PlanetQuest Collaboratory Newsletter
November 2006, Vol. 2, No. 2
"The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do."
- Galileo Galilei
Greetings Friends of PlanetQuest!
Much thanks to you all for your support, as we have been "under the radar" for some time now, mainly collecting data on stars for the PlanetQuest searches you will be doing! We have completed this year's observing at the UC Lick Observatory in California and now have over 25 million observations of tens of thousands of stars. Our observing costs run $88 a night, so if you would like to make a contribution specifically to support our observing season next year, this can be done on our website, www.planetquest.org.
Thank you for your support over these past months and your continuing support! It is much appreciated!
We have also appreciated the PlanetQuest discussion groups, with topics ranging from life on Mars and detection-of-extrasolar-planet techniques, to the nature of black holes and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The most-asked question is, not surprisingly, "When can we go online and begin PlanetQuesting?" We are aiming for the early part of next year for the alpha test, followed later in the year by the full beta release. But the speed at which we can bring you the software also depends on our funding since our algorithms have to be programmed into the complex software necessary to bring our observational data analysis to you.
We will soon be posting two new activities on the website. The first is a planetary transit simulator where you can try out your own transit variations-looking for Jupiter-, Saturn-, Neptune-, or Earth-sized planets, crossing different parts of the solar-type stellar disc (varying planetary orbital inclination), and so on. The other feature is a flash demo of the simplest alpha-test Collaboratory design so that you can begin to become familiar with some of the features you may expect to see in your planet searches.
We shall be adding several more detection methods to the Collaboratory during the first year (as well as an information-theory-based SETI search capability that will complement existing SETI searches) after the details and testing of the transit detection algorithm have been fully performed.
The newest article on PlanetQuest has recently been posted on the Space.com website (space.com), as well as on the SETI Institute website. Check it out!
Astronomical Observing-Preparing the New PlanetQuest Star Catalog
From our observing run this season at Lick Observatory using the Crossley 0.9-meter telescope to observe stars near the galactic plane in the constellation Cassiopeia, we have hundreds of thousands of stellar light curves. In testing our system, we have made a number of discoveries. For example, while characterizing stellar classification schemes, we discovered a dozen new eclipsing binary systems! These appear to be made up of late-type stars (i.e., solar or smaller) that were not in any known star catalog (including the extensive US Naval Observatory Double Star Catalog). So we know our system is working. Many such discoveries await you soon too!
We have also begun data reduction of observations done at Siding Spring Observatory in Coonabarabran, Australia where we observed the most crowded star region in the sky-the Southern Hemisphere region toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which is known as "Baade's Window" because it is a region where gas and dust have cleared enough to allow the observation of over 100 million stars. From this data we already know that there are new eclipsing binaries (used to determine stellar radii and many other things), RR Lyrae stars (used as stellar distance indicators), and many standard stars with stable circumstellar habitable zones where terrestrial planets could orbit at the right distance for liquid water to exist on their surfaces.
With the completion of the Collaboratory and these data sets, we hope to be able to accommodate as many as 100,000 PlanetQuest users by next year.
We have also started a collaboration with Perth Observatory (http://www.perthobservatory.wa.gov.au) in Western Australia, where we hope to install one or more PlanetQuest telescopes to increase the coverage in the Southern Hemisphere. Western Australia provides a unique longitude location so that more continuous observing can eventually be performed.
Collaboratory-the Alpha Version, Flash Demo, and Future Directions
A flash demo sample of the alpha Collaboratory look will be posted on the website where you can see how the stellar field of view, star selection, light curve plotting, stellar classification, and planetary transit search algorithms will appear on your desktop.
This year we shall start out with the capability of analyzing single and double star transits. But we hope, over the next year, to add the capability to detect extrasolar planets by eclipsing binary minima timing, gravitational lensing, and a new information theory approach to SETI-what might be called SETC (Search for Extraterrestrial Communications)-that is completely complementary to existing SETI projects. Current radio SETI projects detect the carrier signal (i.e., asking the question: Are there radio transmitters elsewhere in the galaxy?) while we will be looking at the modulated message itself (i.e., asking the question: Are the complexity and structure of the modulated radio waves, taken together, compatible with its being a message, that is, a communication system?). You will be the first to use this exciting new criterion for doing another type of SETI project on your computer.
We will soon also be posting articles originally written for space.com explaining in detail how various extrasolar planet detection techniques work, as well as details on what makes a circumstellar habitable zone and other articles that you can read to better enjoy and understand the importance of your discoveries. We have been applying information theory to animal communications, especially dolphins and humpback whales in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California at Davis http://faculty.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/faculty/bjmccowan/lab/McCowan_Lab.htm,
and we'll be posting information on this detection method's extension to SETI projects soon on our website. As part of this effort, another new organization collaborating with PlanetQuest will be the Alaska Whale Foundation (http://www.sfu.ca/biology/berg/whale/abcwhale.html), which specializes in the study of humpback whales in southeast Alaska. Please stay tuned for more details on this aspect of our diverse Collaboratory efforts.
Another new collaboration recently agreed upon is to share educational components with the London, England?based Ecospheres Project headed by Dr. Martin Heath of Greenwich Community College. Dr. Heath's specialty is the study of the habitability of forest ecosystems (photosynthetic-based environments) in terrestrial history and their application to the habitabe zones around other stars. The Ecospheres Project will be providing updated-and in many cases originally researched-material for our educational component on this most interesting connection between stellar evolution, planetary geological processes, and photosynthetic plant adaptation that could take place on extrasolar planets.
On our planet, besides radio signals, the most obvious signal of biological life is the ozone (a triple oxygen molecule) absorption feature at a spectral wavelength of 9.6 microns. As far as we know, only photosynthetic plants can produce this feature. And since such oxygen-producing "forests" existed hundreds of millions of years before man-made radio signals, it is worthwhile to study ways of detecting such forests around other stars, in preparation for near-future planned space missions (such as NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder [http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/TPF/tpf_index.cfm], and the European Space Agency's Darwin mission [http://www.esa.int/esaSC/120382_index_0_m.html]). We will be specializing, then, in "galactic forest ecological" aspects of planetary habitability in our educational materials in collaboration with the Ecospheres Project.
Fundraising and Joining the PlanetQuest Academy
Our primary goal in announcing the idea of membership dues in the PlanetQuest Academy was to ensure that the number of stars "tracks," or matches, the number of PlanetQuesters' data needs. The one thing we do not want to do is run out of stellar data for you. However, we also want as many people doing PlanetQuest searches as possible, and want this access to be free to all! So, we have decided that the downloads will all be free, but paid membership in the PlanetQuest Academy, while voluntary, will guarantee that you will always have data to analyze. This will run about $25 per year and include other benefits. If we begin to run low on stellar data (i.e., light curves to be searched for planets) then nonmembers may have to wait a bit until we can obtain more observations, but members will be guaranteed data for their Collaboratories. However, as we get more telescopes on line, having enough data will become less and less of a concern.
Our News Page
We will soon create a news page on our website where we will keep you up to date on interesting developments resulting from our observational analysis and other work, our progress toward the alpha and beta tests, and new collaborations, such as the ones with Perth Observatory, the Alaska Whale Foundation, and the Ecospheres Project, as well as other newsworthy items.
This project relies on the support of grants and other funding sources from both the public and private sectors. Without your help, we would find it difficult to proceed. And so, thank you all very much for your continued support! We greatly appreciate your enthusiasm and sense of adventure. And we hope to have you all online soon, making discoveries of your own!
With best regards,
Laurance R. Doyle, President
Brad Silen, Executive Director
J. Ellen Blue, Publications Director