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Not alone in the universe?

Mar 12, 2014 - By Carl Manning

I am glad people like reading this monthly column in The Ranger and that you tell me that you read it. Nice to know.

I listen to a lot of public radio and like the science stuff a lot. The other day they were talking about the Kepler Survey, which is a probe with a telescope. Its mission is to search for habitable planets, sort of like "Star Trek" but with no Spock or Kirk. It has had its problems, but recent announcements include a story about the discovery of 715 new planets. These planets obit 305 different stars and have multiple planet systems similar to our solar system. Most of the planets identified are smaller than Neptune.

The main statistical criteria is that the planet is in the "habitable zone" of the solar system, which is calculated by the size and distance from the star and that it has the potential for water. This technique is called verification by multiplicity, sort of like "new math."

The Kepler survey started four years ago reporting hundreds, then thousands of planet candidates. But this process has now harvested these 715 potential planets that could have life. Probably in the next decade, scientists hope to develop techniques that would confirm life. That process was not really talked about, but it is in the realm of possibility. They are not saying little green men or anything, but just life.

Carl Sagan said "The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space." I think that quote was in the movie "Contact," which was written by Sagan.

You can find more info on the Kepler Survey at http://kepler.nasa.gov/

Another far out thing is this space object called G2 thought to be a gas cloud or an old star at the center of the Milky Way that is passing a massive black hole called Sagittarius A.

This happened 26,000 years ago because it is 26,000 light years away. We can see it now, and it could be spectacular. G2 will pass the "event horizon" of the black hole around March 31 and so maybe we will be able to see it.

One prediction says that it could be 10,000 times brighter than it is at the moment which needs a pretty good telescope to see. But there is a lot of chatter about it so stay tuned. Far out!

Have a good month and enjoy our beautiful night skies, full of wonder.

Now, the monthly look at the night skies of the northern Rocky Mountains, written by astronomers Ron Canterna, University of Wyoming; Jay Norris, Challis, Idaho Observatory; and Daryl Macomb, Boise State University.

"Winter is a great time to view some of the brightest stars in the night skies. Of the top 10 brightest stars, six can be seen in the early evening this month. Moreover, several in the top 20 also are visible. Here is the list (brightness rank, name, constellation) of bright stars in the March winter sky: 1, Sirius, Canis Major; 4, Arcturus, Bootes; 5, Capella, Aurigae; 6, Rigel, Orion; 7, Procyon, Canis Minoris; 9, Betelgeuse, Orion; 13, Aldebaran, Taurus; 16, Pollux, Gemini; 20, Regulus, Leo; and 22, Castor, Gemini.

"So, check your sky map for March and locate these bright wonders. Don't get them confused with Jupiter, which lies in Gemini this month. See if you can pick out this giant planet.

"Planet Alert: Jupiter is on the meridian right after sunset in the constellation Gemini. Venus is the morning star. Mars rises around 11 p.m. and can be seen throughout the entire night.

"The big news, the first day of spring is March 20. Let's hope spring weather arrives.

"Best URL: http://apod.nasa.gov/debate/debate95.html

"From their discovery in 1967, until the mid-1990s, the distance scale to gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) was nearly unconstrained.

"Upward of 100 theories had been proposed, placing the burst sources anywhere from the cometary Oort Cloud (assumed to exist beyond but attending our solar system) up to cosmological distances of billions of light-years.

"The primary reason for this uncertainty was that gamma-ray telescopes had very poor angular resolution and, therefore, no connections had been made to objects detected in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as the visible, where astronomers understood the physics and, therefore, the objects' distance scales.

"To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the great debate on the distance scale of the universe (last month's column), a debate on the GRB distance scale was held at the same venue as the 1920 debate, the Natural History Museum.

"By that time (1995), the distribution of GRB detections on the sky, being uniform, had effectively eliminated all possible scales except our Milky Way Galaxy's halo and the much more immense scale, the universe at large.

"The proponents were Donald Lamb (University of Chicago) supporting the former, and the late Bohdan Paczynski (Princeton) arguing for the cosmological distance scale of the universe."

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