Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about weird, weird worlds. Enjoy!

It’s a tad brisk here in San Francisco and -- yes, I know – that’s nothing compared to other places where it’s chilly enough to cause white, icy stuff to fall down from the sky but it’s still cold enough to make hands shake and teeth chatter. So it’s not exactly a surprise that thoughts of warmer climes have been sultry and steaming in my head.

Take for instance a vacation spot a mere 870 light years away. Whatever your definition, WASP-12b is an unusual place. Discovered in April of this year, it’s a large planet – 50% bigger than our own biggest world, Jupiter – and a damned fast one. How fast? Well, you know that Earth takes 365 days to go around our comfortable yellow sun. But WASP-12b takes a fraction of that time … in fact a 364th fraction of that time. WASP-12b orbits its sun in a little longer than one day.

WASP-12b is also a rather balmy planet. Considered a “Hot Jupiter” world, a gas giant without a rocky surface, its temperature has forced a lot of astronomers to rethink exactly how hot a planet can get. Time to play that game again: how hot? Well, our previously mentioned comfortable yellow sun has a surface temperature around 5,000 degrees centigrade. WASP-12b is also a fraction of that …. in fact only half of that. WASP-12b has been measured at about 2500 degrees – one of, if not the – hottest extrasolar worlds so far discovered.

Another distant, possibly temperate, vacation destination is much closer, a mere 63 years away at the speed of light. Charmingly named HD 189733b, this world in the Vulpecula constellation is another big, hot, and fast wonder. Spinning only 3 million miles away from its star – which sounds like a lot but it really isn’t -- HD 189733b is just a little but bigger than our own Jupiter, orbits every 2 or so days and has a registered temperature of around 700 degrees Celsius.

HD 189733b might not be as big, as hot, or as fast as WASP-12b but it’s a world that has a lot of people very excited. To understand why they’re so thrilled by a world that would turn you into a puff of ash if you so much as even cracked your starship’s door, you need to know a bit about Giovanna Tinetti and what she discovered about HD 189733b in 2007.

Many things can get astronomers all atwitter: new stars, new worlds, new phenomena, and especially certain colors showing up on a spectroscopic scan. Without getting too technical, and not testing your patience any further, Giovanna Tinetti (and later NASA) discovered those spectroscopic colors in HD 189733b: water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane – evidence of what could be some form of life. Though what kind of life could live on a world like HD 189733b is anyone’s guess.

Cold or hot, comfortable or not, the universe can be a very dramatic place – and a very dangerous place if you should get caught in one of its ‘dramatic’ events. Everyone knows about black holes and supernovas, and some of you might have heard about neutron stars, quasars, and hypernovas, but in a few billion years everyone – if anyone is still around of course – will know all about our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda.

Galaxies, like our own Milky Way, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including elliptical, peculiar, or – in the case of our home galaxy – a barred spiral. Like everything in the universe they’ve been moving since the Big Bang, heading to an eventual Big Crunch (if there’s enough mass in the universe to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the expansion back into a supermassive black hole and then, possibly, out again in another Big Bang), Heat Death (where everything in the universe simply dissolves into a dull, gray, warm ‘blah’), or one of the many other theories about the eventual fate of the Universe.

But one thing is known: sometime in the next two and a half billion years, our skies will become very interesting as our Milky Way galaxy collides with, and merges with, our neighbor Andromeda. No one knows what will happen then, but if we’re around – maybe holding ‘hands’ with our friends from HD 189733b – the sight will truly be something behold.

That is, if we’re around to enjoy it …

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