light when a planet passes in front of its host star. Though more haphazard, this approach works when telescopes scan the light from hundreds or thousands of stars at once.
Both methods are limited by their ability to block out the overshadowing light of the host star. For instance, the sun is 100 times larger, 300,000 times more massive and up to 10 billion times brighter than Earth. "Detecting Earth in reflected light is like searching for a firefly six feet from a searchlight that is 2,400 miles distant," writes a panel of astronomers recently in their final report of the Exoplanet Task Force.
With upgrades in spectrometers and digital cameras attached to telescopes, astronomers' eyes have become more sensitive to relatively tiny stellar wobbles (measured by changes in certain wavelengths of light) and dips in starlight from ever smaller planets.
The discovery of super-Earths announced last week reflects this technological leap.
"I think why astronomers are really excited [about the super-Earth discovery] is it just shows that technology has really matured and so they're able to see these very subtle wobbles due to these low-mass planets," said David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. "Those were fairly massive stars. If they were able to get the same precision on a lower-mass star, they would be able to look at even lower-mass planets and so those really would be analogs of the Earth."
The fast track
To eke out even more sensitivity from current technologies, Charbonneau suggests astronomers look for worlds around small stars.
He and other astronomers are in fact probing the universe for transiting planets orbiting M dwarfs, or red dwarfs, which are about 50 percent dimmer than the sun and much less massive. Red dwarfs are also considered the most common star type in the universe.
"I think the real opportunity there is to study low-mass stars, and that's because we're looking for very small planets," Charbonneau said. "The difficulty is the ratio between the planet's mass and the star's mass or the planet's size and the star's size depending on how you want to find it."
The low mass and luminosity means any changes to the star due to an Earth-mass planet are much more likely to be detected.
"A late M star is about 10 times smaller than the sun," said Penn State's James Kasting, who studies planetary atmospheres and the habitable zones of exoplanets. "So Earth going in front of an M star would give a 1 percent signal. That's like Jupiter going in front of the sun." Kasting added, "We could conceivably find an Earth analog planet by this method within the next five or ten years."
Other teams are gearing up to look for Earth-like worlds orbiting massive stars like the sun. NASA's Kepler observatory is scheduled for launch in February 2009, after which the high-powered telescope will monitor about 100,000 stars in the Milky Way looking for periodic dimming of starlight due to a planet's transit in front of the star.
The French COROT mission is already up in space working in a similar fashion.
The ultimate goal of planet-hunting projects is to find Earth twins.
"We are looking for twins of the Earth, analogs that walk and talk and smell like our own Earth," Marcy said during a telephone interview. He is currently looking for super-Earths using the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
Such a twin would be rocky, with a similar chemical composition to Earth, and would orbit within the habitable zone of its star.
The habitable zone defines the distance at which a planet must orbit from its star for liquid water to exist on its surface — not too hot like Venus, not too cold like Neptune or Pluto.
Astronomers have found planets orbiting pretty close to the habitable zone, but none so far within it.
"I suspect there are Earth-like planets with lakes and rivers and waterfalls and deep glacial gorges and that are spectacularly beautiful," Marcy said.
Life beyond Earth
Finding a planet in the habitable zone is the first step toward finding alien life.
"When we say it's a habitable world, all we're doing is saying it potentially could hold life," Boss said. "To go beyond that to say, 'Here's a habitable world; is it inhabited,' then you need to start studying the atmosphere of the planet."
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch in 2013, could do just that.
"There might be a signal in the atmosphere that could be a smoking gun and would suggest that plate tectonics is there," said earth and planetary scientist Diana Valencia of Harvard University.
Her computer models have shown that plate tectonics, the forces that move continents and lift gigantic mountain ranges, are key to life on Earth as we know it, and possibly to life on other worlds. That's because as the rocky plates that form the planet's outer shell move about, they also recycle carbon dioxide. This greenhouse gas keeps our planet's temperature balmy, but not too hot. And the telltale signal would be certain levels of carbon dioxide, suggesting that just as on Earth, this other world relies on plate tectonics to cycle carbon.
But first things first. "There's no doubt that other Earths exist, simply due to the sheer vast numbers of other stars and galaxies in our universe," Marcy said. "There's a deeper question — how common are Earth-like planets? Are Earth-like planets a dime a dozen, or are they quite rare, quirky precious planets that are one in a thousand or one in a million?"
Rare Daytime Fireball Seen Over Utah Mountains
June 9th, 2008 @ 12:21pm
(file picture, courtesy NASA)
Becky Bruce reporting
It's a UFO no more. An unidentified flying object spotted over the mountains between Salt Lake and Tooele has been identified as a rare daytime fireball; a meteor big enough and close enough to be spotted when the sun's still out.
We had several e-mails, and so did NASA's ambassador to Utah Patrick Wiggins. We asked him what conditions need to be in place to see a daytime meteor. He said, "Size would be part of it, certainly how fast it's going, if it was going really slow for a meteor; that is, it wouldn't get bright enough."
At least one of the people who e-mailed KSL was also able to hear the fireball. Wiggins says that's an indication that the meteor was very close to the ground compared to what you normally encounter. Wiggins said, "Typical meteors, they are so far away that you can't hear them. So if, in fact, these people were able to actually hear a sonic boom, that would indicate that it was pretty low in the sky."
Wiggins added, "Meteors are happening literally all the time -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of them, however, are not bright enough to be seen during the day, so it sounds like this was one of the exceptions.
"I've seen a few daytime ones, but I've never seen and heard one during the day, so they lucked out! This is really neat."
If you saw the meteor and took a picture, submit it using the link above and to the right.
Smaller Version of the Solar System Is Discovered
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Published: February 15, 2008
Astronomers said Wednesday that they had found a miniature version of our own solar system 5,000 light-years across the galaxy — the first planetary system that really looks like our own, with outer giant planets and room for smaller inner planets.
“It looks like a scale model of our solar system,” said Scott Gaudi, an assistant professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. Dr. Gaudi led an international team of 69 professional and amateur astronomers who announced the discovery in a news conference with reporters.
Their results are being published Friday in the journal Science. The discovery, they said, means that our solar system may be more typical of planetary systems across the universe than had been thought.
In the newly discovered system, a planet about two-thirds of the mass of Jupiter and another about 90 percent of the mass of Saturn are orbiting a reddish star at about half the distances that Jupiter and Saturn circle our own Sun. The star is about half the mass of the Sun.
Neither of the two giant planets is a likely abode for life as we know it. But, Dr. Gaudi said, warm rocky planets — suitable for life — could exist undetected in the inner parts of the system.
“This could be a true solar system analogue,” he said.
Sara Seager, a theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not part of the team, said that “right now in exoplanets we are on an inexorable path to finding other Earths.” Dr. Seager praised the discovery as “a big step in finding out if our planetary system is alone.”
Since 1995, around 250 planets outside the solar system, or exoplanets, have been discovered. But few of them are in systems that even faintly resemble our own. In many cases, giant Jupiter-like planets are whizzing around in orbits smaller than that of Mercury. But are these typical of the universe?
Almost all of those planets were discovered by the so-called wobble method, in which astronomers measure the gravitational tug of planets on their parent star as they whir around it. This technique is most sensitive to massive planets close to their stars.
The new discovery was made by a different technique that favors planets more distant from their star. It is based on a trick of Einsteinian gravity called microlensing. If, in the ceaseless shifting of the stars, two of them should become almost perfectly aligned with Earth, the gravity of the nearer star can bend and magnify the light from the more distant one, causing it to get much brighter for a few days.
If the alignment is perfect, any big planets attending the nearer star will get into the act, adding their own little boosts to the more distant starlight.
That is exactly what started happening on March 28, 2006, when a star 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius began to pass in front of one 21,000 light-years more distant, causing it to flash. That was picked up by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or Ogle, a worldwide collaboration of observers who keep watch for such events.
Ogle in turn immediately issued a worldwide call for continuous observations of what is now officially known as OGLE-2006-BLG-109. The next 10 days, as Andrew P. Gould, a professor of mathematical and physical sciences at Ohio State said, were “extremely frenetic.”
Among those who provided crucial data and appeared as lead authors of the paper in Science were a pair of amateur astronomers from Auckland, New Zealand, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, both members of a group called the Microlensing Follow-Up Network, or MicroFUN.
Somewhat to the experimenters’ surprise, by clever manipulation they were able to dig out of the data not just the masses of the interloper star and its two planets, but also rough approximations of their orbits, confirming the similarity to our own system. David P. Bennett, an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame, said, “This event has taught us that we were able to learn more about these planets than we thought possible.”
As a result, microlensing is poised to become a major new tool in the planet hunter’s arsenal, “a new flavor of the month,” Dr. Seager said.
Only six planets, including the new ones, have been discovered by microlensing so far, and the Scorpius event being reported Friday is the first in which the alignment of the stars was close enough for astronomers to detect more than one planet at once. Their success at doing just that on their first try bodes well for the future, astronomers say.
Alan Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said, “The fact that these are hard to detect by microlensing means there must be a good number of them — solar system analogues are not rare.”
Asteroid on collision course with Mars
December 22, 2007
Mars is in danger of being struck by an asteroid at the end of next month, astronomers have calculated.
The newly discovered space rock known as 2007 WD5 has a one in 75 chance of colliding with the planet on January 30. While the probability of an impact is only slim, the odds have been cut from one in 350 when the object was first identified, and they are much shorter than is usual for new asteroids.
If 2007 WD5, which is about 100 metres in diameter, does strike Mars on January 30, it would cause an explosion equivalent to several megatonnes of TNT.
“These odds are extremely unusual,” said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“We frequently work with really long odds when we track threatening asteroids. We know that it's going to fly by Mars and most likely going to miss, but there's a possibility of an impact.”
If the asteroid does hit, it would give astronomers a rare opportunity to study the effects of such a strike. The object is broadly similar in size to the one that hit Tunguska in Siberia in 1908, which felled an estimated 80 million trees over 810 square miles. Had the Tunguska rock hit a city, it would have wiped it out.
The impact, however, would be tiny in comparison to that of the asteroid that struck Chicxulub in Mexico 65 million years ago, which caused a worldwide cataclysm that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs. The new asteroid is 100 times smaller than the 10km diameter rock that caused that event.
The likely impact would be on the threshold of visibility from the largest of Earth's observatories, but its effects would readily be seen by probes orbiting the Red Planet such as the European Space Agency's Mars Express. It will not be visible with domestic telescopes or the naked eye.
The asteroid would probably hit a spot near the Martian equator, close to the point where Nasa's Opportunity rover has been exploring since 2004. Opportunity is safe, however, as it lies outside the projected impact zone.
The chances of an impact being seen with large terrestrial telescopes are greater than usual because Mars is currently very close to Earth. On Tuesday, the planet was just 55 million miles away, the closest it will be until 2016.
Mars is currently the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon.
Notre Dame professor tries to solve mystery behind the Star of Bethlehem
by Troy Kehoe
Notre Dame Astrophysicist Dr. Grant Mathews gives a presentation that offers possible explanations of events in astronomy that could have caused the wise men to travel to Bethlehem. (WSBT Photo)
Story Created: Dec 24, 2007 at 5:57 PM EDT
SOUTH BEND — For nearly 2,000 years, it's been the one puzzle astronomers haven't been able to fully solve. But now, one Notre Dame professor thinks he may have discovered the origin of the star of Bethlehem.
Look at an artist's rendering of Jesus' birth and you can always find it.
Listen to songs like "We Three Kings" and it's clear.
The star of Bethlehem plays a pivotal role in the Christmas story.
Still, it's role in the Bible is fairly small. In fact, there's only one reference — in the Gospel of Matthew. "Where is he born the King of the Jews?" it reads. "For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."
But did that star really exist? If so, where was it? What was it? Why was it so bright?
They are questions Notre Dame Astrophysicist Dr. Grant Mathews began to ask about three years ago. And what he found took him by surprise.
"The standard viewpoint over the years is that it's a massing of planets, or what we call planetary conjunction, when planets move past each other," he said.
But here's the curious thing:
Mathews says this conjunction wasn't just a few planets.
"Basically every known planet at the time was amassed all at once," he said.
And it wasn't anything astronomers had recorded before.
"To have all of them line up like that at once was a very rare event," Mathews said.
On April 17, 6 B.C., Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon all aligned in the constellation Aries. Venus and Mars lined up in neighboring constellations.
Dr. Mathews says, for the so called "wise men" this would have had great significance.
"That would have signaled to the Magi that there was newborn leader with a special destiny — a very powerful leader that was going to appear in Jerusalem," he said.
But Mathews wasn't convinced the planets fully explained that bright light in the East referenced in the Gospel of Matthew. So he went "back in time" to see if something else might have been there too.
He found two likely candidates. The first, is a nova — a combination of two stars that shines thousands of times brighter than a normal star.
The second is a supernova — a single star 10-20 times the size of our sun that collapses in a massive nuclear explosion. Supernovas can create light up to 100 million times as bright as a normal star.
"It is as bright as this entire galaxy of stars," Mathews said, pointing to a picture from NASA's Hubble Telescope.
Using other Hubble images, pictures from the Chandra X-Ray Observer Satellite, and ancient Chinese astronomy charts, Mathews scanned the skies and was astonished.
"Sure enough, in the archives, there is a supernova in Aquilla — the constellation they saw. And it's about 2,000 years old," he said.
It's called Kestovan 75, and it appeared about the same time as the planetary alignment 4 to 6 B.C.
But is that close enough to Jesus' birth?
Some Biblical scholars say it's possible. Records of the birth aren't completely accurate. And for that matter, neither is the determined age of the star.
And that's not enough to prove the star's existence to everyone.
"It's a really neat coincidence, but I don't know if it adds any weight to the Christmas story," said one South Bend resident.
"It neither proves nor disproves, because a faith story needs no proof," said another.
Still, for some it's a reinforcing message of the reason for the season.
"I think that's pretty much a miracle," said a man from South Bend.
"I'll still believe what I've always believed," said a woman from Niles.
For Mathews, there may never be a certain answer. But he's convinced this may be the brightest light shined yet on a Christmas mystery now centuries in the making.
The ages of those potential stars can only be accurately placed within about 100 years. But Dr. Mathews hopes new technology will be able to narrow the mystery down even further.
He's working on a book about his research and hopes to have it published by next year.
Sunspot Creates a Stir; Auroras Likely
January 19th, 2005
Beyond the winter chill that many of us have to contend with, there's also stormy space weather in the forecast for the week.
A fast-growing sunspot group designated AR 10720 has been causing a stir as it sent a series of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, hurtling through space at breakneck speed. The large blast on Monday was classified as X-3, with "X" being the most powerful designation, followed by the degree of severity. Scientists expect the charged radiation from that event to reach Earth Tuesday night or Wednesday.
Image: This view of the Sun from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows a lot of the active regions. For more, check the web site. Credit: NASA/ESA
That same sunspot region launched the fastest CME ever observed toward Earth, traveling at 2,890 km per second (1,796 miles per second). It was slowed down en route, arriving about 38 hours later. At its original speed it would have reached us in 18 hours and would have set another record for arrival. Auroras from that blast were observed in Alaska, Minnesota and as far south as Maryland.
The CME's ionized particles could interfere with power grids and satellite operations depending on the orientation of its magnetic field. If the field points south, the CME particles will interact with Earth's magnetosphere and likely disrupt electrical processes; if it points north, the magnetosphere should mostly shield the Earth from disruptions. Scientists will be unable to determine the orientation until the CME reaches the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite in Earth orbit. This won't happen until only 15 minutes before the CME reaches Earth.
Dramatic solar activity is getting increasingly rare as we enter into the quiet period of the Sun's eleven-year cycle of activity. The years 2000-2001 marked the highest point of activity, but that doesn't preclude the occasional surprise like last week's CMEs and aurora. Even more significant were the intense solar storms that raged about a year ago.
Source: NASA (by Rachel A. Weintraub)
Thursday, 15 January, 2004
'Hole in Sky' Amazes Scientists
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
Rarely seen: A "hole-punch" cloud
A giant hole that appeared in a uniform layer of cloud over Mobile, Alabama, in the US, has produced some intriguing photos.
Local resident Joel Knain said as he took pictures: "I immediately realised that I was seeing something unique."
Meteorological experts believe the hole formed when ice-crystals from a passing plane fell through the cloud, causing the water droplets in it to evaporate.
Experts say the process involved is related to that of cloud seeding, which is used to make rain over crop fields.
Stuck inside of Mobile
The unusual phenomenon was observed on 11 December last year.
"I ran inside to get my camera and shot-off 10-12 frames to capture the scene," Joel told BBC News Online.
"I would guess that we stood there for 10-15 minutes just staring in amazement."
Strictly speaking there is no scientific term for the apparition, and what exactly it is has been the subject of much meteorological speculation.
One hypothesis is that the hole is made by falling ice-crystals that could have come from the exhaust of a passing aircraft.
It is possible the air was at just the right temperature and with just the right moisture content so that the falling crystals could absorb water from the air and grow.
The moisture removed from the air could have increased the evaporation of the cloud's water droplets, which then disappeared to produce the dramatic hole.
The wispy clouds seen below the hole may be heavier ice-crystals that have fallen from the hole, evaporating (the correct term is subliming) before they reach the ground.
WKRG-TV in Mobile carried pictures of the hole, and some of the images have been posted on the station's website