Not what the planet looks like

Lots of water...but probably NOT what the planet looks like.

This week’s edition of Nature is chock full of really interesting articles and papers, the formost of which is an astronomy paper you’ve undoubtedly heard about unless you hide from all major media sources (you’ll need an academic IP or subscription to access that link and most of the others here).  For those with access of some sort, here is an excellent summary.

The short of the paper, if you have indeed missed the news, is the discovery of a ‘super-Earth’ orbiting a nearby red dwarf star.  Of course, the discovery of planets around other stars is quite common place now, but what makes this particular planet special is that it’s the second least massive planet yet discovered outside of the solar system (2.7 Earth masses) and its mass and size are such that it may be comprised of a large amount of water. Now, the planet is also expected to be very warm, above the boiling point of water at normal pressure. It is possible that pressures on this planet are such that liquid water may exist as water boils at a higher temperature under higher pressure but it would also be a large leap to say that this is planet very suitable for life (though one never knows…) Regardless, we’re getting better at finding planets which are small and close to their stars, like Earth. This is a tricky task because stars are bright and big and planets are dim and small…but that is a topic for another post.

For press releases and media attention news of a watery super-Earth is plenty enough to garner attention.  I’m excited by this discovery for another reason: it was found around a red dwarf and done with a bunch of small telescopes. The latter reason is simply awe at the ingenuity and thriftiness involved–8 40cm  mirror telescopes with CCDs! The former reason excites me because red dwarfs are very common and also small enough that it is easier to discover Earth-like planets around them. This means that more discoveries like this are probably on the way. In fact, this system is close enough that observations with better instruments (e.g. Hubble and Spitzer)  could provide insight into the make-up of the atmosphere of this planet…I imagine they’ll have an easy time getting a proposal through for time on any telescope for that kind of  research…expect to hear about this system again. I’d love to be in this research group right now!

And what else is good about this week’s edition?

Well…

A review of a physics pop-up book. The book sounds really interesting. I’m quite fascinated by science of visual information. I loved maps as a child and am still mesmerized by graphics of any sort…one day I’ll post about it.

A cool kind of microscope (summaries)

And a really interesting sounding paper about modeling of  “the ecology of human insurgency.” I’m curious to see if the headline, “Modelers claim wars are predictable,” is a valid description of the paper, and I really want to know how they came to such a conclusion. Here is a Nature News story about it (that link might be open to anyone).

Edit:

I have to link to the ScienceDaily story on the Super-Earth. They quote the graduate student who initially discovered the planet. That just makes the discovery that much cooler.

Update: The authors have posted (pdf) a version of the paper on the physics arXiv. Now anyone can access it.

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