Kepler Telescope : A search for other worlds

A recent visit to the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria (albeit not for a conference related to astronomy) inspired me to write an article about NASA’s Kepler telescope and it’s search for extra solar planets.

Who was Kepler?

Any talk about the Kepler mission should mention the man it was named after. Johannes Kepler was a mathematician, astronomer and astrologer born in Germany in the 16th Century. He is most well known for his planetary laws of motion which explain the elliptical shapes of orbits and the speed of planets at different distances from their star. These laws also formed an early basis for Isaac Newtons universal law of gravitation.

Kepler Mission

The kepler mission is one focused on the search for extrasolar planets. The telescope in itself is a 0.95m telescope which aims to detect light rather than produce images like traditional telescopes. It has an unnaturally large field of view which allows it to observe around 100,000 stars for the life of the mission. Although some of the measurements could be made on earth the telescope is space based to allow continuous monitoring of stars so day/night cycles have no effect, also atmospheric and seasonal effects have no impact on the measurements and the accuracy of the observations.

Aims and Methods

The main aim of the Kepler Mission is to find planets outside of our solar system it does that by looking for the transit of planets across the face of a star it is orbiting. The scientific analysis of these planets relate to another aim by which the mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. By surveying large numbers of stars the mission can also determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets that reside in a habitable zone, it can determine size distributions of the size and shapes of planets, estimate number of planets in multiple star systems.

By observing the intensity of light coming from distant stars the mission looks for reductions in the intensity which would be inherent with a planet passing between the star and the telescope. The mission looks for periodic reductions in this signal which is associated with the orbits of planets which, if like our solar system would be of a regular orbital period. The image above shows two examples of light curves used in the transit method, the above shows a regularly orbiting planet shown by the dips in intensity, the second shows potentially two planets in a system.

Kepler’s Discoveries

Since launch the Kepler observatory has made around 61 confirmed discoveries with many more light curves being analysed daily for potential candidates. Out of these discoveries some have received reports in the media due to their potential scientific impacts and interesting properties.

Kepler 22-b was a significant discovery made in December 2011 which was that of a nearly Earth sized planet. Prior to this discovery a number of Earth sized planets had been discovered however, to make things different Kepler 22-b was discovered in what is deemed the habitable zone around it’s star making it a true Earth like planet. Another, that of Kepler 16-b was reported due to it being the first planet orbiting a 2 star system to be seen. With this many drew comparisons between it and the planet of Tatooine from Star Wars!

The Future of Kepler

Kepler space observatory is very much still in it’s infancy so many many more discoveries of vastly different planetary systems are sure to be made. However, one thing that is holding back discoveries is the sheer number of star systems being observed and the limited amount of astronomers on the project. There is a way though in which the public can help. A website has been set up called Planet Hunters which shows light curves and encourages the public to help look for planetary candidates by marking on them variations in the light curves, so give it a go at the link below.



2011′s top Physics and Astronomy Stories

Einstein Wronged?

One of the physics stories this year that made it’s way significantly into the
media was that from the OPERA collaboration which observed Neutrinos travelling
faster than the speed of light. When this report broke back in September it was
met with a certain amount of trepidation from both the scientists involved and
the scientific community with the possibility that if confirmed it is a result
that would put ends to the underpinning concept of general relativity that
nothing can travel faster than the speed of light! In the months up to now the
scientists involved have been running the experiment again with the same results
and offering the challenge to other scientist to try and see what is wrong with
their experiment/result.

Currently although it hasn’t been able to be disproved the likelihood of this
being correct is low, one only has to apply the apparent difference in neutrino
and light speeds to the supernova of 1987. Under the OPERA speeds we should have
detected neutrinos from supernova 1987a 4 years before the light arrived, this
however wasn’t the case and they more or less arrived at the same time. The jury
is still out on this one and it’ll be interesting to see what experiments are
devised in 2012 to test these results.

Hints of Higgs.

In December CERN held a press conference regarding the Higgs Boson with much
excitement surrounding it. The rumours and speculations as to what results were
to be announced seemed to mirror most people’s hopes of the conference, that the
Higgs had finally been found at the LHC, this however was not necessarily the
case. Scientists at CERN couldn’t specifically say they had found the Higgs
Boson with significant certainty, however two experiments (ATLAS and CMS) had
seen hints of what was believed to be a Higgs signal around 125

Although from experiments it cannot be stated if the Higgs exists or if the
signal observed is true 2012 holds hopes for the scientists involved. When the
LHC gets back up and running after the Christmas break scientists will be
hunting and acquiring as much data as possible to identify with significant
certainty where the Higgs signature lies. Expect by the end of 2012 to have an
answer as to whether the Higgs Boson exists!

The end of the Shuttle Program.

July brought the end of NASA’s 30 year shuttle program with the successful
launch and return of shuttle Atlantis. Funding strains and austerity measures
introduced by NASA grounded the fleet after 135 missions which brought massive
rewards into space research and technology developments. Sadly however measures
put into action in the period after the Columbia shuttle tragedy has seen NASA
aiming to shift it’s regular space travel to that of private investors to save
the limited amount of money already received from the US government. 2012 is
expected to see the first private companies staking claims in space exploration
with private space craft making the launch into space in the coming months.

Fukushima Fallout

It was hard to miss coverage of the events that took place on the East coast of
Japan back in March where a country best prepared for a tsunami was overwhelmed
by the result or 9.0 magnitude Earthquake.Luckily most of the nuclear fallout
was carried out to sea by winds although this didn’t stop mandatory evacuation
zones around the reactors. It took 9 months from the initial reactor meltdowns
to ensure that the reactors were safely in cold fusion and accordingly shut down
although the clean up of the site will take decades still at high cost.

The fukushima meltdown had significant effects on research and energy policy in
some nations. Compared to the Chernobyl disaster (occurring 25 years previously)
researchers could assess how a release of radioactive material effected the
environment and occupants in a wealthier nation such as Japan. The research also
aided the Japanese people with the lessons learnt previously from Chernobyl
being applied to prevent conditions caused by radiation. The disaster also had
an impact on policy with (understandably) Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Italy
taking an abrupt turn away from nuclear, Germany proposing to shut down all
reactors by 2020s. The coming years will be interesting to see if other
technologies come through for energy production or if these nations resume their
faith in nuclear energy.

The growing Universe

This years Nobel prize in Physics was awarded in October to Saul Perlmutter,
Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss for their work on using supernovae to chart the
expansion of the universe. By using distant supernovae with standard intensity
the team were able to chart from their light how far away and how fast the
points were moving away from us on Earth. From this deductions and calculations
of the universe’s expansion could be ascertained as well as inferences made for
the effects of dark energy on matter in the universe. This year’s Nobel prize in
Physics was an odd one as the lauretes were relatively young compared to many
that have come before indicating potential shifts in those taking up scientific

New Earths

2011 was an extraordinary year for NASA’s Keplar mission encompassing ground and
space based telescopes in a search for extrasolar planets. Although there was no
sign of Earth’s twin exactly, over 700 planets have been identified with some
strong candidates that may contain life. The mission identifies planets by
looking at stars. Measurements map out the light intensity observed from these
stars, periodic reductions in this intensity are sometime observed and it is
this which indicates that there is a body orbiting with a defined orbit. This
can data can also be applied in such ways to calculate the size of planets and
other properties.

Notable mentions of planets discovered by the Keplar mission are ‘Keplar 22-b’
which was the first planet observed which was inside of the habitable zone, a
region around a star where life may exist. Another one was a planet orbiting two
suns which was aptly named Tatooine.

To boldly go…

In November 6 men returned to Earth from a mission to Mars, however they never
actually left the Earth. The simulated mission that took place in a Russian
warehouse came to an and proved to a point that the human body could at least
cope with the mental strain of isolation and close quarter living that would be
encountered on a manned mission to Mars. Whilst locked away in a mock space
craft the astronauts practised space walks, experiments on mars and simulated
repairs necessary to keep the craft going. This paved the way for future space
exploration and although a Mars mission won’t occur just yet it’s a tantalising
glimpse into what may be possible in regards to the human body.

Goodnight Tevatron.

As the LHC was colliding particles and obtaining data to probe into the origins
of the universe and evidence for the Higgs Boson, an older particle accelerator
came to the end of it’s functioning life. With over 25 years colliding particles
Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator closed in September with most of the
scientists using it packing up to move to the bigger and more powerful LHC.
Although not as powerful, Tevatron was actively hunting for the Higg’s Boson and
helping to eliminate some of the mass energy ranges that it could reside in.
Flurries of particles were identified and greater understanding into the
standard model governing particle physics came with the experimental
observations for the predictions that it made. With the LHC going strong
hopefully the work conducted at Tevatron shalln’t be forgotten and who knows
what the last scraps of data will hold.


A report in June in the journal Nature photonics reported and experiment where
biological components were turned into lasers. Fluorescent proteins from
jellyfish were inserted into the genome of mammalian cells which were suspended
between two mirrors. The effect of the living cells suspended between saw an
amplification of an inserted photon inducing a lasing process. The significance
of this was that the cell and the proteins survived which is often not observed
when fluorescent proteins undergo continuous light excitation. With the
development of this technique the biological lasers may be seen in future in
nanotechnology and other more familiar regions as CD/DVD players. In regards to
these biological systems it is very much watch this space.

James Webb Space telescope vs politics.

More delays and issues arose in regards to the Hubble telescopes successor this
year, the James Webb Telescope. The telescope which when complete will reside in
a region 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth far away from any communication
disturbances, it will also comprise of a set of mirrors exceeding the size of
Hubble allowing for far higher resolution. The telescope however has come under
fire due to spiralling costs of $8.7 billion and rising. With the rising costs
the House appropriations committee in the US have declared that given the chance
they would prefer to cancel the project rather than provide more funding to
sustain it until launch in 2018. Some members of the senate have come out in
support of the telescope and NASA have also hit back saying it could be made
cheaper with more money spent now to have it readied prior to the current
estimated completion date. 2012 will tell whether the project survives and if
the completion date changes at all.

And to commemorate the Shuttle here’s an awesome video by Nature with Sheffield’s finest 65daysofstatic providing the music.

B is for……

Beta radiation


Beta radiation is on of the 3 types of radiactive decay that occur in nature, the others being alpha decay and gamma radiation. Henri Becquerel was awarded the 1906 nobel prize in physics with the Curies for his contribution to the discovery of radioactivity, Becquerel’s discovery being that of beta radiation. This discovery came as an accident to Becquerel whilst experimenting with fluorescence from Uranium. Uranium salts exposed photographic plates wrapped in black paper with an unknown radiation that couldn’t be turned off like X-rays. Ernest Rutherford later continued these experiments to conclude that 2 types of radiation were present, alpha particles (alpha radiation) that didn’t show up as they were absorbed by the paper and beta particles (radiation) that were much more penetrating than alpha particles and able to expose the plate.

We now know the workings of beta radiation and the risks that it can pose to health (unlike at the time of it’s discovery). So, beta decay occurs in one of two ways either as a B+ decay or B- decay of which are determined by the particle that is ejected from the atomic nucleus during the decay process. An unstable nucleus with an excess of neutrons may undergo a B- decay where a neutron is converted into a proton, an electron and an electron type anti neutrino. The proton in this case remains in the nucleus, the electron and anti neutrino are emitted from the nucleus at high speed. A similar situation occurs with B+ decay, in B+ a proton undergoes a conversion to a neutron leading to the emission of a positron (anti particle of the electron) and an electron neutrino.

Beta decay is mediated by the weak nuclear force and as a result weak interaction by causing changes at the quark level (although I won’t go into this). The neutrino is introduced is present in this decay to account for what was initially deemed ‘missing’ energy. In decay a small amount of energy wasn’t present in the decay products this was eventually accounted for by the discovery of the neutrino.

Beta particles although ionising and harmful to health, have their uses to us. They are used to treat a number of eye and bone cancers as well as being used as radioactive tracers. They can also be used in manufacture processes to control the thickness of items coming through a system of rollers, the absorption of particles being correlated to the thickness.

Physics A-Z: A is for…..



What is Antimatter?

Antimatter is an extension to the concept of the antiparticle, it is shown that ever subatomic particle of matter has a particle that is completely opposite. The concept of antimatter first came into being around the 1880s to describe antigravity in some theories of gravity previously proposed. The term antimatter however was first coined in letters to the journal nature by Arthur Schuster where he propoesed the concept as well as the potential for antimatter solar systems. The modern theory of antimatter however was proposed by Paul Dirac to explain the appearance of antielectrons in Schrodingers equation, these were later discovered. Antimatter particles display charge properties that are opposite to it’s matter counterparts for example the positron, the antimatter equivalent of the electron displays a positive electronic charge as opposed to that of the electron’s negative charge. It is possible to form anti atoms with the subatomic antimatter particles such as in the case of a positron and the antiproton¬† which combined can form an antihydrogen atom. Antimatter in comparison is highly volatile as a result of the tendency for it to annihilate when it comes into contact with matter leading to a burst of energy. The tendency for antimatter to be highly volatile comes from the relative abundance of it compared to matter in the universe, antimatter being less abundant.

It is believed that antimatter and matter were produced in the big bang in equal amounts however very quickly and over time the relative abundances changed. This difference in the amount of antimatter and matter is one of the great mysteries of physics and is one of the key tasks of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which intends to get answers.

Antimatter in media

Antimatter makes appearances in films, tv and other media and is often portrayed in an incorrect way. One main one to pick up on is in the book ‘Angels and Demons’ by Dan Brown and the subsequent film, for those unsure what happens at CERN antimatter is created and is to be used as a bomb to blow up the Vatican, enter Tom Hanks to save the day. In theory the amount of antimatter involved in this story could be enough to cause a large explosion the inaccuracy comes from the concept that enough can be collected to make a bomb. The amount of antimatter to come out of collisions is very small, to get a gram would take along time indeed therefore, no one needs to worry about antimatter bombs. Again the amount of antimatter producable can be applied to the theory of antimatter propulsion in Star Trek, whereas the amount of energy involved in annihilation can in theory be used to harness for applications such as these the ability to harvest enough is the challenge. However, CERN has been able to obtain antimatter and hold it for up to 15 minutes a feat that has allowed significant analysis to be made in regards to the properties of antimatter and a success to harness it potentially for the future.

News Round-up 05/08/2011

Well it’s been a few months due to a lack of laptop and too much work but I will now at least try a weekly news round-up….I guess like Nature if I make it a Thursday!

‘That’s no Moon…’

…in fact its two. It has been proposed in nature this week that the Earth didn’t have just one Moon it did in fact have two. If you have seen a certain episode of QI will recall Stephen Fry incorrectly claiming Earth already had two moons, this is in fact a different one! The researchers propose that two moons formed around 4 billion years ago after a Mars sized protoplanet collided with the Earth. One of these moons was smaller than the other and it is this that was gravitationally attracted by the larger lunar object eventually leading to a lunar collision. This collision occurred at very slow velocity (less than the speed of sound) over the course of a few hours therefore not causing any large shockwaves or any surface melting. The scientists propose at the time that the bigger moon would have had a magma ocean with a thin film on top, as they collided material would have been distributed on the surface and the magma would have been redistributed on the near side of the moon. This agrees with observation that the near side of the moon is comprised of low lying flat plains and the far side is composed of highlands!

Photonic Diodes

A caltech group this week have proposed new ways to isolate light on photonic chips for future light based electronics. Photonic chips that utilise light for energy and information transfer are a desireable future technology for computer chip technology, with the potential to run much faster than current technology (as information can travel at the speed of light). A lot of the desire to use photonic chips comes from the success of using light in optical fibres to transfer information between continents with minimal data loss. Research into photonic chips has been going on for decades, however consistent problems have been that engineers haven’t been able to develop a viable optical equivalent to the electronic diode, allowing current to travel in one direction without back scatter. In the past optical equivalents have been created that either utilise magnetic fields or generally aren’t compatible with silicon. However Feng et al. at Caltech have managed to create a silicon waveguide, a slab of silicon with a 200 nanometre thick and 800 nanometre wide channel. Standard waveguides channel light in both directions, this differed by using layers of materials with differing refractive and reflective properties that prevented light traveling in two directions, therefore fulfilling the requirement of an optical diode. The team hope to incorporate this into a device in the future, where we may well see ultrafast technologies. 

  Life on Mars?

Reported by the journal Science yesterday and by most of the media, NASA have found the best evidence yet of flowing liquid water on Mars. It has been known for some time that Mars contains water in it’s ice form commonly found at the poles and that there are many channels suggesting that at some point in the past Mars had water flowing on its surface. This report (and associated images) however show a series of dark tendrils a few metres wide extending from a rocky outcrop. They appear in the martian summer months when the sun shines on the mountainous region and disappear again in the winter suggesting that thawing mud may be the source of the tendrils. The best explanation for water in this case it that it is a salty solution that has a lower melting point than standard water so that even in low temperatures the water thaws and can flow whereas ice may remain in other regions of the martian surface. This discovery has ignited theories regarding the search for extraterrestrial life on Mars with the potential that hardy microbes may survive in the melt water muds for a few months a year, although as said in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds ‘The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one he said’…..or probably much more.


Now for a song related to a story here….has to be–IqqusnNQ&ob=av3e


…and I guess

Attention all amateur photographers and skywatchers

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we should all be in for a treat in the night sky as we see the rise of a ‘Supermoon’. This however is nothing to fear but just two ordinary lunar events coinsiding with each other.

So, a super moon occurs when the moon is closer to the Earth than on average in it’s orbit, this is most noticeable when happening at the same time as a full moon. Tomorrow night this will lead to a very large moon rising in the night sky, which on average should look around 14% bigger and 30% brighter.So how does the moon find itself closer tomorrow night? Much like the orbits of the planets and their satellites the moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical which means that at 2 different points it has a minimum distance from the Earth (the Perigee of the orbit) and at another a maximum distance from the Earth (the Apogee of the orbit). It is the Perigee of the orbit that coincides with the full moon tomorrow night.


Knowing the gravitational effect that the moon has on the Earth and the effects of the tides some bloggers and tabloids have suggested that the Supermoon could affect the tides drastically and cause adverse seismic and volcanic activity (obviously using last week’s problems in Japan to strengthen their ‘theories’). The effect of the moon being closer to us at this point however are negligible. In terms of tides a Perigean tide is only 15 cm greater than normal at the very most, and seismologists running many studies over the years have seen no increased seismological effects due to a supermoon.

Without no specific reference points to measure the size of the moon in the sky astronomers suggest observing the moon as it rises over areas that have buildings/trees etc in the foreground to take advantage of a magnifying effect the low atmosphere also has. So if you have the chance get out, have a look at a supermoon and maybe take a picture or two and load them up onto our forums.


I feel it may become customary for me to add a song at the end of a blog post as I am leaving another here.




(Also apologies for another Astronomy/Space Blog entry, some different physics subjects will come soon! And apologies for attacking tabloids again, it’s a result of anger at poor science articles)